OSU v. PSU: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 31, 2012 at 4:00p

The Ohio State offense followed a familiar story line Saturday. In the face of an uber-aggressive defensive scheme, the Buckeyes stumbled when trying to consistently dropback pass in response. The Buckeye offense only got on track when they focused upon what they do best—Braxton Miller running the football. This opened up the read game and settled Miller down to become more efficient throwing the football. Miller also exhibited perhaps his best attribute—that he plays best when the chips are down and he needs to hit the accelerator. Perhaps not coincidentally, others on the Ohio State offense are exhibiting this same trait, namely Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell, to lead the OSU offensive line when plays need to be made.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Penn State followed the script used by most Buckeye opponents this year, namely crowd the box and blitz edge players. Ohio State often put its twins or trips to the field with TE to the boundary to try to draw PSU defenders away from the frontside run game. Penn State did not comply, however. The Nittany Lions presented OSU with either a 4-3 stack or a 3-4 look against their base personnel. Upon the snap, they generally used a basic fire zone to the field on run downs, specifically bringing both a strongside linebacker and nickel defender.

The goal was to bring additional defenders to the halfback side to check Miller on the zone read, allowing Penn State's box defenders to aggressively play the front side of the zone read and/or inverted veer.

Penn State would alternatively bring boundary edge pressure to attack Miller’s read side if OSU's halfback was to the boundary. Though they did not consistently stick to any hard and fast rules, Penn State's ultimate purpose was to, at a minimum, bring at least one additional defender on a run blitz.

Behind the zone blitz, the Nittany Lions employed a 3 deep, 3 under look. In short yardage, the Nittany Lions would get more aggressive, often bringing both safeties up to play cover-0 and sitting on the inside run game.

Wither the Response?

The Buckeyes had difficulty responding for the same reason that has plagued OSU this year—inconsistency in the passing game. Miller was inaccurate early, failing to set his feet and airmailing the football. For instance, here OSU ran a ‘levels’ pattern to attack Penn State’s cover-1. Miller set his feet and delivered a nice throw to Jake Stoneburner.

Yet later with this same route combination, Miller did not square himself and resultingly overthrew the backside curl pattern.

On a third attempt with this concept, Stoneburner again came open but Miller failed to pull the trigger, leading to a sack.

As with Purdue, the zone blitz also gave OSU and Miller troubles. The Buckeye blitz pick-up struggled because the Nittany Lions brought the blitz away from the halfback. Below, the OSU offensive line is slide-blocking to its left until the front side bubble. Carlos Hyde miscounts the rushers, however. Rather than immediately coming playside as necessary, he initially blocks backside, leading to an unblocked rusher.

Miller is then too apt to focus on the rush, rather than stepping up to deliver the football. He also seemingly refuses to scramble, even when opportunities present themselves. A defense should be putting itself at a high risk by blitzing against a QB with Miller’s running ability, because if he eludes the blitz there should be room to run. But by not exercising that option he is instead making himself vulnerable to pressure.

Interestingly, the Buckeyes seemingly continued to fail to adequately attack the flats against defenses bringing alley defenders who are vacating those areas. For instance, OSU only ran one flash screen, even though PSU did not fully commit three defenders to trips (as seen above). Furthermore, Miller is perhaps more dangerous on sprint-out and bootlegs, if for no other reason than he is more likely to run. That is not to say that OSU did not do any movement passing, merely that is seems underutilized.

Yet even when OSU did so, Miller’s early game decision-making was inconsistent. For instance, here he should clearly attack the vacated flat to Jeff Heuerman but instead attempts to force the football downfield. 

As such, from the coaching staff’s perspective, there may be some hesitancy regarding whether the Buckeyes can consistently execute these plays. The coaching staff's game plan every week instead appears to be to pick a few coverage beaters that will work against the defense's coverages and execute those, keeping things simple for Miller and the offense. For instance, in the first half OSU ran levels multiple times. In the second half (as discussed below), they went to a double slant-snag combination once they had success. As Meyer has stated, it is not where they want to be as an offensive scheme, but clearly they believe that execution is currently more critical than variety.

Ohio State was thus left alternating between an inconsistent passing game and a running attack right into the teeth of the Penn State defense. The Penn State front seven also deserves credit. The Nittany Lion interior linemen in particular were able to have some success against Marcus Hall and Corey Linsley. The Nittany Lion myriad of blitzes also allowed Penn State linebackers to come unblocked and make plays.

The Buckeyes Read for Success

The Buckeyes began moving offensively by keeping Penn State off-balance in the read run game. In particular, OSU started using a version of a midline zone read to account for PSU's edge rushers. The Buckeyes would read Nittany Lion 3 and 5 techniques and then have the H-Back fan block the edge-defender.


OSU also increased the use of the frontside zone play, where the QB opens and hands to the deeper tailback and the offensive line blocks inside zone to the halfback side. This allowed OSU to attack away from where they expected the blitz to come from.  And the Buckeyes began running midline from this look (for the first time I have seen), leading to both Miller touchdown runs.

OSU thus effectively mixed and matched types of zone reads to keep the Penn State blitz schemes off-balance.  Miller also began executing the read game with precision, stringing together perfect reads to move the Buckeyes downfield.

As noted, OSU was also able to find a route combination that provided some consistent success in the pass game. The Buckeyes ran a double slant, snag combination. OSU put different beaters to each side to attack man coverage. The quick game allowed Miller to deliver the ball before any potential Penn State blitz. Miller then threw two perfectly placed balls.

The throw to Stoneburner was particularly impressive, as he was patient enough to allow Stoneburner to get upfield and then placed the football only where he could catch it.  

Playing for all the marbles

This reflected a trait that Miller has exhibited all year. He will start slow but play his best once he starts successfully running the football. His running success not only begets more running success, but also demonstrably improves his rhythm and confidence as a passer. Miller also has impeccable timing in stepping up to make plays when OSU needs him most. When for whatever reason OSU plays a team they should beat or does need Miller to step up, he will alternatively play tentatively or over-aggressively, pre-determining his run game reads, forcing plays and the like. But when OSU needs him and Miller gets in the game's flow, he takes his game to another level. The precision in the read game was but one example. A less obvious example was this crucial third down, fourth quarter run. Penn State had just scored and OSU was in danger of going three and out. Miller lowered his shoulder, went straight upfield and gained hard yards. 


This set up his throw to Stoneburner, effectively putting the game away.

Buying In

Miller was not the only Buckeye to step up his game. OSU is instead seeing guys emerge weekly, demonstrating that Meyer has the team's attention. Stoneburner is perhaps the most obvious example. Evan Spencer is another from the wide receiver position. Earlier this season, Brown and Devin Smith were the only reliable wide receiver targets. Yet over the last two weeks different receivers have stepped up to make plays. Rod Smith is another example. He is quickly emerging as perhaps the most explosive running back for Ohio State and provides a slightly different threat than Hyde. And as the third down clip demonstrates, when OSU needs a play they continue to grind behind the left side of their offensive line behind Mewhort and Norwell. Time and again they step up and make plays when needed. The upshot is that while the Buckeye offense remains somewhat limited in what it consistently executes well, players continue to step up and improve, allowing the offense to succeed. 



SilverBulletNYC's picture


The South will NOT rise again!

Borrowed Time's picture

thanks for all the clips demonstrating exactly what you were talking about, made it very easy to understand

NEWBrutus's picture

It was good to see the execution in the read game.  It is nice to continusoulsly replay these segments over and over paying attention to differnet elements of what makes the plays successful.  Thanks for your efforts!

Menexenus's picture

I'm worried about the fact that Braxton can't seem to hit a receiver in stride.  I know he did a great job placing the ball on the Stoneburner touchdown, but there were 5 or 6 times during the game when he seemed to be throwing behind his receiver.  It's just a matter of time before throws like that produce interceptions.  Throwing at a running target should be a relatively easy thing to coach.  I hope it is being addressed in practice.

Real fans stay for Carmen.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think we too easily lose sight of Braxton's relative inexperience.  When I am pointing out why certain things are not working does not mean I am labeling BM a dissapointment or a let down. To the contrary, I think we should temper our expectations of what you can expect from a sophmore that is an incredibly gifted athlete but somewhat raw. As Meyer said on Monday, Braxton is right where he thinks he should be but that he's too inexperienced to miss a day of practice. I think that is pretty spot on. It also shows how much upside he has as he develops (as Meyer has stated as well).

baddogmaine's picture

When asked on the Dubcast if he thought Miller is a Heisman candidate Ross said that Miller was not what he thought of as Heisman. In part this article explains why: because though Miller is extremely dangerous running the offense needs to be simplified for him and his decision making is inconsistent. This has not lead to large numbers of turnovers but it has lead to struggles against teams OSU should have handled easily. Not mentioned explicitly here but obvious in game film and statistics is that Miller is not reliable as a passer. His throw to Stoneburner was very nice; too many of the rest of his pases against PSU, and too many against others were not so nice. Whether he is viewed as a Heisman candidate depends on what is expected of him. If what is expected is that he win games he'll be in NY as long as he keeps creating highlight moments with his feet. If what is expected is that he look like a great quarterback he's out. He's not going to win this year whatever he does - someone on one of the Top Four is going to wow the voters. Whether he wins next year may depend on either becomming more QB-like or putting up video game numbers as Tebow did and Klein is doing.

timdogdad's picture

braxton is a handful now for defenses. just wait when hits more passes, runs the zone reads, etc better and takes off earlier when no one is open.   psu did pretty well but after he just breaks a couple runs, the whole offense piles up the yardage and points.  feels like we're only at about 50% capacity of what braxton and the offense is capable of.  the big ten defenses are in for a nightmare for the next two years.   happy halloween big ten d coordinators

buckeyepastor's picture

The threat of Miller really opened up that run by Smith.   Smith did an excellent job, but at the LOS the DE came across and was eyeing Miller as Rod Smith blew right past him.    Such a game-changing talent.  He forces everyone on the defense to play somewhat outside their fundamentals.  
I have loved seeing Fields, Spencer, and Stoney making plays the past two games.  Brown and D. Smith are easily our 1-2 receiving options, but no matter how good they are it takes 4-5 guys having to be accounted for to really open things up downfield.  

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

45OH4IO's picture

Yeah, if Guiton is back there instead of Braxton, it makes the zone read easier to defend. Rod Smith is not breaking that play if it isn't Braxton handing him the ball! But seriously, Rod Smith is my favorite non-starter.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I agree that the threat of Miller really opened up the run by Smith, but I also like that Smith is a big fast strider. He has amazing efficiency of motion. Smith slides three steps beyond the l-o-s and is already past the LBs. 
So, when a DE tries to play both Braxton and Smith at the same time, either one can get past the DE in a heartbeat.
As Smith's continues to improve his vision and understanding of timing and how to leverage his blocking, etc., he will be very dangerous because defensive players won't be able to get out of position on him and then simply try to reach over and arm tackle him. Either Smith will be two yards past the guy before he can get a paw on him, or Smith will break that arm off.

bigbill992001's picture

So, why have Smith and Brown suddenly become "nonexistant"?

Ross Fulton's picture

A large portion of it is that Miller missed easy passes to both, including the first quarter deep ball to Brown that should have been a TD. With only seven completions not a lot to go around.


Brown is the slot receiver, Smith the outside guy, and the passes they were able to complete worked the ball to the middle receivers. 

omahabeef1337's picture

Question about this play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h491F6IK540
Did Miller read the DE in the 3-4 and decide the keep, but then though he couldn't get yards to the left, so he followed Smith? I thought it looked like the IZ with a speed option to the left, but when he kept he went to the right.

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

I am curious about that too.  Is that a designed play where Braxton follows the back, or is that a decision he is making?  That play looked like it could have gone the other way with a speed option for even more yards.

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

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

Great read as always Ross.  Any word on the possible pregame video breakdown of what to expect that I mentioned a few weeks ago?  I would still watch it weekly!  Maybe something you guys could test prior to The Game, see the reaction before next year.
Any chance you will be doing a Special Teams Breakdown?  I know special teams is a bit less involved, however I would like to know what teams are doing to block these punts so consistently.  Is this the same problem each week, or are different issues showing up from week to week on the punt team?

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

bassplayer7770's picture

The block by PSU was due to a missed blocking assignment.  The blocker was untouched.  At the same time, I've heard some discussion (and I'd agree) that Buchanan's release time is a bit slow.

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

Yes, I agree that Boren missed his assignment on that specific play.  What I am more curious about is the overall cause of all of these punts being blocked.  On these blocked punts, are there more guys getting through then we can block and we need to narrow our splits, or is everyone of these blocked punts a missed assignment?  If its a missed assignment, has it been Boren every time?  If our splits are causing the problem, why not narrow them down and force teams to try and block punts using the outside rushers?  Make them run further to get to the punter.

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

Earle's picture

I think that Braxton is being coached to beat the blitz with the pass.  It seems like he is ignoring running lanes in favor of downfield passes, and with his inconsistency throwing the ball, is leaving a lot of yards on the field.  Its all part of his development as a complete quarterback, and the growing pains are clear.  He certainly hasn't always looked to pass first against pressure.

You're gonna miss me when I'm gone.

humble0ne's picture

Thank you, Ross for the breakdown.  I now find myself on game days looking for certain key based on what you are breaking down.  It definitely adds a level of detail when watching games.  Keep up the great work!

"It is foolish to expect a young man to follow your advice and ignore your example." --Don Meyer Hall of Fame NAIA Basketball Coach

Milk Steak To Go's picture

It'll be interesting to see Braxton's growth next year and (hopefully) the year after.  Right now, he's playing like a true sophmore.  It's a bit disconcerting to see his throwing regress (at least seemingly) over the year. If he's hitting 65-70% of his passes each game, the offense would be near unstoppable.
Thus far, the best thing about Miller is he's able to get out of the jams he creates (I think Ross is intimating the same thing, just says it nicer).  Often, drives stall out early in the game due to overthrows and missed throws.  This puts OSU in a hole and requires Miller to put on his Superman cape to start breaking off absurd runs.  Once he starts converting those 3rd and 2s and 3s through the air, he won't need the cape (at least as much).

osubuckeye4life's picture

Once Braxton starts making those pass plays consistently, I envision Oregon-like numbers.

grant87's picture

Thanks Ross.  Great stuff once again.  I wished Miller would have started off the PSU game better.  If he completes few of those early in the game, this would have been a whipping!
Yet Miller is still young.  The game can only get "slower" and easier for him!

Maybe tomorrow, when today will be yesterday things will be clearer.


jccavanaugh's picture

On the Miller TD that came at 3:30 left in the 3rd, Miller showed handoff to Hyde but then pulled it back and when the attacking PSU defender hit Hyde, Miller took it in around the right edge.

Was that a designed fake or did Braxton read the defender coming in and realize he was headed for Hyde?