Longstanding shortcomings in scheme and execution within Ryan Day’s Ohio State defensive system came to fruition against Joe Moorhead’s heavy run-pass option scheme in Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to Oregon.
There may not be a college defense that runs less coverages than Day’s Buckeye defense. As off-discussed, Day prefers pre-rotated safeties that places one safety deep in the middle of the field and one over the tight end.
safety to the box to obtain a plus-one against the run. Run defense is simplified with every defender having one gap. And every eligible receiver is fully covered up with a like on like matchup (corners on receivers, cover safety on the slot, bullet on the tight end). With the middle of the field covered the defense can force the offense to rely on relatively low percentage passes like out routes or deep outside throws.
But opponents have recently repeatedly exploited this simplified scheme—particularly with motion, RPOs, and targeting the boundary (the short side of the field from the hashmarks). This came to a head Saturday.
In particular, Oregon schemed by alignment and formation to obtain situations where they predicted defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs would call his preferred cover 1 and then exploit that scheme. Although cover 1, in theory, limits RPOs by removing conflicts (the pass defenders play their men and the remaining defenders cover the run), Moorhead outlevereged the Buckeyes before the snap to put Ohio State’s linebackers in run-pass conflict.
For example, Oregon frequently used overloaded formations to the field, likely assuming (correctly) that Ohio State would respond with cover 1. For instance, Oregon frequently aligned in a 4 x 0 unbalanced formation. The second receiver on the line of scrimmage is covered, meaning that he is ineligible to go downfield for a pass. He is a threat to receive a bubble screen, so he cannot be completely ignored. But the Buckeyes fully covered down (lined head up) on all four receivers to the field with a deep safety over the top.
Oregon also repeatedly used trips formations (three wide receivers to the wide field, one to the boundary) for the same effect.
To the boundary, Oregon now had a leverage advantage because Ohio State lacked any short-field overhang defender—a defender outside the offensive tackle who could provide force support against the run. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is the three touchdowns that Oregon scored off of crack block blocks where the single receiver to the boundary side blocked down on the play side linebacker.
In each instance, the Ohio State linebacker or defensive back responsible for the receiver in man coverage followed the crack back inside. This gave Oregon essentially a 2 for 1, with the crack block taking out both the linebacker and the man defender. Ohio State’s defensive ends used a spill technique to force the ball to the sideline. But Ohio State often lacked anyone to spill the football to.
But Oregon had nearly equal success with several staple Moorhead RPOs off of split zone action (the tight end blocks back across the formation opposite the zone blocking) from the aforementioned 4×0-unbalanced sets that used a tight end or running back as the receiver. Ohio State’s primary technique to address split zone action is for the Buckeye linebackers to “fall” one gap over to the tight end to account for the change in gaps. But the Oregon RPOs continually made it difficult for the Buckeye linebackers to have every gap accounted for and defend the tight end or running back as a receiver.
For example, Oregon repeatedly used a slip screen RPO where the quarterback reads the play side linebacker to determine whether to throw the slip screen or run inside zone.
When the Ohio State linebackers fell according to their split zone rules, the quarterback threw the screen.
And when bullet strong safety Ronnie Hickman covered the running back, he kept.
The Buckeyes similarly struggled defending split zone RPO bluff, where the tight end either blocks split zone or releases into the flat, and the quarterback reads whether to give or take the pass option. Below, Will linebacker Teradja Mitchell followed the tight end, opening up a scramble.
Later, Mike linebacker Tommy Eichenberg follows the tight end into the flat, leaving the A-gap between the center and guard vacated. This problem was exacerbated by the defensive line slanting away from the run without Hickman scraping hard over the top, followed by backup free safety Bryson Shaw taking a poor angle. The result was a 77-yard touchdown.
But the Ohio State defensive problems went beyond scheme deficiencies to basic execution. On the crack blocks, the Buckeye cover 1 defenders never “replaced,” meaning coming off the crack block and trading responsibilities with the play side linebacker. Against split zone, Ohio State struggled at one-technique nose guard to keep from getting driven back into linebackers. And linebackers struggled to execute the fall technique technique and get to the proper holes. For instance, below, Eichenberg sits behind the nose guard in the A-gap instead of getting to the B-gap between the guard and center.
In the passing game, Oregon repeatedly ran basic flood routes that are designed to create a 3 x 2 vertical stretch on the deep and underneath sideline cover 3 defenders. But Ohio State’s second level defenders repeatedly failed to get to the underneath curl flat zone. For example, below Hickman sat instead of getting to the flats.
On the same drive, Mitchell deepened with the tight end into the corner’s zone instead of playing the curl-flat.
The Buckeye linebackers likewise struggled in identifying who was responsible for the tight end and/or running back in man off play action. For example, on third and 9 from their own 1-yard line, Oregon ran essentially the same basic flood concept. Mike Cody Simon and Sam Palaie Gaoteote both covered the running back, leaving the tight end open and allowing Oregon to escape their goal line.
And Ohio State frequently sought to bring run blitz pressure from the corner or cover safety. But the blitz was often late and ineffective. It likely does not help disguise such blitzes that almost the only time that Ohio State aligns pre-snap in split safeties is so they can rotate behind the pressure.
With all that said, Ohio State defense did perform better in the last quarter and a half, giving the football back twice to the Buckeye offense with the chance to tie the game. This primarily resulted from better-run defense.
Ohio State played more cover 3 on first down. This allowed, for example, the defense to stop the same boundary crack block they previously struggled with.
The Buckeyes also finally settled on playing Simon and Mitchell at Mike and Will. The duo did a better job “falling” correctly against split zone and getting over blocks to the proper run gap.
Simon was likewise better against the pass, as he had a man pass coverage break up and was perhaps the first linebacker to correctly get to the curl-flat cover 3 zone.
The improved run defense allowed Ohio State to finally get Oregon behind schedule, where they could use some simulated pressures on third and long.
Even within the limited scheme, the Buckeyes could address some of their deficiencies with basic execution. If you’re going to run so few concepts as a defense you better be fundamentally sound, adjust really well within them, and not have the aforementioned execution breakdowns.
Some of this perhaps stems from the extensive personnel substitutions. Ohio State cannot continue to rotate so liberally in the back 7, principally at linebacker. Beyond the fact that certain linebackers are better than others, it makes it more difficult for anyone to get in a flow and recognize tendencies
Similarly, perhaps the lone bright spot for the defense thus far has been the play of corners Denzel Burke and Cam Brown. Brown perhaps did the best job by a Buckeye corner yet against and RPO inside glance route.
But again, the drop off behind those two against Oregon was steep. Ohio State has to settle on their best players and play them. To that end, they need to move someone to free safety to replace Josh Proctor. In a middle of the field-covered defense, the free safety is critical to prevent explosive plays from turning into touchdowns. Ohio State cannot have breakdowns such as these on play action.
Similarly, Ohio State belatedly adjusted by moving the free safety over to the boundary side away from the 4×0 unbalanced to provide an overhang. But Shaw took another poor angle that resulted in a completion.
Beyond that, at a broader schematic level, the Buckeyes must better disguise and mix up their coverages. This can include aligning in split safeties pre-snap before rotating down post-snap and having one safety come down depending on the tight end’s alignment and action. It also can include playing some cover 3 in situations when Ohio State is playing almost exclusive cover 1 and vice versa, playing different types of cover 3 such as 3 cloud, or running zone blitzes.
But it also needs to include mixing in even a minimal amount of split safety zone. Otherwise, it becomes too easy for the opponent to feel certain in what coverage they are facing and plan accordingly. RPOs are difficult enough to defend without letting the offense be able to dictate the coverage.