Fulton Analysis: How the Ohio State offense kept Clemson guessing

Ryan Day and his staff came out with a plan to target both the play calling system and the structure of Brent Venables’ Clemson defense in Ohio State’s 49-28 Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal win. 

As was much discussed leading into the game, the Clemson staff has a reputation for stealing play call signals. At a minimum, Venables waits as long as possible until the offense aligns to call his defensive play.

To limit Clemson’s ability to do both, Ohio State would sugar huddle before racing to the line. Or the Buckeye offense would get the signal from the sideline and then race to set and snap the football immediately after setting or after shifts or motion—frequently increasing Ohio State’s run game success by snapping the football before Clemson had their defensive play call in or was set. 

This was most noticeable on Trey Sermon’s opening touchdown. The Tigers were still getting the play call while Ohio State snapped the ball.  Left tackle Thayer Munford and the left side of the offensive line nonetheless expertly executed their wide zone steps—allowing them to pick up Tiger defenders when they belatedly appeared.

Day was also prepared for Venables’ myriad of three and four down defensive fronts, cover 3 and split safety coverages, and zone blitz schemes. In particular, Clemson mixed its base 4-2-5 with heavy amounts of odd front, 3-3-5 (three down linemen with the nose guard head up on the center)—including its 3-3-3, three-safety “broken stack” alignment.

Much has been made of Venables’ switch in the second quarter of last year’s Fiesta Bowl to the odd front, three linemen, three safety scheme to help fuel Clemson’s comeback. And Venables frequently utilized variations of this scheme in the Sugar Bowl—often slanting the Tigers’ defensive line away from the running back while applying simulated pressures (the defense still only rushes four but one is a linebacker or defensive back)—in particular repeated inside linebacker A-gap (between the guard and center) blitzes, while playing cover 3 in the back end.  

But Day and the Buckeyes repeatedly exploited that scheme this year. The Buckeyes successfully ran the football throughout the Sugar Bowl. With Clemson’s 3-3-3 placing only six defenders in the box, Ohio State had a blocker (five offensive linemen plus the tight end) for every interior defender. The Buckeye then exploited Clemson’s slanting, having the offense line in Ohio State’s zone run scheme drive the slanting defenders in the direction they were going—allowing Sermon to cut back behind the blocks where Clemson lacked immediate force support.

Day also used formation and the difference in length between the wide field and to the boundary from the hashmarks to his advantage. For the first time this season, Day frequently aligned Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson as a single wide receiver opposite tight trips (three wide receivers).

Specifically, Day repeatedly put Olave or Wilson to the wide field with the tight trips to the boundary (frequently after shifting or motion). This pulled Clemson’s field safety towards the single wide receiver, while putting multiple defensive backs to the sideline. The Buckeyes would then run its base wide zone from pistol (tailback aims for the tight end’s outside leg) or mid split zone from an offset halfback (tailback aims for the offensive tackle’s inside leg while the tight end blocks the backside end across the formation) schemes into the boundary.

Sermon could then cut those zone runs back to the field; providing him ample running room as Clemson’s defensive backs had to account for the trips to the boundary.

Clemson was generally unable to stop Ohio State running split zone when the Tigers aligned with multiple deep safeties. And if Clemson’s secondary cheated to the field to help with the run, Justin Fields could pull and throw a run-pass option to the trips side.

The Buckeyes’ run game—featuring the offensive line resetting the line of scrimmage washing down the Clemson front combined with Sermon’s vision, lateral quickness, and ability to finish runs—regularly kept Ohio State out of third and long situations; minimizing Venables’s opportunities to use his six man hot blitzes with three deep and two under zone defenders. 

Ohio State similarly had a plan for Clemson’s three-safety, cover 3 scheme in the passing game. Those cover 3 schemes were often structurally unsound, with the three safeties too close to each other, the middle safety not getting deep enough depth, and the underneath zones largely uncovered. 

The Buckeyes immediately returned to what worked against that scheme last year in the Fiesta Bowl, with Fields checking the ball down to Sermon in the flats—where Clemson lacked a zone defender—for several critical first downs.

Ohio State then targeted Clemson’s three-safety structure vertically. Below, Fields hit Wilson on a slot fade against Clemson’s three-safety cover 3, with Wilson running unencumbered down the seam.

The Buckeyes similarly created a two on one on the middle of the field deep safety by having Olave run an inside shallow and go that fakes a shallow crossing route before the receiver cuts up field, creating an opening once the safety ran with Wilson down the seam.

Finally, Olave’s 56-yard touchdown catch came off a Day (and Chip Kelly) staple—Y cross with a deep post. 

Against Clemson, the slot receiver (Wilson) ran a deep crossing route with the post behind. As Fields goes through his progressions, both Clemson safeties come up on the crossing route—leading Fields to come back to his fourth read, the deep post.

Equally as critical to Ohio State’s victory was its success in converting four touchdowns with the passing game in the red zone—where Clemson played their safeties in a run-first cover 4 within ten yards of the line of scrimmage to limit the Buckeye run game. Ohio State successfully countered that by throwing the football out of 12 personnel (two tight-ends) to induce and counter the Tigers’ run focus. This came both off the well-designed throwback leak play to Jeremy Ruckert—where Ruckert faked blocking before sneaking back across the formation.

And it came through Fields fitting tight throws to Ruckert and Luke Farrell working between the safeties in the middle of the field. Fields hits Ruckert on a stick and up before the safety could help.

Farrell’s touchdown came off the tight end switch curl routes.

As the game progressed, Clemson increasingly played the same aggressive quarters’ coverage in the middle of the field to slow the Buckeye run game. This set up Fields’ final touchdown pass to Jameson Williams on a post off play-action after the safety came up on run action.

Throughout, Fields regularly worked through his progressions and threw with authority—here coming back to the middle of the field dig on Ohio State’s follow-pivot route combination.

He was aided throughout by the Ohio State offensive line—which largely succeeded in picking up Clemson’s blitz schemes—and by Olave’s return; as the latter’s perhaps underrated ability to get open is the engine that drives much of the Buckeyes’ passing game.