Ohio State v. Michigan: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 29, 2012 at 2:00p

As the old adage goes, knowledge is power. Once the Ohio State coaching staff knew that Denard Robinson would not, or could not, throw, the Buckeyes had little difficulty stopping the Michigan offense.

In the second half, the Wolverines did not cross the 50-yard line. Indeed, Michigan's 21 first-half points belie that Ohio State's defense largely controlled the action for most of the game. Those points resulted from: 1) two explosive plays that accounted for nearly half of the Wolverine total yardage and 2) a Buckeye muffed punt and roughing the passer penalty. 

But the Buckeye defense was particularly effective once they fully concentrated on preventing Denard Robinson from gaining the edge with aggressive cover 4 safety play. Once Michigan was unable to run the football with their most explosive playmaker they did not have any fallback method.

The Ohio State defense therefore controlled the second half, overcoming the offense's failure to punch the football in the end zone and securing a victory. 

Two Defenses for Two Offenses

Michigan self-evidently employed two different schemes with Devin Gardner and Robinson. Putting aside the six plays where Robinson and Gardner took the field together, Michigan operated a pro-style based system with Gardner and a shotgun-spread framework with Robinson.

With Gardner, Michigan's primary M.O. was using under-center formations with 21 or 22 personnel to employ play-action max protection passing. Gardner would conduct a half roll off the run fake and Michigan would run two or three man route combinations, mostly to the wide field.

Against Michigan's under center offense, the Buckeyes primarily played cover 1, bringing CJ Barnett down in the 'box.'

Michigan had little hope of running the football under center and the Buckeyes therefore aggressively blitzed Gardner. For instance, as seen above, Zach Boren had an automatic blitz option based upon whether Michigan's backs stayed in to block. OSU also often used field blitzes to attack where the Wolverines wanted to roll Gardner to throw.

OSU's aggressive posture became more pronounced on third down. OSU often operated from their 30 front but brought far more pressure than they had heretofore shown from this look.

Like many inexperienced quarterbacks, Gardner held the football too long and was susceptible to rushed decisions under pressure. He also had limited options, given that the Michigan coaching staff apparently sought to simplify matters with two and three-man routes to one side of the field. He also does not have the strongest arm. By contrast, when he had time he was quite accurate. OSU thus continued to up the pressure as the game continued, particularly once they did not face a run threat.

Spread to Run and Only Run

By contrast, with Robinson on the field in shotgun OSU operated from cover 4 or quarter/quarter/half. 

The Buckeyes' goal was to have their safeties attack the edge versus Michigan's base inverted veer. 


Unfortunately, the Buckeyes' solid game plan was overwhelmed by an old problem, that being allowing explosive plays. The first, Gardner's touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree, was a multi-faceted mental breakdown. The first problem was that OSU was in cover 2 versus Michigan's trips.

Cover 2 is not an ideal defense against this formation. Indeed, defenses will often check out of 2 once they see the three receiver side. But if you are going to run cover 2 against trips, the corner has to sink and the safety has to play the deep route. Here, Travis Howard instead jumps the flat route and CJ Barnett the intermediate, allowing Roundtree to come free.

Too Cute by Half

Michigan's second touchdown was enabled by a punt block play that perhaps looked better on paper than in practice. OSU sought to set up a punt block by throwing off Michigan's count as to how many rushers were in the box by having Corey Brown initially line up over the left gunner and then sprint back to field the punt. The problem is that it is difficult for anyone to sprint 45 yards only to turn around and field a punt.

Identifying Playmakers

But the Wolverine offense remained at its most dynamic based upon Robinson's run threat. Robinson was able to attack the edge largely off Michigan's favorite play, inverted veer. Here, once Michael Bennett misses a tackle, Robinson's gain is set up by Barnett first playing pass and then not maintaining contain.

Al Borges also did a nice job taking a page from Ohio State's playbook and running a fake veer that is simply a lead sweep. Note how Michigan used an unbalanced alignment with this package. But the Buckeye secondary did not adjust their numbers to the centerline, leaving both a corner and safety to the opposite side of a field without an eligible receiver.

Again note how the Buckeye safeties conservatively read for pass before attacking the run. The result of these breakdowns was that Michigan was able to gain a one-point halftime lead.

So You Literally are Not Going to Pass?

OSU's employment of cover 4 changed in the second half, and with it Michigan's ability to run the football with Robinson at quarterback. While the spread equalizes the offense's arithmetic it cannot change the fact that the defense will always have an unblocked defender who is the ball carrier's counterpart. Therefore a spread-to-run offense that does not pass is still going to be at a distinct disadvantage. Ohio State was able to use that reality to their advantage in the second half. The Buckeyes in theory ran the same cover 4 defense but in practice applied it in a very different manner. The Buckeye safeties sat at ten yards. As soon as Robinson moved away the backside safety shot the nearest gap.

The Buckeyes' frontside safety would then provide aggressive edge support as soon as run action came towards them. Above all else, the Buckeyes wanted to prevent Robinson from getting outside the defense's contain.

This strategy successfully coalesced on OSU's fourth-down stop of Robinson.

In the still below, note how both Barnett and Etienne Sabino maintain outside leverage on Robinson. This forced Robinson inside, allowing Ryan Shazier to display a textbook scrape inside Taylor Lewan to make the play. For a team that struggled this year with force and leverage, this play exemplified the improvements that the Buckeye defense made fundamentally.

Though Robinson admirably took responsibility for cutting a hole too far inside, it is unclear how he would have gotten farther outside. He would had to have gone backwards to try to get around Barnett, likely leading to the same result. 

Now What?

The Buckeye stalling of Robinson getting outside largely stalled the Michigan offense. Once Robinson was forced inside, OSU could take advantage of the talent advantage their defensive line had relative to the Michigan front. This was more pronounced when the Wolverines ran from under center, which was effectively a gift to the Buckeye defense.

Michigan was thus forced to become one-dimensional, allowing the OSU coaching staff to mix and match blitzes and zone coverages, leading to Gardner's fourth-quarter interception.

A Season in Microcosm

The Buckeye defensive performance was thus actually more impressive then the baseline stats showed. As Seth at MGoBlog pointed out, the Wolverines' yards per attempt-adjusted, which simply limits maximum gains or losses to 20 yards to prevent outliers from skewing the stat, was 3.0 yards per attempt. Without Robinson, this figure drops to 1.2 yards per try, demonstrating that once the Buckeyes slowed Robinson, Michigan had few answers.

The Buckeyes' last game was in some ways a microcosm of their season. The offense carried OSU early, as the Buckeye defense struggled with allowing big plays. But in the end, the OSU defense was the key to the win, as it rendered the Wolverine offense a non-entity.

And so it was with the defense this fall. As with the offense, I will provide a more comprehensive breakdown of the defense's development in the coming months. But in short, the defensive coaching staff was cobbled together with coaches who by and large had not worked together. And they struggled to find an identity. But in the season's second half the coaches seemed to find their schematic stride.

On first and second down, the Buckeyes largely played single high safety looks against under center teams, with cover-4 based schemes against spread looks. Then on third down the Buckeyes alternated between blitz and zone coverage looks. This turned out to be an effective compromise between the disparate coaching backgrounds and allowed the Buckeyes to play more aggressively than they had in years past, without abandoning the fundamental soundness that has defined the unit.

Of course, it is no coincidence that this was also the time when Zach Boren moved to defense, solidifying the defense's leadership, toughness and fundamental play. It was also when Barnett and Nate Williams returned to health, and when Shazier and Bryant developed into more sound players. Though the defense was never perfect—as witnessed against Michigan—and still had holes that were band-aided over and will again need to be filled next year, the improvement of both the defensive coaches and fundamentals are a positive sign moving forward.

The 2012 Buckeyes were only able to go undefeated, though, because every single unit—offensive, defense, and special teams—stepped up at different times to carry other areas that were struggling. And that ability to be well rounded and play as a team is what this group should be remembered for.  


Comments Show All Comments

JoeinCbus's picture

I love these breakdowns.  Great job.

yrro's picture

So how much do *you* blame Borges' playcalling, as opposed to a lack of a) a functional passing arm for the spread & shred side or b) a functional running back for the traditional play action side?

Ross Fulton's picture

Both. It is obviously hard when your most dynamic playmaker is a QB that can't throw the football. Even if his biggsest strength is running, you still need the downfield threat to open up opportunities. Otherwise, he should be a running back but Denard was not in a position to do so.


That being said, running lead zone on third down when you are far outmanned is idiotic. Furthermore, he could have done some different things. For instance, we speculated that maybe you would put Denard at HB and let him run the jet sweep part of IV. You could go under center and run toss sweep. 


In addition, the limitations in the passing game concepts was pretty comical. Running 2 man out/corner routes becomes fairly predictable. Again, maybe that is all Gardner could handle--hard to know for sure. But it was a pretty conservative approach.


I guess ultimately I don't think Michigan could have changed the outcome with even the best game plan because of the talent limitations you described, but it wasnt the best game plan...

Earle's picture

Nothing like giving them a taste of the same medicine we got in our worst offensive performances. Bring the safeties up, stuff the run, dare them to throw the ball downfield.  Would have been interesting to see how the game would have played out had Robinson been a threat to throw the ball.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Doc's picture

Nice write up Ross, per usual.  I'll be interested to see if they work on their fundamentals, i.e. tackling, over the off season.  In my limited knowledge of football it seems like a staple of a Heacock/Fickell lead defense to try and hit ball carriers with a shoulder and try to "blow them up" instead of wrapping up and bringing them dowm with a good form tackle.  Is this a product of coaching, or "kids these days" wanting to make sportscenter? 

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Ross Fulton's picture

I personally think these fundamental issues continued to improve throughout the year, which is all you can ask for.  But yes, I think that will continue to be a point of emphasis.

Doc's picture

My wife even made a comment during the game on how well the AACC defenders tackled.  I'm hoping we can get to be as good.  If so, look out!

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Maestro's picture

The defense surely saved the day on Saturday.  Just an outstanding 2nd half performance.

vacuuming sucks

GoBucks713's picture

Break-Breakdown? Was someone listening to Bone Thugs and Mariah Carey? HAHA. Great stuff Ross. As a huge basketball fan, it's bittersweet seeing that this is the last breakdown. I've learned more about football in these breakdowns than I ever imagined. The next question is, when will 11W have someone breakdown basketball games like this?  

-The Aristocrats!

Ross Fulton's picture

I was more thinking Tom Petty.  Guess I'm getting old.

Earle's picture

It's all right
I'ts all right
I'ts all right
Only too old if the music's too loud.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

GoBucks713's picture

Shit Ross, I missed the other Break-. My bad. I would have gone Tom Petty with that reference. I'm a bad Music Nerd.

-The Aristocrats!


When Shazier hit Denard on that 4th down play I about jumped out of my seat. Sean McDonough pointed out how many yards the Buckeyes gave up after the hit this season. Robinson was sure stopped dead cold on that play.
After watching that video over and over in delight, I marvel at how quickly RDS gets to Robinson and how much force he hits the QB with in such a short space. Any hesitation on Shazier's part and Taylor Lewan blocks RDS and Denard gets the first down and then some. The success of that stop hinged upon Shazier beating Lewan and hitting Robinson the way he did. Any other outcome would have resulted in a first down and maybe lit a fire under TTUN. They seemed to deflate after that. One could argue it was the play of the game.

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

Ross Fulton's picture

It was a great play. Perfect technique. Shazier's improvement of his fundamnetals this year was nothing short of remarkable.

timdogdad's picture

so how much of  an improved offense will we face next year with no denard, no roundtree, who knows with toussaint.  could be the same result. or somewhat close.   gardiner will have more experence but not that much.  scum fans have to be realistic and admit that the game should have been more like 30-10.   or worse.  say they only get that first touchdown and we get 2 td's in the red zone instead of fgs.   more like 34-7. 


Hokey Pokey wants to get TTUN back to the pro-style offense and away from the spread, which can only play into OSU's hands. I think it's safe to say TTUN will need to improve GREATLY to avoid OSU beating the living hell out of them at the Big Turd Hous next November.

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

OSUBias's picture

It all depends on how they develop in the offseason. You could have said the same thing in reverse about us last year: losing our top RB, our top WR, and our best lineman. Personally, as electric as Denard was, I think Borges was uncomfortable mixing and matching the offensive sets and was therefore unable to ever call a complete game. He just never seemed to be able to find a good balance and use them to complement one another at any point this season; it was literally like two different teams. He should be better running what he knows next year, but it all depends on Gardner's development.
Anyway, it should favor us by more next year based on what we know now. But a lot can change from now to then...let's not get ahead of ourselves.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

toledobuckeyefanjim's picture

Gardner's development will be behind an offensive line that loses at least 3 starters (Barnum, Mealer and Omameh) and maybe a fourth in Lewan if he decides to go pro early. That will leave him and the running backs with a very inexperienced group of blockers. Denard was the only real threat as a running back this year. Gardner will run only when he's threatened. The other backs aren't even serviceable, except for Touissaint, who's a star against lousy teams but very stoppable against good teams. Good teams with good defenses will be tough to beat for UM's offense next year. My guess is the Wolverine fans will be calling for Borges' and Hoke's heads when they come up against teams with good defensive lines.

OSUBias's picture

I know, and I think they'll take a step backwards in all probability. But again, you could have said the same thing about us last year. We lost Adams, Brewster, and Shugarts. Our RB's were unproven, our WR core was horrible. So Braxton's development was behind a very inexperienced group of blockers who were labeled dysfunctional in spring practice.
All I'm saying is that players get better from year to year. So assuming just because they lose starters they're going to be way worse isn't necessarily true. Otherwise every team that graduated players would get steadily worse. So some of the players that were afterthoughts on this years team may get better. Some of them may find a better spot for them once they pick one style of offense (pro style). In some spots they may get worse, in other spots they may get better.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Ross Fulton's picture

I think Michigan's OLine will be fine. But I think the running back position is a mess. There is a difference between development and talent. OSU had the potential in place. Michigan does not at that position.

setman's picture

Ross,  one of the things the mouthbreathers on the various Michigan sites were complaining about was the unwillingness of Borges to put Robinson and Gardner on the field at the same time in the second half.  As you pointed out, their tendencies were telegraphed to the defense depending on which QB was in.  What about those six plays where they had both in?  Were we just playing them to run anytime Robinson was in, regardless if Gardner was lined up at QB?  Were their tendencies from the first half to run with that package?  I know the announcers pointed out the obvious that Robinson in the backfield as a RB would not be able to provide a blitz pickup.  I am just curious to know if it was anything we did differently that lead to this second half playcalling by Borges.    

Ross Fulton's picture

On third down they tried to have Robinson blitz pick-up Shazier to set up a delayed screen and it was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. That was pretty much the end of their joint packages.


Again, Robinson is not a running back. So the only thing you can do with him on the field is either give him the ball or use him as a decoy. So it is still fairly obvious what is going to happen.

JLP36's picture

Even as a decoy he was more valuable than standing on the sideline.  I loved seeing him jog off all of the time.  I am not going to miss that little demon.  Maybe he can't catch, but if he is not going to be your QB don't you at least screen to him or run him into the flat a little.  Obviously it is not ideal for them because he was hurt, but he clearly could still hurt you - but only when he is on the field.


OSUBias's picture

Also, I want everyone to take the time to rewatch the second replay in the first video. what you see there is nothing short of shocking/amazing/unprecedented. That is Travis Howard NOT biting on a double move. Had I seen that during the live broadcast I would have known it was a sign from above that things were aligned in our direction that dayand I would have stopped worrying about the outcome of the game that second.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Dougger's picture

i get chills watching that replay of Shazier on 4th down. incredible reaction and closing speed.. god i love that guy. now the only thing we need to do is get him some short sleeves for the cold weather! unfortunately from the north endzone it was hard to tell who was making the plays at midfield for that fourth down, so during the game that boren delayed blitz in the backfield was my favorite.
osubias excellent point-out about howard. 
we didn't even talk about roby!
let's go bucks

I like football

osubuckeye4life's picture

A fine job you've done this season, Ross. 
I always enjoyed reading these breakdowns to increase my football IQ.