Ohio State v. San Diego State: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 12, 2013 at 1:00p

With key starters returning, the Ohio State defensive performance against San Diego State exhibited the Buckeye defense's potential. The 2013 Buckeyes' defense has the potential to outperform its 2012 counterpart because of its experience in the secondary and athleticism up front. 

The Ohio State coaching staff was able to employ more aggressive, diversified looks with Bradley Roby's back at boundary corner. The result was nearly preventing San Diego State from gaining a first down in the first quarter and eventually limiting the Aztecs to one touchdown. 

Below I examine the defensive schemes employed by the Buckeyes, the potentially dominant defenders in the Buckeyes' front four, and the Buckeyes' possible response to California's Air Raid offense under Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin.

Playing with a Full Hand

As expected, Roby and CJ Barnett's return permitted the defensive coaching staff to implement more of its playbook. This was in part permitted by the San Diego State offense. The Aztecs employ a pro-style offense, mixing between 21 personnel (2 WR, 1 TE, 1 HB, 1 TB) and 3+ wide receiver sets. The former permitted the Buckeyes to deploy their base 4-3 look with Sam linebacker Josh Perry. In the base defense, the Buckeye coaching staff primarily called for a 4-3 under, but the Buckeyes also played a 4-3 over, with the 3 and viper going to the formation strength, and the nose guard and 5 technique to the boundary.

As can be witnessed above, the Buckeyes used a fair amount of inside linebacker blitzes, both off the initial snap and delayed blitzes once a running back stayed in pass protection. 

In the secondary the Buckeyes often deployed single high safety coverage, whether it be cover 1 or cover 3 (see above). Consistent with the Buckeye defensive coaching staff's overall approach, this was particularly true against pro personnel groupings. With Roby's return the Buckeyes were also able to utilize a quarter-quarter-half scheme.

Demonstrating their commitment to rely more upon their secondary, the Buckeyes also unveiled a check to man-over coverage against San Diego State's twins formation (two receivers to one side). That meant that the corner from the side away from twins – here boundary corner Roby – would come across to play the slot receiver.

Slidin' Down

In passing downs the Buckeye defense continued to refine their dime scheme. Ohio State's basic approach is to run their 4-2-5 nickel defense but have the defensive line slide down. Three technique Michael Bennett moves to nose guard. Five technique Adolphus Washington or Joey Bosa moves inside to 3 technique. Backup viper Steve Miller came in at 5 technique, with Noah Spence remaining at his viper spot.

Ohio State takes the same approach at linebacker. Ryan Shazier moves to mike linebacker with backup safety Corey Brown entering as the will.

The Buckeyes' hope in doing so is generating a pass rush with their front four while playing tight zone coverage. Ohio State often played base cover 2 or cover 3 from dime, perhaps blitzing Shazier if a running back remained in pass protection. The package was effective because the Buckeyes were able to consistently generate a pass rush with their down linemen. 

Settin' the table

The Buckeyes' defense has the potential to surpass last year's squad because of the high ceiling of certain members. It begins in the secondary, where the talent and experience permits the Buckeye coaching staff more leeway. Players like Roby and Shazier are a given. But the most promising aspect is the emergence of new starters along the defensive line. Noah Spence has been as good as advertised, controlling the edge against the run as well as rushing the passer.

The quickly emerging linchpin of the Buckeye defense, however, is Michael Bennett. Urban Meyer has sung Bennett's praises for his work ethic in practice, and it is translating to the field. Bennett is thriving at the critical 3 technique. He is proving an adept pass rusher from the interior, using his quick first step to beat offensive linemen. Perhaps more importantly he is holding up against the run despite being slightly undersized for the position.

The other pleasant surprise has been the emergence of depth in the form of Miller and freshman defensive linemen Bosa and Michael Hill. Their play has been critical to a defensive line rendered thin by injuries to Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington. Miller has emerged as a pass threat from the Buckeyes' dim look, providing the Buckeyes two speed edge rushers. 

We're Just Air Raidin' It

The Buckeyes' defense will receive an entirely different test in Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin's Cal Bear Raid offense. The term is apparently Dykes and Franklin's play on words for their variation of the Air Raid they have honed at Louisiana Tech. I previewed Cal's new offense this summer. For those looking for serious in-depth reading, Brophy's Blog Spot provides an extensive analysis of Dykes and Franklin's schemes.

In brief, Dykes and Franklin have taken Hal Mumme and Mike Leach's Air Raid and pared it down to go fast. Louisiana Tech's offense regularly ran more plays then any team in the nation; a pace they are seeking to emulate at Cal. To do so Dykes and Franklin had eliminated much of the Air Raid's down field pass offense in favor of stretching the defense horizontally with packaged plays.

A packaged play is where the offense provides the quarterback a run/pass option after the snap. Below, Cal packages inverted veer with a quick out route. The quarterback reads the front side corner. If he fails to respect the out route the quarterback quickly pulls the ball and delivers the throw. This puts defenders in a bind. If they play the pass it creates lanes for the run play, but if they abandon the receiver it provides an easy pass opportunity.

Franklin and Dykes combine the horizontal stretch of inside zone and power with quick passes and wide receiver screens with the occasional shot down field. The duo keep defenses off balance by quickly transitioning from spread sets to the diamond formation to run power.  

Unlike San Diego State, Ohio State will nearly always be in at least nickel coverage. Expect the Buckeyes to play extensive amount of their dime scheme when Cal goes four and five wide. The Buckeyes will likely employ varieties of cover 4 pattern match coverage to deal with Cal's packaged plays. A defense cannot play traditional man against packaged plays because the offense will gain easy rushing yards while defenders are turned in coverage. 

Cal will thus provide an interesting challenge for the Buckeyes' defensive squad. But Ohio State is in as good a position as any to deal with the scheme given their secondary experience. And the Buckeyes' best defense may be their offense against the Bears' overmatched defense. 


Comments Show All Comments

yrro's picture

A defense cannot play traditional man against packaged plays because the offense will gain easy rushing yards while defenders are turned in coverage.

If more people would read this quote before next week it would head off a multitude of angry comments.

Wilkins78's picture

But... but... we might not get 3 and outs every single time!!! #firefickell

Ross Fulton's picture

I know its too nuanced for bar/talk radio arguments, but man coverage is pretty passe against spread sets because pattern matching gives you the benefit of man coverage without the run game problems caused by having your linebackers have to turn and run with WRs...

German Buckeye's picture

Do we need to win by a gazzilion points in order to not move further down the rankings?  I'm thinking we need to post a 70-3 win in order to NOT drop in the polls. 

jkrk's picture

If A&M takes down Bama, A&M jumps us and Bama doesn't drop below us. Better make it 140-3 just to be safe.


I am SO glad we got Roby and Barnett back. The Cal game takes on a different feel without those guys. Hell, the entire defense is affected by those two players not being in there.

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

willshire58's picture

Ross, Do you think the offense will scrap their jet tempo for the week just to keep the ball away from Cal's offense longer? Limiting the time that Cal has the ball is important, but I also think our offense is most effective when it is going hurry-up.

yrro's picture

I think they will do their own thing.
There's a very strong theory that, all things being equal, it is to the favor of the overdog to run more plays. They have a greater chance for a big play in favor on each play, so the more chances you have the more you will converge to the mean - ie, the overdog winning.
Now, this changes once you have a strong lead. If you already are ahead by three scores, the chances of the opponent stringing together three scores *more* than you dwindles very quickly as you reduce the number of chances - if you play good ball control offense, they may only get 4-5 attempts at it all half.
At least, that's my interpretation of how OSU has played the last two games. Blow out the first quarter using our faster tempo, then slow things down because they know they can't be caught, and they *can* always bump the tempo back up if they need to.

Ross Fulton's picture

What Yrro said...


In all seriousness I agree. I think the OSU O will come out and do their thing with the goal being to build a nice cushion midway through the 3d Q. Then they can slow down the pace and run the football.

BeijingBucks's picture

I agree w Yrro.  Buckeys can afford to play the 'anything you can do, I can do better' style.  better playmakers on both sides of the ball will eventually win out.
Last year wasn't that close of a game outside of the horrid defensive breakdowns giving up ridiculous chunks of yardage.
raaaaaa... can't wait

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

BTBuckeye's picture

They gonna be throwing at Armani Reeves and Gucci Powell

ScarletNGrey01's picture

This could be a high scoring affair with two dynamic offenses on the field.  With the QB situation being "fluid" at this point (and yes I'm a huge Kenny G fan) I'm a little concerned.  The offense gets most of the glamor, but I think the defense will play a huge role in this one.  Mr. Fulton certainly knows a lot more than me about defensive schemes and all that ... well done ... I just hope your analysis is not aiding and abetting the enemy LOL.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

Ross Fulton's picture

I have no personal knowledge but my gut is that Miller will start and play well.


Good chance Meyer knows Brax is fine. Coach is making Cal plan for both QBs, advantage us.

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

Earle's picture

 Louisiana Tech's offense regularly ran more plays then any team in the nation; a pace they are seeking to emulate at Cal.

With 99 and 95 offensive plays in their first two games, I would say they are succeeding so far.  My concern is keeping the D fresh, since we seem to have limited depth in the secondary, especially if we are playing 5-6 DB's the whole game.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

dan_isaacs's picture

Yep.  I'm thinking we'll be snapping the ball with under 10 seconds on the clock pretty often, just to give defense a rest.

Dan Isaacs

BTBuckeye's picture

With that much spread and # of plays...missed tackles = TD's. Get on it, especially the younger guys.
I think this game will be closer than most think.

jkrk's picture

Hope not. If it's closer than I think, then we're going to lose.

NJ_BUCKEYE's picture

If they are playing up tempo with four and five wide receivers on the field most of the time they will be needing depth as well.  Especially if they choose to try and string together short passing plays and don't hit any deep balls.  I think we will be ok, because I am fairly confident that their 5th, 6th, and 7th receivers, backs and tight ends will mean Reeves, Bell, and co. Shouldn't be out of their realm if they are needed as depth.  I thought reeves showed improvement last week as well, which was nice to see.

cinserious's picture

I expect plenty of dime coverage for the Buckeyes and lots of Steve Miller and Michael Bennett but Cal might get the ball off so quickly, sacks might be hard to come by.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes don't expect a lot of sacks. The key for the DL is maintaining gap integrity to take away the inside runs and QB scrambles.

osupolo's picture

I would also like to see the DL get their hands up if they cannot get to the QB with the ball coming out quickly.  I did not see this in the first two games.  The DL needs to do whatever it takes to get into the freshman QB's head, especially if they cannot get sacks. 

d5k's picture

Hopefully this is a coming out party for Tyvis Powell as it sounds like he will get double digit tackle opportunities.

rdubs's picture

Would some zone blitzing help slow down the reads on their short passing scheme?  It seems that if you have a dlineman drop into a passing lane while bringing a DB or extra LB from somewhere else it could mess up the reads on packaged plays as well.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, but picking and choosing your spots. I would be more apt to zone blitz in second and third and long.

Heisman Dog's picture

Can someone tell me how that play Cal runs in the displayed gif is legal? OL #78 pretty clearly crosses the LOS (and even the 1st down line) before the pass, which also goes across the LOS.  Wouldn't he then be an ineligible receiver?  The play is indeed very hard to defend, but also hard for the OL to keep track of which option is chosen by the QB.

yrro's picture

Under refs start calling it, it's legal. It's usually close and quick enough, and they're looking at enough other things, that they're almost never going to call it in college.
You would think the opposing coach would ask them to look for it at the start of the game, though.

osuguy2008's picture

Hey Ross-
Can you explain the different strategical reasons why OSU will shift to an over from the under?

pjtobin's picture

Thanks Ross. After reading this and the comments I feel better about going to Cal tomorrow. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad.