Turnovers, injuries, and negative plays marred what was otherwise a solid statistical performance by the Ohio State offense.
The Buckeyes came out fast, but consciously made the decision to slow down and close the playbook in the second half following several unforced errors. Buffalo's quirky scheme and first-round draft candidate Khalil Mack also forced the Buckeyes into negative plays, taking the Buckeye offense off-schedule in forcing second and third and longs.
The Buckeye offense can improve their yards per points simply by eliminating mistakes. Getting starters back like Corey Linsley and using Braxton Miller running when the defense presents opportunities will also take the offense to the next level.
Playing Left Handed
Buffalo's defensive scheme forced Ohio State to alter certain blocking assignments. The Bulls played with both defensive ends inside the offensive tackles and their safeties close to the line of scrimmage. Buffalo's secondary employed inverted cover 2, which effectively became a man coverage scheme against OSU's multiple receivers, or cover 2 man under.
The Bulls' scheme was more effective than it otherwise would have been because Buffalo's coverage did not account for Miller running, but the Buckeyes largely chose to save Miller as a runner until absolutely necessary.
Ohio State adjusted by reading the 4i technique defensive ends. For instance, the Buckeyes effectively ran a midline zone read, rather than reading the outside linebacker.
Ohio State also had success using one-back power where they blocked down on the defensive end and pulled around for the play side linebacker.
Playing With Fire
Buffalo's scheme was an aggressive defense that provided ample opportunities down field but allowed the Bulls to create negative plays. Ohio State was able to have early success throwing the football, giving Braxton Miller the opportunity to showcase improved mechanics.
Miller's footwork and arm angle are noticeably improved. His elbow in his throwing motion is higher. This allows him to deliver a tighter spiral with better timing. Miller must continue to work on throwing in rhythm. He was accurate in doing so, however. For instance, he put this throw in a perfect spot where only his receiver could catch it.
Shooting Themselves in the Foot
The Buckeyes' early success was quickly tempered by Ohio State's own mistakes. Three straight drives in the second quarter where the Buckeyes turned it over on downs (a would have been easy conversion that was stopped because Marcus Hall took a poor angle against a shooting linebacker), a fumble (that was converted into a touchdown) and pick-6 turned a would-be blowout into a under whelming endeavor. Buffalo was able to produce two of its three touchdowns from those mistakes. Following the turnovers, the Buckeye coaching staff self-consciously buttoned-up the playbook. Ohio State only had four drives in the second half, but the Buckeyes strung together a fourteen play drive for a touchdown and a ten play drive for a field goal, stretching seven and five minutes, respectively.
The Buckeye offense's effectiveness was hamstrung, however, by negative plays.. The primary generator of negative plays was Buffalo's Mack. Mack had one of the more disruptive games I have seen against an Ohio State offense. Many have singled out right tackle Taylor Decker for scorn regarding his ineffectiveness with Mack. But Decker could not have drawn a tougher assignment in his first start and the right tackle was not alone. Mack also bested Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, and Jeff Heueman, among others. Mack used his combination of strength and quickness to drive back would-be blockers and stop multiple plays in the backfield. Mack's disruptiveness impacted Miller as a passer as the game progressed. Miller became more jumpy in the pocket and did not throw in rhythm. It is not too much to state that Mack single-handedly made the game closer than it otherwise would have been.
The Buckeye offensive line was also hampered by Corey Linsley's limited availability. The center is crucial to an offensive line's cohesion, and Linsley's blocking was also missed on the Buckeye's inside zone run plays.
The Buckeyes' conservative second half performance was also by design. Offensive Tom Herman conceded after the game that he became too conservative, largely eschewing much of the passing game. Early on, the Buckeyes did a good moving the pocket with play action.
This changed the blocking and launch angles on Mack, keeping Mack off-balance. For instance, OSU had success with their tight end blocking across the formation, allowing the offensive line to down block on the interior defensive line. As the game progressed, however, the Buckeyes settled for drop back pass attempts. In hindsight, the Buckeyes likely sought to keep the playbook vanilla.
Paralysis by analysis
The Buckeyes' negative plays were contributed to by Miller's poor run game reads. Miller still seems to be pre-determining his reads. For most of the contest Miller sought to give. For instance on Wilson's fumble, Miller gave on inverted veer even though the correct read was to keep, sending Wilson into a waiting defender.
Even when Miller did keep on several inverted veer plays he largely gave himself up when their was ample open ground outside. In the fourth quarter Miller went the opposite direction, keeping when he should give. Miller's decision-making was reminiscent of last season, giving when he thought his running unnecessary and then seeking to keep when he thought he needed to carry the offense, rather then reading the play. It is unclear whether the coaching staff directs Miller to not run in such games, or whether it is Miller's decision. In any event, the problem with deciding to not run is that the point of read plays is to constrain a defense that does not account for the quarterback.
The same principle applies in the pass game. Buffalo's man coverage effectively dared Miller to run. Buffalo's strategy was paradoxically a success, however, because Miller did not run. That was until the second half, at least, when Miller took advantage of such opportunities, sustaining drives.
The biggest impediment to Ohio State's offense taking the next step is Miller intuitively determining when to run based upon what the defense provides. He must feel comfortable running in the run or pass game when the opportunity is there, while also not forcing the issue. The Buckeye run and pass game will have far more positive plays if he can do so. But like last season, Miller's running ability gives the Ohio State offense another gear. When in doubt, the Buckeyes can rely upon Miller to make a play.
What is Old is New
Much of the Buckeyes' pre-season focus was centered upon the potential contributions of newcomers. The Buckeyes' opening stanza against Buffalo, however, demonstrated that the Buckeyes' key contributors are upper classmen returnees. Meyer sung Jordan Hall's praises at tailback in recent weeks, and the fifth year senior did not disappoint. Hall received the vast majority of snaps and performed well. The wide receiver rotation was similarly limited, with Corey Brown and Chris Fields moving between the inside and outside receiver positions with Devin Smith and Evan Spencer manning the outside. The one exception was Dontre Wilson, who entered almost exclusively to be featured on jet sweeps and other outside edge plays. Every time Wilson was in the game the Buckeyes sought to get him the football. This tendency may have helped Mack make his interception on the jailbreak screen. But the Buckeye coaching was likely purposefully trying to create tendencies in this game that they could break later in the season.
As the Buckeyes move forward, expect a similar pattern to continue. With Rod Smith and (eventually) Carlos Hyde's return, Smith and then Hyde will likely split time with Hall in the backfield. Hall will also be able to man the H slot receiver. Wilson will continue to be used situationally to give the Buckeyes a player to attack the edge.
The Ohio State offense allowed Buffalo to hang around with turnovers. Those mistakes are easily correctable and the Buckeye offense will become more explosive. Ohio State will become very difficult to stop, however, if Miller is able to harness his running ability to take what the defense is giving without over analyzing when he should and should not run.