Ohio State’s passing game inefficiency and questionable strategic decisions against a stellar Northwestern defensive gameplan kept the score closer than necessary in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship win.
Last week, I outlined Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s cover 4 defense, how successful Ryan Day and Ohio State had been against that coverage, and mused that Hankwitz may need to try something different. That is precisely what he did.
Northwestern aligned in its two-high quarters shell.
But the Wildcats rarely played cover 4. Instead, on early downs, at the snap, Northwestern regularly rolled down the backside safety to play cover 3.
On passing downs, Hankwitz mixed in ample amounts of cover 2—placing his corners in the flat to take away underneath, outside throws. For example, below, Ohio State runs an H-out route to Garrett Wilson, with the number 1 (outside) receiver releasing vertically. Against cover 4, that corner should have to carry the vertical, leaving Wilson alone in the flat. But Northwestern is in cover 2, allowing the corner to peel off and break up the pass.
Northwestern mixed these different zones with the occasional cover 1 five-man blitz. The frequent changing of coverages post-snap increased Justin Fields’ indecision in the passing game.
Ohio State’s passing game was also off without Chris Olave available as the focal point of the Buckeyes’ intermediate in and out breaking throws. The most obvious example was on Justin Fields’ second interception, when Jameson Williams broke a sprint-out out route up the field instead of sticking with the pattern.
But it was also present in more subtle ways. For instance, below, Fields pulls on a run-pass option to throw the backside hitch against off-coverage. But Garrett Wilson is still pushing vertical when the ball needs to be thrown.
This lack of critical timing added up. Fields became more hesitant to throw the football in rhythm—below failing to pull the trigger on an open comeback route to Julian Fleming—and increasingly only felt comfortable throwing on time to Wilson.
Despite Northwestern’s mixing of coverages, those vertical stem routes against soft corner coverage were readily available. And those are the routes that frequently get the Buckeyes back on-schedule. It’s not hard to imagine that, if Olave is there, Fields is much more efficient completing those throws.
But Northwestern’s focus on: (1) maintaining two-high safeties; and (2) mixing zone coverages to limit the Buckeye passing game provided the Ohio State offensive line and Trey Sermon ample opportunities in the run game.
It is relatively rare that the Buckeyes get to run against a box of equal numbers. Yet Northwestern repeatedly provided Ohio State that opportunity Saturday. Day and his staff then amplified that advantage by overloading one side of the field.
For instance, below, the Buckeyes align in a trips formation. To maintain two high safeties and cover up trips, Northwestern leaves six defenders in the box (and one is a corner) against Ohio State’s six blockers while also having to account for Fields.
Similarly, Day increasingly called for the Buckeyes’ unbalanced quad look. From that formation, Ohio State repeatedly ran wide split zone, meaning that the tight end blocks back across the formation away from the zone box. To compensate for having a light box, the Wildcats frequently slanted up front. But Sermon expertly bended mid and wide zone back away from the call, using his feet in the hole to cut back across the grain.
And the tight ends blocking back across the formation held the Northwestern inside linebackers, creating further cutback opportunities.
Yet despite Sermon amazingly setting the all time Ohio State single game rushing record and the Buckeyes generating over 500 yards of total offense, Ohio State only scored 22 points. The primary culprit was the Buckeyes only gaining 2.56 points per scoring opportunity (a scoring opportunity is when the offense advances past the opponents’ 40-yard line).
Some of that resulted from Ohio State not converting available passing game opportunities. For instance, on the third quarter drive where Ohio State missed a field goal, the Buckeyes had Wilson singled up on Northwestern’s backup cornerback on second and two. That is the appropriate time to take that shot.
But Ohio State compounded that issue by taking a delay of game the next play. At other times, the Buckeyes unnecessarily threw when they were having so much success running the football. A significant part of that seems like a concerted attempt to break tendencies. For example, on the Fields interception above, Ohio State ran a sprint out pass out of pistol. Pistol is a run-heavy formation for the Buckeyes and Ohio State never runs sprint-out from that look, generally having the halfback block towards the sprint out side.
Similarly, on third and four before the Buckeyes’ final field goal, Ohio State tries to run a slip screen to Sermon that is thrown off by not holding up the front side defensive end.
Breaking tendencies is certainly necessary. And some of Ohio State’s efforts to do so are critical and worked—such as faking inside zone and running a speed option to the halfback (breaking the tendency that a run is going to go away from the halfback side).
But it is an unfortunate side effect of playing so few games that Day felt like he needed to use the Big Ten championship game to do so. For example, in hindsight, it seems more logical to use that third and four as four down territory and run the football on third down.
And some of the miscues were in game management. For instance, before Fields’ interception to end the first half, it was perplexing that Day did not use a timeout to try to run once when the Buckeyes were having so much success on the ground. Similarly, it was somewhat out of character not use tempo, instead going at a deliberate pace to repeatedly check with me at the line of scrimmage—particularly when Northwestern was changing its coverages post-snap.
Against Clemson—as I will discuss further next week—the Buckeyes will need to play with tempo and use Fields as a runner more inside the ten yard line to avoid stalling out. On its first drive, Ohio State called a designed fake toss, QB counter trey for Fields that was called back for holding. But the Buckeyes did not use a quarterback run again. A designed quarterback run on one of those failed third downs could have paid dividends. That said, the emergence of Sermon and the Ohio State run game allows Day and the Buckeyes to use an offensive strategy similar to what Ohio State employed last year, relying more on the mid and wide zone run game mixed with the play action and movement passing game.
Fortunately for Ohio State, after Northwestern’s opening drive where the Buckeye linebackers and deep safeties repeatedly overran run plays, the Ohio State defense largely held the Wildcats in check. Northwestern repeatedly shifted back and forth from a wildcat formation to test the structure of Ohio State’s defensive alignment before throwing flood routes in the flats against the Buckeyes’ cover 3 scheme.
But, following Indiana, the Buckeyes have simplified their alignment, worrying less about matching up personnel (putting the Sam on the tight end, the corners on wide receivers, etc.) with cover over in favor of executing their cover 3 scheme.
As evidenced above, Ohio State did repeatedly bring a linebacker as an extra rusher, often playing a three deep, three under look. The Buckeyes also did occasionally play cover 1 man—most notably on Justin Hilliard’s interception where the Wildcats schemed to get the Sam linebacker split wide on the tight end for an end zone fade.
But the Buckeyes have significantly reduced the amount of man coverage they play, eschewing following shifts and motions or ‘rocking and rolling’ to more subtly shift to maintain their cover 3 structural integrity. Although playing such heavy amounts of cover 3 will lead to some conversions underneath the deep third corners, Ohio State seems principally focused on limiting explosive pass plays. The Buckeyes have also improved their third down defense by playing large amount of cover 3 buzz, with the second safety dropping into the hook-curl lane (and the linebacker instead taking the flat) to limit intermediate, middle of the field routes.
This puts Ohio State in a better position to rely on the strength of their defense, which continues to be limiting the run, led by nose guard Tommy Togai and three-technique Haskell Garrett.
With Northwestern unable to run the football, they had difficulty sustaining success, particularly in the red zone. The Buckeyes also had a significant boost from Hilliard and from Josh Proctor as the deep safety. The latter shored up the Ohio State defense by giving them someone who can come over from the middle of the field and make plays on the football on vertical throws (such as his interception) and come down from his deep safety cover 3 position to limit the run.
The Buckeye defense is up to eighth in SP+. Although their pass defense will likely never allow them to be a shutdown unit, they can generate stops with their ability to stop the run and create pressure with their defensive tackles.