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.  


Comments Show All Comments

pjtobin's picture

I had no idea that mushigan had a urban taught coach. Thanks for the info. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

Ross Fulton's picture

Well in defense of Mattison, he has a few years on Urban so I don't know if you can necessarily say he's an Urban taught coach.


This was Chris Brown's description of Saban's defense and I think it is equally apt for Mattison:

he’s very aggressive, especially on passing downs; he wants to stop the run on first and second down; he’s not afraid to mix up schemes, coverages, blitzes, and looks of all kinds.


Both use a lot of cover-1 on first down and want to force you into passing downs. The crucial insight is that most college QBs simply are not good enough to sit in the pocket in the face of a rush and pick apart coverages.


The best thing about the spread-to-run is that it is easier to find an athletic quarterback than one who can go through his progressions in the face of a confusing zone blitz.

hodge's picture

Exactly, and while Brax may not have the ability to go through those progressions, he posesses an ability to make instinctual cuts and jukes that rivals Peyton Manning's ability to see the field. Hopefully, he makes that agressive front pay.

Hardware Sushi's picture

Mattison was like 55 and DC at Michigan and Notre Dame before going to Florida, so former Urban coach is a little more accurate than Urban-taught.

ebbandflow's picture

Michigan fan here. This was a good post and I agree with a lot of what Ross has said. For OSU's offense to be successful, they're going to need to focus their run game on the edges. Ever since the Alabama game, no one has really had a ton of success running on Michigan between the tackles because the interior line (the two DT's and then the SDE in the 4-3 Under) is so good at executing the technique that Mattison teaches and occupying the linemen so that the linebackers can flow to the ball. Also, if you remember the game last year, Herron only had 2.5 ypc while Miller was at 6.3. I think in this game you're going to see Miller get around 80% of OSU's yards by using the inverted veer and other things to put the defense in a tough position, and get to the edge with other plays.

Additionally, Braxton is definitely going to have to throw an accurate deep ball once or twice in the game like he couldn't last year. Floyd has limited athleticism and while he doesn't ever let guys get hand-wavingly open on him, receivers can usually get a step. However, very few quarterbacks have been able to hit the perfect throw on those deep balls even though it's there. Miller is going to have to hit those to really get the offense hitting on all cylinders.

Ross Fulton's picture

Thanks I appreciate your comments.  I am glad you think so, as I really am trying to present as objective a look as I can. And as I said, I am a fan of Mattison and how fundamentally sound his defenses are.


I largely agree with all your comments.  I know that Michigan's DTs have played very well but I am still a wary buyer just in terms of sheer talent. Both are relatively inexperienced and Nebraska did have success against them. Again, not denying they have played well this year. But OSU's interior Oline will provide a good test...

cplunk's picture

Yeah, I'd like to see our offense go right at those Michigan DTs. If they hold up, all the outside runs will still be there. If they don't then Michigan is in big trouble schemtically from the get go- they'll have to make some sort of adjustment that they have not yet had to make this year.
I'm not certain those DTs are as good as they've seemed and hope we test them early to find out.

ebbandflow's picture

I agree that Michigan's DT's aren't going to amaze anyone in sheer talent, but I guess most Michigan fans speak highly of them because coming into the year it was downright terrifying at how low the floor could be at that position. You had a very underachieving 5 star (Campbell), a guy who had tried and failed on both sides of the line already (Washington), a true freshman (Pipkins), and a converted rush-end (Black). The fact that they can hold up against double teams some of the time and even make some plays has been pretty incredible for me to watch.

And I would say in general that what's cool about this defense is that the talent level is just not all that high, and yet they manage to get it done more often than not. There is no Hankins, Roby, Simon, or Shazier in terms of talent and athleticism out there. As you pointed out, they get it done because Mattison puts them in a position to succeed, and it's going to be fun to watch the defense improve as they get the guys they evaluated and recruited coming in.

As for this year, I would be shocked to see Ohio State score less than 30-31 points in this game. Against someone like Miller who can exploit their lack of talent and athleticism, they're going to have a tough time. To me, the real battles between these two schools start in 2014 when everyone has their guns fully loaded. That's when it's going to be really fun.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Ooops. You anticipated a few of my points before I could post my rather lengthy response (below). Good points, again. Some of us don't relish the prospect of that witch Mattison being around for the long haul, but maybe he'll be less effective at talent eval as he is at teaching techniques and schemes (which he's obviously damn good at).   

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good comment, but what enabled Alabama to be so successful running inside in spite of Michigan's DL being "so good at executing the technique that Mattison teaches?"
Maybe because Bama has one of the most talented OLs in the country? At a certain point, good teaching and technique can be overwhelmed by an opponent's superior athletic abilities. Bama's OLmen are pretty much all headed to the NFL.
Now, Ohio State's OL is maybe not as talented as Bama's, but it might be the second best OL Michigan will face this year (Notre Dame might have an argument). None of us expected that to be the case going into this year, but OSU's OL has been surprisingly good.
For that reason, I'm not convinced that Braxton will have to carry the running game on his back or hit a bunch of big plays in the passing game in order for Ohio State's offense to be successful against Michigan. Mattison is a witch, but between Ohio State's OL and its offensive staff, you might be suprised at how much damage Hyde and other less heralded Buckeye offensive players can do against Michigan's very solid and well coached, but not especially talented, defense.

osu07asu10's picture

Too soon! We haven't beat wisky yet!! 

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The 0 is silent.

Maestro's picture

Michigan allows some chunks in the run game.  They have allowed 47-10+ yards rushing plays this season.  OSU has only allowed 24 even though it feels like 100.  I expect the Bucks to be able to run the ball steadily against scUM.

vacuuming sucks

Firedup's picture

Will our TEs be a big part of the passing game to draw Kovacs away from the box and be responsible for arc blocking him?

"Making the Great State of Ohio Proud!" UFM

thatlillefty's picture

my god... why are we talking meeechigan already? Are you trying to jinx us, Ross?

Buckeye Beast's picture

Beating Michigan is the most important goal this season

Even Squirrels hate Michigan

BuckGuy003's picture

Going undefeated is almost as important and if denard isn't back for the big game my year will be ruined. I have to see him get beat in his last game in the shoe 

MediBuck's picture

11-1 with a Michiscum win is (somehwat) better than 11-1 with a Michisum loss.

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

Maestro's picture

I also expect the receivers to have some room to operate.  UM ranks 121st in the country in passes defended this season and 101st in sacks.
How this defense has performed as well as they have is a bit of a mirage IMHO.  They dominated crap offenses like Illnois, UMass, Minny (118th/124th/98th in the country respectively).  They did play well against MSU, ND and Purdue as well, but those offenses aren't exactly electric (95th/60th/73rd in the country respectively).

vacuuming sucks

grant87's picture

I like how tOSU OL has been playing as well.  They seem to wear down their foes as the games go along.  Hope to see the TE get involved in passing game as well.
Thanks Ross enjoyed the article.
I was expecting "How does Badger defense match up with Buckeye offense?"  But I guess that would be a one word article...POORLY!  LOL

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


AltaBuck's picture

The big difference between last year's passing game versus this years is TE involvement.  If TSUN's D plays uber aggressive cover 1, expecting run. PLEASE, PLEASE run PA 4 vertical seam routes. Braxton seems very comfortable throwing on that play. Vannett and Heuermen willl have a huge impact.

I am Groot - Groot

MediBuck's picture

Agreed. For some reason, Braxton looks extremely comfortable launching the rock into the flats for Vannett or Heurmann. If anything, he looks a little out of sorts sometimes on quick outs and bubble screens.

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

Ross Fulton's picture

Not only that, but I think you will also see a lot of post/dig combos (NCAA pass) off play-action.

Toilrt Paper's picture

If anyone should know Mattison's tendencies it would be Urban

BuckeyeinAnnArbor's picture

And, unfortunately, vice versa.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Mattison may know Urban's tendencies, but not Hermann's....


The only D that has been able to really derail the Buckeyes over the course of the entire game has been Purdue and that's only because they nearly killed Braxton. I'm sure Wisky and Michicant have studied that game film ad nauseum. They can continue to do so for all I care. Keep Miller healthy and get his motor running early. Defense needs to tackle well. That's all I'm saying. Go Buckeyes!!!!!!

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Ross Fulton's picture

A team hasn't really been consistently 'punished' yet for overplaying OSU's run game.  That is why I expect UM to do the same thing. 

Geraffi's picture

My brain hurts

BuckeyeinAnnArbor's picture

It will be fun when both teams have recruited a full stock of their players.  The Mattison D vs. The Meyer O.  An unstoppable force vs. an immovable object.  Good times.

brglr14's picture

up north has a lot of problems playing in space. i expect to see them run blitz as much as they do when we pass to try and disrupt the run and hope they dont get burned by to many big plays. but has someone already mentioned on this post they have giving up more than a few big runs. they dont have a lot speed in there back 7 which you would have to believe would give us a few big time chances down field if the line gets the blitz and brax is accurate and the wrs catch the ball. lets beat wisky first.

I dont know karate but i do know crazy and i'm not afraid to use it.


BuckeyeinAnnArbor's picture

Michigan really doesn't have very many athletes on defense yet.  From what I understand - walk on safety, 3-star safety, two 3-star corners, and three 3-star linebackers.  They're disciplined, but not very fast.


They're certainly better than what they were under RichRod. Still a couple of solid recruiting classes of getting back to the D we know Michigan can play. As long as they hold onto Mattison anyway.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

NEWBrutus's picture

I almost refused to read this as it is not yet Michigan week. but I couldn't resist.
One interesting statistical thing of note, from Brian Frimeau....(BCF Toys) on his ND Blog...
On average, FBS teams have given up 21 touchdowns apiece on drives started at or inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. The second-best teams by this measure so far in 2012 are two Irish opponents, BYU and Michigan, who have given up eight 60-plus yard touchdowns apiece. (The Irish offense actually recorded two of those eight against BYU).
(In case you were curious, the Ohio State defense has given up 17 TD's on drives of 60+.  Also in case you were wondering, ND has allowed 1 TD drive of 60 yards or longer, which is VERY impressive.)
This Michigan D is no slouch and will be a significant test for our Offense.  Great analysis, Ross.

Ross Fulton's picture

You coulda just saved it until next week...gotta get in the preview when I can!

buckeye76BHop's picture

I'm glad you put it in's going to be a blue print on how to beat tTUN's "stellar" defense.  And yes...that stellar is very sarcastic in nature.  

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987