The Ohio State defense created enough big plays and rendered Penn State one dimensional—overcoming both the Nittany Lions’ high third-down conversion rate and the Buckeye offenses red zone failures—to lead Ohio State to victory.
ALSO: Check out the breakdown of the Ohio State offense vs. Penn State
In the first half, Matt Barnes seemingly revealed the Ohio State defensive philosophy going forward. On standard downs, the Buckeyes mixed cover 3 and cover 4 Meg; the latter of which again allowed boundary safety Ronnie Hickman to come downhill against the run.
And the Buckeyes repeatedly played Cover 3 buzz on passing downs (with some cover 2 as well), with Hickman dropping into the hook/curl zone to attempt to limit mid-range throws.
But these base looks were as frequently mixed with a heavy dose of cover 3 pressures featuring a blitz from some combination of the boundary corner, field cover safety (field nickel), and/or inside linebackers. This included creeper pressures, where Ohio State blitzes a second level defender but drops a defensive end so that the defense is still playing three deep, four under (below the boundary corner blitzes with the field defensive end dropping into the hook/curl).
It also included zone blitzes, where the Buckeyes brought five rushers and played a 3 deep, 3 under.
But perhaps the most impactful look were hot pressures—where Ohio State rushes six and plays a three deep, two under.
In hot, the two underneath defenders eye the quarterback and play the seams, with the goal to force the football out quickly for a short gain. In particular, the Buckeyes made several big plays on field hot pressures with the Mike blitzing through the field B gap and Cover Safety through the C gap. This played early dividends by forcing a fumble on Penn State’s opening play.
And the same concept later resulted in a Jerron Cage’s touchdown fumble return, where the B and C gap blitzes left defensive ends Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison singled up on the Penn State offensive tackles.
Cover safeties Marcus Williamson and Lathan Ransom in particular are adept at aggressively coming downhill on such concepts.
The hot pressures can also minimize run/pass conflict on RPOs and/or provide the quarterback a false read.
In the second half, the Buckeyes increasingly reverted to playing single high, mixing 3 buzz and cover 3 pressures with base cover 3.
Ohio State did use some cover 4 Meg (and cover 3 cloud) in the fourth quarter to get the corner up on the outside receiver and counter Penn State’s repeated use of wide receiver smoke screens out of trips bunch sets to the boundary (formation into boundary, or FIB)—to mixed results.
The Buckeyes also increasingly mixed in cover 1 to likewise limit inside glance RPOs.
Throughout, the Ohio State defense handily controlled the Penn state run game, rendering the Nittany Lions one-dimensional. The Ohio State defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, regularly creating penetration or beating double teams.
Smith was particularly impactful, repeatedly beating Penn State’s offensive tackles on inside moves.
The loss of Will linebacker Steele Chambers on the first play of the second half was harmful, as he notably started the second half and continues to be the Buckeyes’ best linebacker at both coming off of blocks and getting depth in coverage.
But Ohio State’s linebackers overall were also improved on scraping and being gap sound.
Nevertheless, Penn State was able to move the football by targeting the cover 3 hook/curl zones when Ohio State could not create pressure. Some of that success came against Ohio State’s creepers, as the dropping defensive lineman cannot get sufficient depth, leaving holes in the coverage.
But such throws were also available in the hook curl zones against base cover 3 and cover 3 buzz. The Ohio State linebackers did do a better job getting depth; such as Simon did above in tipping the throw.
The Buckeyes are also trying to more often carry receivers within their zones, as Teradja Mitchell seeks to do below.
But the limit to spot dropping in zone as the Buckeyes do in cover 3—meaning that the zone defender drops to the designated area and tries to mirror the quarterback’s eyes and depth (as opposed to pattern matching or man matching which involves playing man coverage within your zone)—is that, with time, a quarterback can manipulate the zone defender and throw the ball away from them; such as Sean Clifford did by throwing it behind Mitchell above. For example, below, on this all curl concept, Clifford pulls Hickman as the hook-curl defender in 3 buzz towards the middle curl, leaving the backside curl open as the curl/flat defender Mitchell is held by the flat route.
Ohio State had similar problems in cover 4 Meg, with too much depth between its safeties and linebackers against this Penn State RPO.
The opponent can also manipulate the depth of the spot drop, as Penn State was able to hit several throws beneath the deeper dropping Ohio State linebackers.
Concededly, Clifford, with time, made some excellent throws. For example, below, Ohio State is in Tampa cover 2. Simon carries the number 3 receiver vertically, providing Clifford a small window in the hole to fit in the dig.
That said, Ohio State likely again reverted to playing too much cover 3, failing to change up the looks in the underneath zones. Nevertheless, although Ohio State’s pass defense remains a work in progress, the Buckeyes are now at least less predictable and have the ability to affect the quarterback and generate negative plays through a variety of zone pressures.
This forces an opponent to drive the length of the field with the zone shell, with the goal being for the defense to eventually put the opposing offense behind schedule or create a mistake. This is exactly what Ohio State again did with another B-C gap hot pressure on Cameron Brown’s fourth quarter interception, freeing Smith to again be single blocked.
As such, although Ohio State remains an offensive-led team, the defense now has a philosophy and can complement that offensive approach.