OSU v. Illinois: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 6, 2012 at 3:00p

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.   


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Maestro's picture

Miller made some great throws Sat.  He just looked comfortable and confident.  Threw some absolute lasers.  Very impressed.

vacuuming sucks

bassplayer7770's picture

After the Purdue and PSU games, that was great to see.  When Braxton is hitting those throws consistently, opposing Defenses will have to respect the passing game.  It seems like they would have to roll the dice favoring the pass or run and hope they're not wrong.

Borrowed Time's picture

It's interesting that Meyer likes to show the constraint plays throughout the year, whereas I think Tressel saved them for the Mich game and bowl games.
I think I prefer Meyer's strategy, since you will be more effective as an offense throughout the year, as opposed to gaining a big play in a big situation.

OSUBias's picture

I was talking to a TTUN alum about this. He hated that Tressel always broke out new plays just for them. I'm not so sure Urban won't do the same thing. Yes he has slowly showed some of his hand throughout the year in terms of the complimentary pass game. But he and Herman are smart enough; they have to have a ton of those plays up their sleeve. I refuse to believe he hasn't kept a few things in the back pocket just to unleash against TTUN.
Illinois game was fun to watch. Fun to watch both sides of the ball play at perhaps their peak level so far this season, making an easy win actually seem easy. Bravo boys...now back to work.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Borrowed Time's picture

I will gladly agree with you on this and hope he has something up his sleeves for the big game =)

hodge's picture

Pertaining to the aforementioned "keeping plays under wraps", does anyone else think that explains why the wide receiver screen game--arguably Herman's bread-and-butter--has been kept relatively low key so far?

yrro's picture

It might, but there's also the possibility we just haven't executed well the times we have tried.

OSUBias's picture

I've been on both sides of this argument (with myself, my wife doesn't want to play) at varying points in the season.
I think it's a combination of several things. First, Braxton has struggled putting that throw in the right spot at times. Even if it's a completed pass, if the WR has to break stride to catch it or back up a step, it ruins the timing. Second, our WR's don't excel at making people miss in the open field. We have guys that can get open consistently (Philly Brown) and guys that get open deep (D. Smith), but not a single WR that you know will always make the first guy miss. Third, those plays are basically a new age version of a run to gain yardage and keep the defense on it's toes. Well, for the most part we don't struggle to run the zone read and accomplish the same thing in terms of yardage, even if they are stacking against the run. And by not doing it via the bubble screen, it makes our play action that much more deadly when we finally do run and execute one of the complimentary pass plays.
That being said, I think they probably have a couple of plays they are saving for TTUN. Not a whole new gameplan or anything, but a few tweaks and new route/run combos that we hope can go for scores.
Personally I'd like to see them run that play to R. Smith a few times, much like they tried to do with Hall earlier this season. Rob has the shiftiness to make the first guy miss, and the speed to get up the field. Plus maybe if he's close to the sideline his fumble at the end of the play will go out of bounds.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

MediBuck's picture

I agree that the WRs haven't shown enough shiftiness to break tackles and scoot around the flats to establish a solid outside screen game. That said, I'm with you that I think Rod Smith could be our man to run both the outside bubble as well as a more complicated tunnel screen. Though he always makes me facepalm with his inability to hang onto the ball, I think he has a unique size-speed combination which would allow him to punish smaller DBs and outmaneuver heftier LBs in space.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

Ross Fulton's picture

I think there are three things at issue with the relative lack of WR screens.  1) Those plays are often designed to be automatic reads when a slot player cheats.  Perhaps the coaching staff does not believe Braxton can accurately read yet. 2) As noted, Braxton is not very crisp throwing it. And 3) we do not have a receiver ideally suited to run with those plays.

Firedup's picture

Why would Illinois think they could out tough our line with only three down lineman?  Doesn't make a lot of sense to me

"Making the Great State of Ohio Proud!" UFM

CoachGrasso's picture

The QB Counter Trey with #XBrax360 has to put the fear of God in to opposing D-Coordinators. With the RB becoming the lead blocker, the O simply has the D outnumbered.
And I love it.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

And the lead blocker is Carlos Hyde, who is ferocious coming downhill!

NEWBrutus's picture

Notice how open Carlos Hyde was on the Rod Smith TD pass.  (Go and pause it a right at the point of the throw).  Not saying Braxton made the wrong read, but there is 20+ yards between Hyde and the nearest defender, and that defender isn't even looking at him.  Oh my. 
I came away from this game thinking we tried to throw it too much given how poorly Illinois was defending it.  9 combined pass plays (pass attempts + Sacks) on second and third down were about half of the pass plays on first down. 
I did like the way Braxton pulled the ball down and ran when nothing was there, or the protection broke down.  However, I agree with Meyer, we are not a good dropback team, right now.  Hoping the work they put in this week helps us take steps in the right direction.

The_Lurker's picture

Sure Hyde was open, but Braxton should (and did) read deep-to-shallow. If Smith was covered you check down.
Maybe Ross can weigh in but aside from formation it was the same play Purdue scored on to open the game at Ohio State. Purdue just ran it from I-form whereas Ohio State was in shotgun with two backs. Braxton rolled a little further right than Caleb TerBush did, but both were fakes to the "tailback" with the "fullback" running a wheel route and the QB throwing back to him.

MediBuck's picture

Indeed, the read was an excellently-drawn-up high-low. Also, my old eyes may be failing me, but in the video clip, I think you can see Hyde frantically pointing upfield that Smith is open. The separation Rod got was worthy of a killshot, and if it's there, you take it.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

Ross Fulton's picture

Yup, that play was designed as a kill shot.  Always are going to look for the wheel route first before coming short.

BeijingBucks's picture

I seem to recall Hyde actually pointing downfield...?

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

BuckeyeAsylum's picture

Concerning the Rod Smith toss, I had an really good angle on that and called it before he even set his feet. The decision was an easy toss and I am sure if the man was covered he would have just done a check down and made the toss to Hyde. But I have no game experience, so reads aren't anything I am proficient at. It was still so easy and clear where that ball was going as he stepped back and looked over.

As for passing too much. There is a thing to be said about confidence. I felt like something clicked during the PSU game, it wasn't the best game, but it felt like things were going the same direction together. Then this game they get control of early and just take it as a sparring session to get comfortable and test the options. Build a little confidence with an easy opponent. This helps establish confidence and sometimes you just need a little bit of belief in yourself to really unlock. Combine this stuff with a bye week and I think things are panning out well for the end of the season. I didn't even realize his completion % was so low, at the game it felt like he was hitting his passes a lot more. It felt like a bit of a different Braxton. I don't feel like the passes were risky/dangerous, so it isn't building him into a mental state of "I can hit any window" but it does build him into "I can get this ball where I know it needs to go."

I liked it.

IBleedSandG's picture

As far as Brax's completion %-age, Stoney dropped 2 passes on the same drive that hit him square in the hands. Braxton really did throw it better than his stats show.


45OH4IO's picture

Did you guys see the guard pancake the DT on the last play of the Miller throwing montage?!
#dominant #hilarious. The left side of the Bucks' line has surpassed my expectations by far. I would say they have exceeded expectations more than the wideouts. I mean, think about all of the posts and comments about lack of depth and talent and how stressed Urban was about it. (Knock on wood) They have been healthy the whole year and I think the frame that supports the engine (XBrax) of this offense.

BuckGnome's picture

Remember when that meatball from TTUN tried to scare Bri'onte Dunn out of his commitment to Ohio State because UFM's offense supposedly had no place for a power back?

Dougger's picture

those highlighted throws are cash money. his pass to vannett down the middle was right on, and i was in the north endzone and i thought the same thing ross said "best throw of his career so far"

I like football

dubjayfootball90's picture

awesome write up Ross. Appreciate it!

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

Buckeyeholicwompa's picture

Can someone explain to me what Braxton's clapping is all about? Is it the snap count?

bassplayer7770's picture

He claps to let the Center know everybody is set, and then the Center (Linsley) actually calls the cadence.

geoffrsc's picture

I always learn something when I read your stuff. Good read.

timdogdad's picture

brax must feel good seeing those spirals leaving his hand. like you've got your drives going right down the middle.  he's got it in his muscle memory to point the toe and follow through and you'll get a nice result.   and more stress for d coordinators