An Ohio State offense that needed to keep pace with Alabama largely lost any chance to do so with Trey Sermon’s opening play injury in the Buckeyes’ national championship loss.
Ryan Day’s offensive system is predicated upon the wide zone stretch play. Although the aim point of the play is the inside leg of the tight end (or inside leg of the offensive tackle with mid zone), the goal with stretch is to get the defensive front moving laterally to create running lanes.
The running back has three potential paths. They can “bounce” the play outside the tight end, plant their foot and “bang” it inside the tight end’s inside leg, or “bend” it back to the play side A-gap.
When Ohio State can run their mid and wide zone schemes at a high level Day’s offense becomes particularly dangerous, as it keeps the Buckeyes on schedule and sets up Ohio State’s downfield passing game. The Buckeyes’ run game the last two seasons has most notably succeeded when the running back can bend behind the blocking scheme.
The Buckeye belatedly reached that level this season with Sermon’s emergence against Northwestern—as he showed a particularly knack against the Wildcats and Clemson for cutting mid and wide zone back against the grain. Unfortunately for Ohio State, Sermon’s injury negated that wide zone cutback run game.
Alabama opened against the Buckeyes primarily playing their 4-2-5 nickel and spinning down to single high cover 1 or cover 3 on first down.
Although Master Teague can bang or bounce stretch, he has not shown the ability to consistently bend it back inside—leaving significant chunks of yards on the field, as cutback lanes were frequently available against the Tide.
What would have been 5-10 yard gains became 2-3 yard ones, putting Ohio State in second and long. This, in turn, allowed Alabama to increasingly play cover 2 schemes (‘Cut’ or ‘Clip’ in Nick Saban terms), which effectively allowed them to bracket Chris Olave.
Yet even with Alabama’s increased use of two-high coverages, the Buckeye run game was middling at best. For instance, below, Ohio State found that Alabama would generally align 2-high if the Buckeyes were in 4 wide. So Ohio State aligned in a 4-wide look to run the football, getting the numbers advantage they wanted against Alabama’s split safety scheme. Yet Teague missed the cutback hole that could have resulted in a big gain.
This lack of consistency with the run game despite favorable numbers and cutback lanes allowed Alabama to transition to a pass-first defensive strategy. As noted, the Tide would frequently play split-safety coverages on second down; before often using a five-man zone or man blitzes on third down that sought to hem Justin Fields in the pocket.
That is not to say that the Buckeyes did not have some offensive success. Ohio State quickly targeted the Tide’s cover 2 ‘cut’ concept that leaves a linebacker on the tight end by running Jeremy Ruckert vertical on a ‘989’ combination.
The Buckeyes also responded to the split safety schemes by looking to get Olave and Garrett Wilson singled up on underneath vertical routes. Below, Wilson does a stellar job of creating separation on a defensive back with inside leverage.
Ohio State’s passing game plan was not without flaws. The Buckeyes were too sporadic in targeting the Alabama corners generally playing pattern-matching cover 3 man on first down. For instance, Ohio State generated an explosive play in the first half by running off the cover 3 corner while Wilson executed an out and up.
The Buckeyes also completed several comeback routes to Olave—but the first one did not come until less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But more problematic was Ohio State missing opportunities to keep pace. Below Fields overthrew an open Wilson on a well-designed one-man route off of faking Duo—which the Buckeyes had scored a touchdown on the previous drive—resulting in a field goal.
Fields also missed a wide-open streaking Olave when Alabama only had ten men on the field, resulting in a punt.
And although the Ohio State offensive line handled Alabama’s blitz packages fairly well, the Crimson Tide generated enough inside pressure to speed Fields up and make him uncomfortable. For instance, below, Fields leaves the pocket before Wilson and Olave come open on double-in breaking routes.
Ohio State also missed Sermon in the pass game, as they could not feature the running back routes that were critical against Clemson—below missing a wide-open first down screen that may have been the difference in the Buckeyes staying in the game.
And if Fields had been fully healthy, Ohio State would have likely benefitted from involving him more in the run game without a healthy Sermon.
All these mistakes become more magnified when your defense has no hope of stopping the opponent. The Buckeyes’ only chance of staying in that game was to continue scoring and play a game in the 40s.
And their best method of doing that was to have a healthy Sermon who could gain chunk yards on the ground, control the clock, and set up explosive pass play opportunities. Without Sermon—and without any defensive support—Fields and the offense were repeatedly under pressure and behind schedule; making it difficult to establish a rhythm.