The Ohio State defense turned in its best performance of the season in limiting Michigan State to a single second half touchdown in the Buckeyes’ 56-7 rout over the Spartans. Matt Barnes stuck with his now-familiar game plan in facing Michigan State and Kenneth Walker III—mix cover 3 and cover 3 pressures with cover 1 and cover 4.
The mixing of these concepts began on the opening play. Notably—as below—hybrid linebacker/safety Craig Young entered the game at “cover safety” whenever Michigan State used 12 personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB). Ohio State ran perhaps their most frequent run blitz—a 3 deep, 3 under fire zone with the cover safety (field apex) blitzing off the field edge with the defensive line slanting to the boundary.
As he often did throughout the game, 3-technique (aligned between the guard and tackle) Haskell Garrett beat the Michigan State left guard, making a play in the backfield.
The Buckeyes also regularly mixed in cover 4 concepts. Under Barnes, Ohio State earlier this season overwhelmingly played cover 4 “Meg,” meaning that the corners have the number 1 outside receiver in man, with the apex handling number an inside receiver to the flats and the safety doing the same for any vertical route.
Below, the Buckeyes run a variation of cover 4 Meg that they use against trips, where boundary safety Ronnie Hickman “poaches” number 3 to the opposite side, meaning that he will handle any vertical route from the opposite side receiver.
As on the play above, Ohio State did a nice job throughout feeling out Michigan State’s myriad of screen attempts.
Notably, on the critical fumble turned incompletion call that led to Michigan State’s missed field goal, the Spartans sought to attack cover 4 Meg by effectively running two comeback routes against the corners in man coverage on islands.
Yet increasingly, Ohio State will mix in a more traditional quarters Mod or 4-sky pattern matching concept to either one half or the entire field.
Cover 4 Mod stands for “man only deep.” The corner will not play on the number 1 receiver anywhere he goes. He will instead use a softer coverage technique, passing off a shallow cross or underneath route and gain depth to match in his deep quarter.
One benefit to cover 4 is that it allows the defense to play different split safety coverages to each side. So, for example, below Ohio State plays Meg to the field and Mod to the boundary, as the corner passes off the shallow cross.
In particular, Ohio State is more frequently deploying 4-Mod to the boundary when the offense places a tight end to the short field, combined with 4-Meg to the field to maintain man on the wide outside wide receiver.
Barnes’ thought process may be that, with 4-Mod, the corner cannot be run off by the outside receiver as he would if he was in Meg, reducing the Buckeyes’ force support against boundary runs. And with the corner capping the vertical in sky technique, Hickman as the boundary safety can trigger downhill to fill the alley more quickly as there is less concern about the tight end as the number 2 receiver being an immediate vertical threat. The below play in 4-Mod again demonstrates how the Buckeyes want Hickman as the boundary safety involved against the run while using the field safety (Bryson Shaw) to cap routes, as Hickman filled the alley from the opposite side.
Although the Buckeye defense benefited from playing with a lead, Ohio State limited Michigan State throughout. The Spartans had sporadic early success to the short field boundary, targeting that fact that, in the Buckeyes’ base under to the field front (meaning that the one-technique nose guard goes to the wide side and the three-technique to the boundary), they will often put their backside end in a 6-technique head up over the tight end with the boundary corner as the potential force defender.
The 6-technique keeps the boundary corner from fitting the run inside the offensive tackle with the Will linebacker responsible for the A-gap, the 3-technique for the B-gap, and the 6-technique for the C-gap. This is likewise why Ohio State is generally using an under front to the field (meaning that the defense aligns to the wide field as opposed to the offense’s formation) to limit the cover safety from fitting the run inside the defensive end by having the 1-technique in the field A gap, the inside linebacker for the B gap, and the 5-technique defensive end for the C gap.
It also limits boundary gap run schemes like counter OH and makes run-pass reads easier. But it does provide the offense the opportunity to log that defensive end and outflank Ohio State to the boundary.
For example, below Michigan State uses a “windback” run that looks like wide split zone to the right, before Walker follows his tight end to the backside edge. Ohio State is in a pre-rotated cover 3. The Buckeye linebackers get caught inside “falling back” on the split zone action and Walker was able to get outside of Hickman.
The Spartans likewise had the potential for a big play schematically with the same side-pin and pull toss to the boundary against Ohio State’s cover 4 poach that resulted in a fumble, with Michigan State being able to pin inside the 6-technique defensive end and lead on the boundary corner, while Hickman has to first check whether the inside receiver to the trips is releasing vertical before coming over to fill the alley.
And the Spartans targeted the boundary flat with the pass as well, with the boundary corner needing to gain depth to handle number 1 vertical.
But Michigan State could not sustain success because Ohio State’s front controlled the line of scrimmage, as Ohio State’s defensive performance was led by Ohio State’s defensive line.
Below, Barnes calls for another fire zone. Cover safety Lathan Ransom blitzes through the C-gap and takes on the lead blocker on wide zone, leaving Mike Tommy Eichenberg as a free hitter scraping over. But nose guard Jerron Cage also beats the center’s reach block, leaving no opportunity for a cutback.
Ohio State under Barnes is also successfully mixing concepts such that offenses cannot predictably know what coverage they are facing. As “Space Coyote” discusses below, this applies as much to the Barnes adding more variety to Ohio State’s cover 1 and cover 3 concepts as in adding in split safety coverages—such that offenses do not automatically know they are facing a base 4 down rush, cover 1 robber look or cover 3 sky.
And the Ohio State back seven is playing at a higher level, even while mixing in more coverage concepts. In particular, the Buckeye defensive backs did a better job in this game maintaining levels in man coverage so as not to get caught in rub routes, as well as distributing routes in cover 4.
Michigan will surely try similar boundary-run concepts—and/or perhaps try to place the tight end vertical off play-action to catch Hickman triggering on the run.
In response, Barnes will have to continue to mix concepts to ensure that Michigan cannot be assured of automatic yards to the short field—such as this boundary corner HOT pressure blitz that Ohio State routinely uses on run downs.