Ohio State continued its run of combining a balanced offense targeting the weak spot in the opponent’s defensive scheme with its revitalized, cover-4 focused defense, in its 54-7 win over Indiana.
The Hoosiers opened frequently playing variations of a tite front —which generally places three down linemen inside the offensive tackles to each side (a 4i technique) and a hybrid stand-up linebacker away from the passing strength.
The Hoosiers then often played a soft cover 4 Mod on early downs—with their front six focused on the run—combined with some cover 1 man blitzes on third down.
But Indiana’s condensed front run focus and concern about vertical throws provided Ohio State ample horizontal run and pass game opportunities. One genesis of the tite front was to take away inside zone from spread teams by eliminating the B-gap bubbles between the center and guard.
But Ohio State exploited this interior focus by running outside the three defensive linemen structure from the pistol—to the point that Indiana was eventually forced back to four down fronts. The Buckeyes frequently aligned in tight trips (trips with the tight end to the trips side)—often forcing Indiana to shade the balanced tite front look—before featuring wide zone.
Wide zone allowed the Buckeye offensive line to establish double teams and overtake the next tite down linemen to the play side, with the running back hitting the bubble between tite front linemen and overhang defender.
Ryan Day mixed the Buckeyes’ base wide zone (as above) with wide split zone (wide zone with the tight end blocking the end man back across the formation)—below putting trips into the boundary (formation into boundary) to enable a crack block on the safety.
Likewise, Indiana often slanted the defensive line to the tight end. The Buckeyes responded with GY counter trey to the weak side, washing down the slant with the pulling tight end logging the end—again allowing TreVeyon Henderson to break outside.
The Buckeyes then targeted Indiana’s soft cover 4 with the passing game. Notably, at multiple times this came off play action mirroring Ohio State’s wide zone and counter run game.
Specifically, Indiana frequently used a cover 4 variation akin to what Nick Saban calls “Cone,”. The Indiana cover 4 slot defender (the apex) carried the inside receiver vertically so that the safeties could help with the Ohio State outside receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. This provided several easy completions to Jeremy Ruckert on fast motion showing wide split zone to the flat behind run-focused linebackers responsible for the number 3 receiver.
Ohio State also created vertical opportunities for its inside receivers against Indiana’s cover 4. CJ Stroud, again throwing with anticipation, hit Jaxon Smith-Njigba on a skinny post on the second drive that he dropped over Indiana’s second level defenders and between the two safeties.
Stroud later hit Ruckert on a fade when a linebacker was left covering him vertically after both the corner and apex sat on Olave’s hitch route.
And Day took advantage of the fact that Indiana was getting so much depth in their cover 4 drops to set up Henderson’s explosive touchdown off a screen.
The Buckeyes then used cover 1 beaters on third down against Indiana’s man coverage blitzes, such as this shallow cross to Smith-Njigba that the Hoosier safety had to attempt to cover from depth.
Finally, Day utilized vertical stems on the outside against Indiana’s corners, where Wilson or Olave could break off their routes to a comeback against cover 4.
Or continue vertical against cover 1 man.
Defensively, on Indiana’s opening touchdown drive, the Buckeyes largely reverted to their pre-rotated, single high scheme—such as cover 3 weak (the safety is down away from the passing strength) below—with decidedly mixed results.
Specifically, Ohio State yielded several third down completions from cover 1 man. The first below suffered from telegraphing the coverage. Indiana established a favorable matchup by putting their tight end Peyton Hendershot wide (leaving him singled up against Ronnie Hickman) to run double slants.
On the Hoosiers’ touchdown, the Buckeyes busted the coverage, with Mike Cody Simon seemingly failing to stay with Hendershot.
Knowing that they had single high pre-snap also allowed Indiana to utilize the inside glance RPO that has repeatedly caused problems for Ohio State’s cover 3.
Although Ohio State on that opening series was perhaps hoping to keep future opponents off-balance as to their (new) defensive tendencies, after the opening series, Matt Barnes returned to mixing cover 4 (seemingly mostly cover 4 Man, as below) with cover 3 and cover 3 pressures on standard downs.
The Buckeyes did, however, show one wrinkle to their cover 4 framework—using a more zone focused standard quarters variation to the wide field to allow Ohio State safety and corner to trade off Indiana’s post-wheel “switch” routes.
Indiana did target the Buckeyes’ split safety alignment (cover 2 or cover 4) to the wide field. For example, the Hoosiers ran several times at the field ‘B’ gap between the guard and tackle where Ohio State’s “cover safety”—effectively a nickel slot defender—is responsible to provide run support.
And to open the second half, Indiana ran a jet sweep, running off the manned-up corner and forcing the cover 4 field safety—who has limited run responsibilities to a 2-detached wide receiver side—to come downhill.
The Buckeyes continue to search for the right personnel to fill the changed role of the cover safety—from being an outside-the-box slot defender in cover 1 or 3 to one with fit-or-freeze run responsibilities in cover 4. Notably, after the first series, Ohio State removed Marcus Williamson and put Lathan Ransom back at the cover safety role (after having moved him to free safety for the past month) before Williamson returned.
To somewhat counteract having an undersized defender with run responsibilities, Barnes will routinely run blitz the cover safety—either in a 3 deep, 4 under creeper pressure (with the opposite side defensive end dropping), or a 3 deep, 3 under zone blitz (as below).
And the benefit of mixing cover 4 with cover 3 is that cover 3 pushes the linebackers towards the wide field—providing a method to help minimize the wide field run threat if necessary—while continuing to use the nickel “cover safety” allows Ohio State to rotate to cover 3 with relative ease by pushing out that cover safety wider.
Although the Buckeye defense is still not utilizing an extensive amount of variety, mixing cover 4 (mostly) Man with some cover 2 and cover 3 and cover 3 pressures prevents the opponent from getting a clear pre-snap picture. Cover 4 man also fits Ohio State’s personnel. The Buckeye corners are used to, and can hold up, in man,
Teams may increasingly challenge the fact that they expect Ohio State’s cover 4 corners to remain in man, such as with mesh below, perhaps requiring further cover 4 change-ups.
But Ohio State’s front six is sufficiently good at playing the run that cover 4 provides Ohio State the ability to play a light box with a nickel and split safeties while maintaining a 3 over 2 to the field. At the same time, however, cover 4 man does allow for more aggressive run support by the linebackers and boundary safety than other cover 4 variations; satisfying Day’s off-stated philosophy to maintain a plus one against the run as it allows the boundary safety to quickly trigger downhill and fill any empty gap.