The Wisconsin defense employed a game plan that should by now be familiar to Ohio State. The Badgers applied safety and alley defenders against the Buckeye run game to re-establish the defense's numeric advantage. Wisconsin's safety edge support confused Braxton Miller's run reads and prevented him from bouncing outside, flummoxing the Buckeye quarterback as the game progressed.
The Buckeye offense did had success in fits and starts. But the coaching staff kept moving away from systematic opportunities provided by the Wisconsin approach, causing the offense to stall. The Buckeye offense was able to produce when needed in overtime, however, demonstrating what could have been and ideally providing learning opportunities for both the staff and Miller in preparation for Michigan.
A Broken Record
In some ways the Badger game plan was exceedingly simple. Wisconsin came out to do one thing and did not waver. The Badgers played a 4-2-5 over cover 4. Wisconsin's Will linebacker would sit somewhere between the slot receiver and tackle box, depending upon down and distance.
Wisconsin's critical adaptation was at the snap. The safety towards the halfback side would immediately come downhill on run action to account for Miller on the zone read. The backside linebacker would sit, waiting for Miller. The other safety would then come down hard in run support as soon as action flowed to his side, such as when OSU ran inverted veer. The corners would compensate by playing loose cover-4 'meg' (man) coverage. Wisconsin's purpose was to confuse Miller reads and prevent him attacking the edge.
In passing situations, Wisconsin played essentially the same defense but looser. Wisconsin would 'shuffle rush' their front four, meaning they were not trying to attack but merely contain Miller in the pocket. The back seven would play a loose cover 4, attempting to take away the medium range pass routes that constitute OSU's base pass offense.
We Got 'Em Right Where We Wanted
The Buckeyes' game plan was to utilize Miller on designed quarterback runs early. For instance, OSU unveiled what looked like inverted veer, but was really a designed fake veer, lead sweep.
OSU also repeatedly sought to establish their QB counter-trey. But this went right into the teeth of Wisconsin's game plan. Wisconsin sought to maintain outside contain and not let Miller bounce outside. OSU's pulling blockers had difficulty accounting for the edge defenders. The Buckeye lead blockers could have logged both defenders to let Miller bounce outside, but seemed 'caught' in between.
Miller also seemed confused in his reads. Miller would keep, only to find an oncoming safety waiting. For instance, here he does so on a speed sweep.
Punching in the Dark
While Wisconsin's philosophy slowed OSU down, it did not completely stop the Buckeye offense. That is because Wisconsin was so concerned with containing Miller on the edge that it necessarily left holes for exploitation. For instance OSU had success running 'belly,' by which I mean inside zone to the halfback side from the deeper halfback position. The play hit quickly and away from the oncoming safety.
OSU's first offensive touchdown was similarly scored on a power play that hit the halfback side. The Buckeye offensive line largely controlled the interior against Wisconsin and consistently re-established the line of scrimmage. Carlos Hyde was also afforded running room and ran with good vision. But OSU did not fully take advantage because they continued to attack the edge, right where Wisconsin had them outflanked.
OSU also left opportunities on the board in the pass game. Wisconsin was playing cover 4. They were aggressively using their linebackers and safeties in run support. The corners were playing soft man to defend against getting beat vertically. This left the underneath flats open throughout the game. And OSU did occasionally take advantage. Note that the play below is actually a run/pass read off a belly run. The entire team executes belly but Miller pulls and throws the hitch.
OSU also successfully ran flash screens;
and multiple fake veer boot quick outs to Corey Brown.
That Scratching Sound You Hear
So long as Miller pulled the trigger Wisconsin could not account for these plays within their game plan. Brown made multiple catches on those quick outs. OSU did string together several drives with such plays, particularly in the first half. Indeed, the Buckeyes had several drives advance into Wisconsin territory that ended in punts—something OSU has avoided this season. OSU was also hindered by poor second-half field position.
But losing the field position battle was also a product of OSU's poor second-half offensive output. Part of that fails from consistently attacking in the ways outlined above--a problem that only became more pronounced in the second half. OSU never fully forced Wisconsin to adjust to account for the underneath flat. Instead whenever it seemed the Buckeyes would use these plays to move the chains they would eventually revert to their default, which was designed or read runs by Miller, and then vertical downfield option routes on third down. In particular, the Buckeyes continued to try to used designed runs for Miller on third down, but Wisconsin was primarily concerned with taking this away. Nor was the Wisconsin secondary going to allow Buckeye receivers to get behind them. And when OSU receivers did come open Miller was indecisive in fitting those throws in between zone defenders and instead held the football. OSU could have instead thrown these five-yard bootleg outs to Brown and taken their chances with Brown making a play. The play action would have drawn up the Wisconsin linebackers and not allowed them to sit in zones. It also would have gotten Miller outside the pocket, where he is more decisive.
This gets to a related problem, which is that the Buckeyes are not punishing defenses that cheat off their wide receivers to play the run. Yes, they use wide receiver screens and the like, but they are not using them consistently enough to force defenses to adjust. Below is one egregious example.
Yes, it is third and seven, but OSU could take their chances with Corey Brown catching the football in that situation and would have a pretty good chance at a first down. As Homer Smith and others have stated, spreading the field loses its advantage if the defense need not account for the receiver. Then an offense is facing the same number of defenders with less blockers. Oddly, Tom Herman led Iowa State to an upset of Oklahoma State last year by throwing numerous flash screens.
It may be that Urban Meyer & Co. believe that OSU does not have the personnel to repeatedly execute such plays or that it would pull OSU from what they have done successfully. It also may be that wide receiver screens are often built in automatic reads and Miller either does not have the freedom to make the decision, or does but is simply not doing so. Perhaps a defense would say fine, we would rather OSU put the ball in Smith or Brown's hands in the flat than Miller running on the edge.
But it need not be bubble screens. As noted, the play-action boot fits well within the Buckeye offense and puts Miller in run-pass decision-making mode where he can make edge plays. OSU has to force defenses to at least make the conscious determination that we will let OSU beat us by attacking the flat. Against Wisconsin, OSU instead did a bit of banging their head against the brick wall.
Miller's in-game decision-making exacerbated matters. Miller clearly became frustrated by his relative lack of rushing success. As he has in the past, it appeared he began pre-determining that he was going to keep on read plays in an attempt to make a play. While it is ultimately a positive that Miller wants to put things on his shoulders, he continued to keep when it was playing into Wisconsin's hands, even when the inverted veer sweep to Hyde was open. Wisconsin also always kept outside leverage on Miller. Miller had multiple situations where he could have gone directly up field and gotten four yards. But he instead tried to give ground to bounce outside, which was what the Badgers were playing him to do.
Miller's refusal to scramble once he did not pull the trigger on his open receiver read also prevented OSU from moving the football. The Badgers showed a 'psycho' blitz front but inevitably dropped out into a zone. They were content to shuffle rush Miller and keep him in the pocket. Miller assisted Wisconsin in doing so, sitting in the pocket for far too long. As noted, he often chose not to fit a throw to an open option route into a tight window. But once he makes that decision, he needs to get out of the pocket and be decisive. For example, below, no Badger defender other than their front four is in the picture. But Miller bounces in the pocket, eventually falling into the rush.
In the Nick of Time
Yet as they have at other times this fall, Miller & Co stepped up to make plays when needed, this time in overtime. Two plays allowed OSU to gain the necessary yardage for their game-winning touchdown. The first was an inverted veer read where Miller finally gave to Hyde. Interestingly here, OSU did not pull the backside guard as they generally do.
The second was a called pass play where Miller did what he refused to do all game—he made an immediate decision to aggressively scramble when his initial reads on the follow route were not there. Miller also attacked downfield with this run.
As I have stated, Miller's ability to make plays when needed is not a quality to be underestimated.
It is a bit hypocritical for me to criticize the coaching staff for not moving away from running Miller early and sticking with their base offense when I have urged this course throughout the season. Nonetheless, I do think there is a distinction between going with your game plan to start and not using what is working as the game progresses, even if you stumble upon it. By not doing so, OSU allowed the Wisconsin defense to dictate the terms of the match-up. It would have been interesting to see how the Badgers reacted if OSU continued to mix the inside run game with attacking the underneath flat as they did at times in the first half. But OSU and Miller need to accept that they should establish Miller early and see how the defense reacts. If the opposing defense shows that its primary goal is to take away Miller, the staff needs to embrace that Miller's mere presence opens other opportunities.
But this analysis is also consistent with what I have hopefully demonstrated this year. The OSU offense has most consistently stalled when the Buckeyes become reliant upon the dropback passing game. While in theory it is a good response against an aggressive defense, Miller is frankly too inconsistent a passer for the Buckeyes to move the football in this manner. Yet this is all too often the default approach. OSU's offense executes well when it runs the football inside and then uses the bootleg and sprint out pass game.
Last week I previewed the Michigan defensive philosophy and how OSU may respond. Michigan is generally a cover 1 or 4 team on first down. Greg Mattison will obviously watch this film and I expect Michigan to use both coverages to get their safeties and alley players involved against the run game on first and second down. Like other teams, look for Michigan to try to use these 'overhang' players to account for Miller, while using their interior 6 against the inside zone. Then on third down look for them to use their psycho packages to zone blitz and try to confuse Miller and force him to hold the football in the pocket.
This film should also be a learning experience for both the coaching staff and Miller, however. Meyer and Herman need to be prepared to quickly adjust to defenses overplaying Miller in the run game. Miller also needs to accept that he at times will be a decoy and open things up for Hyde by his presence. OSU needs to stick with the inside zone read and be prepared to mix the underneath movement passing off play-action, attacking the areas vacated by edge defenders primarily concerned with containing Miller. If they do so, even on third down, they will be able to gain opportunities against a Michigan defense primarily concerned with taking away Miller's run lanes.