Scheme Breakdown: Ohio State–Michigan

By Ross Fulton on December 3, 2013 at 12:45p

Ohio State's 42-41 win against Michigan was a game that emphasized the strengths and weaknesses of the 2013 Buckeyes. 

The Buckeye offense was again near dominant even with an inconsistent passing game. Urban Meyer and Tom Herman quickly adjusted to Michigan's field pressure, and once they did so, the Buckeyes demonstrated why they have one of the best run offenses in recent memory.

The Ohio State defense, by contrast, reverted to old habits. Michigan outflanked the Buckeyes to the boundary and Ohio State defenders all too often played undisciplined, failing to stay home against constraint plays and missing too many tackles.

Below I address the Ohio State offensive game plan and the defensive breakdowns in both scheme and execution.* 

Playing games

Michigan Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison's game plan was similar to his 2012 version. The Wolverines played a 4-3 field under and altered their coverage depending upon Carlos Hyde’s alignment. If Hyde was to the boundary, Michigan often played a variation of cover 4. If Hyde was to the field the Wolverines utilized a single high safety look.

The purpose was to defend the Ohio State run game without leaving themselves vulnerable to wide receiver screens. Mattison wanted to ensure that Michigan covered the Buckeye wide receivers to Hyde’s side of the field, because this is the side that Braxton Miller reads for packaged screen passes.

To do so, Mattison played games with the field Sam linebacker. The Sam would not cheat into the gray area, but instead aligned head up over the receiver, hoping to prevent the Buckeyes from dialing up easy screens. But the Sam would often crash down at the snap to account for Miller on tight zone read, allowing the defensive end to play the zone run.

The Wolverines made several early tackles where Miller read the defensive end crashing down, only to be met by a blitzing Sam linebacker. 

Hitting the Right Chords

But Meyer and Herman quickly adjusted. To run inside zone, the Buckeyes aligned Hyde to the tight end side and ran inside zone to the open end. This allowed Jeff Heuerman to base block the outside defender. Michigan's field pressure was eliminated from the play by the Buckeyes reading the opposite side.

The Buckeyes next dialed up tight zone bash with jet sweep towards the Sam linebacker. The slot received seal the crashing 'backer, allowing the Buckeyes to get outside.

Finally, Meyer and Herman attacked the front side of the Wolverine defense with inverted veer.  Michigan never had an answer for Miller keeping on the play, as the Wolverines did not have the bodies to defend the backside edge, maintain a deep safety and cover the Ohio State wide receivers.

Homer Smith once referred to Tom Osborne as playing a “medley of tunes” with the Nebraska run offense during their 1990’s heyday.  No matter what a defense may do, Osborne had an answer.

The 2013 Ohio State run offense under Meyer and Herman is reaching that level.  The Buckeye offense begins with a stellar offensive line, which received a crucial contribution from Pat Eflein at right guard following Marcus Hall’s departure.

Ohio State then has Miller and Hyde, two of the best runners in college football. With Miller and Hyde playing off each other, Meyer and Herman can utilize any number of reads and direct runs to counter whatever method a defense seeks to apply additional defenders against the run game.

So the Buckeyes are able to run the football game in and game out, even though teams devote edge linebackers and safeties to stop the run. 

Hobbling Along

The Buckeye run game was all the more impressive because the Ohio State passing game was sporadic. The deep crossing route was open throughout. But Miller missed open receivers or was inaccurate early. Perhaps because of this, Meyer and Herman devolved to using the Buckeye passing game as largely a vertical change-up to keep Michigan from stacking against the run game.

Miller made several nice throws, including two seam routes to Heuerman. Miller's scrambling ability – such as on Ohio State's third touchdown – are also important positive plays out of the passing game.

Yet Miller seemed jittery early, resulting in his elbow dropping and several throws sailing. Miller's confidence as a passer seems highly dependent on how he begins the game. He also did not receive a lot of help from his wide receivers, including drops, a covered-up receiver that negated a big throw to Corey Brown, and Evan Spencer stepping out of bounds when he was wide open. 

The Buckeye offense cannoty operate on all cylinders, however, without a fully functioning pass game. In particular, the biggest drive killer against Michigan was negative plays, as Miller held the ball too long several times and took sacks.  When the Buckeyes get behind schedule it becomes more difficult to fall back upon their running game. 

The Buckeye passing game may get an assist next week, however, by playing in a dome. The Buckeyes must reclaim their mid-range passing game. This is both an issue of scheme and execution. Herman cannot devolve to only calling vertical routes. For his part, Miller must be willing to pull the trigger on open throws and not revert to throwing deep when in doubt. 

The Song Remains the Same

The Buckeye defense, by contrast, took a significant step back in allowing over 600 yards and 41 points. As these things often go, the breakdowns had both a schematic and execution element. Beginning with scheme, Ohio State again yielded the same type of plays that have bedeviled them as a defense for two seasons.

Specifically, Michigan entered the game knowing they could not line up and run the football at Ohio State. But what they could do was attack areas of weakness. Those two areas were a) the underneath hook to curl zone against Ohio State’s zone defense, and b) by outflanking the Buckeye defense to the boundary and running to the edge, particularly with misdirection.

The former has both a scheme and execution element. Even when playing zone, defenders cannot sit still. They must pattern match and cover receivers. Yet Ohio State’s underneath defenders – whether it is teaching, execution of both – cannot grasp how to get proper zone depth and cover receivers entering their zone.

The latter issue of boundary defense is more systematic. Like Iowa this year or Cal two years ago, Michigan was able to get easy yards by aligning their blocking strength to the boundary and running to the edge. By aligning to the defensive front to the field and failing to adjust, the Buckeyes are outflanked before the snap. For instance, Michigan picked up easy yards by putting their tight end and wing to the boundary and running touch passes to Jeremy Gallon. 

In fact, Michigan went so far as to put their tackle to the boundary to run speed option and the Buckeyes still did not adjust. Michigan has previously shown this look (with limited success) this season, but the Buckeyes did not seem to expect it. 

In the second half Fickell increasingly utilized quarter-quarter-half coverage to put Roby in force support to the boundary. This limited Michigan's boundary run game and Ohio State was able to slow the Wolverines in the second and third quarters.  

Yet in some ways it was too little too late. The two issues of underneath zone defense and boundary support continue to bedevil the Buckeyes, providing opposing offenses easy yards and completions. 

Chickens with their Heads Cut Off

Ohio State's execution was equally at fault. Specifically, the Buckeye defenders looked undisciplined. The Buckeye backside defenders never stayed home, providing Michigan ample opportunities to run throwback screens. The Wolverines particularly abused Joey Bosa with such misdirection plays, as he never failed to over pursue Gardner.

The Buckeyes’ field secondary players – namely Doran Grant and Corey Brown – failed to properly diagnose the play and take aggressive angles to the football. When a play such as a throwback or tunnel screen is coming, the secondary defender needs to flow downhill and, at worst, dive at the lineman’s legs and made a pile. But Ohio State defenders all too often caught Michigan linemen down field. And they were not going to have a lot of success doing so against Taylor Lewan.

Bradley Roby and Grant did a much better job triggering against screens as the game progressed.  But Brown is often passive and unable or unwilling to aggressively play downhill. So even if the corners forced the football back inside, the Buckeye defense lacked any pursuit, as Brown did not play inside-out and Bosa ran himself out of the play. 

Heads Up

Buckeye defenders were also undisciplined in their tackling, representing a significant step backward. Would be tacklers frequently failed to break down and/or attempted to tackle with their head down, leading to missed tackles. The Buckeyes only stopped the Michigan passing game when they pressured Gardner. But Buckeye defenders would get in the backfield only to miss tackles, inevitably leading to completions off Gardner scrambles. 

Making matters worse, the Buckeye defense again became short handed when Curtis Grant left because of his ankle injury. Ohio State lacks a fourth linebacker; the defense cannot function with Cam Williams at Mike. 

To minimize the issue once Grant left, Fickell increasingly used the Buckeyes' 3-3-5 bear front that in effect makes Noah Spence an additional linebacker. But iff Grant is unable to play moving forward, Ohio State must come up with another plan against Michigan State, whether it be staying in nickel or bringing Williams in at Sam (the position he plays) and keeping Perry at Mike. The latter seems a more sensible plan, as it makes little sense to ask a young linebacker like Perry to play two positions – Mike in nickel and Sam in base defense. 

Only One Way to Go

The only positive takeaway is that the Ohio State defense has played better.  Ryan Shazier stated that the Buckeye defenders were over hyped heading into the game, and the Buckeye defense in fact played like it. It is always dangerous to psychoanalyze, but it appeared that to avoid complacency in a game everyone was expecting them to win, the Buckeyes went the opposite way and turned it into a personal grudge match rather than playing football.  

The Michigan offense, in particular Gardner, deserved credit for playing one of their best games of the season. But the Buckeye defense’s undisciplined play was like gasoline on a fire.  Without Christian Bryant, the Buckeye defense does not seem to have someone who can settle people down and diagnose what the opponent is doing. 

And ultimately, someone needs to step up and make a play when the game is on the line. It appeared that the Buckeye defense settled down in the second and third quarter, as Fickell utilized more twisting and blitzing. But the Buckeye defense then failed to get off the field against the Michigan passing game in the fourth. Tyvis Powell ultimately made a paly on the two point conversion, but Bradley Roby and CJ Barnett frittered away such opportunities by dropping easy interceptions.

The 2013 Buckeyes will always be a team led by its offense and, at this point, it is doubtful that Ohio State’s linebackers and safeties can consistently play the pass. But the Ohio State defense will play better simply by playing assignment football and tackling, both of which they did far better against Indiana then they did against Michigan. 

Ohio State must now regroup and focus upon Michigan State for the Big Ten championship. On Thursday I will analyze the Spartans offense and defense and how the Buckeyes may match-up. 

*I am devoting today's column to reviewing the offense and defense so that I can analyze the Spartans Thursday in anticipation of the Big Ten Championship game. 



willshire58's picture

I expect the passing game to be much better this week indoors in Indy. It seems like the passing game has slowly regressed since the weather has turned more towards winter than fall. 

RedStorm45's picture

Braxton is 30 of 61 in the last 3 games, with 6 TDs to 2 picks.

willshire58's picture

Yep. Not close to his >70% completion percentage before these past few weeks.

d5k's picture

Michigan took away the screen game which is obviously a 90+% throw.  Deep passes are a <50% throw on average but it is risk-reward.  Herman is trying to take what the defense gives him but in some ways he is just softening up the defense just enough to pound the run.  But it is working for the most part so if it ain't broke...

willshire58's picture

I agree and there is no doubt it has been effective, but going back to the Illinois game things have been just a little off with the passing game. Passes just a little behind the receiver and drops have been drive killers. Seeing Braxton bundled up like an Eskimo while he is on the sidelines makes me think the cold gets to him a little bit. A dome and warm weather bowl should help to cure these issues. 

Buckeye Chuck's picture

30-61 looks bad, but especially against Illinois and Michigan, we seemed weirdly focused on low-percentage passes. We hit on enough of those for enough yardage Saturday for it to pay off some -- Miller was still at 9 yards/attempt -- but when you're able to run nearly at will, I'm not sure it makes sense to go deep that often and risk blowing up a drive. 
We might have to try the deep ball at least a little this coming week though, to loosen up a much more difficult defense.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

Maestro's picture

Well, against Illinois the wind was certainly a big factor.  I will give him that much.

vacuuming sucks

Dougger's picture

Thanks Ross. Great insight - I originally thought it was just execution on d but obviously not. In your opinion can both improve this week? Go bucks
edit: Roby chasing gallon down on that 1st qtr gif is amazing. Speed

I like football

Jdadams01's picture

Was just about to comment about Roby. I believe every bit of his reported 40 time. He ran both Gallon and Norfleet down from not just behind, but at an angle. Against Gallon he came from a sizeable distance across the field.

OSUBias's picture

In an effort to find the silver lining on that play: In addition to Roby and his afterburners, once he gets turned around and going in the same direction, Perry is basically going the same speed as Gallon. Not catching up, but that's not bad for a LB. If we can get him to know where he's supposed to be so he can play at top speed like that all the time, imagine that coming downhill...yes please.

Shitter's full

Young_Turk's picture

Speed, yes.  Also Hustle.  Roby gets it.


Doc's picture

Thanks Ross for dissecting that hot mess from Saturday.  I surely hope the defense calms down and plays assignment football against Sparty, or we may be the team to Spart.

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

Zimmy07's picture

Does anyone know Curtis Grants' status?

willshire58's picture

Fickell said he was uncertain of his availability for this weekend yesterday.

njc2o's picture

Ross - do you think the blitzing was the answer? it seemed the passing bread and butter (screens aside) for UM was 3 step drops, and quick 5 step drop single reads to gallon/dileo/funchess. I don't think more blitzing was the answer. Maybe some cover 2 safeties and more press man concepts on the outside to avoid giving away the quick throws? Problem there is that we struggle tackling in space, and Roby is often over-aggressive, and can run himself out of plays. That gives us a chance for coverage sacks though? 
Tough spot.. shocking that UM torched us when they couldn't move the ball against anybody since ND. 

Doc's picture

Rushing three wasn't the answer either.  Every time we did that it gave Gardner too much time and he it a streaking Dildo or Butt over the middle.  That play killed us in the second half.

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

njc2o's picture

if you're dropping 8, and can't cover 5, you have problems with zone execution. simple as that. 

Zimmy07's picture

If I knew how to give an upvote on that, I would.  LOL.

Oyster's picture

I must say Doc, for being such a young looking man, you have the lexicon of sailor.

FitzBuck is clearly the winner.  Not even close.

Doc's picture

Yeah, I got a pretty bad potty mouth.

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

ElGato69's picture

The first receiver's name is Dileo, but using your two words in such close proximity are rather humorous, especially when talking about Michigan.

Doc's picture

I misspelled the young mans name?  My bad the D and the E are so close on the keyboard. XD

I'm hiding baby and I'm dreaming
I'm riding down your moonlight mile

d5k's picture

As a scheme limitation in my eyes we rely on our SS (Barnett) to be a in-the-box safety even when teams cannot run vs. our front 7 (if aligned properly).  But when we tried to execute a cover 4 scheme we gave up 80 yard runs last year so I guess I understand why we don't do it.

stittracer99's picture

Dear OSU staff,
Please offer Ross a job, ASAP.
Thank you
Another great write up Ross. You spell it out pretty clearly to all of us here every week.

German Buckeye's picture

Sad thing is, Mark Dantonio is also reading this and gets his game planning from Ross every week. 

Earle's picture

Shazier is playing a lot of DE in passing situations.  While I like the pressure he brings from that spot, wouldn't it make sense to keep him at LB, given how thin we are there?  It seems like we have plenty of capable guys to play at DE, and even though none of them have Shazier's quickness, I'd rather have a Marcus or Miller on the field than Williams, or asking too much of Perry.

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

GV9's picture

Yes, did Marcus even play?  I don't recall ever seeing him out there.  The guy is a beast in a bull rush for the QB. 

Earle's picture

I don't remember seeing him either.  According to the box score, he had one tackle on kickoff coverage, and that might've been Hyde (does he still play on S/T?).

Your Noble Savage is a Straw Yeti.

GV9's picture

Thanks Earle. 

d5k's picture

1 play when Spence went out with a minor injury.

njclebuckeye5's picture

I appreciate the insight. I stopped playing football in 8th grade to focus on basketball (I know what you guys are thinking, and yes I am pretty much Lebron 2.0 because of that) so while I know a bit more than many, I know a lot less than some. Thanks for clarifying that scheme and execution both played a part in the effort. 

Lobs it to the endzone... Touchdown Devin Smith!!

d5k's picture

I understand the personnel difficulties unlike a lot of the "fire fickell, don't play soft zone" crowd.  We do not have the information as to the preparedness of a Vonn Bell or Mike Mitchell to come in and play a starting role.  It is obvious that Williams and to some extent Brown are not up to the task but I can only imagine how bad the freshmen must be to leave these guys out there.
I do not understand the inability to adjust to teams outflanking you with numbers.  Almost every team has tried to attack to the boundary like this and it seems like some games we adjust well (Penn State, to some extent Wisconsin) and others (Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern) we are not prepared for it still.  

bucksk1n's picture

If you read between the lines Urban has said a few times he wishes he would have burnt the redshirt of some of the freshmen.  He said he didn't think they were ready at the beginning of the season but they've improved and with the injuries he could use them now.  It doesn't make sense to throw an Eli Apple out there to learn with 2 games left but I'm confident the biggest issue they face right now is older personnel not living up to expectations and Coach Meyer wishes he'd spent more time on the freshmen.  A few of the problems will graduate but if things don't change by the bowl game I think Urban and the position coaches are going to have some very candid discussions with a few players in January (a la Guiton two years ago - get your act together because with your current effort you won't ever see the field - BTW here's a transfer form if you are interested, we won't stand in your way).

subermp's picture

Glad I'm not the only one who's noticed our defenders staring at the ground while trying to tackle. Seems like it would be an easy problem to fix...apparently not. 

Wesleyburgess1's picture

I was wondering why don't we take the redshirt off of Mike Mitchell? I get they want to save him for next year but WE ARE PLAYING FOR A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! We need him now not 4 years from now. Just can't wait till Withers is calling plays.

bucksk1n's picture

I think many of us feel the same way and I'm sure Urban wishes he'd burnt Mitchell and a few others redshirts.  The problem is you don't run a true freshmen out to go through the growing pains every player experiences with 2 games left.  It's too bad they didn't do it after Wisconsin as it would have given the defensive coaches more options.
As a counterpoint, Bosa has played better than any true freshmen we've had in a long time.  I doubt we could expect any of the others to meet his production but as Ross pointed out in the article, freshmen are easy to scheme and putting a freshmen at Mike is asking for trouble unless their name is Spielman or Katzenmoyer.  Those come along about once a generation.

Wesleyburgess1's picture

Also did anyone see the terrible pass defense from Roby on there 2 from last touchdown. I believe it was caught by Funchess. I laugh when I think that he was once thought of as an all american corner. I see freshman defenders fight for the ball better than he has the last couple games.

Jdadams01's picture

In his defense, Funchess is 6 inches taller and like 50 pounds heavier and had just bodied Roby when the ball came. Sometimes you just can't do much about large athletic guys making an athletic play. Plus, Michigan had not utilized Funchess in that way much all season. Lord knows why.

EDIT: my bad I just realized you were saying second from last touchdown.
SECOND EDIT: Don't know what you're talking about, the ball was not thrown at Roby.
LAST EDIT: I think I was right the first time.

doodah_man's picture

Great job as usual. Of course there is this:

When defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was asked what went wrong, he was incredulous.
“Did we win? Did we win?” he asked reporters on Monday. “Because I’ve been up there quite a few times in my 18-year career here and have not always been able to come away with the win.

Jim "DooDah" Day

"If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” --Wilbur Wright, 1910

Will in Arizona's picture

I noticed that Miller's passing has gotten significantly worse once it got cold - wonder if it has to do with him wearing gloves on both hands.

doodah_man's picture

Noticed that too. Should be solved with Indy and Pasedena, ya think?

Jim "DooDah" Day

"If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” --Wilbur Wright, 1910

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

True. I specifically trace Miller's trouble to the Illinois game. From my perspective, he started throwing the ball much harder in that game to compensate for the wind. And it seems to me that he has thrown the ball too hard on intermediate and short passes ever since. Playing in the dome might break him of this.

doodah_man's picture

Good theory...

Jim "DooDah" Day

"If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” --Wilbur Wright, 1910

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Can Zack's little brother play linebacker too? Never seen us so thin there. Thanks for helping me understand why Fick went back to the 3-3-5 with Spence dropping back to cover the flat later in the game. Spence needs to be rushing the QB period. That became abundantly clear in the improved defensive showings leading up to last week's game. If I see Spence back-pedaling on Saturday, I'll be holding my breath.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Agreed. Spence should not be in coverage.

d5k's picture

Neither should Cam Williams.  We are between a rock and a hard place with personnel.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

I would consider going small with Powell. Cam Williams is not ready for prime time.

d5k's picture

In the 3-3-5 Bear alignment, Powell is in for Williams.  I don't have a problem with having Spence stand up in general.  That 3-3-5 worked fine against Indiana which is a team that is good at what we are typically bad at defending.  Not sure why we went away from it against Michigan other than I suppose we just matched their base personnel.

Boomcat's picture

First half of this breakdown had me excited, and the second half was seriously depressing.....
I hope and pray that we pull out a win Saturday.

Maestro's picture

Almost to a man the defense seemed to be like a pack of rabid dogs.  Bennett is the most solid/consistent player IMHO.  I trust him, but even he seemed to miss plays that he doesn't normally miss.  Shazier flat out sucked.  He looked like he did as a freshman.  Complete regression.  The loss of Bryant coupled with a lack of progress from guys like A. Washington, C. Grant (albeit partially due to injury) has left this defense lacking confidence and focus.  
Unfortunately I am at a point where I just cross my fingers and pray.  Expecting them to make plays seems to be an unreasonable expectation.

vacuuming sucks

Ross Fulton's picture

This is why I feel this defensive group is missing something intrinsic that it is hard to put a finger on. They have talented players and they also have some gaping holes. But they don't seem to have someone who can act as a coach on the field, or come up with a play when they need it. 

Maestro's picture

I know Hankins was good but I don't think I expected to miss him so much. Hankins was able to play from sideline to sideline from a NT position. He allowed others to make plays if he wasn't making them himself.
I know this defense has some good sack and TFL stats but they seem to be so wildly inconsistent that I don't know what to expect.  
I hope the Bucks can survive Sparty and maybe Bryant can be back for the last game. That might help.

vacuuming sucks

BuckeyeJosh's picture

For those worrying about Braxton's passing, you have to consider the cold as well as the 20 mph winds in Illinois. As for ttun game..yes it was cold and he was wearing gloves, but the Miller/Hyde duo did what they needed to do. I would anticipate more passing in the B1G championship game and whichever bowl we end up in (don't want to jynx it) because none of that will be a factor.

NJ_BUCKEYE's picture

I think Braxton prefers to wear a glove on his throwing hand, because I know he has worn it when it wasn't cold at all.  He also had his best day as a passer last year IMO against TSUN when he had gloves on both hands.  I don't think the gloves are an issue.  He seems to throw a tighter spiral with the gloves.  I just checked Photos online, and he is wearing gloves in every game since Northwestern.  Penn State was one of his more impressive performances this year IMO.  There seems to be no correlation between the gloves and his struggles.

Maestro's picture

I think you can directly correlate his passing struggles with his emotions.  If he is calm and into the flow of the game he throws the ball accurately.  Early in the game when he is too hyped is when he struggles the most.

vacuuming sucks

penguinpower's picture

Excellent Analysis.  Covered all of the bases including the tackling.  How about the play of the DL? 

Space Coyote's picture

On the jet sweep, I don't think the initial alignment is much of an issue. Gardner isn't going to run a QB sweep and with the DTs inside in their front, it makes it difficult for Michigan's OL to reach the playside LB. That means you have 3 players for 3 fill lanes (CB, Safety, playside LB).
The problem, instead, is the lack of adjustment, or the fail to roll coverage, once the jet sweep motion begins. At that point, yes, you are completely out leveraged. You can either assist this by rolling the playside safety down and switch to a cover 1 type look or by shuttling the LBs a gap over (likely bringing the backside safety up to defend any sort of fake jet sweep and run to the backside). Both of these leave you a little bit exposed on the back end as far as coverage help, but as OSU did against Wisconsins 2-RB, jet sweep package, they leveraged the outside playside, played straight up on the DL, and understood that there are only a limited number of concepts behind that can expose your CBs.
So, in my opinion, it's the lack of adjustment to the jet sweep that did them in. - A B1G Football X's and O's site. @SpaceCoyoteBDS