Breaking Down the Buckeye Offense in the Orange Bowl (and a Few Thoughts on 2014)

By Ross Fulton on January 14, 2014 at 2:30p
26 Comments

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.

Just Enough

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.

Respondin' 

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.

Just Short

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.  

26 Comments

Comments

rkylet83's picture

Great article.  There are weaknesses on offense, but it was still statistically the best in school history.  I was not that disappointed in them after the Orange Bowl.  They played really well.  If you have to score 40+ points to win that's bad.

Borrowed Time's picture

I didn't realize how open Philly was on that last int until now... (shut the TV off immediately and went on a short internet break). Breaks my heart even more

OSUBias's picture

Me and you both. My wife mentioned it the following day (we were watching in different rooms at that point) and I got so much more disappointed when I saw how open he was. To me the lack of touch has to be the #1-2 thing he improves on, with the other being throwing the ball before the receiver is open rather than waiting for him to get open. We blasted the WR's about not gaining separation again elite CB play, but there were probably 5 passes that got broken up or tipped because he waited an extra second to throw the ball and that allowed them to get back into position.

Shitter's full

I_Run_The_Dave's picture

Not throwing with an injured shoulder and ribs will probably help with that next season :)

Will in Arizona's picture

Braxton throws deep lobs and ropes - he definitely hasn't mastered that in between touch pass.  If he can learn that this offseason, the offense should be top 5 again next year, even with all of the replacements on the line.

gm3jones's picture

Wish I was able to UV you, because I would. I seen how open he was and it didn't register to me that the ball was intercepted for like 1-2 minutes... The pocket presence, to me, is his number one think to work on. He needs to understand when the pocket breaks down, where it going to break down, and most importantly, how to get out of it. I am all for him running most of the time, but he needs to start avoiding that pressure to PASS to his wide open WRs. I know that takes years to master, but I would like to see him run from pressure and fire a rocket 20 yards down the field then run and probably get hit (some of his runs are magical, arent they?). But yeah, I agree, his timing to his WR routes has to improve if he wants to be successful in NFL.
Sooooooooooo glad Herman decided to stay for another year-- I hope that is because him and Herman have a good relationship and he wants to put his finishing touches on Miller as a QB.

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

bassplayer7770's picture

Thank you for this article, Ross.  I've heard too often that our Offense was to blame for the two losses.  If I recall correctly, the few points scored all year was 24 and 34 was the second fewest.  That is pretty darn good in my book.  We just need a Defense who can keep the opponent from scoring so much.

GrayDay's picture

Very interesting as always, thanks.  Wonder, do you think Brax's injuries during the game caused any of his passing problems later on, or if it impacted the plays coaches called?

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, I probably gave his injury short shrift in the article.  But I think his areas for improvement are generally applicable and ones he would probably agree with.  

German Buckeye's picture

I like Braxton, he's been a great Buckeye, etc., but I want, no NEED him to come back next season as a thrower, who occasionally runs to keep defenses off balance.  Why we cannot get a great throwing QB boggles the mind.  Watching the game with a friend who was a Div II QB and Texas fan, he commented that both Clemson (Boyd) and OSU's QB's were poor at throwing and clearly were not on the level of other BCS QB's (at least from a throwing/mechanical level, and decision making). 
Does this stem from Braxton's head space ability or Herman's play calling? 

jbcuky's picture

Ross,
Just wanted to say "thank you" for the breakdowns you provide all year. You have infinitely increased my knowledge with your insight.

Zimmy07's picture

I like how in the 2nd photo you can see a personal foul (hands to the face) being committed on Mewhort by #3 and Hyde being held by #93.
I think a lot of stuff went uncalled in that game to Clemson's advantage.

I_Run_The_Dave's picture

It felt to me, during the game, that Clemson's gameplan was to play dirty and accept the penalties that came with it so that we would be beat up in the second half.  I guess they figured we were going to score ours in the first half anyway so they might as well do whatever damage they can.  The roughing the passer on Braxton is a perfect example of this.  There is no excuse for the amount of defensive penalties Clemson committed.  If we had somehow won, everyone would be saying they got jobbed by the refs.

saltybuck61's picture

Lot of penalties were called in the game regardless. I don't think I have seen that many penalties in a football game ever. They were all good calls, but it was amazing to me how many calls there were.

Kurt's picture

To me the gameplan was flawed from the get-go.  We wanted to do what Clemson was prepared for us to do: run the ball.  This was likely motivated because Urban knew the defense couldn't stop Clemson's offense - our offensive gameplan was dictated by the defense.  If that was going to be the case, I think we may as well have gone in the exact opposite direction and engaged in a shootout - who cares of the final score is 70-65?!  We had a number of bad 3 and out possessions where it appeared we were in Tressel-ball 1.5 mode.
I felt then and still do now that our offense left points on the field.  It wasn't so much in the details but in the big picture plan.
 

Hovenaut's picture

I agree - Ohio State stayed within their comfort zone on offense, made it easier for Clemson to defend (just enough).
Even with the new o-line and running back for next season, I hope Urban, Herman and company open up the playbook (the passing chapters particularly) and fully dictate tempo on offense.

I am not very smart, but I recognize that I am not very smart.

NitroBuck's picture

While you make some good points, calling the game plan "flawed" is a bit harsh.  You realize that just a bit better execution on a few plays made the difference between winning and losing.  That has to gnaw at Herman to see plays develop as hoped, the Burn perfectly set up, only to see the opportunity lost to poor execution.  Right call at the right time, only to see it fail.

Ferio.  Tego.

Kurt's picture

I don't know if it's that harsh.  Would love to have Ross's comment on this.
Coming up 5 points short in a way may garner more learning than having squeaked out a 1 point victory despite the flawed gameplan (welcome to the Tressel era).  
Additionally I don't think we had execution issues on several of the 3rd quarter 3 and outs which consisted of too much pounding of Hyde right up the middle.  Those weren't doomed by execution issues, those went nowhere because Clemson knew it was coming.

d5k's picture

It feels like to me we need to get some Auburn film this offseason and add the little run/pass wrinkle once Braxton pulls the ball on running plays.  Most of our packaged plays are not true triple threats.

Kurt's picture

OMG.  Yes thank you.  I refrained from dropping Malzahn's name in yet another post.  

NitroBuck's picture

Quite right.  And I might add that we have seen Braxton break contain and stop just short of the LOS to hit a big gain on a pass.  It seems to me, that this typically happened on passing plays (when Braxton was in throw mode) as opposed to a triple option run / pass play.  Clearly Braxton has the abilities to pull it off.

Ferio.  Tego.

Zimmy07's picture

We did run triple threat plays earlier in the year, though.  It seemed to me as if the variety of plays we ran early vanished late in the year.

saltybuck61's picture

I agree. When this offense was playing its best, they could run the ball with Hyde and Miller could throw off of play action. A lot of the time it was a play action screen or a quick pass. These plays were definitely not used as much toward the end of the season for whatever reason. Part of it may have been Miller's slump, but he played well in the Clemson game. I would have liked to see that play more against Clemson, especially with the stacked box early.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

I thought that, for the first time all season, OSU tried to play possession football, and the team looked completely uncomfortable trying to do it. What the offense did that hurt the defense was turnovers and 3-and-outs. If OSU used more tempo, I think it gets tougher for Clemson to play the kind of defense they did. And even if the drive stalls, you can win the field position battle with a couple of first downs before the punt...which reminds me, great job again by Cameron Johnston.
Ross - Do you think Meyer/Herman regret not using Hyde more in the 4th (again)? And were more throws to the TE available given that the LBs and safeties were crashing the LOS so aggressively?

Gawss's picture

Why not an automatic screen pass on the last offensive play? DBs playing 10 yards off at the 50 yard line with 1:30 left and 2 timeouts.