Ohio State rebounded offensively by better protecting the run game, excelling in pass protection, and winning against man coverage in the Buckeyes’ 59-31 win over Purdue.
The Boilermakers attempted to use a super charged version of the Penn State and Nebraska defensive strategies against Ohio State. Purdue often sought to overload the overhang areas outside the Buckeye offensive tackles to limit the Ohio State tight zone and wide zone run game, frequently playing cover 1 man or even cover 0 (man without a free safety), mixed with some soft cover 3.
But Ohio State responded to the overloaded boxes by protecting the run game and punishing Purdue for overloading the box through multiple means. Perhaps the primary method was that the Buckeyes regularly throwing wide receiver bubble screen reliefs—meaning that quarterback CJ Stroud reads the leverage of the secondary pre-snap and throws the bubble if the opponent cheats inside or off the slot receiver. For example, on the Buckeyes’ first offensive play, the overhang slot defender comes down outside the tackle with the safety sliding into effectively a soft cover 0 with inside leverage over the slot—providing free access for Garrett Wilson.
Although Ohio State ran more offset shotgun Saturday, Ryan Day likewise protected the pistol run game with reliefs. Twice, Jaxon Smith-Njigba used orbit return motion to set up bubble screens, forcing Purdue’s man defenders to begin to “rock and roll” with the motion; likewise leaving Smith-Njigba 10 yards between him and the safety.
The Buckeyes used run-pass options for the same effect, throwing the quick out or comeback RPO off split mid zone when Purdue was playing soft cover 1 with a safety in the box.
Again, while Ohio State had a run-pass breakdown of 38 passes and 31 rushes, at least nine of those throws were reliefs or RPOs, where Stroud was 9-9 for 152 yards.
The numerous bubble screens then set up Ohio State’s downfield touchdown wheel route to Smith-Njigba off faking an arc block that sells the bubble screen, where Purdue’s cover 1 defenders bit on the bubble action and the Boilermaker deep safety was too far from the trips bunch to provide help.
Day similarly protected the Buckeye run game from being attacked by backside overhang defenders through jet sweeps. Although one was a shotgun pop pass and one an under center handoff the concept was the same—a backside sweep (bash) to the wide receiver away from the offensive line’s zone blocking—taking advantage of linebackers overly committed to the zone action.
Those runs also provided the added benefit of conflicting Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis in different ways, leaving him unblocked to hopefully slow him down from attacking opposite side run action.
And Ohio State continued to effectively utilize bootlegs—below breaking tendencies by rolling away from the pulling offensive lineman. Stroud did a better job on such plays sitting down and waiting for the opposite side crosser to come open.
All of these actions to protect the run game forced Purdue out of its heavy reliance on overloading the box, resulting in the Boilermakers increasingly playing cover 4 that provided Ohio State better numbers to run against. For example, below, Purdue fully covered up the slot receiver with cover 4 split safeties, providing Ohio State even numbers in the box (6 v. 6) to run wide zone to Miyan Williams.
As Day noted in his postgame press conference, Williams had his best game in weeks getting upfield (instead of looking to bounce), enhancing the Ohio State’s offense by having a downhill, one-cut runner to complement TreVeyon Henderson.
Day also mixed in more 2-tight ends sets with a heavier reliance on Mitch Rossi as a blocker, often aligning in five wide before shifting to a tight end, wing alignment (such as on the bootleg example above).
In the run game, Ohio State used more shotgun halfback sets to run mid-zone to the opposite side B or C gap between the guard and tackle or tackle and tight end. This allowed Ohio State to target the bubble between the opposite side guard and tackle that defenses were leaving uncovered with stunts up front focused on tight and wide zone, allowed the offensive line to work more vertically, and enabled the Buckeyes to attach either reliefs or RPOs.
For example, on Henderson’s touchdown run below off a mid-zone X-out RPO, Purdue is in a 6-1, placing overhangs to both sides of the formation to cut off tight zone from the backside or seal off wide zone. The Boilermakers then pinch their defensive line; leaving the opposite C-gap uncovered. Purdue’s Mike was supposed to work over the top, but with such a clean hole, Henderson could beat the Mike downfield.
Ohio State also mixed in more duo, again simplifying the offensive line’s reads, washing down slants, and allowing the Buckeye blockers to get to the second level.
Throughout, Ohio State’s offensive line did a better of staying on their zone tracks (as did Henderson) and moving vertically to the second level.
This included the red zone, where the Buckeyes looked to wash everything down and drive double teams to the linebackers.
The Buckeyes likewise exploited Purdue’s man coverage in the passing game. This started with Ohio State’s pass protection. Day regularly mixed in six and seven-man full slide protections (meaning that all the offensive linemen slide to pass protect the gap to the call) to Karlaftis’ side, leaving the tight end and/or running back to pick up anything opposite the slide.
This ensured that the Buckeyes did not face any interior breakdowns and could generally have the guard to Karlaftis’ side assist with any interior rush.
That is not to say that Ohio State did not handle Karlaftis or the Purdue pass rush well when the tackles were matched up in half slide big on big protection (splitting the line at the first bubble to the protection call, where the line on the playside half slides to the call, while the line on the opposite side of the bubble slides away or man blocks the associated defensive lineman) or in picking stunts such as the tackle-end one below on a shallow cross concept.
But the repeated use of full slide protections simplified the offensive lines reads and allowed the Buckeyes to accumulate hits on Karlaftis.
In the passing game, Ohio State repeatedly used vertical stem comeback routes (on another 7 man full slide protection) against Purdue’s soft cover 1.
The Buckeyes also used multiple variations of dragon concepts (slant-drag combination) against Purdue’s single high schemes.
Wilson’s opening touchdown effectively came on the concept when Purdue mugged up their linebackers (meaning walked up to the line of scrimmage over offensive linemen) to show pressure before dropping to a cover 3. The distance to get back in coverage left a large gap in the underneath flat once the corner committed to the slant.
The Buckeyes’ penultimate touchdown likewise came on the same dragon concept in fourth and 1 against cover 0. This time, Wilson ran the slant; in both instances demonstrating after the catch how Ohio State missed his short area explosiveness against Nebraska.
The Buckeyes should continuing using such looks in short yardage and goal line situations. Notably, earlier in the game, Purdue stuffed a Buckeyes second and 1 run from a similar cover 0 look. Although Paris Johnson apparently missed Dawand Jones’ signal that Jones had to account for the overhang so Johnson needs to block the defensive end, the bigger issue is that Ohio State is outnumbered in the box.
Continuing to force teams with the passing game out of outnumbering Ohio State in such situations—such as the Wilson’s fourth down slant or the Olave split flow touchdown off motion below—thus remains critical going forward.