Ohio State turned in another uneven performance in its 26-17 win over Nebraska. Against the Buckeye offense, the Cornhuskers took a page from Penn State’s playbook and varied looks based upon Ohio State’s tendencies.
The Cornhuskers frequently mixed cover 3 pressures, cover 1, and aggressive cover 4 when Ohio State’s tight end was attached as a Y-off to the formation.
At the snap, Nebraska would often slant or pinch their defensive tackles. When Ohio State’s tight end was detached, by contrast, the Cornhuskers often flipped to a softer cover 2 or 4-match zone.
As against Penn State, Ohio State faced two interrelated problems in the run game. At times, the Buckeyes were outnumbered—particularly from overhang pressure—that was not accounted for in the blocking scheme, resulting in negative plays. Below, the blitzing backside edge defender overruns Ohio State’s weak GY counter trey.
But as problematically, the Ohio State offensive line and tight ends again struggled getting to the second level play side linebacker in light of defensive line movement, all too often leaving a free hitter in the hole. For instance below, the Buckeyes run split mid-zone. Nebraska again brings backside edge pressure and tight end Jeremy Ruckert is seemingly confused in his kick out assignment. Yet even with that, the play could have had a better result if center Luke Wypler did not widen so much in his zone steps chasing the 3-technique slanting playside and instead got upfield to the Mike linebacker, who was left sitting in the hole unblocked.
When the Buckeyes could get a hat on the playside linebacker—even when they could not get to the backside linebacker—they could generate positive plays, such as this six-yard gain off weak wide zone (which could have been more if Paris Johnson got to the playside linebacker instead of chasing his zone track instead of left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere coming over and having to leave the backside linebacker unblocked).
And when the Ohio State front did not step too wide chasing slants with their zone steps on wide split zone and got to both linebackers they were able to generate TreVeyon Henderson’s best run on his last carry.
The Ohio State offensive line is seemingly struggling with the lack of consistency in the starting five. Although injuries and illness happen, the Buckeye offense will be better served if they can play five guys at the same spots throughout and not have Petit-Frere moving from left to right tackle or Thayer Munford back and forth between left guard and tackle, which is harming the collective coordination against the heavy amount of stunts and games the offensive line is facing
Yet Ohio State’s run game is not entirely dire. The Buckeyes used increased amounts of gap run concepts such as counter trey (with a log blog on the spilling defensive end), buck sweep, and duo to fit Henderson’s preference to bounce outside (Henderson would also help the Ohio state run game if he improved his cutback ability). Over 60% of Ohio State’s run plays were successful (defined as gaining 4+ yards on first down, half the distance you need on second down, and resulting in a first down on third down).
And that does not account for Ohio State’s significantly increased use of run-pass options. The Buckeyes ran at least eight RPOs where CJ Stroud read the backside cover 3 hook/curl inside linebacker and threw the pass. Ohio State principally used two RPO concepts. The first was a buck sweep (covered linemen block back, uncovered pull and lead) combined with double slants.
The second was mid-split zone with a mini-curl/flat route.
Stroud was 7-8 on those throws for approximately 10 yards per attempt—rendering the Buckeye run game even more efficient once those RPOs are factored in. It also illustrates that Ryan Day’s play calling was more balanced between run and pass (38 called runs and 46 called passes) than appears on the stat sheet; particularly when considering that Ohio State ran six pass plays in the last 30 seconds of the second quarter trying to score before halftime. The Buckeyes also featured screens and other attempts to get Henderson in space.
The bigger problem plaguing the Ohio State run game on Saturday was the same one troubling the Buckeye offense as a whole, which was a lack of explosive plays. Stroud ‘s strength is throwing intermediate routes (like those RPOs above) with anticipation, such as this follow pivot dig route to Chris Olave where Stroud worked from the follow-pivot to the dig.
Stroud making such throws with anticipation permits yards after the catch—such as
Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s 75 yard touchdown all-curl reception where Nebraska’s creeper pressure created created room beyond the Cornhuskers’ dropping defensive end.
Such mid-range timing throws should continue being a focus for the offense—particularly when Garrett Wilson (who absence was felt Saturday and who can turn such throws into explosives) returns—including an ongoing reliance on RPOs to get defenders out of the box and support the run game.
But Stroud struggled Saturday throwing downfield—namely by being late with the football—limiting Ohio State’s big play potential. For instance, on the incomplete fourth and one throw to Ruckert, the Buckeyes caught Nebraska in cover 0 with Ruckert singled up on a linebacker. But the ball needed to be out of Stroud’s hand when Ruckert was even with the defender; rather than waiting and allowing the defender to recover.
Stroud also struggled at times Saturday by checking the ball into the flats too early—particularly against cover 1—rather than letting downfield routes develop.
Day did adjust things in short yardage to help ameliorate the issues the Buckeyes faced against Penn State. The Buckeyes ran pause option to get to the halfback side and away from the tight end and field pressure.
Similarly, this touchdown sprint out comeback to Olave came out of 22 personnel, breaking Ohio State’s run-heavy tendencies from that alignment.
But with a lessened quarterback run threat, Ohio State also must be able to throw and convert with the passing game in short yardage situations. For example on this open pivot route to Smith-Njigba. Stroud needs to set his feet, step into the throw, and put the ball on Smith-Njigba’s body rather than drifting with pressure.
In total, the Buckeyes had ten drives into Nebraska territory. But instead of generating explosives to create points, Ohio State was again its own worst enemy once it got into Cornhusker territory, with two interceptions, two critical sacks, and repeated penalties.
This is perhaps epitomized by Day’s oft-criticized pass call that resulted in the Stroud strip sack. While the outcome was poor—and one can reasonably disagree with the decision to be aggressive in that situation—what was perhaps less noticeable is that Day had called for a snag and go to Olave that was open for a touchdown (note that Stroud pump fakes to set up Olave breaking downfield below) but for Petit-Frere getting beat with an inside move, as Nebraska’s cover 4 Mod safety followed the corner route.
By contrast, the Ohio State defense continued on its upward trajectory in largely limiting Nebraska but for two 50-plus yard completions. After using a heavy amount of cover 3 pressures against Penn State’s RPO-laden scheme, the Buckeyes reverted to playing a significant amount of cover 4 Meg and Quarters against the Cornhuskers’ run-option concepts.
Unlike single high schemes, cover 4 provides potentially nine run defenders to account for the addition of the quarterback in the run game. Similarly, cover 4 puts a safety to both sides of the formation, allowing either to insert as a run to address read plays that stress the defense to both ways, such as this jet sweep Q GT counter trey read.
And it allowed Ohio State to better defend Nebraska’s repeated use of trips formations. Single high coverage concepts are inherently balanced, mirrored schemes, potentially forcing a single high coverage to over-rotate to trips, leaving the defense vulnerable opposite. Below, by contrast, Ohio State can keep its plus one to both sides of the formation, with the boundary safety then “poaching” (picking up) the opposite side number 3 receiver tight end when he releases vertically.
The Buckeyes could account for Nebraska’s frequent use of RPO bluff concepts (the tight end fakes blocking and releases to the flat). The cover safety took the tight end to the flat while Ohio State remained gap sound up-front—particularly with how effective the Buckeye defensive tackles have been against the run.
And it allowed boundary safety Ronnie Hickman to fill the alley against Nebraska’s repeated attempts to target the boundary edge.
Nebraska did have some more success to the field. Below, the Cornhuskers outnumber Ohio State by running zone read bluff with an option, where Ohio State cannot account for the quarterback with the corner carrying the receiver in man, the field safety responsible for number 2 vertical, and the cover safety accounting for the pitch.
But Ohio State largely limited the Nebraska read run game, with the Buckeye defense line (as noted) controlling the line of scrimmage and cover safety Marcus Williamson again coming aggressively downhill.
Ohio State also largely limited Adrian Martinez’s scramble opportunities. Below was one of the few breakdowns, where Matt Barnes called for a cover 3 cloud creeper—meaning that the field corner has the underneath flat with the cover safety blitzing and boundary safety dropping into coverage. Corner Denzel Burke likely got too much depth, providing an opening.
Otherwise the Buckeyes hemmed Martinez in, repeatedly using two spies on third down so that they could mirror Martinez in either direction.
Barnes did call for more cover 1 on passing downs after largely playing cover 3 against Penn State. This helped limit the third down conversions that Ohio State struggled with against the Nittany Lions; particularly when the Buckeyes generated pressure.
But Ohio State also surrendered both 50 yard-plus receptions out of man coverage against backup cover safety Lathan Ransom on deep crossing routes. On the first, Nebraska aligned in a stack alignment with an over and follow route combination. Free safety Bryson Shaw came to help with the first crossing route, leaving Ransom without safety support.
On the second such completion, Ransom gave up another deep crossing route when Shaw stayed in the middle of the field and got depth.
But despite such breakdowns, Barnes continued to keep Nebraska off-balance, such as on this third down where the Cornhuskers called mesh—expecting cover 1 when the Buckeyes instead ran cover 3.
And Ohio State is now generating significant pressure from their front four, providing the Buckeyes numerous opportunities to force an opponent behind schedule.
More globally, the noticeable difference between Ohio State’s heavy amount of cover 3 zone pressures against Penn State compared to the Buckeyes’ reliance on cover 4 concepts against Nebraska demonstrates that the Ohio State defense now has more tools to use against different offensive schemes.