As with the offense, the Ohio State defense used the Florida A & M game as an extended practice session. For the defense, the goal was clear – work its man coverage looks.
The Buckeyes succeeded in their mission, shutting out the Rattlers. Even though the competition was poor it was still a good building block for a young defense that withered some criticism following the Cal game.
The man coverage work likely had a bigger purpose, however. The Buckeyes' ability to use man coverage looks will be critical against Wisconsin's pro-style, run heavy attack, allowing Ohio State to bring strong safety CJ Barnett down against the run.
Below I look at the Buckeye game plan and how the defensive coaching staff may prepare for Wisconsin.
Puttin' in some work
The Ohio State defense came out with one mission against Florida A & M, and that was to play extensive amounts of man coverage. The Buckeyes based from a 4-2-5 cover 1 nickel look, with Free Safety Christian Bryant playing in the deep middle.
In so doing, the Ohio State coaching staff provided their linebackers an automatic blitz check if the back they were responsible for stayed in to block.
On third downs the Buckeyes at times deployed a coverage they are using in increasing amounts – cover 2, man under, also known as cover 5. Cover 5 permits a defense to aggressively play underneath routes while still having deep help.
Luke Fickell and Everett Withers have likely turned to cover 5 as a change-up. On third down the Buckeyes are apt to play cover 2 or cover 3. While both coverages often take away deep throws, they can be vulnerable to quick hitting screens. For instance, Cal's 41 yard tunnel screen for a touchdown came on third and seven. Cover 5 allows the Buckeyes to mix in a look that aggressively attacks such plays while still having the deep safety help. Cover 5 is weak against the running game, including a quarterback scrambling, but that is less of an issue on third and long when the opponent lacks a running quarterback.
practice with a purpose
The Buckeyes did not run man coverage variations merely to demonstrate they were up to the challenge. Rather, it helped prepare the Buckeyes for their upcoming matchup with Wisconsin.
Under new Head Coach Gary Andersen, the Badgers may have altered their defensive scheme but the offense largely resembles previous Badger squads. The Wisconsin offensive coaches still want to line up and run the football downhill with power, inside zone and outside zone. The Badgers top offensive play makers are their two tailbacks Melvin Gordon and James White. Both are smaller, athletic types who are most dangerous when they break contain.
Wisconsin looks for creative ways to get Gordon the football. For instance, they will line up unbalanced with Gordon as the weak side flanker. The Badgers fake inside zone towards White, giving to Gordon running jet sweep towards the unbalanced side.
The Badger coaching staff would prefer to not rely exclusively upon their passing offense. Jared Abbrederis is a dangerous wide receiver but quarterback Joel Stave is relatively inexperienced. The Badgers ideally seek to throw the football off play action in favorable down and distance.
Look for Wisconsin to try and play their preferred style against Ohio State. Last season the Badger had some success against the Buckeyes using unbalanced formations to run the football and throw play action.
Enter cover 1. Arizona State slowed down the Badgers' base run game by bringing an eight defender in the box and then using corner and nickel blitzes to hem Gordon inside the tackle box. Look for the Buckeyes to employ a similar game plan. There is less concern using man coverage against Wisconsin because Stave is not a significant run threat. It should also allow the Buckeyes to adjust to unbalanced formations.
Moreover, the use of cover 1 allows the Buckeyes to disguise their coverage. As Andersen noted this week, the Buckeyes have shifted towards employing cover 3 this season. Both cover 1 and cover 3 utilize free safety Bryant in the middle of the field with strong safety Barnett coming up in strong side force support. Both coverages bring an eighth defender in the box and look similar pre-snap.
This in large part was the Buckeyes' defensive game plan last season. The Buckeyes utilized quarter-quarter-half coverage when they wanted boundary force support from Roby, and cover 1 when they wanted force support from Barnett. The Buckeyes also employed automatic blitz checks for the linebackers, just as they did against Florida A & M.
The critical battle for the Buckeye defense, however, is controlling the line of scrimmage with their interior defenders. Ohio State will benefit from Adolphus Washington's return, but Wisconsin will surely test the Buckeyes' rebuilt defensive front. If the Badgers can run the football they can take the air out of the ball and keep the Buckeye offense off the field. Conversely, if the Buckeyes win enough battles up front they can force Wisconsin out of their comfort zone and force them to find creative ways to get Gordon the football.