OSU v. MSU: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 2, 2012 at 3:00p

Ohio State's relatively paltry point output against Michigan State obscures a solid performance against a good Spartan defense. Ohio State recorded only two three and outs, while conducting five drives with six plays or more. Ohio State thus effectively controlled the pace of play and field position throughout the game. Simply put, Ohio State's output was limited by three turnovers in Spartan territory. But any time you win on the road while losing the turnover margin must be considered a success. Though OSU's offensive performance will likely be uneven throughout the year, the coaching staff has identified the ingredients for this team's success, creating a consistent framework for this offense moving forward.

Michigan State: Loaded for Bear

As expected, Michigan State adopted an aggressive style that focused upon attacking Ohio State's inside zone read. Michigan State generally operated from their 40 over defense with their Will linebacker walked over the slot receiver.

The Spartan Will linebacker's role was not to cover the slot receiver, however. Instead, he was tasked with accounting for Braxton Miller on the zone read, allowing the defensive end to crash the zone play. In essence, the Spartans ran a constant scrape exchange.

Michigan State also regularly featured two specific blitzes. The Spartans brought their Mike linebacker through the weakside 'A' gap to attack the inside zone's bubble. They also brought their boundary corner when OSU had a single receiver to his side.

The Buckeye Response: Working Within Our Framework

Ohio State made subtle blocking adjustments that allowed them to run their base plays against this approach. The Buckeyes began the game by using Zach Boren to arc block, moving past the crashing defensive end to lead block for Braxton Miller at the second level.

The Buckeyes then aligned Boren to the halfback side and had him block the backside end, with Miller reading the Will 'backer.

Finally, the Buckeyes also utilized the 'midline' zone read for the first time this season. With the midline, the quarterback simply reads the defensive tackle rather than a defensive end. It takes advantage of a defensive tackle's lack of familiarity with being read and negates a defense playing scrape exchanges. OSU combined the midline read with a fold-block by the guard and tackle, creating a nice crease for Miller.

Ohio State also featured a panoply of wide receiver screens to Corey Brown that they heretofore had not shown. Though they did not result in excessive yardage, they kept the Spartan defense honest in their pre-snap alignment, providing the OSU running game room to breathe. In short, Urban Meyer and Tom Herman's goal was to adapt to ensure that OSU could still execute their base offense against the Spartan defense.

Inside Zone and QB Outside Lead Zone: Love and Marriage...

Perhaps nothing better reflects Ohio State's effort to remain within their offensive comfort zone than the use of the ying and yang of inside zone and QB outside lead zone. Meyer's goal is to cause defensive end confusion. The QB outside zone as a change-up to inside zone does precisely that. The play is run from the same formation. But it turns the defensive backside against inside zone in to the playside against outside zone. Mapped together they look like this:

Specifically, the use of lead outside zone exploits the scrape exchange. The crashing defensive end takes himself out of the play and the lead back lets the linebacker's momentum take him to the sideline, creating a seal for Miller. In the slow motion clip, watch how 44 is completely removed from the play by attacking against inside zone.

The benefit of these paired plays was particularly apparent on Ohio State's game-sealing drive, where the Buckeyes went back and forth between the two runs.


The above is a good example of what Urban Meyer meant when he said this offense is "ham and egging it" (for golf fans out there) to win games. The coaching staff believes that the offense has specific areas where it can succeed. But if they move beyond that they may struggle. Defenses also know what those areas are. The coaching staff must therefore work within the parameters of what they believe this team can do successfully to nonetheless constrain the defense.

Michigan State helped illuminate both aspects. The offense is limited by youth and a short list of playmakers. Braxton Miller is uber talented and a dynamic runner. But he is also still learning and inconsistent in his reads in both the running and passing game. He can drop a dime like he did on the perfectly thrown four verticals route to Devin Smith but also make incorrect decisions that lead to zero or negative gains.  

For example, on the interception, OSU ran a snag route and rather than take the open flat pass, he forced the ball to the snag. This also leads to negative plays in the run game. As Meyer stated in his press conference, the coaching staff counted 8 instances where he made the incorrect read. For instance, inverted veer is continually leading to negative plays, as Miller refuses to keep the ball even with such a wide open gap that Marcus Hall does not have anyone to block.

OSU is also limited in playmakers. The Buckeye coaching staff and Miller trust Brown to work from the slot and Devin Smith as a deep threat. So the coaching staff likes putting them to the same side and working combinations between the two like snag and snatch. It also keeps things relatively simple for Miller in the pass game. Similarly, the Buckeyes have two solid backs in Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde, but neither is a 'game breaker' that an opposing defense will plan around.

But Ohio State does have areas where they succeed. Smith and Brown have emerged as reliable threats, something Meyer was not sure he had on the outside during spring practice. The offensive line has become a clear strength. Reid Fragel rightly deserved the credit he received for his last two performances. But Ohio State's clear strength is the left side of the offensive line where Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell are playing at an all-league level. Norwell in particular road-graded Michigan State's interior line all game long.

And Boren is a huge asset as a lead blocker, literally calling upon Ohio State to run behind him on the game-clinching drive. Hyde and Hall are able to rack up consistent yardage that keeps Ohio State ahead of the chains. And Miller is a game-changing threat. 

From those elements Ohio State exhibited the resulting approach against Michigan State, perhaps the first team they felt they needed a game plan without 'practicing' other areas. OSU was a run-heavy team, combining the inside zone with Miller attacking the edge. When Ohio State needs a play, they will eschew any reads and simply run Miller on direct lead runs. The passing game is complementary. The Buckeyes rely on Brown to work underneath on option and follow routes to gain first downs and on Smith to attack downfield.

Defenses will continue to attempt to take away these aspects, particularly in the run game. But Meyer's ultimate point is that OSU must stick to their game plan because they simply do not have the ability to dramatically change course and throw 40 times. The Buckeye passing game is too inconsistent, getting OSU stuck behind the chains. In other words, Ohio State must stay inside their lanes to succeed—they do not have a lot of variety. The Ohio State coaching staff's job is instead to make subtle adjustments within what OSU does well to constrain the defense's tendencies, as the Buckeyes did against Michigan State.

Nebraska: Pattern Matching is My Thing

Q. Can you talk a little about Nebraska?
COACH MEYER: The combination coverages are hard to figure out. They get no drops. When I pause the film sometimes when the quarterback is in the top of his drop, they get no depth. They're looking to receivers. They're all pattern match, as opposed to zone coverage teams do this. They don't move. They just read in routes.

So the thing that's difficult about that, a lot of times their base stuff doesn't work against that. So we have to try some new things. I don't want to say immature team, but we're young. My head's kind of spinning right now because I just walked out of a meeting room that we're going to have to do some things that we haven't done.

Ohio State's need to stay within its capabilities will be equally applicable against Nebraska. As Meyer discussed in his presser, one challenge Nebraska poses is the employment of 'pattern matching' in the secondary. As discussed, pattern matching is the nouveau trend for defenses at all levels. At its simplest, pattern matching is effectively the equivalent of a match-up zone in basketball. Pattern-matching defenses generally work from a cover-3 or cover-4 shell (Nebraska generally operates with 2-high safeties). The defense will divide the field in half. Teams will have 2-3 routes per side. So the No. 1 defender (corner) is responsible for the No. 1 outside route, the safety or slot defender the No. 2 route, and the linebacker the No. 3 route to that side. If the number 1 receiver goes vertical or goes outside, the corner will cover him and it will look like man coverage. But if that receiver goes inside, the corner will pass him off to the number 2 defender. As patterns are distributed, the corner will expect that someone will replace that receiver. In other words, the corner is responsible for the outermost receiver to his side. 

The seam defenders have the more difficult duty. They will play man coverage on the No. 2 receiver going vertically, but if No. 2 breaks inside he will pass him off to the person responsible for the innermost route.

As Meyer stated, the upshot for Ohio State is that they have not played a pattern-matching team and will thus have to feature different route combinations, a new task for a team that has tried to stay within a few core concepts. But every coverage has weaknesses and pattern matching is no different. Against pattern matching, the goal is to hold the seam player in place with your No. 2 receiver, and then outflank the remaining coverage. Indeed, even though OSU may not have faced a pattern-matching defense, Meyer has long done so, particularly in the form of Nick Saban, one of the pioneers of the concept. Meyer therefore has base pass plays against this look. 

One such play is Houston. The No. 2 receivers runs a seam route, guaranteeing that the seam defender will take him in man coverage. No. 1 and 3 then run a simple curl-flat combination, creating a high-low on the cornerback in his area. Theoretically, the inside linebacker is responsible for No. 3, but he should not be able to beat your 3 receiver to the flat. Ohio State will be able to rely upon one staple pass play, snag. Like Houston, this play floods one side of the field, providing a 3-on-2 advantage. The corner route holds the No. 2 defender, with the snag route working underneath.

Generally speaking, though, Nebraska will try to force Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense to move out of its comfort zone in the passing game. But Nebraska's pattern matching also opened large lanes for Miller last year on QB draws, so expect to see plenty of delayed QB runs from the Ohio State offense.



Maestro's picture

Is it a problem that not long after waking up this morning and recognizing that it was Tuesday I grinned knowing that the offensive breakdown would be posted today?  Thanks Ross.

vacuuming sucks

Maestro's picture

Looking at the stats I was pleasantly surprised to see that OSU won the TOP battle.  NEVER would have predicted that myself.

vacuuming sucks

UrbzRenewal's picture

Great breakdown, as always. Thanks Ross! Keep kicking ass!

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

Thank you once again for the knowledge.  You should host a pre-game, what to expect show that you could stream on this site.  Nothing too long, only 5 minutes or so.  Focus on specific plays on both sides of the ball and key matchups.  I bet many of us would watch it and it is something you could get sponsored.

"Michigan and "huge mistake" are synonymous"
-Mark Titus

Ross Fulton's picture

This is a cool idea. Let me bounce this around and see what we we can come up with. Great suggestion!

bigbill992001's picture

Count me as a watcher!    Great job, Ross.

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

I live in Cincinnati and don't get any of the great pre-game shows down here.  I would spend my early Saturday mornings watching your pre-game breakdowns.  In addition, I can totally see Ramzy doing a Kenny Mayne style story...makes me laugh thinking about it.  Alex with a weekly recruiting breakdown with maybe interview audio layered over a highlight film.  I think there are endless possibilities here, you guys don't have a weakness. 
In general, you guys are all so knowledgeable in your specific areas of focus and you all are very good at getting your point across.  It would be the first must watch stream for me, I bet Hail would even watch!

"Michigan and "huge mistake" are synonymous"
-Mark Titus

drumsontheside's picture

This is awesome! Thanks!


GoBucks713's picture

Why doesn't this evolve into a video? Ross, great stuff buddy?

-The Aristocrats!

bassplayer7770's picture

Thanks as always, Ross.  Obviously, having 3 turnovers was a huge negative since all 3 were lost in MSU territory.  On two of those turnovers, the Offense had been moving the ball pretty effectively.  Hopefully, Braxton is learning from the mistakes he's making such as the one he made throwing the interception.  Without those turnovers, this game could have turned out pretty differently on the scoreboard.

cplunk's picture

How does Nebraska's pattern matching differ from Alabama's? In the initial base set? I've hear Saban plays pattern matching zone, but am not that familiar with their defense. Just curious.
How would one attack a patten matching zone via the run, other than with delayed QB draws?  Are there particular weaknesses that lend themselves to certain running styles? I know to some extent it will depend upon the overall alignment of the defensive line and linebackers, but am wondering if there is a sort of "run kryptonite".
Thanks! Love your articles- they literally make my day every Tuesday.

Ross Fulton's picture

Very similar.  Pattern matching is all pretty much the same as a general matter.  It only differs in the particulars.  Saban generally bases out of a cover-3, though he also plays cover 4.  To me, Nebraska generally operates from cover 4. This simply changes who is responsible for controlling the schemes.

Eh-the beauty of these defenses (as opposed to pure man coverage) is when no. 2 sees his counterpart run-blocking he can attack downhill and become involved in the run game. This makes play-action effective to put these players in conflict.

Shaun OSU's picture

Great breakdown as always. 
I think there are a lot of fans that don't understand the different ways we are scheming to get Braxton running room. I've seen trolls complaining that this offense is no different than last year (which I don't understand how anyone with eyes could think so), but others who legitimately just think, "oh, we are just giving Braxton the ball and he is making plays." While there are definitely times he makes something out of nothing, this offense does a great job at getting him the ball with space to run and do his thing. 
It is very exciting that we can line up and run the ball against a good defense that knows we are going to try to run for first downs, mostly because a defense can't just overload the box against a traditional Dave play, since they will get beat around the edge on an outside lead zone. Sure, there are constraint plays available to pro-style offenses as well, but it has been well-documented that we rarely pulled from that section of the playbook. It is great to see such constraints run frequently to keep a defense off balance and use defenders' tendencies to cheat on a play against them.

Ross Fulton's picture

Ppl that would say that (I can't believe ppl really think that) a) clearly never watched an Urban Meyer coached team before b) think that all run plays are the same thing, c) didn't know half of what was going on during the Tressel-era either, and d) clearly don't understand the concept that any coach has to match what he wants to do to his team's strength and weaknesses.

d5k's picture

People are just seeing running backs run up the middle and Braxton running a lot and saying "same offense as last year".  Crazy.  But these are the same people that think there are good plays and bad plays and that a play that doesn't work 1 time (i.e. defense happened to call a corner blitz to the play side of an outside zone read) is obviously a bad play call and they should've called the good play instead...
On a similar note, anyone else hear Musberger call a zone-read play "play action"?  How can you talk to coaches/analysts every week and cover spread teams for years and not know by now how the read option works?  It's not brain surgery and it is his job to know that.

bassplayer7770's picture

Ohio State also featured a panoply of wide receiver screens to Corey Brown that they heretofore had not shown. Though they did not result in excessive yardage, they kept the Spartan defense honest in their pre-snap alignment, providing the OSU running game room to breathe.

Even better, if Corey had broken some of those tackles, MSU's D may have felt the need to support that side of the field more which would open up more room for the running game.  Would you agree?

Doc's picture

Ross, why aren't you coaching someplace?  I love your "Breakdowns"!  I'm looking forward to the defensive one coming up Thursday.
On the pattern matching, if the #2 reciever fakes to the inside and gets passed off by the safety, if he goes back toward the sideline would he be uncovered and open?

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

d5k's picture

I think that's what is called a pivot route.  Correct me if I'm wrong Ross.

Ross Fulton's picture

Good point by both.  It is and follow-pivot is another Meyer staple against cover 4. The goal is again to put that seam defender in a bind and cause confusion amongst the defenders as to how to pattern match.

Doc's picture

Thanks Ross, I guess I am learning things from these tutorials.

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

d5k's picture

Read the link to "Houston" and tell me quarterbacks don't have to have excellent memory/recall.  Every coverage look has a different read progression. 
The play action variants have to be especially effective when you have a QB like ours.  The safeties have no choice but to bite on run action or we will just run for 6+ yards all day.

smith5568's picture

Love the breakdowns. 

Maestro's picture

Curious if Nebraska's coverages will allow Stoneburner to have a better chance to be used in the passing game?  Obviously the coaching staff is sticking with what Miller is comfortable and good at, but Stoney is certainly a tough match up for most LB's.  Hope he can get involved to create yet another threat to defenses.

vacuuming sucks

Ross Fulton's picture

I am of two minds on this. Braxton clearly locks on to Philly/Devin so it does limit opportunities when Jake is open.  But...


Reading between the minds of Meyer's comments, to me they clearly see Stoneburner as a tweener. Yes he is a touch matchup for LBers, but that is not the position he is playing--he is playing WR. If he was at TE they could use him in that manner, as they have at the goalline. They must not think he is a good enough of a blocker to play there regularly. But split out wide I do not know if he has the explosion to get open downfield.

To look at it a slightly different way, the OSU coaching staff is putting Brown and Smith at the spots where they are the primary targets. They are not doing that with Stoneburner. 

d5k's picture

I think they are keeping the reads simple in the passing game although we have torched teams with 4 verticals. We only throw as much as we need to and a lot of that seems to be long hand offs to philly. I think stoneburner is a red zone threat and blocker at the moment. Hopefully he becomes a go to target on third and medium too.

yrro's picture

The staff seems currently much more confident in exploiting Stonburner's mismatch as a blocker (destroying safeties and cornerbacks) than they are in exploiting his mismatches as a receiver.

SaintTressel's picture

I think its more about where the staff is confident having Braxton throw the football

Ross Fulton's picture

This is a good observation...

southbymidwest's picture

This is just such cool stuff, thanks Ross!