Trailing Navy by 1 with 4:21 in the third quarter, the Ohio State Buckeyes and new quarterback J.T. Barrett had yet to truly test the Midshipmen secondary, instead opting for mostly quick passes and screens to that point.
Though the Buckeyes had moderate success running the ball, especially on the outside, the Navy defense had begun cheating up toward the line, nearly intercepting a screen pass at one point. Fans and announcers alike had begun wondering, 'when will the Buckeyes throw it deep?'
After seeing some success with the outside running game, mainly coming from jet sweeps and 'stretch' runs to Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, the Navy defenders had begun keying on this action in the backfield. Both safeties had lined up deep on every play, running a cover 4 scheme, but they had begun creeping up to help support the undersized Midshipmen defensive front at the first sign of a run.
In an effort to both take a deep shot, as well as keep the Navy defense from attacking the running game, the Buckeyes called a play-action pass with three vertical routes, a staple of Urban Meyer's offense in Columbus.
The Buckeyes had actually called this same concept on their first drive of the game, and saw Dontre Wilson perfectly split the two deep safeties. Unfortunately, Barrett's throw was off target and fell incomplete. The speed of the Ohio State receivers was apparent from the start, but with a freshman QB seeing his first game action in two years, the coaching staff appeared hesitant to let him uncork many deep balls.
So when offensive coordinator Tom Herman dialed the concept up again in the second half, it just so happened that Navy had called a zone blitz with both outside linebackers rushing the passer, changing the rules of their cover 4 scheme.
With the outside linebacker now rushing the passer and not dropping into coverage, the cornerback to that side becomes responsible for the flat when there is only one receiver, letting the safety cover the deep man. But since they had been looking to stop the run first all afternoon, the Midshipmen secondary was a beat late in recognizing the deep pass routes in play.
As the cornerback lets Smith run right by, looing to pick up Ezekiel Elliott out of the backfield instead, Navy Safety Kwazel Bertrand (#17) doesn't recognize that Smith is now his responsibility until it's too late. After stepping up a few steps, thinking it's a run, he now must stop and turn to get depth when Devin Smith is already even with him. No safety in America is going to catch up to #9 in that instance. The next time Smith appears in the picture, he's ten yards in front of Bertrand.
At this point, Barrett simply needs to get the ball to Smith. As a young QB still clearly trying to build some confidence, Barrett throws the ball too flat, and actually under-throws Smith, nearly allowing Bertrand to catch up. Regardless of what certain TV commentators may have said at the time, I'm sure Tom Herman has already had some words with #16 about putting more air under the ball.
The important thing though was that when Herman finally dialed up the deep ball again, Smith's speed gave Barrett a wide open target. From that point on, the Buckeyes finally had momentum on their side, never surrendering the lead and pulling away for a 34-17 victory.