COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offensive coaching staff is the same, and the philosophy that shapes its approach hasn’t changed at all.
The system is still producing eye-popping numbers, racking up huge yardage and setting scoring records just like it has during the last two seasons.
But there have been some notable differences about the way Ohio State runs its offense since the last time it met Michigan State's vaunted defense, starting with the fact that so many new faces are on the field operating the attack.
“I think we’re having to manufacture our yards in different ways,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “But the core beliefs, spreading the field horizontally and vertically and playing most of the game in 11 personnel with one tight end and tailback, I think that’s always going to be the case around here.
“I think we’re certainly capable of scoring the points and making the yards that we need to, it’s just different.”
Not all of the differences have necessarily been positive for the Buckeyes. And if there truly are still some weaknesses, the Spartans are more than capable of exposing them.
But a closer look through eight games so far this season reveals some key areas with a new look since Michigan State knocked off Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, and they figure to be crucial on Saturday night in an unofficial division championship in the East.
Passing the torch
The most obvious change is at the center of the entire operation, with two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller no longer at quarterback for the Buckeyes thanks to a season-ending shoulder surgery. But his absence and the elevation of backup J.T. Barrett into the starting lineup might actually be providing more of the balance coach Urban Meyer was looking for, and it’s certainly provided a lift to the passing attack.
Barrett is averaging 57 more yards per game through the air than Miller did a year ago, and his accuracy and decision-making have also led to Ohio State throwing five more passes per game this season. And while the redshirt freshman isn’t quite as dynamic on the ground as Miller, the threat of the quarterback run remains a staple of the offense, with Barrett only averaging one less carry per game than his predecessor.
“The one thing that he does well, even better than Braxton, is when something is not there, he puts his foot in the ground and gets us to second-and-4, second-and-5,” Meyer said. “Someone blitzes, someone flashes, someone misses a block ... he puts his foot in the ground.”
Mostly, though, Barrett is relying on his arm. And it has taken the Ohio State passing attack to a much higher level.
The number of guys regularly touching the football either as targets or on the ground is up slightly from a year ago as well, as Ohio State continues to incorporate young, talented skill players and trust them to move the chains.
But it’s not just the depth of options the Buckeyes are employing, with 10 players grabbing at least 1 reception per game or six players averaging at least two rushing attempts, that seems to have improved, it’s the variety of ways Herman and Meyer are using them.
“Maybe a little bit more short and intermediate pass game on first and second down,” Herman said. “A little more perimeter runs.”
The plays on the edge have added another element of danger to defenses this season, and lately Ohio State is getting there thanks to a handful of new packages and plays that weren’t really seen over the last two seasons.
The Buckeyes have incorporated the Wildcat into the offense with both Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, the latter getting a chance to throw the ball last week in a rout over Illinois. The pop pass and the jet sweep have both been prevalent, and those plays can both be used as well to pull defenses closer to the line of scrimmage and set up play-action passes.
The Buckeyes had a chance late in the game to convert a short-yardage situation on fourth down to extend a drive and potentially reclaim the lead over the Spartans, and they haven’t needed any reminders of how costly coming up short can be.
Miller getting stuffed short of the first down effectively snuffed out Ohio State’s national-title dreams, but that was actually out of character for an offense that had converted 14 fourth downs and was frightening in the red zone thanks to an 84-percent touchdown rate.
Without bruising tailback Carlos Hyde in the backfield this season, though, the Buckeyes have taken a step back in both short-yardage and red-zone efficiency, which could be a major factor against a defense that has already proven successful in shutting them down. Most notably, Ohio State’s touchdown rate inside the 20-yard line has dropped to 69 percent, a number that needs to improve -- particularly for a game in which points could be at a premium.
“That's certainly an area that we're going to take a look at and obviously we had one last year we didn't convert on a fourth down,” Meyer said. “So that's a big part of the game now.
“Teams also give us some pretty tough looks to run into and I think we've got to be [better]. We've tried to do a little throwing in certain situations.”
That, of course, is another change for the Buckeyes. The next thing they’re looking for against the Spartans is a different outcome.