Ohio State fought through an uneven performance on both sides of the football before pulling away with a 45-31 win against Minnesota. On offense, Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson used heavy amounts of trips and/or unbalanced formations—likely to cause confusion and/or outleverage the Golden Gophers’ two-high, split safety zone schemes (featuring heavy amounts of quarter quarter half with cover 4 to the wide field, cover 2 to the boundary).
For instance, the Buckeyes repeatedly motioned from a Y-over unbalanced trips to a balanced trey formation with the motion man going from the backfield to on the line of scrimmage.
The use of unbalanced looks paid immediate dividends on Ohio State’s opening drive touchdown, where Miyan Williams’ effectively ran split zone bash (bash meaning that the back runs a sweep opposite the offensive line blocking inside zone) away from the four-wide receiver side.
Minnesota over-rotated to the quad wide receiver side, leaving the corner alone in force support.
But after a lethargic second drive that ended in a field goal, the Ohio State offense slowed down for much of the remainder of the first half. This largely resulted from a combination of C.J. Stroud’s early-game inconsistency throwing downfield—combined with a liberal substitution pattern at tailback that resulted in the Buckeyes losing Williams and Tre Henderson’s ability to gain additional yards.
This, in turn, often left Ohio State behind schedule, inhibiting their hard play action game (half bootlegs behind a pulling offensive linemen) in second and short situations where Stroud was so effective.
Instead, the Buckeyes were forced into several third and longs. There, Minnesota flushed Stroud by using simulated zone pressures (zone blitzes that end up with four rushers with seven zone defenders), with the Golden Gophers showed six rushers before bringing four with three overloading one side.
Stroud did not yet seem comfortable staying in the pocket when feeling potential pressure.
But the Buckeyes righted themselves in the second half by returning to Williams, whose combination of power and quick feet in the hole kept Ohio State ahead of schedule Williams often benefited from stellar blocking from his offensive line (as the Buckeyes consistently had success with counter trey).
Yet even there, Williams often made the first man miss. And, as critically, Williams had several instances where he turned seemingly limited runs into successful plays.
The Buckeyes’ ability to stay ahead of schedule set up Ohio State’s aforementioned hard play action game—6-7 man blocking schemes featuring a pulling offensive lineman, a half roll, and 3-4 man routes—allowing Ohio State to create explosive pass plays.
Those play action concepts frequently featured deep cross or over breaking routes from Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson against the Golden Gophers’ zone coverages that were distorted handling trips to one side.
For example, the Buckeyes’ first second half touchdown to Olave was set up by Williams turning a seemingly stuffed first down run into a six-yard gain. This put Ohio State in second and four, setting up Olave’s deep crossing route underneath two vertical routes.
Although Stroud showed nice touch over the defender, on that throw his touch and accuracy continued to show room for improvement. The Buckeyes used a similar play action concept on this post route to Wilson, where the Buckeyes’ use of trips with a tight end to the short field singled Wilson up on a cover four safety.
Olave’s second touchdown came off a bootleg sail route concept (three level vertical route combination with the outside receiver going deep, the middle receiver running a deep out, and the inside receiver releasing to the flat).
And Day effectively countered the Gophers’ third down sim pressure scheme with a tailback slip screen to Henderson, who quickly showed his explosiveness—again underscoring the need for the Buckeyes to primarily rely upon Williams and Henderson as their tailbacks.
The Buckeye defense was more up and down throughout. Ohio State unveiled its new base concept, featuring a 4-2-5 over to the offense’s run strength with the “bullet” as an in-the-box strong safety in place of the Sam linebacker (led by starter Ronnie Hickman). The Buckeyes then matchup their secondary by personnel. The Bullet strong safety aligns to the tight end side, with the cover safety (Lathing Ransom) over the slot receiver.
But given Minnesota’s run-heavy looks, Ohio State also played a sizeable amount of 4-3, with Dallas Gant entering as the Sam linebacker in place of the cover safety—demonstrating that the Buckeyes have somewhat flipped their secondary roles, with the Bullet equivalent to a traditional strong safety and the cover safety a nickel slot corner.
But without both starting corners, the Ohio State defense’s game flow often seemed harmed by the Buckeyes’ frequent substitutions in the back seven that at time resembled hockey line shifts.
The Ohio State defense relatedly often had difficulty substituting in personnel and lining up correctly against Minnesota’s heavy formations that often featured 6-7 offensive linemen with H-back sniffers both inside and outside the offensive tackle where the Gophers would run either Duo (down block double teams) to the halfback side or wide zone opposite. In particular, the Buckeyes struggled with getting numbers to both sides of the centerline.
Both issues came to the fore on Minnesota’s 56-yard fourth down run off Duo. Ohio State was half of a man short to the heavy side of the formation.
This formational deficiency was exacerbated by playing backups at both corner and safety on that drive, resulting in an explosive play.
Ohio State also continues to face certain deficiencies inherent in their defensive scheme that opponents continue to exploit. For instance, the Buckeyes’ desire to play heavy amounts of cover 1 man and/or maintain their desired matchups create issues responding to motion.
On Thursday, Minnesota frequently used short tight end motion to run split zone. The bullet would follow the tight end in motion, creating leverage issues back to where the bullet vacated.
And because of the combination of outside leverage corners and linebackers aggressively responding to run action, the Buckeyes continue to struggle defending inside glance RPOs; absent either having the free safety come down more quickly or not having linebackers trigger so aggressively.
Ohio State needs to get its three defensive back starters healthy (particularly Josh Proctor, who played very well) and settle on starters in the back seven without such a heavy rotation. For example, the Buckeyes need Cody Simon on the field at Mike linebacker. Ohio State also needs to continue to improve the consistency of its pass rush and getting off the field on third down. Although Zach Harrison’s strip sack perhaps altered the game, the Buckeyes continue to too frequently allow mid range conversions between imprecise underneath zone defenders.