OSU v. Michigan: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 27, 2012 at 3:00p

The Buckeye offense followed a different script against Michigan than one they had for most of the year. Earlier this season, OSU struggled at times to move the football, but when they did they would finish off drives.

Against the Wolverines, by contrast, the Buckeyes generally moved the football between the 20s, but negative plays, miscues, and the like forced Ohio State to attempt 5 field goals. The Buckeye offense thus ended with over 400 yards excluding kneel-downs, but could not get that elusive two-score lead that would put the game out of reach.

Nonetheless, the Buckeye offensive performance against the Wolverines demonstrated that the OSU coaching staff learned from their experience at Wisconsin. They implemented a game plan that took advantage of holes for the inside run game and in the underneath flat created by Michigan's focus on containing Braxton Miller.

In response, Miller had perhaps his most accurate and confident game as a passer. Then, once they grabbed the lead, the Buckeyes went back to their base offense, relying upon Miller to attack the edge. OSU was then able to ice the game away in the four-minute offense by doing what they have done well all year—running Carlos Hyde inside behind Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell on the left side of the offensive line. 


The Michigan defense did precisely what one would expect them to do based upon previous defensive game plans against Ohio State—devote safeties and/or alley defenders to account for Braxton Miller in the run game. Like Wisconsin, the Wolverines would operate from a cover-4 shell and bring the halfback side safety, generally Jordan Kovacs, down in run support upon the snap. Michigan would also have Jake Ryan—the Sam linebacker to the field—cheat off the slot receiver to provide force contain.

The Wolverines at times also went a step further, fully committing the safety to the box pre-snap and playing a soft cover-3 shell behind. This was particularly apparent when the OSU halfback was to the boundary. Michigan also sparingly play cover-1 from such a look.

Alternatively, when Ohio State's halfback was to the field, Michigan would stick to cover-4 and use Ryan to account for Miller. 

In third down and long, the Wolverines utilized their psycho fronts, bringing more rushers than OSU had blockers and betting that they could rattle Miller before he unloaded the football.

Attacking the Bubbles

The Ohio State coaching staff learned from the Wisconsin film, though, and game planned to attack the holes left by a defense focused on attacking with edge defenders to take away the quarterback as a run threat. In other words, the Buckeyes were able to use Miller's ability to open other opportunities. This came in the form of attacking two 'bubbles' in the defense—the boundary 'A' gap against the Michigan 3 technique, and the wide-side flat.

The Buckeyes' first goal was running right at that backside bubble. In particular, OSU wanted to do so from the left hash mark. They gave the Buckeyes an advantageous personnel matchup with Norwell and Mewhort against Michigan's 3-technique and Will linebacker. The Buckeyes did this in two ways. They ran their base inside zone play.

OSU also ran a single-back power (aka 'Dave') play at that same hole, doubling the 3-technique and having Marcus Hall pull and fold on the playside linebacker. Unlike a typical power play, without a lead kick-out block OSU base blocked the defensive end, with the angle blocking taking place from the playside tackle down. Mewhort and Norwell created movement off their double team, and Hall did a nice job pulling through the hole and squaring his shoulders, locking up the playside linebacker downfield.

By running to the boundary 'A' gap, OSU not only got a favorable interior matchup but also eliminated the two additional edge defenders Michigan devoted against the run. The backside safety was held by the Miller read, while the field alley player was eliminated from the action. 

Flat Attack

OSU alternatively exploited the wide-side flat. As discussed, the spread-to-run's primary advantage is arithmetic. The defense must account for the quarterback as a run threat. An offense can therefore spread the field with 3+ receivers and still force the defense to account for two potential runners. One method that defenses use to try to regain the lost numeric advantage is cheat off the slot receiver into the 'gray area' to play the run. This is a common tactic used against the run-dominant Buckeyes this year and one the Wolverines employed as well. But the Ohio State coaching staff did perhaps their best job attacking the inherent weakness left by this approach, namely defending the underneath flat. A defense with 11 defenders simply cannot 1) bring the backside safety down in run support, 2) shade the field edge defender in the box, and 3) play their corners deep behind to prevent big pass plays without being structurally vulnerable in this area to multiple receiver sets.  

For starters, Michigan's Miller focus opened up the inverted veer give to Carlos Hyde that was also available against Wisconsin but was not exploited until overtime. Ryan's shading ironically allowed him to be easily sealed by the slot receiver. The defensive end then sat on Miller, permitting Hyde to get to the second level untouched. Hyde was able to gain multiple 10+ yard runs in this fashion.

As noted, Michigan also could not account for multiple receivers to the field in the passing game while using a boundary safety and/or field alley player to provide edge run support. OSU (finally) exploited the flash screen game that they have sporadically used this year;

as well as with sprint out snag combos.

Michigan's concern with using Kovacs in run support also opened up opportunities against the Wolverine cover-3 shell. On OSU's first drive, Devin Smith was able to split the coverage to the post off a play-action post-dig combination. 

To prevent this from happening again, Michigan's played an even softer cover-3 that allowed OSU to repeatedly connect on easy underneath completions to the flats. OSU hit several simple play-action out routes for first downs, as well as the screen and sprint-out passes shown above.

All the while the Buckeyes used their no-huddle offense in the first half to prevent Michigan from substituting. The Buckeye game plan was thus a coherent whole and a strong response to the offense's shortcomings against Wisconsin. 

Tripping On Your Own Feet

Unfortunately, Ohio State was often its own worst enemy with penalties and mistakes. One recurring problem from Wisconsin was Corey Linsley's shotgun snaps. Linsley has a badly sprained ankle. My assumption is that he was thus rushing his snaps out of a concern with getting to his blocking assignments. It was accordingly noticeable on reach steps. For example, a bad snap short-circuited a first-half drive in Michigan territory, after OSU had already overcome several penalties. Miller had to field a high snap on a speed option, ruining the pitch relationship and preventing a potentially positive play when Ryan committed to Miller.

The Michigan third down sack above was also made possible by Michael Thomas failing to get the signal and set in OSU's hurry-up offense, preventing an easy first down off a flash screen in another 3-on-2 opportunity. Buckeye miscues then put OSU behind schedule and Michigan in a position where they had the most success—on third and long when they could bring pressure.

Two Steps Forward And Two Steps Back

OSU's missteps became particularly critical in the second half as the Buckeyes failed several times in the red zone to score the touchdown that would have put OSU up by two scores. Perhaps the most glaring example was when OSU had a second and inches within the Michigan 5. OSU ran what appeared to be power with a run/pass flash screen option for Miller. Note how the offensive line run-blocks the play. Miller pulls the football, however, allowing Michigan's overload look to be successful. If Miller simply gives, Hyde likely scores. Concededly, OSU had successfully run a flash screen inside the ten on the first drive and OSU did have a 3-on-2 advantage outside. But the Michigan pre-snap set-up begged for OSU to run the ball inside. Though it is difficult to definitively know whether this was a called screen or a choice by Miller, in either case Miller needs to recognize that OSU should be running the football in that situation versus such an alignment.

Michigan must also be given credit for making several plays. For instance, OSU had the Wolverine defense perfectly set up for this designed sprint out counter. But the Michigan defensive end makes the open field tackle. But Miller could have also been more patient and let the block setup and then bounce outside to the open field.

Indeed, Miller's running left several red zone opportunities unexploited. Miller unfortunately continued a trend from Wisconsin, which was trying too hard to make people miss rather than hitting the hole. For example, OSU had this QB counter trey set up and if Miller simply hits this to the outside he likely has a first down. Instead he attempts to juke back inside, allowing Michigan to make a tackle.

Afterward, Meyer noticeably went immediately to Miller and told him to explode through the hole rather than being tentative. 

Go With The One Who Brung Ya

And Miller's running noticeably became more aggressive following this discussion. Fortuitously, once OSU established the lead they became increasingly reliant upon their bread and butter, Miller's running, to put the game away. To that end, the Buckeyes repeatedly ran lead QB outside zone.

The Buckeyes also leaned heavily on sprint-out passes for a run/pass option. As Meyer pointed out, Miller did not take advantage of scrambling opportunities this season. But this did not extend to sprint-out passing, where Miller was put in the open field where he is most effective.

This redounded to OSU's benefit against Michigan, where Miller had several opportunities to gain yards running off called sprint-out passes in the second half.

Finishing Out

Ohio State mistakes held back OSU from scoring more points in a game they otherwise statistically controlled

  Ohio State Michigan
Yardage 396 279
Plays 70 47
Time of Poss. 36:50 23:50

This yardage differential is particularly impressive when one realizes that nearly half of Michigan's yards came on two plays. The Buckeyes' success was largely attributable to perhaps Miller's best game throwing the football, certainly against this quality of an opponent. Miller looked confident in his reads, stepping up into throws and delivering a nice ball. This was particularly evident off play-action when Michigan was concerned with the run game and Miller was not concerned with the pass rush. Miller's passing efficiency allowed OSU to fully execute their game plan of attacking the holes in Michigan's zone. This game was thus a step forward for Miller as an all-around quarterback, and is a building block going into the offseason. Further, even with Miller's missed opportunities in the run game, when you subtract the negative plays from sacks and botched snaps, he still had over 100 yards rushing, which was critical to OSU's second-half success. 

In conjunction with Miller's efficient day passing, Corey Brown again exhibited that he has developed into an all-Big Ten receiver. Brown was consistently open throughout the game, made every catch thrown his way, and generally made the first defender miss on underneath throws. Brown's ability allowed OSU to attack underneath and gain additional yardage. 

But Ohio State was able to ice the game away with a clear strength that they have relied upon all season, which is Carlos Hyde running inside behind the Ohio State left side of the offensive line. The proof is in the pudding, and time and again when OSU needs tough yards they are going to run left behind Mewhort, Norwell and Linsley. Hall is also most effective pulling, adding to the Buckeyes' left-handedness. 

For his part, Hyde has developed into a different back in the last year. He has always run hard but his patience and vision running from the closer halfback position is particularly impressive. He also has great explosion through the hole. This was all on display on OSU's crucial fourth-quarter first-down pickup, where Mewhort and Norwell drove Michigan's 3 technique five yards downfield and Hyde attacked the hole.

And Now...

Of course, these Buckeyes are all back next year. Over the next month I will review the development of the Buckeyes' scheme and personnel this season and what it portends for 2013. But for now it suffices to say that the emergence of these individuals went a long way toward OSU's success. Going into the season the Buckeye coaching staff knew they had a dynamic run threat in Miller. And that is still the Buckeyes' biggest weapon, as reflected by how opposing defensive coaching staffs approach OSU. But the Buckeyes have developed an extremely talented offensive line that it can rely upon, particularly in the run game. And they have two and a half complementary skill players that have emerged in Hyde, Brown, and Smith. Miller has made great strides as a passer this season, perhaps best exemplified by this game. If he makes those same strides next season (and that includes taking advantage of his legs as a scrambler) the OSU coaching staff can continue to implement game plans that punish defenses that overplay the run game, making Ohio State difficult to defend.  



Hasbro's picture

After Zach Boren's comments regarding halftime adjustments by the coaches, I'm really looking forward to the Defensive Breakdown.
Thanks for the great analysis.


Great analysis, Ross.  It's clearly evident that the OSU staff learned from the Wisconsin game and the adjustments made during prep week were what allowed OSU to gain the advantage Saturday. The attack of the flat with the flash screens and Miller's accuracy opened things up enough for Hyde and Miller to exploit. I really believe that the TTUN staff did not believe OSU could adjust or had the personnel to adjust, hence why they felt confident running almost the same identical defense as Wisky did. Two defensive game plans but two completely different results. Thank God.
OSU eliminates most of those mistakes, especially in the red zone, and that game would have been a 30 or 40-point massacre.
Always comforting to see the OSU staff being able to adjust, both on offense and defense. Lets hope they continue to grow together and we don't suffer much attrition in the offseason.

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

Ross Fulton's picture

I concur. Particularly given the magnitude of the game. I am with you--Michigan certainly picked their poison, though I don't know if they thought they were necesssarily doing so to that degree. Got to give Miller a lot of credit for being able to execute that plan when he previously has not been able to. In addition, got to credit the staff for getting back to basics with the inside zone play and sticking with the one-back power once they saw it was working.


And yes--OSU should have scored 40. They were able to move the ball that effectively. 

Earle's picture

I thought that this was the staff's best offensive gameplan of the season (at least against teams that we couldn't just dominate physically), though I thought we could have done still more running inside.  I guess I can't begrudge getting Braxton some carries on designed QB runs, even if the defense is overplaying him. It was also nice to see Corey Brown step up in what I thought was by far his best offensive game (he also did a very nice job on punt returns).

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

yrro's picture

Well, minus the fumble... What the heck was going on on that play? I noticed that when they lined up, no one was back to receive. There seemed to be some kind of confusion, and then he took off from sort of the "corner" spot to try to get back in time to catch the ball, couldn't quite, and fumbled.
Did anyone ask the players/coaches about that play and I missed it?

Earle's picture

Yeah, I kind of discounted that due to the general chaos of the play.  Still would have been better off just letting that one go.

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

Ross Fulton's picture

I was going to discuss that play on Thursday. I actually blame that on the coaches. That was trying to get too cute by half. They wanted to fool Michigan that Brown was rushing since they always bring him up on punt block. But it is really hard to run forty yards back downfield and then turn around and catch a punt.

Doc's picture

From my seat it looked like they were trying to protect themselves from a fake.  I figured if they punt it and let the ball go it could end up in the endzone for a touch back, but the threat of a fake was keeping them on their toes.

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I'm riding down your moonlight mile

NEWBrutus's picture

It was a sound game plan, and most of the execution was sound.  The few mishaps happened at the most inopportune times.   
I made the comment to a friend about Braxton needing to realize he isn't going to hit the proverbial home run every time.  Sometimes the single (six yards) and extending drives with a new set of downs is also critically important.  (That's enough baseball metaphors for a football game).  
The OL is going to be an interesting group next year.  Linsley, Mewhort and Norwell probably have their spots "locked up."  Taylor Decker was pushing for the starting RT spot.  The interesting thing I keep hearing from Coach Meyer is the emergence of Chase Farris.  It will be interesting to see how the battle for that right guard spot plays out in the spring and next fall. In any event, it should be a strength of this team.
I really think one of the key things for next year is the development of the wr's.  Corey Brown made tremendous strides this year.  Devin Smith at times looked amazing and then would have head scratching drops at inopportune times.  Can another guy or two improve enough to make the passing game a bona fide threat in 2013?  There were many times when it seemed like nobody could get open.  (a function of WR ability and QB ability to be certain).
I also think Miller's improvement in his 1. Decision making, 2.  Ability to read defenses, 3. Throwing fundamentals 4. Trusting the play makers around him will be the difference between a truly high powered offense which could annihilate the Ohio State record books and results which will be eerily similar to 2012.  
Thanks for your efforrs, Ross,  I've learned so much from your breakdowns.

lvbuckeye's picture

the thing that impressed me the most is that Carlos had 28 touches and every single one of them went for positive yardage.

yrro's picture

This is among the reasons that I can't believe we didn't get more O-linemen on the all conference list. Carlos is a beast, but he's had holes opening up for him all season.

Ross Fulton's picture

All-conference teams are always a joke, particularly the coaches. When in doubt they always give it to seniors and want to make sure every team is represented. I have analyzed probably too much Big Ten football this year and I would certainly put Mewhort, Norwell, and Brown (as well as Braxton obv) on any all Big ten team.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Great analysis, Ross! Maybe the best one yet and you'd already set such a high bar to begin with.
I agree, it was a soild game plan, supported by some excellent physical performances in particular areas/phases (Braxton's passing, Hyde's downhill running, the OL run blocking, etc.), but occasionally undermined by mistakes and inconsistencies. Of all the mistakes in the game, I was most annoyed when Braxton kept the ball - rather than powering straight ahead with Hyde - on the second and inches from the 2/3 yard line and got sacked, whether that was his call or a designed pass play. 
Like you and Earle (above), I was very impressed by Philly Brown's all-around performance. I even voted him offensive player of game in the 11W poll, with all due respect to El Guapo.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes the second and short call was certainly a mental mistake. Just by the reaction of Hyde and the oline I have a hard time believing that was not a called run. Just need to give it there and not be too cute.


But the overall gameplan was probably the most cohesively designed to specifically attack what the defense was doing yet.

AltaBuck's picture

Kind of ironic that the play to ice the game was DAVE. Mewhort and Norwell freak'n destroyed the DT on that play.

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d5k's picture

If I've learned anything from Ross, it's that the individual play doesn't matter as much as the overall combination of plays.  The problem with our Bollman/Tressel offense was usually that we telegraphed our plays via formation and did not have counters such as play-action passes, misdirection runs, etc that would protect the base play.  Look at the Stanford (Andrew Luck) and 49er (with Alex Smith at QB) offenses.  Basically more coherent and game-theoretic versions of Tressel/Bollmanball.  Power run setting up play action and using motion/formation to exploit any time the defense tries to cheat.

AltaBuck's picture

Telegraphed via formation and situational (Sorry, I wanted to use that word cause of Ramzy)

I am Groot - Groot

Ross Fulton's picture

Couldn't have said it better myself and I think Harbaugh is a great offensive strategist so I concur. As Homer Smith stated, a successful offense is all about making plays look alike and faking.

Ross Fulton's picture

I thought people would like that!

razrback16's picture

Dave is a good play. You just have to have a well-coached OL in conjunction with unpredictable play-calling and you'll have a much better chance of it succeeding than it did in 2011 where we ran it seemingly every first down. :)

Nick's picture

Great job this season with the breakdowns and you also repped 11w and yourself well on those blogger battles.

DaFish's picture

Ross, we always hear about how the team practices for Michigan every week, putting in wrinkles and such.  Given that, and the magnitude in importance of this Michigan game, I couldn't believe I didn't see one trick play or "weird" formation.  What are your thoughts?  Game too close?  Reserved for a 2 score lead?  Thanks.

Shaun OSU's picture

Tressel always had a Michigan period of practice every week, but there has been no indication that Urban has continued this. In fact, I got to attend a practice during the week of practice for Cal, and there was no such period on that day.
Our base offense with a generous smattering of playaction passing was moving the ball quite well on their defense, so it didn't really seem like any tricks were needed. They were practicing a throw-back pass to Braxton that week that was never run, but I think that was put in specifically for Cal's man defense, and with all the focus on Braxton by defenses, I don't think it would have been much of a surprise.

Ross Fulton's picture

I may be idiosyncratic on this front, but I have never been a fan of trick plays. I am much more appreciative of coaches breaking tendencies and attacking weaknesses. That is why I was a fan of how OSU opened this game. 

penult's picture

Am I the only one worried about Braxton's pre-snap reads (or rather lack of)?  How hard is it to count 6 rushers against an empty backfield, meaning only 5 blockers?  They weren't even trying to hide it, 6 guys literally lined up at the LOS and it happened multiple times. 

DaFish's picture

I was particularly disturbed by the instance on the goal line... there were 2 obviously unblocked on the right, and Braxton not only keeps it, but is looking the other direction for a target.

Ross Fulton's picture

Gotta remember he's still a soph.  That's a lot to put on him to always make the right reads. So yes I'm going to point it out but we gotta keep it in context...

gravey's picture

Those empty backfield sets have been messy on quite a few instances this season.  They were poorly executed at Wisky and could have lost the game vs. TTUN.   The pre-snap reads were missing, or the line shifts were blown; but I can't think of many situations where the empty backfield set resulted in anything other than disaster.  I was especially worried about the potential for a snap to fly over the head of Braxton without anyone back there to help him recover it.

Ross Fulton's picture

Empty backfield sets have the problem we saw here. Ppl like Mattison will always simply go to an automatic overload blitz. Your QB better be skilled at unloading quickly cause he's gonna get hit...

nickma71's picture

Perhaps Meyer and Herman will dial up something other than QB runs when the defense knows it is coming as soon as Miller is better in the short yardage passing game. Think about how many points Troy Smith could put up being able to make a short throw.

osubuckeye4life's picture

Great job this season Ross!!! I enjoyed reading your articles to learn more about offense and defense schemes.
What do you have planned for the off season?

vtbuckeye's picture

I agree. A question to the 11W staff: Is there any way to make a separate section where one can look up/read all of Ross's breakdowns so that we can all relive and review in the off season.