Against Penn State, the Ohio State offense picked up where they left off against Iowa.
Once again a defense sought to cheat additional defenders against the Buckeye run game and once again the Ohio State offense exploited the resulting openings. Specifically, the Buckeyes attacked the weak spots left by the Penn State strategy in both the horizontal flats and with play action down field. Braxton Miller also demonstrated the shortcomings of blitzing the Buckeye offense, as he repeatedly eluded rushers to gain yards scrambling or hit open receivers.
Once Penn State had to widen to account for those deficiencies the Nittany Lions had no chance against Carlos Hyde and the Ohio State run game.
The Buckeyes made one sizeable improvement in comparison to the Iowa performance, however. The Buckeyes were perfect in turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns, resulting in a jump in points and forcing Penn State to play from behind.
Below I address how the Buckeyes responded to Penn State's defensive game plan and left the Nittany Lions nowhere to turn, how Ohio State addressed their red zone deficiencies, the difficulty defending Ohio State, and the corresponding growth of Miller.
The Song Remains the Same
Penn State employed many of the same tactics utilized by other defenses against the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions operated from a cover 4 shell. Upon the snap, Penn State would play cover 4 or rotate to a middle of the field safety look to bring an additional defender in the box. The Nittany Lions also cheated an outside linebacker off a slot receiver into the gray area, i.e. the opening between the receiver and offensive tackle.
As with opposing defenses before it, Penn State's overarching goal was applying additional defenders against the run.
On passing downs, defenses have adopted one of two tactics against the Miller-led passing attack. Defenses either drop into coverage, trying not so much to rush Miller as to fence him in the pocket, or blitz Miller in an attempt to force quick decisions. Penn State adopted the latter tactic, often bringing five or six man overload rushes.
But its not quite working
But as with Iowa, Ohio State picked apart Penn State's strategy all evening. The Buckeyes used the same formula to do so, namely exploiting areas left open by run-focused safeties and outside linebackers. The Buckeyes threw a number of flash screens. With flash screen the outside receiver comes inside to catch the football with the slot receiver kicking out the corner.
Perhaps no play better epitomizes the Buckeyes' offensive growth then the increased use of flash screen. Since 2012 defenses have consistently cheated defenders against the Buckeye run game, but Ohio State could not or would not consistently throw flash screens with success.
That has changed in recent weeks. Flash screen is often used as a packaged play. The offensive line and Hyde will run inside zone or power, while the wide receivers run flash screen. Miller reads the backside defender and has the option to either hand to Hyde or throw the flash screen. Miller is showing an increasing confidence and understanding in when to pull the football and throw the screen. The Buckeye receivers have also been far better at getting up field and gaining yards after the completion.
With Penn State cheating an outside linebacker inside the Nittany Lions had no ability to cover the play as the Buckeyes had an easy 2 on 1 against the corner.
The Buckeyes also utilized Dontre Wilson in the flat, again taking advantage of the fact that Penn State's defense could not play cover 4, defend the inside run game and cover underneath.
From there, the Buckeyes exploited Penn State down field with deep crossing routes off play action, exploiting Nittany Lion linebackers and safeties focused upon run action.
They'll take even odds anytime
In response to Ohio State's success, the Penn State defenders had to increasingly expand horizontally and vertically. Once Penn State did so the Buckeyes were able to run at-will.
The Buckeyes had extensive success against Penn State running inside zone slice from pistol. The offensive line blocks inside zone, with tight end Jeff Heuerman blocking back across the formation, opening big cutback holes for Hyde.
It is unlikely that any defense that is unable to devote additional defenders in the box can consistently stop the Buckeye run game behind its offensive line and the tandem of Carlos Hyde and Miller. The Buckeye offensive line is elite and Hyde has taken his game to another level. He continues to runs violently, but is now able to combine good vision with an ability to run outside the tackles. The offensive line generally gets Hyde unscathed past the line of scrimmage. From there, Hyde runs with an incredibly high success rate, as defenses struggle to bring him down with the first would-be tackler and he always falls forward.
About that Whole Blitzing Thing
Penn State's blitz happy strategy also ran head first into an improved Braxton Miller. Penn State was able to generate some pressure. But Miller generally eluded would-be tacklers, either picking up yards with his feet or opening opportunities to throw down field.
Miller has demonstrated a much improved ability to move in the pocket as well as make the correct decision regarding when to tuck the football and run. It is increasingly difficult for defenses to blitz or use man coverage against Ohio State, as Miller is too effective in creating opportunities scrambling.
Miller is also increasingly accurate in stepping up in the pocket and throwing down field. When Miller's footwork is good his arm is strong enough to make any throw accurately. This touchdown to Corey Brown may well be the best throw of his Ohio State career.
Fool Me Once
But the Buckeye offense was also incredibly efficient against Iowa. What generated Ohio State's jump in point total against Penn State (along with an increase in possessions) was 100% red zone efficiency. The Buckeyes' recent dip in red zone performance has been correlated with defenses playing cover 0 inside the ten yard line. Penn State adopted the same goal line tactics, meaning man coverage with no safety help and eight defenders in the box.
The Buckeyes utilized two strategies in response to overcome the defense's numbers' advantage. The first is featuring Miller on quarterback power. By using Hyde as a lead blocker, the Buckeyes gained an additional blocker, allowing the Buckeyes to apply seven blockers against Penn State's eight man fronts.
The Buckeyes also used sprint out with a snag route combination. The effect was to set a pick against man coverage to free the inside receiver.
The Buckeyes red zone success was critical. Not only did it put up points, but it also set up the Buckeye defense for success. Playing from behind, Penn State was forced to be more one-dimensional, creating a snowball effect.
Going forward, the Buckeyes' goal must be to continue this multi-faceted approach. Ohio State's next two games are against poor opponents in Purdue and Illinois. But it does give the Buckeyes the opportunity to demonstrate they can be as efficient on the road. This is particularly critical for Miller, who has yet to play away like he has in recent weeks away at home. A good road showing will be crucial to preparing for later in the season.