Nebraska's 38 points obscures that not all was wrong with the Ohio State defense Saturday. In contrast to the offense, the defense was put in some poor positions by the Ohio State special teams. An otherwise solid performance on most snaps was marred by allowing explosive plays. But as it has been all season, allowing big plays is the problem. While OSU is more schematically sound, an inconsistent back seven is permitting opposing offenses to create yardage chunks. While improvement amongst many of Ohio State's young players is evident, injuries have thinned an already inexperienced unit, meaning that the Buckeyes may simply have to battle through such breakdowns all year.
Ohio State: Screwin' Down
Ohio State responded to Nebraska's multiple, run-first offense with perhaps its most 'aggressive' game plan to date. Following the slow bleed against UAB, the Buckeye defensive coaching staff clearly decided to stick to this philosophy—even if it leads to large plays by opposing offenses. The blueprint mirrored Michigan State. The Buckeyes primarily played a 4-3 under, cover-4 defense. From cover-4, OSU often brought their strong safety into the box, creating a single high safety look.
When Nebraska put the formation to the boundary, the Buckeyes would stack their linebackers (rather than play their Sam linebacker outside the box). OSU would attempt to keep the Cornhuskers off-balance by showing cover-4 pre-snap, then moving to a single high safety coverage.
The Buckeyes also picked up where they left off last weekend and played an extensive amount of cover-1 robber on third down. Both of Bradley Roby's interceptions came from such coverage.
In hindsight, it is clear that this coverage system is what Everett Withers was brought in to implement, but that the Buckeye staff became gun-shy in using early in the season. From here on out, the OSU defense is going to sink or swim with playing the pattern-matching defense that Urban Meyer wants played, even if the Buckeyes have some personnel limitations in running this system.
Hot and Cold
This defensive game plan had the results one may expect. The Buckeyes had numerous plays where they held Nebraska to little or no gain. In this regard, the Buckeye defensive line enhances the scheme. The OSU defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage against the Nebraska run game, providing little running room at the point of attack. The Buckeye linebackers are also doing better playing 'downhill.'
The OSU defensive front was buoyed by a healthier John Simon. Simon was more explosive and made multiple plays behind the line of scrimmage.
But Ohio State's aggressiveness also yielded big Cornhusker plays. Just as the defensive line enhances the Ohio State scheme at the point of attack, the Buckeye back seven makes OSU more susceptible to explosive plays. For instance, here OSU plays cover-0 behind a corner blitz. The OSU blitz does not hit and Ohrian Johnson gets beat.
Nebraska also schemed to take advantage of OSU interior defenders in cover-4 man coverage. The Cornhuskers put twins or trips to the field. This left Roby on the tight end while leaving Johnson in coverage on No. 2.
Against the run, the Buckeye defense continues to struggle setting the edge. The defensive front forces running backs to bounce, but defenders are not in place to clean up.
This particularly falls on the cover-4 safeties to come down hard upon run action. But the Buckeye star and/or linebackers also need to scrape down the line of scrimmage. The upshot is a bit of an all or nothing approach. The Ohio State defensive line stops many plays at the point of attack. But if opposing offenses are able to get the corner or advantageous match-ups against OSU's 4th and 5th man defenders, the Buckeyes can yield big plays.
Taking Away Taylor
The Buckeyes providing Nebraska running backs running room was also partially by design. It is clear that the Buckeye game plan was to prevent Nebraska's biggest gamebreaker, Taylor Martinez, from getting running lanes. OSU wanted to force Martinez to give on read plays. This was particularly apparent on Nebraska's favorite play, inverted veer. OSU had their defensive ends Simon and Nate Williams 'sit' on Martinez and left their linebackers responsible for the outside run, in the form of constant scrape exchange.
As noted, this left OSU vulnerable outside, but prevented Martinez from attacking north-south. The result was no Martinez runs of note, meaning that the Buckeye defense accomplished its primary goal.
The Ohio State defense is not as far away as the Nebraska stat sheet indicates. Of the 38 points surrendered, two scores came where Nebraska started within the OSU 30 and two came off of 50-yard plus plays. Only two Nebraska touchdowns were a result of Nebraska drives, and one of those when the game was not in doubt. Crucially, the Buckeye defense forced four three and outs to go along with four turnovers. Ohio State is doing a far better job getting off the field.
One can see improvement. The (belated) adoption of a unifying philosophy is giving the Buckeye players a system to work within that they can get repetitions performing. The scheme is sound and does not exhibit the structural issues seen against Cal. Though the problems discussed above still exist, the Buckeye defenders are doing a better job of filling their task, pursuing downhill and scraping to make tackles. Individual OSU defenders are also improving. Ryan Shazier and Christian Bryant in particular are two that stand out. They are taking better pursuit angles and becoming surer tacklers (see third video above).
Their athleticism is thus becoming a strength and not also the hindrance of overrunning plays one saw earlier in the year. Josh Perry also flashed in his first extended action. Filling in for Etienne Sabino, Perry handled his own at the SAM position. For instance, in the first video, Perry perfectly locks up the tight end and sets the edge.
But Ohio State cannot function at a high level so long as they allow 'explosive plays.' From cover-4, the Buckeye linebackers, star, and safeties need to set the edge and fill their responsibilities. OSU also will have to continue to improve in man coverage from these same positions. To that end, the Buckeyes unfortunately have to play without an injured Sabino. It's a shame when a senior is injured and has to miss games, and Ohio State will miss his improving play. The return of CJ Barnett at safety will be a boost, however, in the Buckeyes' safety-dependent cover-4.