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Cardale Jones's Deep Ball Can Make Ohio State's Offense Great Again

Ohio State doesn't need to reopen a quarterback competition to recapture its 2014 magic. It needs to let cannon-armed Cardale Jones do what he does best.
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports​

During last year's College Football Playoff, I declared my love for Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones's affinity for the deep ball, particularly for his spiritual membership in this Rex Grossman-inspired fan club.

The way Jones played in the postseason, including the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, was football at its finest—and its most fun. No nickel-and-diming down the field. No taking what the defense gives you, worshipping at the Sacred Altar of High Completion Percentage.


Instead, Jones slung the ball downfield, producing thrills, highlights, and—this is the best part—results. According to advanced stats, Ohio State had the top offense in the country last year, producing 6.98 yards per play. The Buckeyes' attack was even better in the postseason, averaging an astounding 7.49 yards per play against top competition in Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon.

This season, something has changed.

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Ohio State regularly uses two quarterbacks. While that's unusual, it's hard to blame Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer for trying, given that Jones and his fellow signal-caller J.T. Barrett have complimentary skill sets. Barrett can spread the field more than Jones, using the option running game and the threat that he will take off at any moment to open up the passing game. He can get the ball downfield, but he's less likely to let it fly.

Jones is the home run hitter. He has the stronger arm and, paired with star running back Ezekiel Elliott, he is lethal in the vertical passing game. He can run if he needs to, but he doesn't spread the field so much as he bowls over defenders on called quarterback draws or broken play scrambles.

Let. It. Fly. --Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the platoon system worked. Barrett did an excellent job leading Ohio State to an 11-1 regular season record, and Jones made the Buckeyes more dangerous, particularly against stout defenses like Alabama. This year, even with Jones starting, Ohio State's offense doesn't look the same. Neither quarterback has looked like himself. According to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, the Buckeyes, after having the most explosive offense in the country last season, are currently ranked No. 89 in that category. Frustration boiled over Saturday after OSU squeaked out a 20-13 win against Northern Illinois, prompting Meyer to reopen competition for the starting quarterback spot.


So, what's the problem?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ohio State's receiving yards per completion are down significantly, both for the Buckeyes' top three receivers and the team overall:

This all may sound daunting, as if Ohio State can't recapture its 2014 postseason magic, but that's not true. The Buckeyes have only really sputtered for two games, and they can recover by going back to what made them successful in their season-opening win against Virginia Tech. Elliott averaged 11.09 yards per carry against the Hokies, while Jones averaged 9.8 yards per pass attempt, almost double his average against weaker opponents in Hawaii and Northern Illinois.

Ohio State's running game has changed, too. Last year, Elliott was a perfect backfield partner to Jones, averaging 9.16 yards per carry during Jones's starts—a gaudy number that drew defensive attention to the line of scrimmage and opened up space for downfield bombs. This season, Elliott is averaging 5.43 yards per carry, and the Buckeyes' offensive positive feedback loop—each big run making the next big pass easier, and vice versa—appears stalled.

The key? Ohio State threw downfield. In particular, they threw downfield to Braxton Miller, who looked exceptional in his first game as a receiver, averaging 26 yards on three catches.

Since then, Miller has just two catches. He had none against Northern Illinois. That needs to change. More broadly, Jones needs to let it fly. That means Meyer can't get spooked. Yes, there's a lot on the line this year. Yes, Barrett is a fan favorite. But OSU can have the best, most explosive offense in the country under Jones, provided the Buckeyes commit to the deep ball and refuse to change quarterbacks every time something goes wrong.

If last year's playoff proved anything, it's that sometimes you gotta unleash the dragon.