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Elliott controversy rages, but fixing offense is Ohio State’s bigger problem

Ezekiel Elliott sparked controversy with his critical postgame comments after Ohio State lost to Michigan State. But Urban Meyer’s bigger concern should be his offense, which has woefully underperformed.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State has lost just four times in Urban Meyer’s four seasons. That means any Buckeyes defeat is enough to churn a news cycle for a few days. After Ohio State’s 17–14 loss to Michigan State on a last-second field goal Saturday, Ezekiel Elliott’s postgame outburst somehow managed to overshadow the loss.

So on Monday, as Meyer addressed reporters prepared to answer “64 questions” about Elliott, it offered some insight into just what went wrong on a night when the Buckeyes mustered a pathetic 132 yards of offense. “I couldn’t disagree with him,” Meyer said Monday. “He should have gotten the ball more.”

• THAMEL: Michigan State stuns Ohio State on last-second field goal

While a debate raged about whether Elliott was being petulant or honest, Meyer made his opinion on the topic very clear. He complimented the sweat equity Elliott had built up in his three years in the program and said he agreed with the observations, just not the forum in which he made them. Elliott said he deserved more than 12 carries (two in the second half) against Michigan State, which Meyer said should have been a private conversation. “We don’t condone that,” Meyer said. “We squashed it as a team.”

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott apologizes for criticizing coaches

Elliott issued a statement via Twitter on Monday afternoon apologizing for “all the controversy and unrest” his comments called. But he also made clear, to borrow from Keyshawn Johnson, that he still wanted the damn ball. “I do not regret anything I said,” Elliott said. “I have given nothing but blood, sweat and tears for this university and team ever since I stepped on campus in Columbus and have always put the team before myself.”

Heading into the No. 8 Buckeyes’ visit to No. 12 Michigan (9–2) on Saturday, there’s a bigger concern for Meyer than his running back popping off. Ohio State (10–1) has failed to harness the potential of the nation’s most talented roster this season, something that must gnaw at Meyer’s soul. With all the luxuries of speed, excess quarterbacks and dangerous weapons at its disposal, the coaching staff has failed to fully maximize the talent it has collected. “We’re not operating at maximum capacity,” Meyer said.

Elliott’s comments were really just a manifestation of that fact, as the offense never came close to getting in synch Saturday. Credit should go to the brute force of Michigan State, which tossed around Ohio State’s underachieving offensive line and definitively won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. (The sideways rain and howling wind didn’t help anything.)

But what’s important to read about Elliott’s comments on the play-calling is how matter of fact he was in making them. This wasn’t boiling emotion as much as cold facts. “He said,” junior defensive end Joey Bosa said of Elliott, “what a lot of people were scared to say.”

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It’s difficult to quantify exactly what’s been wrong with Ohio State’s offense this year. But there’s a synch and flow that’s showed up precious few times. Perhaps the most significant thing that came out of Monday was that Meyer said he’d be more involved in calling plays. Something has been missing from the Buckeyes' offense all season as they shuffled quarterbacks between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett and transitioned after Tom Herman left to coach Houston to co-coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck calling the offense. (Herman was spoken about in such reverential tones by Buckeyes fans all weekend you’d have thought he was a magical football offspring of Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi. Of course, many Ohio State fans didn’t know his Houston team had lost as heavy favorites at Connecticut that day.) Regardless, Meyer has spent the season searching for the offense’s missing mojo, and he still can’t pinpoint it. “If it was something that firm or singular, you’d fix it immediately,” he said. “There’s a variety of things.”

• THAMEL: OSU’s Elliott has relied on many blockers to clear path to stardom

Now, there’s a few dozen coaches who’d kill to struggle like the Buckeyes, as Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring offense (34.4 points per game) and is third in total offense (424.1 yards per game). And this is after such a dismal and unimaginative offensive performance Saturday that even Jim Tressel probably changed the channel. Ohio State’s only scores were set up by turnovers that led to touchdown drives of 32 and six yards.

Michigan State upset reveals Ohio State problems were there all along

With Meyer spending his Monday attempting to put the Elliott controversy in the rear-view mirror, he’s still facing the same vexing problem he’s failed to tackle all year. One year after playing its best football at this time of year, Ohio State can’t figure things out. Along the way, it’s gone from three-touchdown favorites against the Wolverines in 2014 to 2.5-point underdogs in ’15. Some of that is a credit to Jim Harbaugh’s debut season at Michigan, where he has harnessed the talent on the roster. But some of that is Ohio State’s inconsistencies forming into a season-long pattern.

Last year at this time, the Buckeyes won three consecutive games as underdogs against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to win the national title. They had strong leadership and bonded around each other after the season-ending injury to Barrett and the tragic death of walk-on lineman Kosta Karageorge.

Now they’re facing the reality of losing two straight, which would mean a lost season. And as Ohio State enters its final week, it feels too late for the persistent issues of this season to suddenly disappear. “Of course that would be a failure,” Bosa said of losing to Michigan. “We come to Ohio State and we don’t lose here. We come out every week to win every single game. That’s our mind-set. That’s what its always been like to play at Ohio State.”

But with the season slipping away due to unmet potential, something feels different at Ohio State this year. And the Buckeyes only have a few days to change it.