Ohio State v. Illinois: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 19, 2013 at 12:45p

It is odd to say that the Ohio State offensive performance was inconsistent against Illinois on a day the Buckeye offense produced 51 points and over 550 yards of offense. But the prolific numbers belie that Ohio State undoubtedly had moments of sloppiness, namely to the tune of four three and outs. 

The culprit was an inconsistent passing game. Urban Meyer and Tom Herman utilized the same formula that has been so successful in recent weeks, but Braxton Miller did not execute at the same level. The result was too many second and third and longs. The Buckeye offense also noticeably stalled once Left Tackle Jack Mewhort exited the game. 

Despite this, the Buckeyes could and did run the ball at will with Miller and Carlos Hyde. Herman eventually turned to the run game to seal the victory, but the Buckeyes could have likely put the game away much sooner had they kept it on the ground.

Below I examine Illinois' uber-aggressive strategy, the Buckeyes' inconsistent passing game, Mewhort's absence, and the Buckeye run game.

Going for Broke

Illinois spent most plays selling out against the run. The Illini would generally line with two high safeties within ten yards, but one would come down at the snap. The Illini would use either the safety or the walked-out linebacker in the gray area to account for Miller on read plays, allowing the defensive end to crash down after Hyde.

Illinois attempting to crash the DE on Carlos Hyde

The Illini generally played some type of single high coverage behind the front, often of the man variety. Herman also noted that Illinois responded to the Buckeyes' jet tempo with man cover 0, meaning they had no deep safety help.  

WHat is it about Champaign?

Ohio State had little trouble moving the football early, combining wide receiver screens and underneath throws with Miller as a runner.

Illinois is one of the few teams that dared Miller to keep on read plays. While in theory the safety or linebacker was accounting for Miller, it did not work in practice because a) the second level defenders were held by the threat of the receiver screen game and b) Miller made guys miss even when they were in position to make a tackle. For instance, below Illinois played cover 0, allowing the outside linebacker to crash down to account for Miller. But Miller made him miss and the Illini had no one in the deep middle to make a play.

Miller makes the Illini pay right off the bat.

Despite the Buckeyes jumping to an early lead, the Illini were able to stick to their strategy with a significant assist from the wind. Wilth Illinois playing press coverage, Ohio State started throwing vertically. The Buckeyes repeatedly beat the Illini corners down field, but Miller struggled with distance control. As the day progressed, the wind seemed to get into his head, and his accurately deteriorated. Miller's arm angle began dropping and he was delivering the ball with too much velocity. The high incompletion rate resulted in the Buckeyes only gaining five yards per passing attempt.

The inefficiency in the passing game resulted in stalled drives. All too often the Buckeyes got themselves behind schedule, resulting in second and third and longs and reducing the opportunities to run the football. 

It is difficult to criticize a strategy that has been so successful in recent weeks, that being throwing early to loosen the defense and set up the run. Moreover, like Purdue, the offensive strategy at times had the feel of as much of an attempt to work on weaknesses and put the passing game on film for future opponents, as it was trying to gain yards and score against Illinois. Meyer later conceded as much, stating that once the Buckeyes got up 28 they started "throwing it around," providing Illinois an opportunity to creep back within range. 

But in so doing, the offensive staff again fell in the habit of trying to force the football down the field, on a day when the wind was not going to cooperate. The Buckeyes also inexplicably went away from the wide receiver screen game that was so effective at the outset and has been critical in recent weeks.

Ohio State still produced a lot of yards and points, but could have been even more efficient if they eschewed the deep passing game earlier. Herman later conceded that he probably underestimated the wind's impact during the game.  

You Miss Him When he's Gone 

It is sometimes difficult to quantify the impact of an offensive lineman. But Left Tackle Jack Mewhort's importance to the Ohio State offense was magnified in the two quarters he did not play.

Up 28-0, Meyer thought he could rest Mewhort following Mewhort hyper extending his knee in practice. But the Buckeye offense quickly began stalling without him in the game. His replacement, Daryl Baldwin, did not necessarily play poorly. But he is not Mewhort, who is one of the best tackles in the country.  Furthermore, a large part of offensive line play is cohesiveness and it was clear that the line did not function at the same level without Mewhort.

The Buckeye offense was quickly jump started once he returned. After the game Meyer called Mewhort the Buckeyes' best offensive player, and it is clear what a difference Mewhort makes.

Back to Basics 

After letting Illinois hang around, the Buckeye offense was able to finally pull away when Herman and Meyer consistently turned to lead plays for Miller and Hyde. In particular, the Buckeyes dealt with Illinois' safeties by using 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and running power. Second tight end Nick Vannett kicked out the defensive end, the guard sealed the play side linebacker, and Hyde was able to bounce the play outside to the second level.  

Attacking Illinois' 12 personnel

The use of 2-back power negated Illinois' additional box defender and strategy of crashing the backside defensive end on inside zone.

Hyde again demonstrated that he is playing at as high a level as any running back in the country. He benefits from the fact the offensive line generally gets him past the line of scrimmage untouched, but that only makes Hyde more dangerous. He demonstrates great vision once he gets to the second level and finishes runs violently, making him very difficult to tackle by the first defender. Playing at 230 pounds has also provided Hyde the acceleration necessary to create explosive plays. In fact, the key to the Buckeye point total was eight explosive rushing plays.   

Illinois' man coverage defense also allowed Miller to run with impunity. Below, the Buckeyes ran a simple inside zone but the Illini cover 0 provided no one to account for Miller.

Illinois' man coverage opened things up for Miller, as well.

Games such as this are somewhat of a no-win situation for Ohio State. The coaching staff likely knows that they could line up, run Hyde and Miller 20 times each and win handily. Illinois adopted the strategy of certain other underdogs against Ohio State and assumed Meyer and Herman would generally not run Miller in an attempt to save him, allowing them to employ risky strategies such as cover 0.  But running Miller frequently does not necessarily help the Buckeyes improve and set up future opponents. At the same time, they are now in an almost unwinnable weekly perception battle. 

In hindsight, the Buckeyes likely tried to throw vertically more often than was warranted, given the weather conditions. But the step back in the passing game was likely more of a blip than a trend. Meyer and Herman know that the inside run game is the Buckeyes' bread and butter. But they want to work the pass game in such situations to improve and force future opponents to think twice before selling out against the run, and ensure that the Buckeyes' constraint plays are functioning well when defenses do adopt such strategies. 


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Doc's picture

Ross, when do you think we will see the "Diamond" formation, if at all?  That is a formation the coaches haven't gotten on film yet.

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yrro's picture

I'm going to go with "not at all." Our tight ends are just too good.

Nutinpa's picture

I agree.  The "Diamond Formation".....is this year's "I think this is the game Jake Stoneburner breaks out and destroys the Defense".   

yrro's picture

With the difference that we're avoiding it right now because what we're doing is too effective for it to be worth changing.

camodog's picture

I say either B1G CG or the Bowl game.
Bucks wont need to show our hand ve TTUN

Ross Fulton's picture

I don't think they will use it. I think they played around with it in the Spring, but the way things have broken this year it doesn't really make sense to use it with their personnel. Have to take guys like Brown and Heuerman off the field, and not sure what it adds.



Murse_Matt's picture

It sure would have been nice to open up the deep passing game against Illinois, but as you mentioned, Champaign is a hard place to do this. We have a great inside run game, and an awesome short passing game, and defenses really have to pick their poison. Still, it never hurts to have proven success in both short and deep passing. Maybe against Indiana we will get some chances to go deep. I guess it depends on how IU chooses to defend us. I would guess they'd try to take away one aspect of our game and see if we can adjust, but that's been everyone else's strategy already.
We will hopefully get to face Sparty in the B1G Champ Game, which would be a nice way to test our "O" against a tough defense. This would really help the perception battle, and let us tune up before the bowl.
Great analysis, and as someone else commented a few weeks ago, I feel both smarter and dumber after reading this.

camodog's picture

I think Herman and co were trying too hard to get Brax useless passing stats. He was off, they should have stuck to the ground and pound and they wouldn't have had so many 3 and outs

Ethos's picture

I hope they rest Mewhort this week and through the Indiana game and just put his backup in for practice all week.  Indiana is not a threat, and we NEED him for the championship game and whatever bowl we go to.  No need to risk injuring him further against Indiana.  Obviously he needs to be in a few snaps for senior day, but man I really don't want to lose him the week before the CG.

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

Ross Fulton's picture

He just had a hyper-extended knee so no reason to rest him further.

Ethos's picture

Also Ross, where is Hall?  I saw him on special teams, but that's it.  

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

Ross Fulton's picture

I honestly have no idea....


Here is a bigger issue that is playing out. When Hyde gets tired they are giving him a breather with Elliot. But then they do not give Elliot the football. It is either a pass or Miller run. So that's becoming a pretty obvious "tell" to the defense.


I think that is the time they should bring in Wilson.

omahabeef1337's picture

Any idea why they aren't bringing in Hall instead of Elliot or why Hall isn't playing the H? Did playing as a normal RB at the start of the year really set Hall back so far as the H that he shouldn't see the field?

yrro's picture

Reading between the lines from what Meyer has said, I get the impression that his knee is "healed" in that he can run and play, but not to the point where he can play like a starting running back for OSU. RB takes more confidence and power in cutting than pretty much any position.

Ross Fulton's picture

Yea, I agree. My assumption is that his knee is not healthy enough to contribute.


As to the H receiver position, zero chance. Philly Brown is the full time H now, and no way they are taking him out of there. As Herman indicated yesterday, he's the number 3 option on offense.

d5k's picture

So they have decided at this point that Spencer outside and Brown at H is better than Brown outside and Wilson at H for 95% of plays?  Are you surprised that they do not ever (that I recall) motion Brown into the backfield from the H position?

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Yea i was wondering the same thing. I really don't get the whole concept of the "H" position. I know what Percy Harvin did but Philly doesn't do any of those things, like take handoffs in the backfield. I just don't get why Dontre isn't out there more. He needs practice for next season. I was also wondering why Dontre hasn't broken I big run yet. Is it because he is to fast or inpatient to follow his lead blocker?

Ethos's picture

it's more likely because the entire defense follows him.

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

Ross Fulton's picture

Actually Philly came into the backfield in motion on a touch pass in the first quarter.


As to the H receiver position I think it has been way overblown. When I refer to the H receiver, I am referring to the slot receiver. For the most part that is what he is, a slot receiver. Percy Harvin did what he did because a) he was a freak, and b) he was Florida's best runner other than Tebow. They would bring Harvin into the backfield, but that is because he could run inside on plays like power and counter trey. Doesn't make a lot of sense to do that when you have Hyde.



As to Dontre, I feel that Meyer and Herman addressed this really well. Go back and look at Herman's comments yesterday. If you put Dontre in the game, someone is coming out. OSU's wide receivers are great blockers. Dontre cannot really block, and he is not a particularly good route runner. So the ways you can use him are somewhat limited at this point.

d5k's picture

I agree with the fact that Dontre is not giving enough options to warrant removing a more complete player for a large number of plays.  One thing you get with the more Hybrid slot receiver is the ability to force matchups.  If Dontre could line up in the slot and run all the necessary routes then 11 personnel could flex into 5 wide seamlessly.  Probably not until next year at this point.  Maybe with bowl practice time we will pull a new package that is more complete involving Dontre.
I think in general we want to run a lot of stuff with our base personnel to create more constraints for the base run game.  

omahabeef1337's picture

Does it not make sense to take out Spencer/Fields to get Hall in? I wouldn't expect Brown to come out.

Ross Fulton's picture

No because Hall isn't a real wide receiver. Spencer plays outside so its somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison. 


Everyone is underestimating the importance of how Brown, Spencer, and Smith are blocking right now.

omahabeef1337's picture

Another H question: With Dontre's speed, wouldn't it make sense to send him deep every once in a while? I think the answer is that the H typically works the underneath option routes... But couldn't his speed be used to outrun the defense on deep routes?

omahabeef1337's picture

This makes no sense to me. We heard so much about him in the off season for the past two years and he did great earlier in the year when Hyde was gone. I would love to see him more.

Seattle Linga's picture

Sure would be fun to open it up on November 30th when the game is in hand!

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Great, as usual, Ross! You've alluded to this in a few posts, but Herman, as good as he is, occasionally gets tunnel vision in his play calling. He went too heavy to the vertical passing game against Illinois and seemed to go too run heavy in the second half against Wisconsin. 
What's the reason for this tendency?

Will in Arizona's picture

Going pass heavy against overmatched opponents is just additional practice time, more than anything I believe.  Going run heavy against teams in the second half when the Buckeyes have a lead is to shorten the game and get out of there with the W.

JKH1232's picture

It seems to me that with Ohio State, it doesn't matter the coach- Hayes, Tressel or Meyer, the plan's the same: Keep Calm and Run Dave.

chemicalwaste's picture

I know it was mentioned in the article, but that wind play a nasty roll in the passing game and kicking game. I think there may have been a kickoff or 2 field by Illinois around the 20 that would normally go into the end zone. Some of the passes Braxton threw look like they may have been on the mark coming out of his hand, but the wind pushed it so far up field that no one stood a chance at catching up to it. I know you have to learn to play the wind, but that was nasty, and considering the storm front that blew in the next day, it's no wonder it was that bad. Should have stuck with el Guapo.

d5k's picture

Scheelhaase had success throwing it, but he wasn't taking 40-50 yard shots downfield.  But that is part of the advantage of aggressive press coverage if the other team cannot protect and complete deep throws then the defense wins in general since shorter throws are more contested and there are more defenders involved in the run game and screen game.

chemicalwaste's picture

True enough. Scheelhaase played the wind. And now that I'm really thinking about it, even some of the short passes Miller threw, some were garbage, some were thrown pretty hard and inaccurately, and some were dropped. They had to throw those long passes, though, with Illinois selling out to stop the run, but they regardless of where the blame falls, they got away from #5 a little bit. Despite selling out to stop the run, though, Illinois still couldn't stop the Buckeyes from running over them.

MN Buckeye's picture

All of the blocking was great on that run by Hyde, but I particularly love the pancake by Hall.

Ocbucks's picture

Braxton wore gloves I think for the first time. I didn't hear any of the reporters ask or anyone making evaluation of the impact of the gloves. It seems this could've also impacted Braxton's inconsistency.

Wesleyburgess1's picture

I'm pretty sure that Braxton wears gloves pretty regularly.

IBleedSandG's picture

I think he usually wears one on his left hand, but I would have to go back and check the tape. Probably just depends on the conditions whether he wears a glove on his right hand. 


eb314's picture

I remember that Braxton wore gloves on both hands vs Purdue for sure, and also against Penn State I believe.  

IBleedSandG's picture

Below, if Philly gets his guy on the ground at the Illini 45, Brax probably goes the rest of the 35 yards and scores another TD. That would most likely have given the Bucks two 200 hundred yard rushers on the day. Crazy.


TheMinnesotaBuckeye's picture

Ross, why didn't we throw to the TE's at all?