Ohio State broke tendencies on both sides of the football in its 59-7 win over an over-matched Akron. Offensively, the Buckeyes overcame freshman quarterback Kyle McCord’s early game jitters by targeting the edge toward the halfback’s side in shotgun. Often, opposing defenses will slant and/or overplay away from Ohio State’s offset halfback, expecting zone runs to the opposite side.
So both to counter this focus from Akron—and likely break tendencies for future opponents—the Buckeyes repeatedly targeted the edge toward the halfback. This came in the form of pop pass sweeps (which also gave McCord several easy early completions).
And it came from quick toss runs to the halfback behind a pin and pull blocking scheme (meaning that the playside uncovered linemen pull and lead).
Such runs come with the added benefit of providing another method to get TreVeyon Henderson outside.
Similarly, the Buckeyes again had success mixing gap and zone schemes from the pistol (generally speaking, zone blocking involves the play side offensive line blocking towards the run call while in gap blocking the playside offensive linemen block down or away from the call). This diversified run game effort also included Ohio State seeking to break tendencies based upon tight end positioning.
Below, Ohio State runs duo from balanced 12-personnel with two Y-ons (the tight end on the line of scrimmage)—negating any tendencies based upon tailback and tight end alignment.
The Buckeyes also ran one-back power from the pistol and mid-zone from the same balanced 12-personnel formation. And Ohio State repeatedly used fast tight end motion (the tight end motioning at a run as the ball is snapped) to reduce keys and quickly change leverage. Ohio State used such motion to have the tight end lead on wide zone or block back on split zone.
And here, Jeremy Ruckert motioned across the formation to serve as a lead blocker on a relief bubble screen.
Such reliefs and run-pass options must remain a feature of the Buckeye offense so long to prevent backside unblocked defenders from overplaying the run. For instance below, Ohio State showed what looked like their standard mid-zone RPO featuring a backside hitch.
McCord correctly read the overhang defender blitz. But the Buckeyes converted it into a fade route against a corner sitting on the hitch, resulting in an explosive play.
Once McCord settled in, the Buckeyes also targeted Akron with middle of the field seam and over routes against the Zips’ single high safety looks. Below, McCord hit Jaxon Smith-Njigba on a Ryan Day staple, Y-cross.
Defensively, Ohio State went beyond merely breaking tendencies to nearly a complete overhaul of its scheme. Gone is the Buckeyes’ pre-snap single high safety rotation and overwhelming use of cover 1 and cover 3.
Against Akron, Ohio State played as much if not more split safety coverage—cover 2, cover 4, and quarter-quarter-half (cover 4 to the field, cover 2 to the boundary)—as it did cover 1 and cover 3.
This began on the first play where the Buckeyes ran cover 4, seemingly placing the cover safety (slot nickel) in a 3 fast read (meaning that if the number 3 inside receiver breaks to the flat the cover safety takes him, with the linebacker then taking the in-breaking route from the second receiver).
And it continued throughout the contest (below with cover 2).
The Buckeyes only used cover 1 man sparingly on third down and short yardage. And they ran cover 3 principally in two situations. First, they used a 3-3 (3 deep, 3 under) zone blitz or a 3-2 (3 deep, 2 under) “hot” coverage behind run blitzes.
The most frequent Ohio State run blitz continues to be an inside linebacker cross dog with hot coverage behind.
Second, the Buckeyes often ran cover 3 buzz on third down with Ronnie Hickman dropping down into the hook-curl zone.
Cover 3-buzz layers the coverage, helping limit intermediate over or in-breaking routes between the deep and underneath zones.
Otherwise in base defense the Buckeyes were perhaps more apt to play a split safety scheme. Disguising and mixing looks prevents the opposing play caller from knowing what force support and/or coverage he is facing. For example, Akron scored their lone touchdown using a counter motion that is designed to beat a corner in man that is trailing the motion.
But later, when Akron returned to this concept, Ohio State was in quarter-quarter-half—meaning cover 2 to the boundary—leaving the corner sitting on the receiver’s release to the flat.
And it increases indecision and the potential for mistakes from the opposing quarterback. For example, below Akron runs a curl-flat combination that works well against cover 3 because you have 5 underneath receivers for 4 zone defenders. But below, Ohio State is in cover 2—where that pass concept is less successful because the defense also has 5 men underneath.
Ohio State has also remade how their safety positions function, as they now feature a boundary and field safety (instead of a deep safety and in the box strong safety) The boundary safety (safety to the short side of the field) is Bullet/strong safety Ronnie Hickman, who is generally the one tasked with coming down to provide force support and/or account for the seventh run gap.
The field safety, by contrast, is more akin to Vonn Bell’s role in Chris Ash’s cover 4 scheme, with the primary task often being pass coverage over 2 and 3 wide receiver sets. With Cam Martinez starting as the “cover safety” (slot nickel), Ohio State moved Lathan Ransom to free safety, where he and Bryson Shaw rotated series.
This seems like a rotate fit what they are doing schematically. Martinez is more of a traditional slot nickel corner, while Ransom and Hickman are well-suited as field and boundary safeties. Ransom in particular fits this positional concept more—where you need a defender capable of playing man and carrying receivers vertical but also able to provide range—than his previous task at cover safety of playing man coverage on slot receivers every series.
Although all caveats about the opponent must be taken into account, Ohio State at least now looks like a “normal” defense in the best sense of the word. That means that they are mixing their fronts and coverages, having run gaps accounted for, and not missing responsibilities. This seemed to install confidence and aggressiveness in the Buckeyes’ personnel as the game progressed. In particular, Will linebacker Steele Chambers also had another stellar performance plugging gaps.
As such, while Ohio State’s defense remains inexperienced, this improvement in scheme and personnel gives them a chance going forward.