COLUMBUS — Four Ohio State players surrendered to cramps in the sun-scorched opener, and conditions the next two weeks are only expected to grow tougher.
Or, more specifically, faster.
Though the numbers are deceptive, OSU’s next two opponents — San Diego State and California — took a mounting trend to the extreme. Each team ran a nation-high 99 offensive plays in its first game. That’s 32 more than the Buckeyes faced against Buffalo, and enough to make H2O as important as any X or O with temperatures again expected to hover in the 80s on Saturday.
Can third-ranked Ohio State keep up?
“If you look out there and some guys are cramping or they are not playing, then we've got a problem,” coach Urban Meyer said. “No one has that much depth.”
The Buckeyes say they are ready. Cornerback Doran Grant said, “I'm pretty sure the guys learned their lesson with hydration.” For another, they have experience defending it ... in practice.
Ohio State is among the latest schools to step on the gas, embracing a hurry-up movement that is fast gaining traction — although not without a few notable detractors. The Buckeyes went from averaging 62 plays per game in 2011 to 70 in Meyer’s first year, and over the offseason sent staffers to visit Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose up-tempo Tigers got off 100 plays in a win over LSU in last season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.
This fall, though OSU ran 68 plays in its 40-20 rout over Buffalo, offensive coordinator Tom Herman expects a unit with nine returning starters to accelerate significantly.
“We're much faster,” Herman said. “We're much more well-oiled in our ‘Jet’ package and our up-tempo stuff.”
It is a detour in philosophy for OSU and Meyer, whose 2006 and 2008 national championship teams at Florida ranked 75th (64.6) and 110th (63.8) respectively in average plays per game, according to teamrankings.com. But times are changing.
As coaches seek to maximize scoring chances and wear down defenses, 18 teams averaged at least 80 plays per game last year, compared to three teams in 2009 and 2010 and one team in 2008.
Still, Herman said the Buckeyes will never be Oregon or Marshall, which averaged a nation-high 90.6 plays last season. Their pace will depend on the game. In a Big Ten fight of wills, the best defense can be a clock-bleeding offense.
“With the the no-huddle gurus, I think we're a little bit different,” Herman said. “They want 90 to 100 snaps. For us, it's whatever it takes to win. If we run 68 snaps, and we've got one more point than they do on the scoreboard, we're happy. If we run 100 snaps, and we have one more point than they do, we're happy. Not to sound cliché, but whatever it takes to win. We have no goals as far as total snaps.”
San Diego State is the same way, its stats in a shocking 40-19 loss to FCS Eastern Illinois distorted by an early injury to star rusher Adam Muema and an unending game of catch-up. A year after ranking 81st nationally with 68.1 plays per game, the defending Mountain West Conference champions abandoned a run-first identity to throw 64 passes — only 27 of which were completed to the right team.
California, meanwhile, has become a full-tilt disciple of the no-huddle, with new coach Sonny Dykes setting loose his Air Raid offense on the Pac-12. At Louisiana Tech last year, Dykes’ offense averaged 88 plays and a nation-high 51.5 points.
It is just the kind of fast-forward offense that has become a lightning rod, with some coaches going so far as to label it unsafe.
“If I have a son that I have brought to this campus and I don't look after his personal well-being, I have lied to that parent,” Arkansas’ Bret Bielema said at SEC media day. “All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in.”
Hurry-up offenses also lead to accusations of another sort of injury — the fake kind. Three years ago, a California assistant coach was suspended after telling Bears defenders to flop in order to slow Oregon’s breakneck offense. And last weekend, the table flipped in Cal’s season-opening loss to Northwestern, with Dykes saying the visitors’ gush of injuries were timed a touch too conveniently.
“It affected it a lot,” Dykes told reporters afterward. “It was just unusual. It seemed like every time we got a first down they had an injury. I hadn’t seen that, wasn’t expecting to see that, was disappointed that I saw that.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald seethed at the suggestion of gamesmanship.
“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program, or our players, I question theirs,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”
The Buckeyes, for their part, hope to avoid the drama — and the cramps.
“I'm not sure if Buffalo cramped,” Meyer said. “That's the thing that I keep asking myself. ... Of course, we're going to work on it and we're concerned. We have to get better.”