Ohio State's Orange Bowl offensive performance was a microcosm of the 2013 season.
The Buckeyes' offense – led by Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, Philly Brown – scored 35 points and again demonstrated why it is one of the best units in college football.
But the Buckeye passing game limitations were a handicap, one that ultimately prevented the offense from overcoming the Ohio State defensive ineptitude.
Below I address Clemson's aggressive, run-focused strategy, where Ohio State could and could not respond, and areas where the Buckeye offense must improve for 2014.
Pinning your ears back
Brett Venables' Clemson defense had one focus – slow the Ohio State run game. The Tigers primarily played cover 1 robber – with a twist. The Tigers aligned in a two-high shell. At the snap, the safety to Hyde's alignment crashed down to account for Miller. The other safety rolled to the deep middle.
From there, the Tigers' front aggressively committed to the run. The line often slanted away from Hyde (towards the inside zone) and the linebackers paid little concern to any passing threat, aggressively attacking run downhill.
Against the pass, the cover 1 robber did not play robber coverage, but instead Braxton Miller.
This enabled the robber to bat down several underneath throws that were otherwise open.
It is not accurate to say Clemson stopped the Buckeyes' base run game, but the Tigers slowed Ohio State enough to limit the Buckeyes to 62% first down efficiency and force multiple three and outs. Clemson's primary weapon was numbers. The Ohio State offensive line had difficulty getting to the second level in light of unblocked linebackers aggressively playing downhill against the run.
But Urban Meyer and Tom Herman effectively countered Clemson's approach in several ways. Although Clemson's screen game received the headlines, the Ohio State's wide receiver screen game was also very effective. The only screen that did not result in an efficient play was Devin Smith's slip in the fourth quarter. Otherwise the Buckeye wide receivers – primarily Brown – gained positive yardage after the catch in taking advantage of Clemson's run-focused defense. In fact, the Buckeyes likely should have utilized such screens more frequently given their success.
To combat the Tigers' safety play, Meyer and Herman repeatedly sent Dontre Wilson in jet motion, looking to hold the crashing safety from applying himself against the run. In fact, Ohio State's was most effective with both the run and the pass attacking towards Hyde's alignment and away from Clemson's play side focus. In particular, the Buckeyes exploited Clemson's alignment with run and play action off 13 bash to Wilson.
The Buckeyes first struck with Miller reading and cutting behind Clemson's safety and linebacker widening for the sweep.
Next, the Buckeyes hit several big pass plays with play action off this look. Off the fake, the Buckeye wide receivers ran a switch route while Hyde faked a lead block and then ran a wheel route underneath.
The Buckeyes utilized this run-action on Miller's touchdown throw to Jeff Heuerman. On the play, Clemson's backside safety and linebackers took the run fake, providing Ohio State a 3 on 2 advantage. The free safety jumped the wheel to Hyde, leaving Heuerman wide open.
Oho State later hit another explosive play with this fake, this time to Hyde when the safety covered Heuerman.
Clemson never had an answer for the play-action. So Herman again dialed up the play in the fourth quarter, and Clemson's blitz left Heuerman wide open. But the Tigers' linebacker got to Miller before he could throw the football, leading to a costly fumble.
Not enough tools in the kit
Ultimately the Buckeye offense could not throw consistently enough to force Clemson out of their game plan. This resulted from several miscues. Clemson pressured Miller at times, not only by blitzing but also from Vic Beasley beating Ohio State's excellent left tackle Jack Mewhort. Philly Brown played well but he was the only Buckeye wide receiver to gain separation against Clemson's man coverage.
And Miller displayed his potential but also room for improvement. He was better as a passer against the Tigers then he performed against Michigan State. At several points he made critical mid-range completions, no more so than on the Buckeyes' two minute drive before the half.
But at other times he held the football too long and, perhaps more importantly, did not move up within the pocket. With Miller its a double-edged sword, because what makes him so dangerous is his running ability. He does not feel an impetus to get rid of the football because he can often bail himself out of trouble with his feet. The problem against Clemson was that, to do so, he several times backed up to get out of the pocket, which ran him right into Clemson's edge rushers who were pushed up field.
Miller must also become more consistent with his touch. Nowhere was this more apparent then on his game ending interception. Brown was open and may have scored if Miller puts some air under the football. But he instead threw it on a rope and right into the dropping linebackers hands.
Although the Buckeye offense was not perfect, it should be obvious that it was the Ohio State defense that prevented the Buckeyes from reaching their goals. The offense was one of the best in the country. And even with the defensive deficiencies, the Buckeyes may have won the Orange Bowl if Brown does not muff a punt.
Miller's return for his senior season provides him the opportunity to continue improving as a passer and, most importantly, increase his consistency. Drives like the Buckeyes' touchdown before the half show that Miller may have more natural talent then anyone in college football. He generally performs well in up-tempo situations, making it all the more unfortunate that Meyer probably did not believe the Buckeyes could use rocket-tempo, out of a need to protect the defense.
But Miller also has periods where his mechanics break down and his accuracy erodes. If Miller can consistently perform at the high level he demonstrated at points this year Ohio State can again have one of the nation's best offenses in 2014, despite having to replace Hyde, Brown, and four offensive linemen.