In the aftermath of a humbling loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl three years ago, Urban Meyer vowed to make a change.
“We will become a good passing team,” he said. “Next year.”
As Ohio State was shut out, quarterback J.T. Barrett completed little more than half his passes for a paltry 127 yards. Two throws were intercepted.
On the big stage, the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, it showed an offense’s limitations when it’s devoid of the aerial attack needed to return to the pinnacle of the sport.
But Meyer’s promise was fulfilled.
For the following season, he reworked his coaching staff. He hired Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator and Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach and offensive co-coordinator with Wilson.
Upon their arrivals, and including Day succeeding Meyer as head coach, the Buckeyes’ passing game has undergone a dramatic makeover ahead of a rematch with Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, an event that again serves as one of the semifinal games in the national championship playoffs.
Last season marked a significant moment in the evolution when quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw 533 times, a school record.
The volume for Justin Fields is less than for his predecessor. He has attempted 308 passes in 2019.
But even more than in previous seasons, the Buckeyes have relied on a downfield passing game in their air attack.
According to data from Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, Fields has thrown 20 or more yards downfield on 21.9 percent of his total pass attempts, resulting in 19 touchdowns — tied with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU for the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision — without being intercepted.
It’s a heavier dependence than for Haskins, who saw 13.5 percent of his total pass attempts travel 20 or more yards, or Barrett, who threw the deep passes 15.5 percent of the time in his final season in 2017, one under the direction of Day and Wilson.
“I wouldn’t say we’re like the old Oakland Raiders, where it’s drop back and throw it as far as you can,” Wilson said. “And we do have a fair amount of short, dink-and-dunk passes. But because we run the ball well and the way we get defended, it’s kind of opened up those deeper shots.”