Washington running back Myles Gaskin (9) runs in front of Utah defensive back Corrion Ballard during the first half of the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, 2018, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Washington running back Myles Gaskin (9) runs in front of Utah defensive back Corrion Ballard during the first half of the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, 2018, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Big plays could make big difference for UW in Rose Bowl

Ohio State’s defense has given up big-yardage plays throughout the season.

By Lauren Kirschman / The News Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan took notice of Ohio State’s players as the teams walked around Disneyland on Wednesday afternoon.

They were impressive-looking athletes, he said, and he spent the day hoping the most impressive-looking ones played offense.

On Thursday, Hamdan and Washington’s other offensive representatives used many of the same words to describe Ohio State’s offense: Athletic, fast, explosive. The Buckeyes’ defensive numbers aren’t eye-popping — they allow 25.7 points and 400.3 yards per game — but the unit is still filled with highly rated recruits.

“It’s what you would expect of being in a game like this,” Hamdan said. “Ohio State’s going to be, year-in, year-out, a team that recruits atop the country and certainly have plenty of players on defense.”

Despite all the talent, the Buckeyes’ defense hasn’t been able to consistently lock down opponents this season. And its biggest problem could be one the Huskies are primed to exploit: Ohio State has surrendered big yardage plays all season. It ranks 124th in IsoPPP+, Football Outsiders’ explosiveness stat.

Buckeyes defense tackle Dre’mont Jones had no real explanation for what has happened. Those plays just get away from them, he said.

“We have the game controlled and the next thing you know (there’s) big play there and now the game looks even,” he said. “When you take away those plays, there’s not much (critics) can really say.”

When outside linebacker Tuf Burland looks at UW’s offense, he sees a team with that big-play potential. He described the Huskies as patient. They’ll get going with a few short runs, complete a quick pass and then go for the big gain.

And while UW hasn’t run too many trick plays this season, Ohio State is very much aware of that potential wrinkle in the offense. For a team that tends to allow explosive plays, the threat of a trick play breaking the game open is all too real.

“That can definitely throw you off in a game,” said Ohio State defensive end Jonathan Cooper. “It’s definitely a momentum changer. We definitely have to do our own jobs and know what we’re doing. Make sure our eyes in the right places. On a trick play, the ball is going one way and you think it’s going in the total opposite direction.”

Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said the Buckeyes have spent time working on defending any trick plays Hamdan and UW head coach Chris Petersen might roll out.

It’s a reputation Hamdan finds a little amusing.

“It’s always funny,” Hamdan said. “We were never like this gadget offense when we had success at Boise (State). It was always about running the football and creating off that. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s the fact that we do so much of (it) that coaches spend a lot of time.”

Making the call for trick play, Hamdan said, is always nerve-wracking. Mostly because it either goes very right or very wrong.

Take the double pass against Washington State in the Apple Cup, for instance. With a trip to the Pac-12 championship on the line, the call worked perfectly. Wide receiver Aaron Fuller’s pass wasn’t the prettiest throw, but it landed right in tight end Hunter Bryant’s hands for a touchdown.

But the double pass didn’t go so well during a September home game against Arizona State. Wide receiver Andre Baccellia’s attempt was intercepted on the first offensive play of the game. Six plays later, the Sun Devils scored to go ahead 7-0.

“It’s normally not a loss of 2 (yards) or a gain of 2,” Hamdan said “It’s either a big one or a bad one. It’s good. It forces you as a coordinator to take that mentality of whatever it takes to create explosive plays.”

Like Hamdan, UW running back Myles Gaskin admitted to some nerves when the plays are called — but only when UW is implementing them during practice. By the time they’re used in games, the Huskies have practiced them so many times it seems routine.

“Just be ready,” Gaskin said. “You always know it’s in his back pocket and he’ll call it at the weirdest time and you’re like, ‘Why are you calling this now?’ I think it’s good, though. I think it does keep us on our toes and keep us ready, keep us excited.”

While Ohio State hopes it’s ready for any UW trickery, Schiano is mostly focused on what he called “a complete offense.” He praised the Huskies’ running back group in particular, saying it’s probably as good as any unit the Buckeyes have faced this season.

That’s particularly troubling for Ohio State because Schiano said his defenses have never allowed as many long runs as they’ve given up this season. During the Buckeyes’ lone defeat — a 49-20 loss to Purdue — Boilermaker running back D.J. Knox broke free for touchdowns of 42 and 40 yards. He also averaged 8.0 yards per carry.

As for the Huskies, their big yardage plays tend to stem from running backs — most often Gaskin — getting free. Gaskin’s longest run went for 80 yards in the snow against WSU. He also had a 64-yard run vs. Oregon State in the home finale.

“When runs break, you know, the first 8 to 10 yards can be attributed to the front seven,” Schiano said. “But then it’s the secondary’s job to get it down. … And we just haven’t done a very good job of that.

“We’re going to have to do a good job this game because they’re going to get the ball into the secondary. They run the ball very effectively. They’re very patient.”

Gaskin said the challenge for UW will be finding consistency on the ground. While Ohio State tends to allow big plays, the Buckeyes are also able to come back and shut players down after allowing significant yardage.

That’s the defense’s more important quality, Gaskin said.

“Everybody is going to have their plays,” he said, “but just kind of seeing the defense always ready to bounce back and play better from that play or learning from what happened in that play.

“Not in the whole, ‘Oh, we learn for next week.’ Like, they learn not to give that up again (in the same game) so I feel like that’s huge. I feel like that’s what we’ve got to be ready for and just be ready to fight.”

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