The Purdue Boilermaker defense was finally able to accomplish what all teams have attempted against Ohio State this year—employ such an aggressive run-focused front that they were able to slow down the Ohio State run game and with it, the Buckeye offense. Aided by a stout defensive line, Purdue dedicated alley and secondary players to the front from a myriad of angles. This confused Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offensive line, affecting the Buckeyes' read-option game. OSU then relied upon its passing game, which was unable to consistently take advantage of the Boilermakers' aggressive posture.
As soon as Miller and the Buckeye run game were able to get rolling, however, Miller was injured and knocked out of the game. Kenny Guiton was able to engineer an Ohio State comeback by exploiting the Purdue aggressiveness just enough with man beaters, allowing OSU to eke out a victory.
Purdue: Go For Broke
It is difficult to understate how much emphasis Purdue placed upon stopping the OSU run game. Purdue presented Ohio State one of two pre-snap fronts: a 4-3 over where the slot defender would be anywhere from splitting the gap between the slot receiver and tackle to inside the tackle box;
and a 3-4 front with two alley defenders.
In neither case did Purdue cover all the Buckeye inside receivers. Purdue became even more run-centric post snap. The Boilermakers would commit slot alley players to the box for run support, often with a field blitz.
Purdue would also use their deep safety to account for Miller on the read-option. Upon the initial action, the safety would come up in run support.
As other teams have done, Purdue also repeatedly brought a boundary corner on a run-blitz. Behind all these fronts, Purdue would play a soft cover 0, meaning man with no deep safety help.
Within the box, the Boilermakers often stunted. In particular, Purdue would slant the line away from the halfback (towards the playside of inside zone) with the linebackers compensating to the weakside. Then, on third down, the Boilermakers would bring a basic overload zone blitz. This appeared to be an automatic check when OSU went empty. Though Miller eventually picked this up and began immediately flushing, providing time to hit Corey Brown on a follow-pivot route combination, Purdue clearly estimated they could confuse Miller before he could escape the pocket, a largely successful strategy.
Ohio State: Muddling Along
Purdue's aggressive game plan—aided by four Ohio State turnovers—sufficiently scuttled the Buckeye attack through most of the game. This was largely a product of three factors. The first was that Purdue was able to slow down the Ohio State run game enough to set the Buckeyes behind the chains. Though Purdue's numbers advantage was certainly part of it, Purdue also at times successfully controlled the line of scrimmage. The most straightforward way to stop a spread-to-run team is to control the frontside run action. Though the quarterback read negates an opposing defender, read plays are not a true option in that it still requires successful playside blocking to succeed. If a team can stymie the front-side play then the additional defenders can account for the QB. Purdue was able to do so enough to render OSU's run game inconsistent. Despite its recent lack of success, Purdue does have several talented interior defensive tackles who were at times able to give the Ohio State offensive line—in particular Marcus Hall—fits.
Second, the Buckeyes were unable to execute a consistent downfield pass game in response to Purdue's tactics. As witnessed this year, the Buckeyes had flashes. For instance, here Miller does a nice job going through his progressions on a hi-lo route. The nice feature of this route was that it began looking like two of Ohio State's base concepts—snag to the right and follow to the left. Meyer's ever-present focus upon constraint plays thus carries over to route combinations.
The Buckeye passing game was perhaps most successful when OSU could get their hurry-up offense going and catch Purdue in uncertainty. This led to the second Buckeye touchdown. But all too often Ohio State missed available opportunities. For instance, Devin Smith several times had man coverage beat. If Braxton simply leads him to the corner and lets him run under it, it was a potential touchdown.
More acutely, Ohio State was not able to punish Purdue for cheating off their slot receivers. It was not simply for a lack of trying. Miller sailed one bubble screen over Corey Brown's head. On the clip above, he held the ball a second too long, allowing the Purdue corner to make a nice play. But other times it appeared clear opportunities were available that OSU did not take advantage of. Traditionally, this has been an automatic check with Meyer and Herman. The offense will continue running the pre-called play but the QB will simply pull and throw the football. Perhaps Meyer & Co have not yet given Miller the ability to do so. But by allowing alley players to cheat into the box, a spread offense quickly loses the numbers advantage it gains from the QB run threat.
Ultimately, though, Miller did not have his best game passing. He was often sailing the ball and he seemed confused at times in his decision-making. Nor did his receivers help him with drops.
Further, the Buckeye offense became too reliant on the pass game. This is reminiscent of other times this year when the Buckeye offense sputtered. Though this is a natural reaction against defenses selling out to stop the run, the Buckeyes have been inconsistent this year when relying on the passing game in response. This relates to the third rationale, which is that OSU was again reticent to run Miller. OSU only ran one designed QB run play. Whenever the OSU offense does not get Miller going early and instead relies on other facets, the offense tends to struggle. Going forward, it will continue to be a delicate dance with keeping Miller healthy. Ultimately, though, as Meyer states, this offense has limitations and they need Miller to run to succeed. Further, it is what Miller currently does best and thus maximizes his talents. But against Purdue it was not just Miller that was lightly used. Carlos Hyde only had 19 carries. This demonstrates the over-reliance at times by Ohio State on an inconsistent passing game.
What Is and Never Was
The Buckeye offense has had other periods of relative paucity this year against aggressive defensive fronts. The Buckeyes have been eventually able to break the stalemate by featuring Miller in the run game. From there, the rest of the OSU offense is able to function. Against Purdue, the Buckeyes were showing such third quarter signs of life. In particular, the OSU coaching staff appeared to find successful ways to attack Purdue's fronts. One was lining up with 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB), and then bringing Jake Stoneburner in motion to H-Back to run power (i.e.'Dave'). This gave OSU leverage by using Stoneburner to kick out the Boilermaker run-support alley player.
The Buckeyes were also able to spring Miller on inverted veer by Miller getting straight upfield behind Purdue's fast flowing linebackers. Miller did this on the Buckeyes first touchdown run. In the third quarter OSU settled on this strategy but was unable to fully exploit it. On the penultimate third quarter drive, Miller ran for 9 yards and then fumbled. Then, on the next drive, Miller again kept on inverted veer but unfortunately had to leave the game with a heart-stopping injury.
The Ole Right Hander and the Man Coverage
If Miller does not get injured, it is entirely possible that Ohio State's offense gets rolling and OSU wins comfortably. It certainly seemed that is the way it was heading. But Miller's injury puts the brakes on this rhythm. Yet after some sputtering, Ohio State was able to make its comeback with Kenny Guiton taking advantage of Purdue's man coverage schemes. For instance, the Buckeyes' touchdown and 2-point conversion exploited this coverage. The touchdown was a nice adaptation of snag for sprint-out. The result was that the outside pivot route picked the inside defender, freeing the slot receiver's flat route. Then the two-point conversion used a delayed tight end throwback route. This sufficiently confused the Boilermaker Sam linebacker responsible for Jeff Heuerman, allowing him to slip free.
Though Guiton does not have Miller's talents, he did a very nice job in emergency duty executing the position. For instance, on one play, he motioned in a Buckeye slot defender to block the Purdue zone blitz. His heady play is thus a real credit to him and provides an ideal back-up quarterback.
The Song Remains the Same
The Buckeye offense will continue to face variations of this theme all year. Defenses will continue to scheme to try to force the Buckeyes away from their run strength. Expect the same from Penn State. For instance, the Nittany Lions often 'screwed' their safety down into the box against Iowa to create an 8-man front.
OSU must find more consistent ways to punish a defense that cheats alley defenders. Whether it is with wide receiver screens or bootlegs, OSU cannot allow a defense that much free rein. OSU must not also let opposing defenses dissuade them from sticking to what they do well. Though this is somewhat counter to the previous point, I believe they work together. The Buckeyes must continue to work to establish their base run game and then use play-action to exploit an opposing defense.
Relatedly, the Ohio State offensive line must play better. With such a run-heavy team, it is incumbent on the offensive line every week to control the action. OSU is undoubtedly a left-handed run team, and the Buckeye left side was able to win against Purdue when it counted. But Penn State's front seven will provide another stiff test and the entire Buckeye line must win those zone battles. Finally, Miller must play more consistently for the Buckeye offense to succeed. It is easy to forget that he is just a sophomore and gradually improving as a passer. He is thus going to have some inconsistencies. But Miller has always played better in games when he (and the coaches) feel that his legs are necessary to win the football game. He gets more in the flow of the action, which makes him more comfortable as a passer as well as a runner.
This Buckeyes squad is young and inexperienced. It is therefore inevitable that the offense, defense, and special teams will periodically have breakdowns. But you also have to give credit to the pluckiness of this Buckeye squad. In a game where OSU lost the turnover battle, had special teams breakdowns, and lost their best player, they nonetheless found a way to win. In some ways, I believe that makes this team very satisfying to coach for Urban Meyer, and winning games like this where you don't have your fastball can only redound to this team's benefit going forward.