Ohio State v. Iowa: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on October 24, 2013 at 1:00p

Against Iowa, the Ohio State defense turned in another middling performance. The Buckeyes allowed the Hawkeyes to dominate the first half. Iowa scored on its first three opportunities while controlling the clock, limiting the Ohio State offense to three possessions.  

More troubling, the Buckeye defense exhibited many of the same schematic and personnel issues that have plagued Ohio State for over a year. Ohio State spent the first half unable to adjust or defend Iowa's simple, yet effective, strategy.

The Buckeye defense did stiffen in the second half, limiting the Hawkeye run game and, in so doing, slowing Iowa more generally. This demonstrated the defense's potential for better play, but left nagging issues unresolved. The Ohio State defense also received a major assist from an offense that controlled the third and fourth quarters.

Below I address Iowa's offensive game plan against Ohio State, where and how the Buckeye scheme and personnel could not adjust, and what Ohio State did differently in the second half.

the constraint is THE tHING

Iowa had a straightforward strategy that was effective because it worked together as a coherent whole and took advantage of Ohio State's schematic and personnel deficiencies. Iowa utilized two and three tight end sets (12 and 13 personnel). The Hawkeyes placed their two tight ends in a wing formation to the boundary, with one tight end and one receiver or two receivers to the field.

Iowa did so to gain a numbers' advantage. Ohio State aligns its defensive front to the field. That means that if the call is a 4-3 under, the coaches place the defense's numbers' strength to the field's wide side from a hash mark. The 1 technique, 5 technique, Mike and Sam linebackers go to the wide side, while the 3 technique, Viper and Will linebacker play to the boundary. 

The Ohio State defense aligns in this manner even if the offense puts its formation strength to the boundary. In response, opposing offenses have regularly adopted the tactic of putting its numbers to the boundary. Iowa used its multiple tight ends to maximize its numeric advantage to the boundary side of the centerline (each player parallel to the football counts as 1/2 to each side).

Look at all of Iowa's tight ends.

From there, the Hawkeyes ran stretch, often to the boundary,

followed by bootleg flood routes to the field.

The Hawkeyes used no-huddle to prevent Ohio State from substituting or adjusting. The Hawkeyes would come to the line with their quarterback often using a check with me to determine which side to run. Iowa would then let the play clock run down before snapping.

While Iowa's scheme was simple it was effective because the Buckeyes could not stop the Hawkeye run game. Buckeye defenders accordingly over committed to the run, leaving them vulnerable to play action. 

Matchup Mismatch

The numerical advantage Iowa gained had the additional benefit of creating matchup problems for the Buckeyes. Specifically, Iowa forced Ohio State's edge defenders to fill roles in which they were uncomfortable. Iowa's boundary stretch runs required Viper Noah Spence to hold the edge against Iowa's multiple tight ends. Spence had little help because of the Buckeyes' numbers disadvantage, but he struggled in this role. Spence was also asked to cover the boundary flats in pass coverage against Iowa's bootlegs, a role in which he is uncomfortable.

Iowa's boundary-heavy formation also resulted in the misalignment of certain defensive roles. Ohio State's boundary corner was required to provide force support and create a pile in response to being blocked by Iowa's tight ends. To the field, Sam linebacker Josh Perry effectively became a nickel back, aligning outside the tackle box to the wide side flat.

This trade-off making a corner a run defender and Perry a pass defnder was to Iowa's advantage, particularly once boundary corner Bradley Roby was ejected. Perry was particularly lost in his role. Even though he was responsible for wide side contain he often bit on play action away, providing Iowa easy throws off bootleg in the flat.

Tightening Down

The Ohio State defense did put forth a better second half performance. Just as the first half problems resulted from both personnel and schematic breakdowns, the second half improvement came in both areas.

The biggest component was squeezing down against Iowa's run game. The best way to stop outside zone is to get inside penetration that cuts off the play and prevents cutback lanes. Unfortunately, as Mike Vrabel colorfully stated, Iowa's offensive line "beat the shit out of the Buckeye defensive line in the first half. The left side of Iowa's offensive line was particularly effective.

That changed in the second half. Michael Bennett began controlling the line of scrimmage, forcing Iowa's tailbacks offline, thereby providing Ohio State defenders time to flow to the football before the Hawkeye ball carriers reached the second level. 

By limiting the run game, Iowa was forced into must-pass situations where the underneath play action game was less effective, providing the Buckeyes the opportunity to get off the field. 

The Old Switcheroo

Schematically the Buckeyes made subtle adjustments. The Buckeyes began slanting their defense line towards the multiple tight ends. In coverage the Buckeyes sought to take away Iowa's wide side flat throws. Ohio State continued to play cover 3, but used a strong side cloud rotation. Wide side corner Doran Grant came down to take away the underneath flat, with the Buckeyes three defensive backs rotating to the wide side to play the deep thirds.

Ohio State Cover 3

This allowed Grant to jump several throws. Alternatively, the Buckeyes played cover 2 man under in pass situations, again seeking to eliminate underneath and medium routes.

Get with the program

Iowa's offensive coaching staff deserves credit. They devised a plan that maximized their strengths vis a vie Ohio State. They did not run at the Buckeye defense line and did not try to beat the Buckeyes with their wide receivers. They attacked the weak spot of the Buckeye defense, namely their linebackers in space.

And they did so by using the best assets an offense has, namely dictating the personnel and numbers a defense must match, and by making plays look alike to constrain a defense. The Buckeye defense was not prepared to respond to 13 personnel, nor to Iowa's run-heavy boundary looks. By not being prepared to play the run, the defense was vulnerable to play action.

Nonetheless, the Buckeye defensive players and coaches must better adjust to what an offense is presenting. In the first half the Buckeye defensive players often looked to have communication issues and to be confused in setting their alignment. The defensive coaching staff is unlikely to alter its philosophy and begin calling its formation strength to match the offense. But the Buckeyes must adjust how they approach such formations, because going back to last season teams have hurt the Buckeyes by running to the boundary. 

This primary adjustment must come from the defensive back seven. The Buckeyes need to roll its safeties towards the tight end side, walking the boundary safety up as a force defender. The linebackers must also adjust towards the offense's strong side. Slanting towards the tight ends was a good start but the Buckeyes also need to employ run blitzes to have defenders shoot the gap and stop outside zone early.

The Buckeyes' personnel must also play better. Spence and Bennett have significant tasks against the boundary run game. Both are undersized but must hold the point of attack. On the opposite end, if Josh Perry is responsible for the wide side flat, he must maintain discipline against the pass. Getting caught in the wash away from the play does nothing to benefit the defense. Against a team using this approach the defensive staff should also consider using nickel Tyvis Powell, given what is being asked of the Sam linebacker.

The Buckeyes' ability to defend the boundary was also significantly compromised by the loss of Roby. Roby is not only a physical run defender but also the linchpin of the Ohio State pass defense. Armani Reeves twice failed to get sufficient zone depth, resulting in two Iowa touchdown's including Iowa's 78 yard touchdown in the third quarter. It is self-evident why the Buckeyes are loathe to play man coverage without Roby.

The Buckeyes should certainly not be surprised if Penn State uses a similar formula Saturday. Penn State utilizes several tight ends and have perhaps the best receiver in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson. Look for Penn State to similarly align their tight ends to the boundary with Robinson isolated to the wide field. Watch for Penn State to use tight end stick routes early and often as they seek to exploit OSU's edge players in the underneath flat.

The Buckeyes must better control the line of scrimmage. From there, the Ohio State defensive coaching staff needs to go back to using some of the stunting and twisting it employed against Northwestern to generate a consistent pass rush. 


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Hovenaut's picture

Maybe this unit will tighten things up from the get in the latter of the season now, versus the latter half of these first seven games. 
Not concerned about the front four, I thought the Iowa line just played a very good game, especially the first half. Hope to see a little more of Schutt, helping out with the interior rotation. 
Still holding onto the hope the back seven can find some sort of comfortable coverage scheme to where they're effective. Think Grant and Pitt Brown are going to be tested, as well as Roby being responsible for Robinson. 
Appreciate the closer look, along with what PSU might be going with come Saturday. 

Buckeye1004's picture

Great write up.  I have a question, though.  I'm used to seeing the Buckeye defense make adjustments after the first couple of series, why did it take until half time to make the adjustments?  Is this a result of the youth? or is there more to it?

Maestro's picture

Bennett dinged up and Roby out of the game probably played a role in slow adjustments.

vacuuming sucks

stittracer99's picture

I think it just seems like it took forever to make adjustments because of how few drives there were during the game. Iowa's first three drives resulted in points. From there, they only had five drives for the rest of the game, which resulted in one score (a one play drive - the 75 yard bust). So they actually had things cleaned up by the fourth Iowa possession. Had this been a "normal" game, the fourth possession typically occurs late during the first quarter or start of the second.

Ross Fulton's picture

Iowa's use of no-huddle also clearly caused problems for the D getting set and adjusting.



causeicouldntgo43's picture

Great point - makes sense.


Safe to say we CANNOT let Penn State run on us like Iowa did. Otherwise Hackenberg will have a field day off play action. We have to stuff the run and pressure and force the freshman to play like a freshman and not a Heisman QB.
You can almost guarantee the refs will be watching Roby and other OSU defenders for high hits. Roby needs a big game. I hope he doesnt let that ejection affect how he plays the rest of the way. He's already been struggling as it is.

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

d5k's picture

Yet again a team breaks tendencies against us to great success.  There was a lot of talk all week about how Iowa runs the same offense from the past decade then they bust out some new stuff and we get caught with our pants down.  
Certainly the alignment causes problems but this seems like a simpler version of what Wisconsin likes to do so I'm surprised we couldn't adjust more quickly.

Earle's picture

Schemes and adjustments aside, I think the Buckeyes just played better in the second half.  Just looking at the examples Ross uses, if Spence maintains outside leverage in the first GIF like he does in the last one, the RB has to cut back into the pursuit.  The same goes for Shazier getting off blocks (he gets trucked by the tackle in the first one, but avoids the block makes the play in the last one).  Similarly if Perry doesn't get suckered by the play fake and keeps contain on the boot, the QB has to make that throw with someone in his face.
Something tells me the coaches had a few choice words for the D at halftime.  That's not to say they don't share the blame for being slow to adjust, but a lot of it has to do with players making plays (or not).

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.

NEWBrutus's picture

Spence drives his man 4 yards into the backfield.  So I wouldn't say he didn't do his job.  Watch Roby back peddle out of the play as Barnet comes crashing down only to get blocked.  If Roby sees that better, there is a different result, IMO. 

Earle's picture

Spence drives his man 4 yards into the backfield.  So I wouldn't say he didn't do his job.

I would.  He lost contain.  Doesn't matter if he drove his man back if the lets the RB get outside him.   As Ross said:

Iowa's boundary stretch runs required Viper Noah Spence to hold the edge against Iowa's multiple tight ends

He didn't do it on that play.  He did in the later example. 

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.

Ross Fulton's picture

He didn't do his job because he did not stay on the TE's outside shoulder. 

Roby is dropping back because of the coverage. The biggest prob is that Barnett gets eaten by the block.

dmurder's picture

Hopefully, Iowa was a scrimmage of sorts for the type of offense we will see. Rather face the same offense twice in a row it's fresh and the scheme to defend it is the same. Instead going from a spread to run heavy.

My hope is that we will look like the 2nd half in the first half. Hoping roby has a big game!

IU put up big numbers on this team I expect the same from us.

Boarding a cruise ship now!


"We have always had the best damn band in the land, now we have the best damn team in the land"- Jim Tressel 1-03-03

NEWBrutus's picture

Interesting in the first gif mashup of Iowa's run....It is Roby who is bailing out (back peddling and getting deep) on the play instead of recognizing run and coming up to support the boundary side of the play.
Good breakdown as always.

Ross Fulton's picture

They were playing C3.  See Barnett coming down against the run. He just did a poor job getting blocked.

whobdis's picture

Once it's determined to be a run play I would think field responsibility would be diminished and Roby would pursue the ball. I supposed the back could still have thrown the ball but I didn't see anyone in a route. I did think it odd Roby backpeddled so fast deep into the play. Maybe he seen something I don't see on the film

d5k's picture

That is his coverage responsibility.  If you completely abandon the deep zones to stop the run that's when you get burned for 80 yard TD's...  Ross already answered this twice but Barnett is the extra run defender on that play.

Ross Fulton's picture

This. The first rule of defense is do your job. When they played QQH, Roby was right in there making a pile.

45OH4IO's picture

It seems like Penn State will be a combo platter of what the Bucks have already faced this season in regards to passing: the TE threat of Iowa and the WR threat Wisky had with Abbredaris. I think there are turnover possibilities if Roby can follow Robinson, but sneak a safety or deep linebacker under him to look for some stare-downs or low throws from Hackenberg.
I hope they worked on play action with the Will linebackers this week. Putting a nickel in on two and three TE sets is disconcerting against a run play.

Doc's picture

Couldn't the defense recognize the heavy formation toward the boundary and "act" like it is the field side and defend it like normal.  Our defenders have to be fast enough to cover the ground if the play does go to the field side after the QB adjusts to our changed formation.  It just seems like the defensive staff is trying to jam a square peg into a round hole every week and not learning from their mistakes.  What says you guys?

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Ross Fulton's picture

The defense can easily be called to the formation rather than the field. I personally think they should do so occasionally, if for no other reason then prevent offenses from relying upon this principle. But lots of 4-3 under coaches only call the D to the field (Mattison is another).

ab42beerman's picture

Ross, you do a hell of a job.  Good read.

hcazualcc's picture

ross - would you have subbed spence out for a bigger player like steve miller or possibly had washington + bosa out at ends?  i have a hard time justifying having spence out there against a 3 tight end set, given his strength is primarily the speed rush...

Ross Fulton's picture

Just hard to move guys to positions they haven't played.


I'm somewhat puzzled how they have used Spence all season. I've started think of how they want to play defense as more of a 3-4. Spence for all intents and purposes is an outside linebacker.

hcazualcc's picture

thanks!!  can you elaborate on why you're puzzled?  i'm not as high on spence as some other posters, wondering if it's a schematic issue?  

Ross Fulton's picture

To me, Spence is an undersized weak side DE that is best used as a pass rusher getting upfield.


He is essentially being asked to be an outside linebacker.

Milk Steak To Go's picture

The first half of the game reminded me of the Wisconsin game last year, except where Wisconsin would either go unbalanced or motion to where they had a numbers advantage, Iowa just flat out showed it.

nfischer's picture

I feel a little more ignorant and smarter now after reading this - all at the same time.  Thanks Ross...I think. :-)

jedkat's picture

Ohio State v. Iowa: Defensive Breakdown

Whelp that summed up the first half nicely.

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"No. You're an idiot, and your posts are terrible."

rjmatrim's picture

Ross, as always, does an excellent analysis. My (layman's) takeaway from this report and past reports is that Iowa's BASIC/Obvious offensive game plan wasn't a sophisticated, intricate strategy or scheme, (as opposed to Oregon, Baylor etc). Iowa's strategy worked because our coaching strategy seems lacking in reacting or planning effectively for the obvious and some players aren't performing. This has been going on since last year. My general reaction was; what happens if Iowa's offense has solid receivers, and a solid QB ? It seems the strategy issues and some player performance issues were also evident for the Wis. and NW games as well as other games. OSU has recruited top level athletes for many years. Something is fundamentally wrong when elite athletes (seemingly), and mostly from the same defensive positions, make the same type of mental/assignment mistakes over and over.
Thinking about last year, the defense completely changed and improved dramatically when one player, Boren, went to ML. It's really amazing what happened. One player went from fullback/H to ML and it was transformational. 
I stopped worrying/fantasizing about a NCG and I'm waiting to see what the Coaches will do with this defense. 

d5k's picture

While Boren did change things a lot, having both Bryant and Barnett healthy was important too.  While Curtis Grant has improved a bit, I think Josh Perry looks like injured Storm Klein 2.0.  His feet are in cement out there.
A key difference not mentioned between the good and the bad outside zone stretch play is how Curtis Grant doesn't try to shoot a backside gap in the 2nd half play and this helps clog up the cutback lane along with the edge being set.  In the first half play only Bennett really has a chance to make a tackle if Spence had even forced a cutback due to Shazier getting pancaked and Barnett getting swallowed up while Grant ran himself out of the play.

Earle's picture

Yeah, I noticed that too, and it made me wander if it wasn't a called blitz.  Otherwise, I would expect him to scrape along the LOS to the ball unless he just made a really bad read. 

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.

cplunk's picture

As a fan, that first half killed me.
From the interest-in-football-as-strategy perspective I really admired what Iowa was doing that first half. Their coaching staff had identified our weaknesses and exploited them as well as was possible. Their offense just plain out-coached our defensive staff the first half, mainly through preparation.
I was pleased to see the improvement the second half, but I'm still not entirely pleased with our defensive scheme or some of the personnel.

Ahh Saturday's picture

Ross, hope I'm not too late on this thread, but I was hoping to hear your thoughts on the relationship between Fickell and Withers. I am not blaming either for the woes of our D over the last two seasons, but I suspect that is part of the problem, a lack of accountability. Whose defense is this, Fickell's or Withers'? Do they complement each other at all, or just get in each other's way?

tussey's picture

Everyone is ripping on the coaching staff, but has anyone ever though that maybe the coaches can't run the scheme they want to run because the players can't execute it?  We all know that our linebackers aren't that great in coverage.  It's possible that because of this they are purposefully going with a bend but don't break defense to prevent the big play.  The theory is to make a team earn it down the field rather than give up the big play.  You can call it bad coaching if you want to but I would think that they are doing a stellar job if they aren't able to do what they want to do and are having to come up with alternative ways of scheming/game planning in order do get the job done.

Ahh Saturday's picture

Not sure if this comment was responding to mine, so apologies if it wasn't, but in my post I specifically mentioned that I am not blaming the staff. I am just wondering about the decision making process involved when you have co-coordinators. Many people, including Urban Meyer, expressed concern regarding how long it took us to make defensive adjustments against Iowa. My question for Ross is whether the diffusion of defensive responsibility might play a role in that.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think this is pretty spot on as to where the D coaching staff is. Not a lot of trust in certain players

causeicouldntgo43's picture

O'Brien and company definitely have the template for success against the OSU Defense after seeing what Iowa did. Just keep your eyes on the TE's when PSU is on offense. The only "flats" that will be getting more action would be Cleveland's during an Insurance agent convention.............
That said - I think Fick-eathers will be more ready for it than they were last Saturday and we will be OK.

Ross Fulton's picture

The primary difference I see is that I don't think PSU will be able to run like that. There OL isn't as good and OSU's DL should be more prepared to play after getting pushed around. OSU has a much better chance if they can make PSU one dimensional. 

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Man I just love reading these articles. I swear I'm going to get fired from work one day for reading 11w to much.

This defense is very young. They just cannot execute the game plan the way the coaches want them to. There just playing through the troubled times and by next season this unit will be ferocious.
I also really get the vibe that Fickle and Withers don't like each other at all. I'm sure they don't like the fact that they are equals. Especially Fickle.

Blue Eyed Buckeye's picture

It's disappointing that it worked so well because that's about as old-school as football gets.  Run the ball left, throw the ball to the tight end in the right flat.  That's as simple of a scheme as there is in football and our defense struggled with it.