Ohio State’s offense was plagued by miscues, numbers, and missed blocking assignments in its 33-24 win over Penn State. Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry mixed a variety of looks against the Buckeyes—frequently stemming to an odd front on passing downs and featuring an over “load” front to the tight end side (lining with both a 3-techinque between the guard and tackle and 5-technique between the tackle and tight end) in run-first situations.
Behind, Penn State mixed their base cover 3 with 3 deep, 3 under zone blitzes, 2 deep, 4 under zone blitzes, and some cover 1—trying to maintain a plus-one in the box—before often playing cover 2 on passing downs.
Penn State’s load front protected the Mike, preventing Ohio State from getting to the second level and allowing the Mike to effectively mirror tailback TreVeyon Henderson and scrape over the top.
The Nittany Lions also at times used a bear front or mugged up the center with a linebacker in short yardage to again prevent the Buckeye offensive line from releasing to the second level and enable the Mike to be a free hitter.
Penn State’s use of different fronts (they are typically a 4-3 over team)—in particular, the over load front—also caused blocking identification issues for the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s offensive line and tight ends repeatedly defaulted to blocking men rather than honoring their zone steps.
This was most harmful in short yardage situations. Below, on a third and 2 tight zone call, left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere fails to zone step to the right and overtake the 3-technique. Left guard Thayer Munford, correctly expecting Petit-Frere to overtake the 3-technique, pinned the 3-technique with his left arm before leaving to block the inside linebacker. But Petit-Frere stepped to the left, effectively double teaming the end and leaving the 3-technique unblocked. Although Ohio State would have been better off getting out of tight zone with a 3 and 5 technique to the backside (it would be difficult for the left tackle and tight end to both overtake defensive linemen to their play side with minimal help), the situation was exacerbated by poor execution.
Similarly, below, right tackle Dawand Jones and in-line tight end Cade Stover both incorrectly execute their wide zone blocking assignments. Jones locks onto the defensive linemen slanting inside of him instead of leaving the slant for the right guard and continuing on to the second level for the playside linebacker. Stover failed to be patient in taking his wide zone steps and did not pick up the overhang slanting into his area.
And even if the offensive line executed perfectly, the Buckeyes were often outnumbered in the run game—as on the plays above—limiting the viability of the Ohio State run game.
The Buckeyes partly overcame these run game issues with the intermediate passing game; including with multiple third and long completions such as this shallow cross, double over route to Garrett Wilson against cover 5 (cover 2 man under).
The Buckeye receivers also repeatedly beat Penn State’s sporadic use of man coverage, such as this all-curl route to Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ryan Day repeatedly used all curl and four vertical stem concepts against Penn State’s cover 3).
In contrast to the run game, the Buckeye pass protection largely handled Penn State’s variety of zone and man blitz schemes. And CJ Stroud effectively moved in the pocket to create opportunities.
Ohio State did more consistently move the football for much of the last two and a half quarters by using Penn State’s desire to play disparate run and pass looks depending on the Buckeye personnel and formational tendencies against them. Principally, Penn State wanted to use run-first looks when the Buckeye tight end was tight, and pass first looks when he was detached in four wide.
Specifically, Pry often used the load front when Ohio State had the tight end in a Y-off position (off the line of scrimmage outside the tackle) to the tight end side. So Ohio State frequently ran split zone (tight end blocks back across the formation) in the second half to cut away from the 3 and 5 technique.
Similarly, Day set up Chris Olave’s touchdown on a post-dig route combination off hard play action by going under center with 12 personnel; prompting Penn State to run a load front fire zone. Munford ably handled the blitz pulling across the formation by setting his feet and not reaching, allowing Stroud to step up into the pocket.
Conversely, both of Henderson’s explosive second half runs came from open four detached formations with the tight end motion fast motioning wide to trips—one of the few times when Ohio State faced even numbers in the box—allowing Henderson to cut upfield on wide zone.
The Buckeyes also created explosive plays in the passing game with cover 2 and 3 beaters to Ruckert. With Penn State frequently playing cover 2 on passing downs, Day put a single-high beater (slant/flat) to one side, with a smash concept (hitch/corner) designed to hi/lo a cover 2 corner.
Stroud also hit Ruckert on four verticals against cover 3 (four routes deep against three deep defenders) when the middle of the field safety committed to the first divider route, leaving the Nittany Lion linebacker to carry Ruckert vertically.
Yet the Buckeyes’ short yardage and red zone miscues remained an issue throughout. Ohio State increasingly used heavy (2 and 3 tight end) personnel to match numbers and widen overhangs. But it did not limit the blocking identification problems. Below, Ohio State runs power. But Jones blocks playside as if it is zone, instead of hinge blocking on the backside end.
Henderson also missed some small cuts and/or could not break through tackles that would have been the difference in converting first downs or touchdowns. Ohio State did take some steps to help itself in short yardage, such as the unbalanced jet sweep to Wilson or having Stroud race to the line to run as if he was going to QB sneak, only to run wide zone.
But too often, Ohio State was own worst enemy with missed opportunities—including missed blocking assignments, pre-snap penalties, and Stroud misreading the coverage and underthrowing Olave on this open fourth down opportunity based off of Penn State repeatedly cheating the overhang off the slot defender in short yardage
Fixing any one of these issues would have resulted in a more comfortable win. According to Bill Connelly, Ohio State had a 92% win expectancy—meaning that they controlled the game far more than the final score indicated.
But the Buckeyes’ 1 for 6 red zone conversation rate made for a closer game. Mixing in hard play-action near the goal line may have helped. More generally, Ohio State would perhaps better protect the run game by using more reliefs and RPOs if a defense is repeatedly outnumbering the Buckeyes in the box—particularly without the quarterback read run threat. The quick out completion below to Olave was one of the few RPOs Ohio State used.
Ohio State would also help itself by continuing the run game diversity that has been present since the Buckeyes’ Oregon loss but was notably absent Saturday. Ohio State did not run duo despite the Buckeyes’ short yardage issues. And they only ran counter trey once—despite the play’s promise to hit away from Penn State’s over load front and to limit the Nittany Lions’ Mike mirroring the tailback.
Ohio State would also benefit from a quick toss or pause option away to the halfback side. Finally, the Ohio State offensive line and tight ends must stick to their blocking assignments—regardless of the front or practice repetitions against the look—as the Buckeyes will frequently see opponents use different fronts than what they have shown on film.