Ohio State’s passing game could not overcome an insipid offensive game plan—and a defense that was manhandled up front by Michigan and had no ability to address being stretched to the field and boundary—in the Buckeyes’ 42-27 loss to the Wolverines.
As is his wont, Michigan defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald mixed in numerous cover 3 weak and fire zones with cover 4 man match coverages. But at the risk of oversimplifying, MacDonald’s game plan was as follows. First, run a single high and/or fire zone pressure on run downs; particularly when Ohio State was under center or in the pistol.
And second, play what looked like cover 5 (2 deep, man under) or a cover 4 man match variation like “Cone” against a single receiver side, “Bracket” to a two-receiver side, and “Stubbie” or “Seakhawk” to trips on passing downs and/or when Ohio State was in shotgun. The goal with each was the same—to bracket Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson outside with man coverage underneath and a safety over the top.
On these bracket calls, MacDonald would simultaneously often send a linebacker on a “green dog”—meaning that the linebacker blitzes only if the running back stays in to block—often resulting in a five-man pressure and better ensuring single blocks for Aidan Hutchinson.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, Day’s play calling played into this game plan. In fact, Ohio State only ran one pass from pistol or under center—this half boot screen.
Otherwise, the Buckeyes’ tendencies against the Wolverines were stark, as Ohio State effectively always ran from pistol or under center.
Gone were many of the constraints that helped the Buckeye offense flourish in recent weeks, such as naked bootlegs from pistol, jet sweeps, and wide receiver reliefs. Some of the latter was on Stroud.
Michigan was trying to dissuade Stroud from throwing the relief pre-snap based on the corner maintaining outside leverage on the number one outside wide receiver. But this alone should not be enough to prevent Ohio State from exercising this option to protect the run game. For instance, in the first clip above, the Buckeyes still have a 3-on-2 for the relief. Similarly, below, the corner maintains outside leverage, but the field overhang is cheating to the box, indicating a fire zone to the boundary.
Part of the reason for pulling and throwing these reliefs beyond arithmetic is playing to Ohio State’s strength, which is its wide receivers in space.
The upshot is that when the Buckeyes wanted to run their base wide zone from the pistol Michigan was aggressively attacking the run. For example, below, Ohio State has numbers to the boundary for the weak split zone run with the Will linebacker following the split action. But the Wolverine safety quickly triggers downhill, limiting the play to a three-yard gain.
The Buckeyes also failed to sufficiently target Michigan’s defensive weaknesses, such as forcing the Wolverines to match multiple tight end personnel groupings or adjust to tempo. Ohio State only ran a handful of plays from 12 personnel. Likewise, when the Buckeyes used tempo, it often had positive results—particularly in the run game—such as this wide zone from formation into boundary before Michigan could line up.
Similarly, Ohio State caught Michigan several times off tempo with a slip screen to the running back (and could have hit the running back more in the flats as he was often open as a check down)
But the use of tempo largely went away following the Buckeyes’ failed third down run on the opening drive of the third quarter, where Ohio State again went tempo to run wide zone into the boundary. But it took the Buckeyes until about 25 seconds on the play clock to snap the football, allowing Michigan to get set. And MacDonald seemingly had a plan for short yardage tempo situations, as Michigan condensed to a tite front to put a nose guard head up over the center, freeing the Mike blitz through the A-gap.
This three and out by Ohio State was likely the turning point in the game—made all the more difficult by again how open a bootleg would be, as Michigan’s overhang blitzer had little concern for the quarterback play fake.
The Buckeyes were able to overcome some of these problems with Stroud, Olave, Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba making plays in the face of pressure and tight coverage. As with the slip screen above, Day targeted MacDonald’s tendency to play cover 1 or cover 0 blitz with a rat (underneath middle of the field zone defender) in third or fourth down and medium with in and out breaking routes to Smith-Njigba. Stroud hit multiple corner-flat (“China”) route combinations on third down.
Day likewise featured Smith-Njigba on an arrow route on fourth down inside of Michigan’s cover 4 man poach approach.
And Olave and Wilson still made plays on the outside and could have perhaps been featured more on vertical stem concepts.
This was particularly the case when Ohio State threw against Michigan’s cover 3 weak—again underscoring why the Buckeyes needed more run game and play action passing.
That is not to say that Ohio State did not create opportunities for itself. Perhaps most memorably, Day aligned the Buckeyes in 20 personnel, before motioning out Henderson and then Smith-Njigba, getting the latter matched up with an option route on David Ojabo in coverage.
Ohio State also ran this boundary halfback screen off a switch verticals concept that pulled Michigan’s cover 4 man match defenders deep.
Yet although Ohio State had a fair offensive success rate, they missed the opportunity for explosives that they could have created from tempo.
Often that was from self-inflected wounds. For example, below Ohio State runs a well-designed follow RPO from stack that targets Michigan generally carrying the number 2 (inside) receiver vertically.
This put Ohio State in second and 1 where they tried to go tempo—and promptly false started. Michigan’s defense executed and tackled well in the open field, such as on this cover 4 field fire zone where the safety has to come from depth, holding the Buckeyes to an end of half field goal.
But between the penalties, drops, and other mistakes such as starting in a deep hole on the opening drive by letting another kickoff drop—resulting in the Buckeyes having to start their first drive at the four yard line—followed by Luke Wypler snapping the football while Stroud was setting the protection—Ohio State was at times their own worst enemy.
More broadly, Day needs to minimize tendencies going forward. This includes more run game diversity. The Buckeye run game produced a 46 percent rushing success rate. But as was too often the case this season, the Ohio State run game was often operating at the bare minimum of success and not creating bigger chunk plays.
Part of this falls on the offensive line. Although Hutchinson had numerous pressures and was stellar, the Buckeye offense line held up fairly well in pass protection, given how often Ohio State threw. Michigan’s sacks generally came when Stroud came off his first read.
But the Buckeye offensive line continues to struggle coming off of combination blocks and maintaining blocks on the second level in the run game. TreVeyon Henderson also can improve on his vision in seeing bend back or bounce opportunities and making guys miss in the secondary.
Yet Day can also help out the run-game by not being so stretch-dependent. Ohio State did run weak an inside zone below to the trips nub field to target the soft B gap that opponents are leaving.
The Buckeyes also need more reliance on gap schemes such as counter trey; particularly to target teams that want to bracket outside. Ohio State ran one counter OY that should have been a bigger gain than it was—but even this was against a fire zone. The Buckeyes need to return to such plays against split safety schemes.
Ohio State also needs to throw from pistol so that it is not such a run-heavy formation—including both play action and drop back passing.
That said, the Buckeye offense still gained 458 yards and generated five scoring opportunities. But Ohio State had little chance when the Buckeye defense surrendered five straight touchdowns where Michigan only threw five passes in the second half and only faced two third downs.
Matt Barnes primarily played Cover 4 Meg while mixing in HOT pressures—including bringing boundary safety Ronnie Hickman as one of the blitzers—to place numbers against the run.
But Josh Gattis and the Wolverines routinely exploited Ohio State’s still-limited repertoire by stretching the Buckeyes to the field and boundary by combining a run with a run-read or RPO, seeking to limit Hickman’s ability to insert as an extra defender against the run. When Hickman could insert against the run Ohio State’s run defense was generally adequate. But when he was removed with pass responsibilities things quickly broke down.
Ohio State still only effectively uses two cover 4 variations—cover 4 Meg (the corners cover the outside wide receivers wherever they go) and cover 4 mod (the corners play their deep fourth and only play man on the outside receiver if he goes vertically).
Gattis regularly looked to target Ohio State by putting twins or trips to the field with their tight end to the boundary (“trips nub”) or other condensed boundary formations, looking to run downhill to the boundary with counter trey or zone insert or target the wide field.
Importantly, in cover 4, Ohio State routinely has the boundary safety Hickman “poach” the inside number 3 wide receiver in trips (compare this to Michigan above, who uses cover 4 trips variations that do not involve poach, such as cone). Gattis thus repeatedly deployed trips to the field, triggering Hickman’s poach responsibilities and forcing the boundary corner to provide more run support.
For example, below, Michigan aligns in an unbalanced trips to the field with a nub tight end to the boundary. Michigan runs zone insert with a bubble, shifting the tight end off the line so that he can insert and lead block on Will linebacker Steele Chambers. The bubble action slows down Hickman’s ability to trigger to the boundary, the insert block accounts for the Will, and the corner does not fill against the run.
Michigan routinely sought to run downhill at Chambers the tight end leading on him with insert or counter OH.
Michigan then targeted Ohio State’s cover 4 Meg laterally to the field. For instance, below, Gattis calls a wide zone RPO slide. The slide route pulls Hickman out of run support. One-technique Jerron Cage took a false step up-field, allowing himself to get hooked by the center, while Mike Cody Simon overruns the play.
Similarly, the Buckeyes struggled throughout with counter OT bash (backside sweep away from the run action), as the defensive backs to the field caught blocks instead of triggering.
Although cover 4 is a good answer to facing read-plays, Ohio State remains limited in what they can run in cover 4 as they installed the concept in-season, letting Michigan take advantage of their coverage rules against them. As another example, the Wolverines ran gap runs combined with an orbit bubble screen, taking advantage of the fact that the Buckeyes’ inside linebackers had to immediately push out to the bubble.
Beyond those scheme issues, the Wolverines also exploited poor run fits. Below, Michigan runs counter CT (meaning that the center is pulling and kicking instead of the guard and the backside tackle pulls and leads) with a slide RPO. This allowed the backside guard to block back on the 3-technique defensive tackle between the guard and center. The tight end slide again pulls Hickman out of the play, as the Buckeyes in this play are in cover 1. But with Ohio State in an under to the field, the backside defensive linemen both let themselves get taken out by the guard blocking back. Both need to fight hard over the top to limit that cutback lane.
Similarly below, Ohio State is again playing cover 4 Meg but its inside linebackers are seemingly too far towards the tight trips, given that Simon is responsible for the field B gap and Chambers for the boundary A gap. Worse, the Buckeyes slant to the field, and defensive end Tyreke Smith looks to spill the run on counter OH—but there is no one to spill to. In other words, the front does not fit with the back seven. Corner Denzel Burke is in cover 4 Meg and Hickman again has to honor his poach responsibility against trips, leading to an easy touchdown.
Throughout, Ohio State’s defenders struggled with basic run game fundamentals. The defensive line failed to take on double teams, or even create a pile to keep linebackers clean. The linebackers are too often catching blocks instead of triggering downhill. And, as noted, the corners—particularly to the boundary—are not providing sufficient run support.
Although Ohio State reduced its back seven defensive rotation (essentially only rotating at cover safety with Latham Ransom playing against 12 personnel and Marcus Williamson against 11 after using Craig Young in the former situations on the opening series), the Buckeyes’ defensive line rotation remains perplexing. Unless they were injured, playing Haskell Garrett and Smith only half the snaps resulted in a significant drop-off with their replacements (compared to Michigan who played their starting defensive front the vast majority of snaps).
Ohio State’s secondary defenders also repeatedly got caught looking in the backfield.
Michigan’s run game success was then exacerbated by the Buckeyes surrendering explosive plays in the passing game. For instance, Burke uncharacteristically twice got beat in playing man coverage to the single receiver side, resulting in two vertical completions.
And the Buckeye’s HOT coverage pressures were routinely picked up by Michigan’s protection schemes, leading to easy throws against the two underneath HOT defenders.
Barnes did an admirable job given the circumstances of taking over in-season after two games, expanding Ohio State’s almost exclusive use of base cover 1 and cover 3 to include cover 4 variations and cover 1 and 3 pressures. But ironically, the Buckeyes were likely better off against Michigan reverting to playing their base cover 3 concepts, gapping out the run, ensuring Hickman was in the box, and forcing Michigan to complete intermediate throws—particularly when the field safety and corners provided minimal run support either way. And Barnes could only do so much to fix what was broken and not corrected in the off-season—and it is hard not to compare the Buckeyes’ ongoing defensive problems to MacDonald’s intricate, well-executed defense.