The Ohio State O v. Michigan's D: Strength v. Strength

By Ross Fulton on November 15, 2012 at 2:00p

After examining how the Ohio State defense matches up against Wisconsin offense, I turn the tables for Ohio State's final opponent to analyze how Ohio State's offense measures up against the Michigan defense.

The Wolverine offense has been inconsistent at times this season, and has largely shifted styles with Devin Gardner at quarterback after Denard Robinson's injury. The Michigan defense, however, led by Urban Meyer's former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, has been a strength for the Wolverines.  Brady Hoke consistently relies upon his defense to keep them in games. As such, this match-up will likely reflect strength versus strength and dictate the terms of the rivalry game. 

(Note: This post is made possible by the great work done by Brian and others at MGoBlog, who make understanding OSU's chief rival far easier. All photos and videos are courtesy of them.). 

Playin' the Field

Ohio State fans will see a large number of similarities between the OSU and Michigan defensive schemes. Like OSU, Michigan plays a 4-3 under defense, with their front strength called to the field. More pertinent for the Game's purposes, Michigan generally responds to shotgun 10 and 11 personnel by simply walking their linebackers into the alley over the slot.

The Wolverine coverage choices are pretty typical with what you will see from an SEC defense.  Michigan is primarily a single-high coverage team in first and second down. In particular, Michigan will feature heavy doses of cover-1 robber. They will also use cover 4.

In these downs, Mattison's primary focus is always using his secondary to stop the run.

On pass downs, the Wolverines generally take one of two approaches. They will either sit in cover-2, or they will get in their 'psycho' zone blitz package. Michigan will not only run a standard cover-3 zone blitz but also cover-2 zone blitz looks from this pre-snap look.

The Wolverines have a lot of success confusing and overwhelming college quarterbacks before they can exploit potential zone holes. 

Building Blocks

The Michigan defense does not have any players that individually jump off the screen as athletes. But the Wolverine defense largely does not miss a beat because they are so fundamentally sound, particularly in their leverage and tackling. This is perhaps best exemplified by Jordan Kovacs. They are schematically put in a position to succeed and, as noted, Mattison can overwhelm teams that get behind 'schedule.' And Michigan has two strong edge players in Jake Ryan and Craig Roh. 

Putting Alabama aside, the Wolverine defense has been most tested this year against some 'spread to run' principles. They have had some difficulty with inverted veer, in particular closing down on the quarterback. Michigan has also demonstrated sustained issues defending the speed option on the edge. Note how Northwestern puts trips to the field and then runs to the boundary, attacking where Michigan lacks numbers. 

Michigan's corners have also been vulnerable downfield when offenses have successfully protected the quarterback. Northwestern was also able to exploit the underneath flat off play-action.

What's the Play?

Heading into the match-up, the most pressing question is how many defenders Mattison will devote against OSU in run downs. Throughout the season the Buckeyes have faced varying iterations of safeties and alley defenders cheating off pass responsibilities to attack the box. For comparison purposes, last season Mattison deployed an uber-aggressive game plan. While the OSU offense is obviously different, Michigan's response against 'spread looks' is still relevant. As you can see below, Michigan has essentially declared their cover-1 intentions and walked Kovacs into the box.

My prediction is that Michigan uses some combination of cheating their walked-out linebacker(s) down into the box and/or walk their strong safety up as above. 

Look for the Buckeyes to attack early with their base run game. OSU will want to establish double teams upon Michigan's defensive tackles with their base inside zone and inverted veer. From there, look for OSU to attack the edge with speed option. In particular, OSU may use its split back look to run the staggered triple option, particularly if Michigan attempts to widen out to defend the edge.

If Michigan extensively plays cover-1 in run downs, expect OSU to employ QB counter trey. The Buckeyes also need to take shots downfield to Devin Smith early. Indeed, OSU nearly beat Michigan last year by beating its corners. OSU should be able to exploit play action and movement passing in early downs.

All of this is with the goal of the Buckeyes establishing their base identity and staying ahead of schedule. OSU does not want to face repeated third and long situations where Mattison and Michigan can utilize a full complement of zone blitzes. Miller and OSU has struggled at times this year with zone pressure, particularly when it comes inside. As noted, the OSU passing game is also too inconsistent for OSU to have to move the football in this manner. It is worth noting, though, that OSU was able to exploit Michigan's zone blitz packages last year with QB draws as Michigan defenders vacated.

OSU will have the luxury of utilizing their base pass plays such as smash against Michigan cover-2. For instance, here Northwestern deploys a follow-pivot route that is a Buckeye favorite.

Of course, with this being the Buckeyes' mandated final game, there will be no basis to hold back Braxton Miller. The Buckeye offense has struggled at times when Miller is not actively involved in the run game. The Buckeye coaching staff now clearly understands that getting Miller's feet going early is the key to the Buckeye offensive success. It opens up the Buckeye run game and settles Miller down as a passer. Look for OSU to use Miller early and often to exploit the edges of the Michigan defense. Michigan will have to discover a way to both defend Miller attacking off-tackle without leaving themselves vulnerable against OSU's base inside zone. If the Wolverines over-commit to stop both, then OSU must not abandon their base run game, but instead use play-action passing to open up some big play opportunities.  

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