OSU v. Wisconsin: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 22, 2012 at 2:00p

The Ohio State defense turned in a vintage performance against Wisconsin in bending but not breaking to hold the Badgers to 14 points. Wisconsin came out with a solid game plan that utilized unbalanced lines and shifts to confuse the Buckeye gap control and leverage.

OSU hung tough, however, mixing and matching coverage schemes to employ an extra defender in the box. Crucially, OSU did not 'break' as they had earlier this season because they maintained leverage and had stable safety support. The Buckeyes were able to rely upon the improved play of key cogs of the Buckeye defense to make plays when needed, sealing the victory.

Numbers and the Centerline

The Wisconsin offensive coaches unveiled an admirable game plan. Wisconsin employed unbalanced lines and motion to challenge the Buckeyes' gap control and numbers response. Each side has eleven players. The offense controls how many offenders they employ to each side of the center line.

A defense must respond by matching those numbers. The Badger offense attempted to exploit this principle by using shifts and unbalance to confuse the Buckeye keys and recognition. Defenders are often not used to correctly counting gaps and receivers with unbalanced lines because they do not often see them. For instance, here Wisconsin goes unbalanced left and then uses fly motion right to confuse how the Buckeye secondary leverages run plays.

The Badgers also repeatedly shifted both their tight end and H-back to the boundary. They would then run inside zone to the field. 

Wisconsin's goal was likely the following. OSU puts their under front to the field. That means that the 3 technique Johnathan Hankins and weak end Nathan Williams play to the boundary. Wisconsin's goal appeared to be to stretch those two defenders towards the tight end, and then run away to the field, taking away OSU's backside support. The Badgers also always ensured they blocked Williams in some manner. If he was uncovered by a tight end they would run zone away and have the H-back block across the formation.    

Wisconsin used these same unbalanced formations to set up play-action passes. Multiple play-action passes came from these unbalanced fronts. The likely goal again was to confuse the Buckeye back seven's man coverage principles.

By extensively using unbalanced and overload looks (seven offenders to one side of the center line), Wisconsin sought to manufacture opportunities to run its base offense without having to merely line up and defeat the Buckeye front four. The Badgers were also trying to set up the Buckeyes throughout the game. Wisconsin repeatedly shifted their tight end and H-back and ran inside zone to the field. In the fourth quarter, OSU began slanting towards the field. The Badgers then ran counter trey back towards the boundary from this same pre-snap look.

In so doing, Wisconsin created opportunities for its run game.

Two Can Play at This Game

The Buckeye defense was not without its responses to the Badger run game. OSU's goal throughout the contest was to apply an additional defender against the run game. OSU did so in two basic ways. The Buckeyes opened in run downs playing quite a bit of quarter-quarter-half coverage. This allowed OSU to use Bradley Roby as the boundary force defender.

The Buckeyes also featured heavy amounts of cover-1 robber, particularly when they wanted run support to the field. This brought CJ Barnett into the 'box.'

But OSU also played large amounts of cover-1 in pass downs. Here, Zach Boren is free to delayed blitz when the back he is responsible for stays in pass protection.

OSU's scheme also adapted as the game progressed. The Buckeyes increasingly played an old staple, cover-3, particularly on third down.

This allowed OSU to mix and match two single high safety looks that both brought Barnett down in run support.

The Buckeyes also looked to mix and match fronts. Since Wisconsin was attempting to run away from the boundary, OSU went to a 4-3 over to put Hankins to the field. 

Slow Starting

For all of Wisconsin's ingenuity in their game plan they were able to successfully run the football, particularly in the first half, by often winning the battle between their interior three and the OSU inside tackles and linebackers. Wisconsin was able to get double team movement inside, which was exacerbated by the Buckeye linebackers' initial tepidness in coming downhill. The OSU linebackers were catching blocks downfield rather than filling the hole, allowing a good back like Montee Ball to pick through creases.

Even while the Badgers were running the football the Buckeyes were able to largely contain Wisconsin, however, because their secondary maintained run support and made tackles. Ball was not allowed to break free past the secondary. This was perhaps the biggest difference from the OSU defense's early season problems. While Ohio State certainly did not stop the Badgers' offense, they were able to stall them out because they did not give up explosive plays, particularly in the run game. This forced Wisconsin to drive the length of the field.

But Gettin' the Hang of It

In so doing, the defense gave itself the chance to make minimal and negative yardage plays. As soon as it put Wisconsin behind schedule OSU gained the advantage. The Buckeyes were able to do so primarily on Johnny Simon's back. Simon was injured earlier this season but was back to his expected explosive self on Saturday. The Wisconsin offensive tackles could not keep up with his first step, either in the run or pass game.

Simon's play allowed the other Buckeyes who have been so crucial to the OSU defense's improved play in the second half to step up and make plays. As noted, CJ Barnett and Christian Bryant are one such example. As Barnett has gotten healthier, the two are more soundly filling their roles at strong and free safety, respectively, with Barnett making plays downhill and Bryant maintaining sound leverage and tackling from center field. Etienne Sabino also had a strong return from injury. What was particularly noteworthy was that Sabino performed well at something he had not really had to do all year—play Sam linebacker against a run-first team and set the edge. Ryan Shazier, though, was perhaps the critical performer, particularly in the second half. Any initial tentativeness was gone as he started charging downhill to make plays. But more than that, what is so impressive is how well he is  maintaining inside-out leverage at all times. The soundness of his technique is one of the biggest in-season improvements I have seen (the key to the play, though, is how well Bradley Roby maintains contain to allow Shazier to make the play).

Slow Learning...or Quick Turnaround

Unfortunately, after 59 minutes of slowing Wisconsin, Ohio State allowed Wisconsin to quickly score a last-minute touchdown. Though the defense was hurt by poor starting field position, they aided Wisconsin's drive through scheme choices. OSU largely employed their 30 front and played a cover-3, 5 under. As a result, and unlike much of the game, the Buckeyes did not apply pressure to Wisconsin's Curt Phillips. This allowed him to get comfortable and step into throws.

The Buckeyes were able to turn this around in overtime, however, by largely learning from their fourth quarter mistakes. The crucial play was likely OSU's stop of Wisconsin's third down run for negative gain. Wisconsin went back to the well, motioning their H-back strong and then running counter trey to the boundary. This time, OSU twisted their defensive tackles. Johnathan Hankins drove the playside guard into the backfield, rendering the play stillborn. 

Then on fourth down, OSU did not make the same mistake regarding pressuring Phillips. The Buckeyes brought an overload, cover-0 man blitz, forcing Phillips to unload quickly.

As such, the defensive coaches deserve credit for, throughout the game, recognizing what Wisconsin was doing well and attempting to adjust.

One Game, Two Offenses

That coaching staff faces a unique challenge in preparing for Michigan. One of the most overhyped ideas in football is 'saving things' for an opponent. Digital record-keeping allows opposing coaching staffs to diagnose and catalog every tendency. But here, Michigan is able to keep Ohio State confused primarily because no one but the Michigan coaching staff knows the status of Denard Robinson's elbow. As such, it is hard to know how Michigan will use their best weapon. To make matters worse, Michigan effectively runs spread-option looks with Robinson but a largely pro-style offense with Devin Gardner.

It seems plausible that Robinson's elbow will not allow him to play quarterback full-time. But Robinson is the Wolverines' best hope to run the football effectively, particularly with Fitz Toussaint's injury. This was the case against Iowa. Michigan's guards have struggled this season and are a mismatch against Hankins and Goebel. The use of Robinson as an all-around run threat allows Michigan to have lots of wrinkles, but also gives them self-evident tendencies because when Robinson is in--particularly at quarterback--Michigan is likely to run. Against Iowa, when Robinson was at quarterback it was generally to run inverted veer or a lead quarterback run (H/T to MGoBlog for videos).

When he was in the backfield, it was generally either to run something outside or to use him as a decoy. Michigan may expand its package with Robinson in the backfield with an additional week. For example, as Brian at MGoBlog describes, it seems plausible that Michigan will run inverted veer with Robinson as the outside sweep option. But Robinson is not in a position—either in terms of stature or repetitions—to play as a traditional running back. Robinson is far more likely to run from the quarterback position. It thus limits what Michigan can do when Robinson is on the field.

By contrast, when Robinson is not in, Michigan is far more likely to pass. Gardner has been particularly adept with play-action passing half roll passing. Al Borges also likes employing double moves. In such situations, the Wolverines will likely try to push the football down the football, in particular trying to take advantage of Travis Howard's susceptibility to such routes.

The Buckeye defense's first responsibility then is to immediately identify if No. 16 is on the field and where he is aligned. OSU must be prepared to change coverages depending upon his presence. Without Robinson on the field, OSU needs to bring pressure to try and rattle Gardner. Gardner is adept at scrambling outside the pocket to set up plays, though, so the Buckeye secondary needs to maintain discipline. If OSU can render Michigan one-dimensional and unable to run the football it will go a long way to a successful defensive showing. In that case, OSU's secondary need not respect the play-action fakes that are setting up the Michigan passing game. From there, OSU must self-evidently be prepared for 'trick' plays when Robinson and Gardner are on the field together.  


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cplunk's picture

Well now I'm even more excited for this game then I was about ten minutes ago, whic I I did not think was possible

Ross Fulton's picture

I posted this in the offense comments but I also wanted to provide here, because the defense's bending did effect the offense's second half performance.


So I went back and looked at the first two series of the third quarter. Upon further review, I think the coaches' play calling had a lot to do with Miller playing really poorly. He was not making good decisions and he would not throw the football unless a player was wide open. Here was the first series of the third quarter:
1st Series-Wisky 15

• 1st-10. Trips right to boundary. QB lead draw. 4 yds.

• 2d-5: 11. Trey left. Fake Belly quick hitch. 12 yd

• 1st-10: Trips right to boundary. IZ read. Miller keeps when shouldn’t. -2

• 2d-12: 10. Doubles left. Fake IZ quick out. Brown open Miller doesn’t pull trigger. Runs out of bounds for 4 yd loss.

• 3d-16: Empty. Trips left, Hyde as h-back right. Inside screen to Hyde. Miller doesn’t pull trigger. Sacked

It is very difficult as a play-caller when you can't get your QB to execute.

I would also add that OSU barely had the football in the second half. Their second drive stalled at the Wisconin 40 after they ran the all-vertical play on first down. They punted with 10:36 to go in the third Q. OSU did not get the ball back until the 4th quarter at 14:56 after a 15 play Wisconsin drive. 

OSU gained a first down but then got stuck way behind the chains because of Marcus Hall's holding penalty on second down and Michael Thomas' dumb late hit penalty. They get the ball back at the 9 minute mark. They go three and out (sketchy play calling on that drive: QB counter trey, OZ to the boundary to Brown, Miller sack on H-T option). They then did not get the ball back until Shazier forced the fumble with about 2:45 left.

MediBuck's picture

Thanks again for a great read, Ross! The extra scouting report at the end about Saturday's game was an unexpected surprise!

Question: with the poor play of UM's guards and Toussaint being out of this game, do you expect the fighting Hokes to negate our inside advantage (i.e. Hankins) by attacking the edge with zone read, screens, and short throws to the flats? I know you mentioned that with Gardner under center, they like to run play action and throw deep, but in order to run PA, you have to establish some semblance of a run game, no?

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

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, I think that is how they will have to run the football. They will run off-tackle with Denard, either with inverted veer or QB power, but he still looks to bounce those plays.


But you hit the nail on the head with their primary issue--how do they run under center play action without a run threat? If they become extremely predictable as pass first when they are under center/when Denard is not on the field it makes them easier to defend. When they got under center w/o Denard on the field I think OSU should act like its a pass down. Zone blitz, mix up zone coverages, and make Michigan move the ball without making big plays downfield.

StarBuck113's picture

What can we expect as far as pass blocking from Denard at the RB position?  I imagine he would understand scheme but might struggle with execution.  Would you exect OSU to pressure on passing downs with Denard at RB to make him a blocker?

RBuck's picture

Expect Simon & Co. to flick him away like a booger.

Long live the southend.

Ross Fulton's picture

That is exactly what I'm referring to by tendencies. I cannot imagine they ask Denard to pick up blitzes.  When he is in on pass plays I expect them either to 1) try and throw it to him in the flat, or 2) fake a sweep to him and using him as a decoy.

jestertcf's picture

Ross. You are a god. That is all.

~Because we couldn't go for three~

baddogmaine's picture

Ross argues persuasively that OSU's defense was strong against the Badgers. If one looks only at the scoreboard that case can be made, though I suspect that had the coaching staff been asked before the game if under any circumstances "holding" Ball to 181 yards would be a success they would have said no. Regardless, by mid-way through the third quarter the Silver Bullets were succeeding at very little. They let WIS consume 8 minutes on a 15 play drive that finally stiffened 60 yards later with the ball at our 20 and "prevented" points when WIS missed a 40 yard (easily makeable) FG. We did hold on WIS' next possession, but then let them get to our one yard line - and any time your defensive strategy is to force a fumble at your own one yard line when the oppenents started well outside FG range you have failed. And then with a minute and a half left we turned Curt Phillips (who???) into Andrew Luck.
AACC does not have a Montee Ball, and they are not prepared to block for a pro-style running game. They do not have time to develop that. They do have a running QB who few teams have really stopped. And they have a QB who in his last few games has been playing at a very very high level - and our defense has yet to really limit any QB all year who has had any degree of accuracy. We might be able to handle Robinson alone but we have yet to handle a passer all year, even when it is obvious that the team is going to pass. And Gardner and Robinson together present a level of complexity that seems dangerous for our improving but still rough defense.
I've read predctions that we will hold scUM to 14 points for the game. I think that success for us will be holding them to that for each half. I think we'll need to score 28 to win.

Ross Fulton's picture

I don't know if 'strong' is the right word. I do point out that Wisconsin one the battle inside. They pretty consistently got movement on our defensive tackles, which allowed them to pick up yardage.


Before I completly get on teh Gardner = Brady bandwagon I want to see his production on the road against teams not named Minnesota, N'Western, and Iowa. Remember, N'Western had that game locked up at Michigan.  But yes, I do agree that our offense needs to move the football more effectively. 


jestertcf's picture

This time, OSU twisted their defensive tackles. Johnathan Hankins drove the playside guard into the backfield, rendering the play stillborn.
This comment made me chuckle beer out of my nose. well played good sir, also totally worth it.

~Because we couldn't go for three~

osubuckeye4life's picture

Great breakdown Ross!
Man, Phillips got destroyed by Boren in that one clip above!