Led by perhaps the most consistent performance of Braxton Miller's career, the Ohio State offense was rarely stopped en route to an easy victory over Illinois Saturday. The coaching staff appeared to learn from the Buckeye slow starts this season, using Miller on designed runs early to settle him down as a passer and get the rest of the offense functioning.
The OSU offensive line repeatedly opened wide holes for the running game. The Buckeyes then mixed in play-action perhaps better than they have this year. Once they got the lead, the Buckeyes were able to focus upon their work-in-progress passing game and establishing constraint plays on film, setting themselves up for the final two games of the season.
The Illini Stack: Leaving Something to Be Desired
Illinois often operated from a modular 30 stack. The Illini edge players aligned between the box to the slot receiver, depending on OSU's pre-snap alignment.
The Illini featured some of the same elements other defenses have used this year against Ohio State—namely, bringing edge defenders on run force support to attack the backside of OSU's base inside zone read. Illinois was particularly willing to do so from the boundary, using either the edge and/or inside linebackers.
OSU began moving by putting the halfback to the boundary side and then running to the field away from Illinois' boundary pressure. Here OSU does so with a speed sweep.
And with Meyer's inside zone 'triple' option.
OSU also used arc blocking by the H-back with the inside zone to seal off the backside edge defender.
The key, though, was that Illinois' 30 front was simply overwhelmed by the OSU offensive line. The 30 front had too many 'bubbles' that were exploitable by OSU's inside zone. Though the 3-3-5 is often thought of as a spread-centric defense, a team must first and foremost account for OSU's inside zone run, which vertically attacks the A gap. In recent weeks we have seen teams overload the edge to cram the box against the OSU run game. Illinois showed that a (mediocre) defense cannot play OSU straight up between the tackles. The Buckeye offensive line is too good, opening huge holes for Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith. If Hyde is able to get untouched to the second level, he is difficult to bring down without additional yards.
First Things First
OSU was also largely avoided a slow start by getting their ignition—Miller—running early. In previous efforts, the Buckeyes and Miller have stumbled until using Miller on designed runs, which in turn opens everything else. This was particularly the case against 'inferior' opponents where the coaches wanted to preserve Miller. Here—despite playing Illinois—the Buckeyes called designed runs for Miller early. For instance, OSU utilized QB counter trey multiple times in the first half.
The result was likely as hoped for. Miller running early opened up the base run and pass game. And it also got Miller going as a passer. Throughout the year, Miller has personally played better in other facets when he runs the football. This was again evident Saturday. Miller had perhaps his most consistent passing game. He set his feet and stepped into his throws, resulting in a much tighter ball.
For instance, Miller's throw here on a four verticals' seam route was perhaps his best as a Buckeye.
It also helped that Illinois got limited pressure. Like many young quarterbacks, Miller's footwork and decision-making is better when he does not take his eyes off downfield because he is focused on the defense's pass rush. But this cannot solely explain Miller's passing game performance. Even when Miller was pressured, he stepped up, bought time, and scrambled, something he seemingly refused to do in recent weeks.
This demonstrates that Miller felt more comfortable and took the game as it came to him, rather than trying to force throws.
The Buckeyes stuck largely to their base passing game—snag, follow, H-option, drive, levels, and four verticals. But the OSU passing game execution was perhaps their best to date. Building a comfortable lead provided OSU more opportunities to work on their downfield pass attack as the game wore on.
The Constraint is the Thing
In addition to using Miller's legs early, the OSU game calling was also perhaps the most efficient this year for another reason—the pass game was largely a constraint-based play-action one. Perhaps understandably, OSU has been most effective through the air when first threatening the defense with the run. This strategy was used effectively vs. Illinois. As a result, the play calling 'worked' together and was a tightly packaged whole. For instance, the Buckeyes use a zone play-action that looks just like the arc block shown above.
But perhaps the best example is the wheel route touchdown throw to Smith. The run action is inverted veer. Inverted veer is a difficult play to play-action from, given the heavy front side movement. But the Buckeyes do a nice job with it here, showing initial veer pull action, then having the center Corey Linsley peel back for a half roll, setting up the wheel throwback. The Illinois linebackers heavily commit to the run, letting Smith come open. To paraphrase Homer Smith, big plays are created by making plays look alike.
Bringing It Together
By using Miller early, OSU was able to control the game. This redounded to OSU's benefit because they actually had to use Miller running less in the game as a whole, and instead provided OSU the opportunity to work on the pass game. At the same time, OSU put 'constraints' on film for future opponents, as shown above. This was not just constraints for the run game, but also the pass game, such as this fake bubble QB draw (not that OSU has thrown a lot of wide receiver screens this year).
OSU also ran a TE throwback off their sprint out action.
The benefit for OSU, then, was that they were able to use this game to put constraints on film for their last two opponents to account for. The hope is when OSU runs its base inverted veer or inside zone plays in coming weeks, Wisconsin and Michigan's back seven have to be a step slower to come down to defend the run. As shown above, the OSU run game is difficult to defend when a defense is less able to commit additional defenders to the box. If teams refuse to respect the possible play action, OSU can continue to utilize these lookalike passes to best move the football through the air.