Fulton Analysis: Comeback

Ohio State overcame opt-outs, injuries, and a 14-point deficit behind CJ Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s record setting performances in the Buckeyes’ 48-45 Rose Bowl victory.

Defensively, Utah used an increasingly familiar formula against the Ohio State offense. Targeting the Buckeyes’ heavy tendencies to run when in the pistol or under center and throw when in an offset shotgun, the Utes principally played two high safeties (most often cover 2) against the latter, and an 8-man box with cover 1 against the former.

This single-high approach—combined with slanting and stunting up front—found early success against an Ohio State run game that featured heavy amounts of wide zone into the boundary. For instance, below on third and one, Utah aligns in an eight man, cover 1 look against Ohio State’s unbalanced, under center, 12 personnel  formation.

The Buckeyes fake a jet sweep to run mid-split zone. Although H-back Mitch Rossi has to pick up the defensive tackle as the first jersey that shows on his split block, Ohio State’s front side offensive linemen have their men accounted for. Yet Utah has one more defender than Ohio State could block, leaving the field overhang as a free hitter.

The Buckeye run game was also harmed by TreVeyon Henderson’s propensity to bounce the football, as he several times in the first half cut stretch outside instead of “banging” it inside the offensive tackle. 

But Ryan Day soon took advantage of Utah’s game plan against them. The Buckeyes began routinely throwing run-pass options against the Utes’ single high, run-first focused concepts.

For example, Stroud repeatedly hit quick outs off zone runs based on a pre-snap read of the Utes’ soft corner alignment.

Then, when the corner came up post-snap, Smith-Njigba converted the same RPO concept into a vertical for a touchdown.

As previously noted, reliefs and RPOs are an outgrowth of the run game, as they exploit teams overplaying the base run concept. And as has been the case for much of the second half of Ohio State’s season, a significant chunk of the Buckeyes’ yardage total came off of such throws, indicating that the run game was again more productive than basic rushing statistics show.(and replacing using the read run game to constrain the defense).  

Day similarly used formations and alignments that would increase the likelihood that Utah would respond with cover 1 to set up passing opportunities. For example, after Utah’s third down stop above, the Buckeyes stayed in an unbalanced quad formation for fourth down—likely expecting that the Utes would respond with single coverage—to set up a slot fade touchdown to Marvin Harrison Jr.

Ohio State also used a relatively heavy amount of under center formations (as opposed to pistol) to provide a more sustained play action passing game (for instance below with a Y-cross concept).

This included hitting Rossi in the flat off of split zone action.

The Buckeyes also targeted Utah’s cover 2 concepts. Because Utah would not cover up the number 3 receiver in cover 2, Day repeatedly featured Smith-Njigba on bubble routes from orbit motion (again exploiting reliefs).

Ohio State then targeted the downfield cover 2 holes. Below, Stroud hit Emeka Egbuka in the hole between the rolled up cover 2 corner and deep half safety on a three verticals concept.

Day also repeatedly used a stick-double dig cross concept where Smith-Njigba worked the middle hole between the cover 2 Mike linebacker and two deep safeties.

Later, when Utah’s Mike carried Smith-Njigba on the cross, Stroud came back to the stick-flat combination.

Ohio State also ran the football more successfully as the game progressed. Part of that was Henderson being more committed to cutting up field and running with more assertiveness.

And part of it was inside run game diversity. For example above, Day calls for wide zone weak to the field away from the formation into boundary. And below, Ohio State runs inside zone to the field B-gap.

But much of Ohio State’s offensive performance can be attributed to Stroud’s command and accuracy, combined with Smith-Njigba’s precision and explosiveness. This combination was most memorable on Smith-Njigba’s slot-fade touchdown, which came off a Y-cross combination (with the quarterback reading 1) fade; 2) cross; 3) post) and featured a perfectly thrown ball and catch.

Yet Stroud and Smith-Njigba were in command throughout. Below, Ohio State aligned Smith-Njigba in the backfield to run a West Coast Offense “Texas” angle route. Stroud worked the middle of the field safety to the opposite seam with his eyes to open up Smith-Njigba.

The Buckeyes also repeatedly relied upon Smith-Njigba for critical first down conversions. On fourth and four, Day used a H-Y option concept to get Smtih-Njigba matched up on a linebacker.

[Gif 4th 4:38 Replay]

Below, on third down, Smith-Njigba ran a shallow cross (Day likes combining shallow cross with a middle sit route opposite) against a six-man cover 1 blitz.

Yet Stroud control and manipulation of coverage was not limited to targeting Smith-Njigba. For example, on this touchdown throw, Stroud worked opposite to open up the follow-route dig from Harrison Jr.

For his part, Harrison Jr. repeatedly demonstrated stellar route running technique and release off the line of scrimmage in his first extended action.

Stroud also made a critical play with his feet, picking up Ohio State’s first first down when the offense was struggling.

Conversely, Stroud received excellent pass protection from the Ohio State offensive line, as the Buckeyes routinely handled stunts and blitzes—including the six-man rushes above—not allowing a sack on 45 pass attempts. Day also interspersed rocket tempo with huddling, preventing Utah from changing their coverage structure and blitz looks.

Going forward, Ohio State needs a better mix of running from shotgun and throwing from the pistol or under center so that the Buckeyes are not as predictable by formation. They also need more emphasis on counter try to add diversity to the Ohio State run game and as a change-up to stretch. The Buckeyes ran it twice against Utah (notably running counter GT with the guard pulling and the tackle leading instead of the tight end for the first time) but only obtained minimal gains—despite the play being open—because of poor execution.

Yet Ohio State will return arguably the best passing offense (again) in college football; particularly as Stroud continues to develop and improve. And the run game will face increased opportunities (as eventually happened against Utah) if the Buckeyes continue to consistently utilize pre-snap reliefs and post-snap RPOs.

The Ohio State defensive game plan was overwhelmingly focused on limiting the Utah run game. The Buckeyes sought to match run-based personnel—with Sam Cade Stover entering against 12 personnel, and both boundary safeties (Bullets) Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams playing against 13 personnel (3 tight ends), with only one corner on the field against the single wide receiver.

In these heavy sets, Ohio State frequently featured a “Double Eagle” alignment. Akin to a Bear front, Double Eagle is a 5-3 with a nose guard, two three-technique defensive tackles, two wide ends (Stover and Zach Harrison), two inside linebackers, and then the “Bullet” overhang (Williams).

The Buckeyes also frequently utilized cover 3 fire zone boundary corner run blitzes when Utah set its run strength to the short field.

Although these concepts was moderately successful defending the run, Utah was able to manipulate the Buckeye defense by using heavy personnel packages to then throw, such as this slant against Ohio State’s Double Eagle cover 1.

Or this Yankee route combination.

Likewise Utah exploited the Buckeyes’ desire to match personnel in cover 1 with shifts and motion—below shifting the running back late to get him matched up for the mesh wheel route on the Mike—and increasing Ohio State’s confusion in getting lined up.

Utah would exacerbate such alignment issues by using tempo in its heavy sets. Utah also targeted Ohio State’s heavy use of cover 1 with the quarterback run game, using motion here to pull Will linebacker Steele Chambers out of the box.

And season long problems for the Ohio State defense again cropped up, such as defending counter GH to the boundary (these second quarter issues were exacerbated by the Buckeyes playing second and third team linebackers and safeties in the game for two consecutive series).

Even more problematically, the Utes repeatedly exploited Ohio State’s underneath defenders spot dropping in cover 2 and 3 and “guarding grass” instead of matching receivers.

Utah routinely exploited spot dropping with sit routes in the hook-curl zones.

But in the second half, Ohio State further limited the Utah run game, providing the Buckeye offense the opportunity for a comeback. The Buckeyes did so by using more four man fronts with overhangs to both sides of the formation and squeezing the edges.

Perhaps more importantly, Ohio State had its linebackers come downhill and shoot gaps. This was particularly effective for Mike Tommy Eichenberg.

In so doing, Ohio State was able to limit concepts that had bedeviled them defensively all year. For instance, the Buckeyes stopped a counter GH to the boundary.

Ohio State was able to limit the quarterback run game out of single high, with Stover beating the tight end across his face.

The Buckeyes also made two critical stops on boundary runs to a soft cover 3 edge where they were lacking overhang support (a situation that offenses have exploited all year) with great individual pursuit plays by Eichenberg and Williams.

And Ohio State made a critical fourth down stop, with Hickman fighting over a pick in cover 1 man and making the tackle short of the first down.

Although many of these scheme concerns may become irrelevant with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ arrival, it was promising for Ohio State that players like Stover and Williams flashed as second level overhang defenders. The Buckeyes also got the best play yet from 3-technique Taron Vincent.

The Buckeyes did sprinkle in certain Knowles concepts, such as a three safety pre-snap look, and a 3-3 stack with the weakside defensive end behind the nose guard.

But (as previously discussed) Knowles now faces the task of molding his defensive philosophy and system to Ohio State’s extensive group of returning defenders and the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opponents.