Ohio State turned in another uneven performance in its 41-20 win over Tulsa. The Buckeyes’ offense on Saturday featured a downhill, 12 personnel rushing attack that relied upon greater run game diversity against the Golden Hurricanes’ 3-3-5 that mixed cover 1 on early downs with cover 4 on passing downs.
Specifically, in predicted run situations, Tulsa frequently brought their cover 1 free safety down in run support as an inside free hitter, often playing what effectively functioned as cover 0.
Perhaps in response—or perhaps reflecting a commitment to running the football after being repeatedly outnumbered in the box by Oregon—Ohio State frequently used 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 WRs, 2 TEs) with either two tight ends or an offset fullback, with the quarterback under center or in the pistol. The Buckeyes had their principal success with three downhill rushing plays—duo, wide zone with a tight end inserting for an isolation block, and GH counter trey (counter with the backside guard kicking out and the off tight end pulling and leading).
In particular, the bulk of Ohio State’s rush yards came in the second half—once the Buckeyes countered Tulsa’s desire to insert their safeties in interior gaps by providing Trevyon Henderson the opportunity to bounce downhill runs outside. This began with wide zone.
Seeking to break tendencies, Ohio State on Saturday frequently ran wide zone away from the inline tight end. But Tulsa often fast flowed against the play, outnumbering the Buckeyes at the point of attack.
In response, (and taking a page from Oregon) Ohio State had slot receiver Garrett Wilson crack the playside linebacker. This provided right tackle Dawand Jones an easier block on the Mike instead of trying reach the Sam, and provided a 2 for 1 with the slot defender following Wilson, freeing Henderson to the second level.
The Buckeyes applied a similar formula with counter trey (which they did not run once against Oregon). Tulsa was playing Ohio State so far inside that the pulling guard could log the edge defender, with the fullback then leading on force support.
And Duo—featuring down block double teams and the tailback reading the playside linebacker to determine whether to cut upfield or bounce—naturally lends itself to getting outside contain.
With teams overplaying Ohio State’s zone action—and without the quarterback run threat—duo and counter trey have been perhaps Ohio State’s most consistent running plays this season.
This downhill run game then set up the Buckeyes’ hard play action and bootleg game where they had the most success throwing.
Perhaps to establish the run, Ohio State largely abandoned the relief bubble screens that had been effective in the first two games at getting CJ Stroud and the passing game going. And for every good read and throw Stroud made (for example below hitting the sit route on mesh), Stroud had other plays where he seemed to struggle with identification within Tulsa’s cover 4 schemes where the Golden Hurricanes dropped 8 defenders.
But Stroud played best in the last quarter and a half, as the Ohio State run game success set up the bootleg movement passing game that featured out-breaking routes and crossing tight ends.
Ohio State’s final touchdown was similarly set up by the Buckeyes’ heavy personnel play action. Chris Olave and Wilson ran a 2-man cross concept off of G-H counter trey play action.
Although it is reasonable that Ryan Day wanted to establish the Ohio State run game, the Buckeyes cannot entirely abandon relief bubble screens and RPO concepts. Not only do they protect against teams repeatedly outnumbering Ohio State in the box with Stroud largely being a non-factor in the run game, they also ensure that Olave and Wilson get their hands on the football. Between Olave’s repeated slipping, misfires from Stroud, and a big reception called back because of a penalty it was a strange day for Olave. But Day must ensure that he and Wilson are an integral part of the offense.
The Ohio State defense took small steps forward under new defensive signal caller Matt Barnes. Although Ohio State continued to base out of its single high cover 1 and cover 3, the Buckeyes at least generally mixed the two concepts so that Tulsa could not always predict what coverage they would face. For example, below, Tulsa runs a three level sail concept designed for cover 3. But with the Buckeyes in cover 1 the defensive backs were able to maintain tight coverage.
Ohio State also made several structural changes. When Tulsa aligned in trips, the Buckeyes abandoned the cover over concept (putting both corners to the three-receiver side) that had resulted in Ohio State having so much difficulty defending Oregon to the boundary.
Instead, the Buckeyes general left the boundary corner to the short side. They then often pushed the coverage to the trips with cover 3 buzz such that free safety Bryson Shaw was over the number 3 inside receiver and had underneath hook/curl responsibilities, while bullet strong safety Ronnie Hickman became the deep middle defender.
The Buckeyes more frequently used cover 3 buzz (the second safety becomes the underneath hook/curl defender instead of playing the curl/flat), which provides more layering to the coverage. For example Cam Martinez’s touchdown return came off of 3-buzz, with Martinez doing a nice job getting depth from his curl/flat responsibility as the play progressed.
Martinez—who came in as the second cover safety when Tulsa used four wide receivers—played well throughout his debut.
Ohio State also more frequently blitzed on both run and pass downs. For instance, one frequently used run blitz was a cross-dog with the Mike and Will linebacker with a ‘hot’ 3 deep, 2 under zone behind, ensuring that every run gap is covered and limiting RPO conflict.
And the Buckeyes sporadically mixed in cover 2 and cover 2 men (two deep defenders with man coverage underneath). This provided a change-up that caused some confusion on underneath routes, particularly on early downs.
Finally, Ohio State mixed in a three down nickel look where Craig Young would drop to a deep middle safety; perhaps another attempt to provide Ohio State a more layered zone look.
But Ohio State’s principal improvement was being gap sound against the run.
The Buckeyes did not always set the 3-technique to the tight end, providing a bit of a change up. Ohio State largely accounted for every gap and seemed more on the same page with regards to the defensive end using a spill technique and the linebacker filling in the outside gap.
But Ohio State’s defense continues to suffer from being limited in their coverages, such that offenses can reasonably predict what coverage they will face. For example, below, Tulsa hits the same sail concept against cover 3.
And the Golden Hurricanes engineered both of its two touchdowns by aligning in trips bunch—expecting man—and using rub routes to free a receiver (one on an inside breaking cross, one on an outside route).
Ohio State either has to trade off routes in this situation or do a better job of using a lock and levels technique to ensure that their defensive backs are able to pass each other.
But the biggest concern for the Buckeye defense remains the lack of pass rush. Particularly with using spot drop zone, any quarterback is eventually going to find holes with time. Although Ohio State was able to generate more pressure in this game—with both blitzes and the TE-cross stunt as below—the Buckeye single-high scheme will be in a better position if they can consistently generate a pass rush.