Ohio State v. Cal: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on September 19, 2013 at 1:00p

Ohio State reached into its recent past for its strategy to check Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin’s Cal offense – keep everything in front and come up and tackle, forcing the offense to drive the length of the field. The Buckeyes had some success doing so, but faltered when they deviated from what that strategy required – surrendering explosive plays, that being gains greater than 20 yards. 

Cal’s big plays were often a result of poor tackling, a recurring problem in recent seasons. Despite this, the Buckeye defense made numerous stops, particularly in the first quarter, to allow Ohio State to establish a comfortable lead the Buckeyes never surrendered.

Below I examine the defensive game plan against the Bear Raid, why the strategy did and did not succeed and the takeaways for the Ohio State defense moving forward.

The Ghosts of Heacock’s Past

The Ohio State defense had a straightforward strategy to defend Cal’s quick, horizontal passing game.  Concede certain underneath throws, make tackles, and force Cal to drive the length of the field. To do so, the Buckeyes eschewed the split safety pattern matching cover 4 they often use against spread offenses for the more traditional single high safety cover 3, a coverage the Buckeyes used sparingly last season.

Ohio State would present Cal with a two high safety look, with CJ Barnett rolling down at the snap with Christian Bryant playing the deep middle. The coaching staff’s goal was to make tackles in front of the back three defenders. The staff mixed this primary coverage with cover 1, cover 2, and quarter quarter half.

If this strategy sounds familiar it should – it was the basic game plan that Jim Heacock employed during his successful tenure as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. Heacock’s influence should not be surprising, given that he is a consultant to the defense.

To implement this plan against Cal’s 4 and 5 wide receiver sets, Ohio State overwhelmingly played its dime package, with Corey Brown coming in for Curtis Grant. This left Ryan Shazier as the only linebacker. On third and long Ohio State went further, utilizing seven defensive backs. Armani Reeves entered in place of a defensive tackle with Shazier lining up a stand up rush end.

Shazier was highly effective in that role. Look for Ohio State to try and continue to utilize him in this manner on third and long, at least when the coaching staff does not believe another linebacker is needed.

Close but No Cigar

The Buckeye defensive strategy succeeded until it did not. The Buckeyes made several first quarter stops, allowing Ohio State to build a 21-0 lead. But Ohio State then surrendered two touchdowns on plays over 40 yards. This violates the central tenet of the defensive strategy. Putting aside a discussion regarding whether it is the correct strategy (and Jim Heacock’s defenses stopped a lot of good offenses following this formula), once a defense decides to follow that plan it defeats the purpose if the defense is allowing explosive plays.

The first such touchdown was a lapse in coverage. The Buckeyes were in cover 2 and stopped the initial pass routes. Cal’s Jared Goff scrambled, leading Cal Wide Receiver James Grisom to release downfield. Bradley Roby lost track of Grisom, allowing him behind the coverage. Roby compounded the problem with a poor tackle attempt.

Cal’s second touchdown on a jailbreak screen resulted from poor recognition from Ohio State’s defensive backs and excellent execution by Cal. As noted, on third downs, Reeves entered and played in the slot, a position he may not be entirely familiar with. He was slow to react, allowing Cal’s linemen to set their blocks.

As Meyer stated, the Buckeye defensive backs need to trigger on such plays. That is precisely what Bradley Roby does on the same play later in the game, stopping it for no gain.

Going forward, the Buckeyes need more consistent play from their star, Tyvis Powell, to reduce the gains by opposing offenses on wide receiver screens. The star is often responsible for the wide side flat, and he needs to recognize what is coming, beat the block to the spot, and make a play.

Beyond Cal’s scores off breakdowns such as these, Ohio State’s game plan was largely successful against the Bears’ prolific attack.  Three of Cal’s four touchdowns came on drives where Cal had an explosive play. The Buckeyes held Cal on two other drives to field goals and limited Cal to .37 points per play, a vindication of the Buckeyes’ strategy. Ohio State also forced three three and outs. The Buckeyes were not going to completely stop an offense running so many plays, but the game plan was to make Cal beat them, a plan undermined at times by big plays.

Where We Stand

Ohio State's defensive performance against Cal should not cause panic, however. Dykes and Franklin had one of the top offenses in college football in recent years and Cal has some talent on offense. Cal will likely score points against every team . Cal deployed a fake punt (with Goff wearing the same number as the punter), a hook and lateral, and other deception plays in an attempt to stay with Ohio State. When an offense is running nearly 100 plays in rapid succession they will inevitably move the football. A defensive’s performance should be measured differently than in a game with 50 plays per side.

The brightest spot for Ohio State is the emergence of depth in the defensive front and backfield, permitting the defensive staff flexibility. Nowhere has that been more important than the emergence of Joey Bosa. It is difficult for a unit that was replacing four starters to lose Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington. But Bosa has stepped in and not missed a beat. For a freshman he is physical at the point of attack and has a nose for the football, particularly against the run. When Washington returns the Buckeye coaching staff needs to find ways to get both Bosa and Washington on the field together.

Noah Spence also played another solid game. Spence is always around the quarterback and simply needs to improve his pass rushing moves to increase his sack total. The Buckeyes need Schutt to solidify their depth at nose guard, but when Schutt and Washington return Ohio State has the potential for a deep rotation up front.

As Meyer stated, his team's defensive shortcomings against Cal were primarily a result of mental breakdowns. The Buckeyes had double digit-missed tackles, a number Meyer would like in single digits. This would cut down explosive plays and force offenses to execute. The defense must continue to improve its tackling and recognition, but still has the making of a strong unit by season’s end.


Comments Show All Comments

edr4225's picture

Great write up, yeah our D is starting to look like the sliver bullets and are only getting better.  We are very young on the front 7, but they are starting to jell, the potential is amazing right now. I know we will cause havoc to big ten offenses.  also, IOS 7 is legit!! 

lets go bucks!!

dmiller2345's picture

Great job again Ross. Love reading these breakdowns!
We replaced 9 starters on 'D' if I am correct and if all we need to fix is some missed tackles I think we are on the right track; granted the two key people who missed tackles that game were Roby and Shazier!!! C'mon man!!!

"I've got to coach a few of them and I want an angry team, I want a pissed off football team." - Urban F. Meyer

2015 CFP National Champions Buckeyes 42 - Ducks 20

- Are you a solution or a Pain in the ASS? -

BuckeyeSouth's picture

Not to be "that guy" but, we replaced 7 starters on D.  Returning were Barnett, Bryant, Roby & Shazier.

Champions.  Undisputed.  

d5k's picture

He is thinking of game 1 when Roby and Barnett were out.

bassplayer7770's picture

I also want to point out that there were two easy interceptions that went right through the hands of Roby and Pitt Brown.  The DBs have to catch those.

Ross Fulton's picture

Absolutely. The D missed a couple of opportunities that would have really put the nail in the coffin.

Earle's picture

It was really only a handful of plays away from being a pretty dominant defensive effort, or as dominant as you can get against that kind of offensive attack.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

Buckeye06's picture

Great and informative as always.  Is there a way to get the D write up before the O write up?  I love them both but could keep more people from going off the cliff if they had the D write up on Tuesday
Thanks again

fear_the_nut70's picture

With regards to missed tackles, I have wondered if concerns regarding concussions and injuries have lead to practices with less contact/tackling drills and this is the reason for a possible trend in CFB (I saw several other games this weekend, and missed tackling is a huge issue IMO)?  Or, with the advent of hurry up spread type offense, are tired players being put into position in space to make one on one tackles, and with the increased number of players, more missed tackles are the inevitable result?  Or obviously maybe it's both. Whatever it is, this is becoming an epidemic in CFB.

d5k's picture

People forgot how to teach tackling prior to the concussion crisis.  Ask Spiels about the subject, it has been an epidemic for a decade+ with guys trying to make video game / sportscenter hits instead of seeing, wrapping, driving, etc.

AndyVance's picture

D is right on this one, the poor tackling virus had infected college football long before many of the new rules were on the drafting table. Spielman gives a great talk on the issue, but I've often pondered if this is a direct side effect of what I call the "highlight reel" mentality: in other words, players are so focused on making a big hit that they ignore tackling fundamentals.
In their efforts to fly like Clay Matthews, they miss a lot of easy take-downs. And let's face it, it's Matthews-type hits - or Clowney-style decapitations - that make SportsCenter's top plays, not text-book, fundamental tackles.

NorthernOhioBuckeye's picture

players are so focused on making a big hit that they ignore tackling fundamentals.

BINGO! I've played a lot of football and have coached a lot of football. My specialty was teaching kids how to tackle. One of the things I always tell the kids is that tackling is like hitting a baseball. If you swing for the fence every time at bat, sure you may hit a few home runs, but you will most likely strike out much more often. The same goes for tackling. If you put your head down and leave your feet, you will get that big hit every now and then, but you are going to miss a lot of tackles.

Contrary in baseball, if you concentrate on making a good swing with your eyes on the ball and make good contact, you will hit the ball more often. Then when things come together, you will hit the occasional home run. Tackling is similar in that if you keep your feet under you, keep your head up, but your shoulder into the ball carrier with your head in front and drive through to a spot 2 yds past the ball carrier, you will make a lot of tackles. And you will also occasionally get the big hit.

It's not rocket science but it is repetition. They should be form tackling EVERY DAY of practice, pads or no pads. That is how you get better. One of the things every team I ever coached was known for was great tackling. The Bucks can be that team also, but they need to practice it EVERY DAY!

js2378's picture

Three words: Leaving your feet.
You can even see it on Shazier's sack/stripe. He gets around the LT and lunges at Goff. It's hard to practice good tackling technique against someone who is trying to make you miss, but on that play, he had no reason to not wrap up and drive his feet through Goff to bring him down. 

d5k's picture

They need to have seminars that talk about the science of leaving your feet and how it reduces leverage, slows you down, etc.   Laying out for a catch often is worse than just running the play out as taking 1-2 less steps slows you down.
To your point, how often do you see Olympic wrestlers leave their feet?


You take away those two long TD passes and our defense played exceptionally well. Both plays were set up by mental breakdowns as Ross said. I am more optimistic about this defense than I was a year ago at this point. Let's PRAY there are no regressions, especially this weekend against likely the worst offense OSU has faced in a long, long time.

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

d1145fresh's picture

Good posting... to all the naysayers about our D can I ask a legit question: What team have you seen with this mythical "National Championship level Defense"? Before the season everyone would say Alabama but while they have won their D against VT and A&M hasn't look amazing. I just wonder because it has only been 3 games and I haven't watched any defense completely shut down a good offense.
If OSU is still giving up 30+ points for the whole season then maybe it is time to worry. Until then lets just relax and enjoy the wins.

cal3713's picture

Michigan State?  Two games in they had scored more points than the MSU offense and had dropped at least one pick 6.  Not that that team is going to win the NC, but the defense scares me.

d1145fresh's picture

Michigan State has played well but what sort of offenses have they went up against? 13 points for Western Michigan; 6 points for South Florida; 17 points for Youngstown State... not exactly world beaters.

ScoobyKnows's picture

Yea, the defense looked pretty foolish on that jail break screen.  That being said, I think the defense is getting better and will be playing at top notch by mid-season.  Thank you Ross for the breakdown.  Now I gotta get back to work.  Scooby Dooby Doooooooo!

Maestro's picture

You have something in common with my 5 year-old Scooby.  He loves that show.

vacuuming sucks

Ethos's picture

Wait Jim H. is being used as a consultant?  That seems odd to me since we already have TWO defensive coordinators...

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

causeicouldntgo43's picture

It's Urban being inclusive with those he knows, knew, or wants to know, that can help him win. Why not get the benefit of the extra pair of eyes and experience that Heacock brings? I'm sure the price is right, and Heacock gets to keep his hand in the game without going full tilt, Red Bull, hair-on-fire - a win all around.

theDuke's picture

Take care of tackling and this D is gonna be nasty like the old days.
Its going to be interesting to see how this Cal team matches up with Oregon next weekend, after having a week to prepare and having played tOSU. 


Ross Fulton's picture

Oregon plays Cal at home. My guess is that Oregon puts up 60+ but Cal puts up some decent numbers.

theDuke's picture

Ahh you are correct.  i was thinking it was the other way around. I guess we'll see how Goff handles the road. Either way it will give us some hint of comparison, seeing as how Cal basically played a road game at home... I think Goff is going to keep getting better, quickly too. Seems to have pretty good mechanics and a grasp of the offense.  But i gotta hand it to the Ducks, the few minutes i watched last weekend, Mariota and Co. looked really sharp. 


Ross Fulton's picture

I was impressed with Goff. The system is set up for a QB to have a high completion percentage, but he was poised and is accurate.

yrro's picture

Agreed. Even on the interceptions he didn't look flustered, just misread the coverage. An easy thing to do a few times when you're running that fast.
I know people say it's the system... but if the system makes a freshman (albeit a grayshirt) look like that... then what is wrong with everyone else's systems?
It wasn't all dink and dunk stuff, either - the balls that he beat us deep on were absolutely perfect throws.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Thanks for the learnings Ross. Also, to say I'm rooting a bit for Cal in this game is a massive understatement..............

Seattle Linga's picture

Thanks for the read Ross - great job

ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

Main concern is tackling.  Outside of that, a few coverage boners will happen here and there, but this defense will get better and better.

Class of 2010.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

My wife had the same concern......about the tackling, not the coverage boners.

AJW_16's picture

Nice work! I swear, my worst nightmare is Cal running the jailbreak screen on a loop.

"Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you." 

Wilkins78's picture

I've watched that first Cal touchdown over and over, and I can't seem to shake my initial opinion that it was much more Pitt Brown's fault than Roby's.  Brown loses his coverage immediately off the line and is caught in no man's land on the pass.  Meanwhile his man cuts over and essentially screens Roby who sees two guys and can't turn and spot the ball quickly enough.  And with two receivers over there the safety help can't cheat towards the line (even though Bryant doesn't take the best angle anyway).  Roby plays short on the out and up route, and wasn't in that bad of a position to make a play in the end.  If Brown was covering his man, he would have had an easy play on the ball.

yrro's picture

From Barnett's point of view, I bet he never even saw the guy who caught the ball. He thought Brown's man was going to catch it and go out of bounds immediately. Instead he suddenly has a guy coming at him at full speed.

bigbill992001's picture

Im a little disappointed in Robe, so far.   He certainly didnt look like an AA.   Maybe he's having buyer's remorse, as Urb referred to.

d5k's picture

He had a couple coverage busts last year too, but he also made ridiculous plays and tackled like a linebacker at times.

Ross Fulton's picture

Have to disagree. He makes plays all over the field and allows the defense to do so much. If he has any fault--and Meyer alluded to this yesterday--he looks better in man than zone coverage. He almost looks a little bored playing deep 1/3 zone

connectthedots's picture

Ross do you break down film via televised dvr or are you afforded the opportunity of seeing game film? 

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