Ohio State v. Illinois: Defensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 21, 2013 at 1:00p

The Ohio State defense came out of the gate quickly against Illinois. The Buckeyes forced two turnovers, including Bradley Roby's interception return for a touchdown, in helping the Buckeyes to a 28-0 lead. Just when it looked like the Buckeye defense officially turned a corner, however, Ohio State suffered repeated lapses in allowing Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to gain yards through the air and on read plays in allowing 28 points. 

The Buckeyes created pressure against the Illini, but when Ohio State defenders did not get home Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was able to move in the pocket and make plays against the Buckeye second level defenders.

The Buckeyes' inconsistent defensive performance can squarely be put on the linebacker play. A unit that was already thin and underwhelming to begin with was decimated with the absence of Josh Perry and Curtis Grant. Ohio State also missed Joey Bosa once he left the game.

Entering this season, the Buckeye defense was the unit with inexperienced players and question marks. Yet the defense is the group that has been beset with critical injuries, reducing its effectiveness.  Below I examine the Buckeye coaching staff efforts to cover up linebacker deficiencies, the inability to do so, and the trade-offs the Buckeye coaching staff must consider going forward. 

Duct Tape

It is fair to say that the Ohio State linebacker corps against Illinois was a mess. Ohio State has six non-redshirt linebackers – Ryan Shazier, Perry, Grant, Cam Williams, walk-on sophmore Joe Burger, and freshman Trey Johnson (who has been injured). With Perry, Grant and Johson out against Illinois, the Buckeyes were down to three. The defensive coaching staff was forced to play Williams, who has played Sam linebacker this year, as Mike linebacker in the nickel. 

Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell sought ways to cover for this glaring deficiency. Ohio State played ample amounts of their odd-30 front, using Noah Spence as another linebacker. This took Spence away from defensive end where he has been so effective, but provided another defender in force support.

Ohio State's odd-30 front with Noah Spence as a linebacker of sorts.

In passing downs the Buckeyes minimized the linebackers on the field by using a dime package with Shazier as a hand-down defensive end.

Only Works so Well

Staff attempts to cover for the linebacker deficiency could only extend so far, however. The Buckeyes created pressure upon Scheelhaase, but when they were unable to get to the quarterback the Buckeye defense was left vulnerable in two areas – the underneath passing game and against the zone read.

This problem became more acute when Bosa, who already had 2.5 sacks, left the game.

Bosa was particularly missed against the Illini read game. Illinois was able to gain easy yards in the second half running inside zone read slice against Ohio State's backside scrape exchange featuring Adolphus Washington and Williams. Washington over pursued inside zone. He needed to instead squeeze down on the offensive tackle down block and force the H-back to re-direct. Williams, by contrast, took too much of an outside path, creating an easy kick-out block and allowing Scheelhaase to exploit the resulting hole for several explosive plays.

Scheelhaase exploits a poor angle

This was but one example of Illinois was able to exploit Ohio State's depth issues. Washington has been hobbled by injuries and does not have the same explosiveness. As noted, Williams was playing out of position and repeatedly took poor angles or failed to make tackles. The result was basic mistakes that yielded yards. 

The lack of linebackers is also adversely affecting the Buckeye special teams. Backup linebackers and defensive backs are the players most likely to fill coverage teams. As Meyer noted, with so many injuries the Buckeyes are playing numerous offensive players on special teams. This came to haunt Ohio State, as running back Warren Ball missed a relatively easy tackle, allowing Illinois to return a punt for a touchdown and providing the Illini some momentum. 

Rock and a Hard Place

This is not to make excuses but to put some context to the choices facing the Buckeye coaching staff. In recent weeks Fickell has utilized more blitzing, in particular with Shazier and Roby, who are Ohio State's two most effective blitzers. But they are also two of the defense's most consistent pass defenders and Illinois demonstrated the trade-off in blitzing them. Both made plays, but the Buckeye secondary was left extremely vulnerable without them in coverage.

When the blitz did not get home Scheelhaase was able to exploit the Buckeye secondary. For instance, on Illinois' first touchdown pass Ohio State brought a seven man safety blitz. But the Buckeyes did not get pressure, and Scheelhaase threw an easy corner route on a smash combo over Tyvis Powell for a touchdown.

The Buckeye blitz package is thus somewhat feast of famine against an experienced quarterback. Ohio State made plays, but when they did not the Buckeyes do not have enough adequate cover guys at linebacker and safety, particularly with the injuries, to hold up in the back end.

Welcome Back

Perry, Grant and Bosa's return will be a welcome tonic. Perry's return is particularly important. It was a setback for him to miss a game, as he was improving every week with increased reps, especially in space where he has the athleticism to succeed. He had largely replaced Grant as the nickel Mike linebacker, making him a critical component of the Buckeye defense and one who is hard to replace.

Scheelhaase deserves credit. He is an experienced quarterback and leads the Big Ten in passing. Even when Ohio State pressured him he was able to scramble and keep his eyes down field. It was unrealistic to expect Ohio State to completely shut out an Illini offense that has scored points throughout the season.

But the Buckeyes simply do not have the depth to absorb two starting linebackers being out with injury. The Ohio State defense lacks enough defenders to consistently maintain coverage to begin with, and that problem is only made worse with starters being out.

That does not mean that Fickell should greatly alter strategy, however. The Buckeye defense has been more effective when they are creating pressure and forcing negative plays. Furthermore, they have often been unable to shut down passing games playing base defense. Most quarterbacks do not handle pressure as well as Scheelhaase did, and the Buckeyes defense has a better chance with their injured linebackers and Bosa returning.


Comments Show All Comments

SMP's picture

Good explanation as to why Shazier was lining up at DE.  During the game I was confused why this was being done.  No doubt Bosa is force which some fear now and all will fear in the future.  I agree 100% on welcoming Perry back!

Ethos's picture

the only thing that annoyed me about that shazier tackle in the end zone, SHAZIER. DUDE. you ran RIGHT past the football!  
I wish these kids would quit celebrating until the play is over.

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

Hamer's picture

Another issue that seemed to give the defense problems was when they went up tempo.

Ross Fulton's picture

I think this was again a Mike linebacker issue, as he's the person in charge of making sure everyone on the same page.

GrayDay's picture

Despite the linebacker problems you described, I thought it promising that the defense did so well before getting up by 28 points.  Its natural for players to relax a little at such points and we've (fortunately) had a lot of them this year.  Wonder if you thought the defensive breakdowns were partly due to reduced intensity after we scored a lot (though I guess Bosa's injury coincided with that) or Illinois making nice adjustments to exploit the middle?  I ask because it seemed like our D dialed up the intensity toward the end of the game and their offense kind of fell apart.
I was impressed with how Illinois picked-up several blitzes, as well as their QB making plays despite getting hit so hard.
Love these articles by the way, thanks!

Ross Fulton's picture

I know people may scoff at this because of how prolific the offense has been, but I also think the offense was a major contributor to the defense's problems.  The offense had several three and outs and a turnover during that point.


For better or worse the offense is the driver of this team. When they are keeping the pedal to the medal they keep the opponent on their heels and put the defense in a position to succeed.  It puts pressure on the offense but they are good enough to handle it.

buckeyepastor's picture

I had a similar thought.  I think (would have to check the stats to be sure) that we had more three and outs against the Illini than we had in the previous three games vs. Iowa, PSU, and Purdue.   I don't think we even punted v. Iowa, so no three-and-outs there.  
But yeah, you combine injuries with guys playing out of position and add in several short turn-arounds where the offense isn't giving them much time off the field, and it's not good.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

d5k's picture

With all the quick strikes it became a high possession game increasing the number of opportunities for both teams to score.  We scored on 8 of 16 drives (9 if we didn't miss a FG). 7 TDs.  If we held the ball longer we might've been more like 7 of 12 like vs. Purdue.  Iowa was definitely a better offensive performance despite the final score.

Ross Fulton's picture

Agreed that Iowa was the better offensive performance. This game had too many plays that got OSU behind schedule. 

Ahh Saturday's picture

Wisconsin impressively held the Hoosiers to 3 last week. I know Wiscy runs a 3-4, but is there anything from their performance against IU that you think the Buckeyes have the personnel and scheme to employ? 

Ethos's picture

wasn't it pouring down rain during that game or something crazy?

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

ibuck's picture

The Indiana coach blamed the wind, the rain and the Badgers for stifling the FBS' 7th passing offense (307ypg): IU QB's were 12/45 for 122 yds.

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

Ross Fulton's picture

I didn't study the game but I know the weather was pretty nasty. IU had two turnovers right off the bat, which put them behind the 8-ball and pretty much took the wind out of their sails.


I think it is totally unrealistic to expect OSU to hold IU to 3 points.  I think bettering Michigan State's defensive performance is a good goal to shoot for.


I also think our Offense should be able to break 70.

GOOMBAY's picture

Could be selective memory - and Scheelhaase is always the gamer - but I recall a lot of plays that seemed to be solid rush pick-ups with Scheelhaase running due to coverage or throwing to receivers that seemed to break into secondary routes. There were several passes that I was sure were throwaways, but found some lost receiver along the sidelines. That's not an excuse, but the secondary oftentimes covered well and their playmaker did what he does best.
Anyway, the early season blown coverages have not reared their head in a while, but there was an unwelcome outbreak of missed tackles. With the quick-hitch/screen-fest arriving this Saturday, this is what I think could be a source of excess aggravation (and consumption).

whobdis's picture

Not to make more excuses for the D..but the Illini came out the second half and decided they would do whatever was necessary to give Scheelhaase time. The holding was ridiculous..I focused on Spence several times and guys were just grabbing whatever they could. The ref's can only call so many of these and the Illini know that (though they should STILL call the obvious ones). It really diminishes the strength of this D.

Squirrel Master's picture

You just said so many things that I believe were very telling in the game,

  • Grant, Perry and Bosa (out the second half) were greatly missed when Illinois started to roll.
  • the offense had some to do with it. Just seemed like they became extremely vanilla when the wind started to effect Braxton's throws more.

but I want to emphasis how integral Sheelhouse was to the Illinois team. I felt like he put on his best "manziel" performance last Saturday.
can you agree with that? Sheelhouse probably played his best game and really made plays when the OSU defense was even making the correct playcall? How many of those sideline throws to the TE as he tippy toed the sideline were due to Sheelhouse scrambling, because it seemed to me like he did that a lot. I just kept thinking, "are we playing TAMU?"

I saw a UFO once.......it told me to have a goodyear!

BeijingBucks's picture

Vicariously I feel Mewhort should be on this list. It cannot be a coincidence that during the time he was out we could not run and there was tons of pressure on Brax to make faster reads (or fumble?)
i feel the health of this team is vital as our depth at many positions has zero experience
and still put up 60?!!!!!  This team is sick and we as fans are just spoiled. More!!!
let KG get in for the second half for his last home game and score as much as he likes!

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

LeftCoastBuck's picture

Great job as always Ross, very insightful observation about Bosa. I missed that one. 
I am glad to know that my beer consumption hadn't interfered with my observations too much. I was trying to explain exactly these issues to a bunch of "chicken little" buckeyes that couldn't get it through their heads that a thin depth chart of linebackers can't withstand two starters being gone without serious repercussions.

"Have a Coke and a smile!.....along with $150 in UM football tickets"

Seattle Linga's picture

Very informative Ross - how will you keep yourself busy during the offseason?

Seth4Bucks's picture

Awesome breakdown of the game as per usual. I knew depth at LB was bad, but I didn't realize quite how bad. To be down to 3 non-redshirt LBs is cutting it pretty thin.

boojtastic's picture

So, I know Christian Bryant was supposed to be out for the year. Any chance he makes it back for a bowl game?

InvertMyVeer's picture

It's definitely a possibility. He could be granted a redshirt season too, but that's not a given. They had a clip about Bryant on BTN The Journey and Shazier said it would mean the world to him if they could play one more time.

Football is complicated...

BKLYN_Buckeye's picture

Not a fan of our CB blitz. Seems like we rarely get enough pressure on the QB, who in turn torches our secondary. 

d5k's picture

My only problem is when we telegraph the blitz way too early.

darbnurb's picture

Seemed like there were a few big gains by Joseph where he just juked the linebacker in the hole.  

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes that was on Cam Williams.


I would just say, as nice as I can say it, that Cam Williams should not be on the field...

Matt M.'s picture

For God's sake, someone start channeling your inner Laurinaitis and we will be unstoppable! That said, I will take my chances with the blitz over a three man rush (wherein we still get torched, somehow) right now.

45buckshot's picture

Dear Ross, just to give you proper dues; this is the only column I read every week now. It's replaced Gerd's 'Buckeye Watch' as my favorite column. Thanks.
I'm curious about this 'freshman defender' UM3 mentioned in his call-in show:
'Ohio State might have to play a freshman defender who hasn't played yet this season due to plethora of injuries.'
i read we were getting Perry back, so who would this be? Is he talking about taking the redshirt off Mitchell? Or maybe Vonn Bell has earned his way on the field?
I'm guessing he's not talking about moving Smith, Dunn, or Ball to LB... ;)

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton