Ohio State turned in its most complete, complementary game this season in its 52-13 win over Rutgers. Offensively, Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson had a well-honed plan to target Rutgers’ 4-3 stack that features a nose guard titled at the center, heavy amounts of slanting, and safeties that aggressively trigger to insert themselves in the box against the run.
This was evident on the Buckeyes’ second offensive play. Ohio State ran G/Y counter off jet action. The jet action caused Rutgers’ overhang to follow and the opposite safety to spin down. The play side offensive line down blocked, washing down the slanting defensive line. And the pulling guard sealed the box, with the tight end leading on the playside safety coming down in run support—leaving no one to account for TreVeyon Henderson once he hit the second level.
The Buckeyes’ run game throughout was designed to address the Scarlet Knights’ condensed, moving fronts. Ohio State utilized bash (backside sweep away from inside zone blocking, with the quarterback reading the backside end to determine whether to give the sweep or keep and run inside zone). Below the Buckeyes run the sweep to a 4×0 unbalanced look—with the goal again to get outside the slant and account for the safety as a box defender.
Ohio State ran one-back power and inside zone from pistol away from the tight end that effectively functioned as duo for the same reason—collapse down the defensive front and seal the second level.
The Buckeyes still ran their base mid and wide zone runs. Below, Ohio State ran mid split zone to unbalanced quads—likely expecting that Rutgers would slant towards to the unbalanced, creating a cutback behind the split block.
But Ohio State continues to feature a much larger amount of run game diversity following the Oregon loss; particularly in using a heavier amount of gap runs.
The Buckeye passing game concurrently targeted intermediate routes between Rutgers’ run-focused second level defenders and deep safeties. This began with several completions to tight end Jeremy Ruckert in the flats—below on a snag concept behind a fast-charging run-focused safety.
This approach became even more effective once the Buckeyes targeted between the hashmarks. For example, Ohio State repeatedly ran shallow cross, featuring a shallow cross from one side and a deeper in-breaking route opposite.
Quarterback CJ Stroud first hit Garrett Wilson on the shallow cross for a touchdown.
Stroud then hit Jaxon Smith-Njigba on the deeper in-breaking route for another explosive play.
And here, Ohio State uses a snag combination to the top with a levels route combination (the outside receiver runs a shorter square-in, the deeper receiver runs a longer square-in) to the bottom.
Finally, the Buckeyes generated another touchdown over Rutgers’ linebackers by faking power read before hitting Ruckert on an angle route.
Stroud self-evidently played his best game. He was accurate—such as this variation on the Buckeyes’ staple mesh (shallow crossers from both sides) where Smith-Njigba runs the wheel from the slot instead of a running back.
But he also stood in the pocket and delivered throws, as well as created plays outside of structure.
Day and Wilson also for the first time incorporated a zone read.
Occasionally providing Stroud the option to keep—in combination with the mixing in of run-pass options—such as this front side RPO below (meaning that the quarterback is reading a defender away from the running back) will continue to protect the run game.
Defensively, Ohio State continued its in-season transformation, playing principally cover 2 (two deep safeties, five underneath defenders) against the Scarlet Knights. This paid immediate dividends with Denzel Burke’s early interception return.
Cover 2 places the Buckeye corners in force support, providing Ohio State a ready solution to Rutgers’ heavy reliance on the perimeter run game by forcing the football back inside.
Cover 2 seemingly allowed Ohio State to more readily adjust to motion and three and four receiver formation then the Buckeyes were able to do earlier this season. For example, below, Rutgers motions from an unbalanced quad formation to trips. In response, Ronnie Hickman rotates back to boundary safety with the corner rotating back down to force support.
Defensive play caller Matt Barnes also used cover 2 variations that allowed Ohio State to adapt to trips and keep Rutgers off balance. For example, against the bunch formations that have caused the Buckeyes difficulty, Barnes placed the opposite side corner in Meg (man everywhere he goes), allowing the coverage to rotate to the bunch.
And below, Barnes called for trap 2—effectively a nickel blitz that rotates the cover 2 towards the blitz.
When Rutgers aligned with a tight end to the short-field, Barnes had boundary safety Hickman trigger more aggressively downhill—where Hickman has been so effective.
The variations in cover 2 corner techniques—and fact that cover 2 presents five underneath defenders—helps limit the RPOs that have caused the Ohio State defense issues.
The Buckeyes also continue to mix cross dog inside linebacker blitzes. Below, the Buckeyes ran a simulated pressure cross dog while dropping both defensive ends back to maintain a two-deep, five under zone.
All coverages have weaknesses and playing cover 2 alone is not foolproof. For instance, the Buckeyes on Saturday aligned their cover safety (Cam Martinez or Marcus Williamson) as an “apex,” meaning halfway between the slot receiver and offensive tackle. As a result, Rutgers found some success hitting bubble screens and flat routes.
Likewise, by having two deep safeties, the cover safety has to be involved in the run fits.
Although the cover safeties filled this role adequately, notably the Buckeye defensive staff has moved Craig Young to this spot from the “bullet” (now boundary safety) position—suggesting that they could use Young there in certain downs and distances against more effective run teams
But Ohio State has now demonstrated that they at least have the repertoire of coverages to keep opponents off-balance. The Buckeyes still played some cover 1 against Rutgers.
They also showed some cover 4 and quarter-quarter-half against Akron. Perhaps more importantly, Barnes and the defensive staff have demonstrated that they would game plan to respond to what their opponent is doing rather than run the same base system regardless of opponent tendencies. This improving defense, in turn, puts the offense in more advantageous positions to succeed.