OSU v. Michigan: Offensive Breakdown

By Ross Fulton on November 27, 2012 at 3:00 pm

The Buckeye offense followed a different script against Michigan than one they had for most of the year. Earlier this season, OSU struggled at times to move the football, but when they did they would finish off drives.

Against the Wolverines, by contrast, the Buckeyes generally moved the football between the 20s, but negative plays, miscues, and the like forced Ohio State to attempt 5 field goals. The Buckeye offense thus ended with over 400 yards excluding kneel-downs, but could not get that elusive two-score lead that would put the game out of reach.

Nonetheless, the Buckeye offensive performance against the Wolverines demonstrated that the OSU coaching staff learned from their experience at Wisconsin. They implemented a game plan that took advantage of holes for the inside run game and in the underneath flat created by Michigan's focus on containing Braxton Miller.

In response, Miller had perhaps his most accurate and confident game as a passer. Then, once they grabbed the lead, the Buckeyes went back to their base offense, relying upon Miller to attack the edge. OSU was then able to ice the game away in the four-minute offense by doing what they have done well all year—running Carlos Hyde inside behind Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell on the left side of the offensive line. 


The Michigan defense did precisely what one would expect them to do based upon previous defensive game plans against Ohio State—devote safeties and/or alley defenders to account for Braxton Miller in the run game. Like Wisconsin, the Wolverines would operate from a cover-4 shell and bring the halfback side safety, generally Jordan Kovacs, down in run support upon the snap. Michigan would also have Jake Ryan—the Sam linebacker to the field—cheat off the slot receiver to provide force contain.

The Wolverines at times also went a step further, fully committing the safety to the box pre-snap and playing a soft cover-3 shell behind. This was particularly apparent when the OSU halfback was to the boundary. Michigan also sparingly play cover-1 from such a look.

Alternatively, when Ohio State's halfback was to the field, Michigan would stick to cover-4 and use Ryan to account for Miller. 

In third down and long, the Wolverines utilized their psycho fronts, bringing more rushers than OSU had blockers and betting that they could rattle Miller before he unloaded the football.

Attacking the Bubbles

The Ohio State coaching staff learned from the Wisconsin film, though, and game planned to attack the holes left by a defense focused on attacking with edge defenders to take away the quarterback as a run threat. In other words, the Buckeyes were able to use Miller's ability to open other opportunities. This came in the form of attacking two 'bubbles' in the defense—the boundary 'A' gap against the Michigan 3 technique, and the wide-side flat.

The Buckeyes' first goal was running right at that backside bubble. In particular, OSU wanted to do so from the left hash mark. They gave the Buckeyes an advantageous personnel matchup with Norwell and Mewhort against Michigan's 3-technique and Will linebacker. The Buckeyes did this in two ways. They ran their base inside zone play.

OSU also ran a single-back power (aka 'Dave') play at that same hole, doubling the 3-technique and having Marcus Hall pull and fold on the playside linebacker. Unlike a typical power play, without a lead kick-out block OSU base blocked the defensive end, with the angle blocking taking place from the playside tackle down. Mewhort and Norwell created movement off their double team, and Hall did a nice job pulling through the hole and squaring his shoulders, locking up the playside linebacker downfield.

By running to the boundary 'A' gap, OSU not only got a favorable interior matchup but also eliminated the two additional edge defenders Michigan devoted against the run. The backside safety was held by the Miller read, while the field alley player was eliminated from the action. 

Flat Attack

OSU alternatively exploited the wide-side flat. As discussed, the spread-to-run's primary advantage is arithmetic. The defense must account for the quarterback as a run threat. An offense can therefore spread the field with 3+ receivers and still force the defense to account for two potential runners. One method that defenses use to try to regain the lost numeric advantage is cheat off the slot receiver into the 'gray area' to play the run. This is a common tactic used against the run-dominant Buckeyes this year and one the Wolverines employed as well. But the Ohio State coaching staff did perhaps their best job attacking the inherent weakness left by this approach, namely defending the underneath flat. A defense with 11 defenders simply cannot 1) bring the backside safety down in run support, 2) shade the field edge defender in the box, and 3) play their corners deep behind to prevent big pass plays without being structurally vulnerable in this area to multiple receiver sets.  

For starters, Michigan's Miller focus opened up the inverted veer give to Carlos Hyde that was also available against Wisconsin but was not exploited until overtime. Ryan's shading ironically allowed him to be easily sealed by the slot receiver. The defensive end then sat on Miller, permitting Hyde to get to the second level untouched. Hyde was able to gain multiple 10+ yard runs in this fashion.

As noted, Michigan also could not account for multiple receivers to the field in the passing game while using a boundary safety and/or field alley player to provide edge run support. OSU (finally) exploited the flash screen game that they have sporadically used this year;

as well as with sprint out snag combos.

Michigan's concern with using Kovacs in run support also opened up opportunities against the Wolverine cover-3 shell. On OSU's first drive, Devin Smith was able to split the coverage to the post off a play-action post-dig combination. 

To prevent this from happening again, Michigan's played an even softer cover-3 that allowed OSU to repeatedly connect on easy underneath completions to the flats. OSU hit several simple play-action out routes for first downs, as well as the screen and sprint-out passes shown above.

All the while the Buckeyes used their no-huddle offense in the first half to prevent Michigan from substituting. The Buckeye game plan was thus a coherent whole and a strong response to the offense's shortcomings against Wisconsin. 

Tripping On Your Own Feet

Unfortunately, Ohio State was often its own worst enemy with penalties and mistakes. One recurring problem from Wisconsin was Corey Linsley's shotgun snaps. Linsley has a badly sprained ankle. My assumption is that he was thus rushing his snaps out of a concern with getting to his blocking assignments. It was accordingly noticeable on reach steps. For example, a bad snap short-circuited a first-half drive in Michigan territory, after OSU had already overcome several penalties. Miller had to field a high snap on a speed option, ruining the pitch relationship and preventing a potentially positive play when Ryan committed to Miller.

The Michigan third down sack above was also made possible by Michael Thomas failing to get the signal and set in OSU's hurry-up offense, preventing an easy first down off a flash screen in another 3-on-2 opportunity. Buckeye miscues then put OSU behind schedule and Michigan in a position where they had the most success—on third and long when they could bring pressure.

Two Steps Forward And Two Steps Back

OSU's missteps became particularly critical in the second half as the Buckeyes failed several times in the red zone to score the touchdown that would have put OSU up by two scores. Perhaps the most glaring example was when OSU had a second and inches within the Michigan 5. OSU ran what appeared to be power with a run/pass flash screen option for Miller. Note how the offensive line run-blocks the play. Miller pulls the football, however, allowing Michigan's overload look to be successful. If Miller simply gives, Hyde likely scores. Concededly, OSU had successfully run a flash screen inside the ten on the first drive and OSU did have a 3-on-2 advantage outside. But the Michigan pre-snap set-up begged for OSU to run the ball inside. Though it is difficult to definitively know whether this was a called screen or a choice by Miller, in either case Miller needs to recognize that OSU should be running the football in that situation versus such an alignment.

Michigan must also be given credit for making several plays. For instance, OSU had the Wolverine defense perfectly set up for this designed sprint out counter. But the Michigan defensive end makes the open field tackle. But Miller could have also been more patient and let the block setup and then bounce outside to the open field.

Indeed, Miller's running left several red zone opportunities unexploited. Miller unfortunately continued a trend from Wisconsin, which was trying too hard to make people miss rather than hitting the hole. For example, OSU had this QB counter trey set up and if Miller simply hits this to the outside he likely has a first down. Instead he attempts to juke back inside, allowing Michigan to make a tackle.

Afterward, Meyer noticeably went immediately to Miller and told him to explode through the hole rather than being tentative. 

Go With The One Who Brung Ya

And Miller's running noticeably became more aggressive following this discussion. Fortuitously, once OSU established the lead they became increasingly reliant upon their bread and butter, Miller's running, to put the game away. To that end, the Buckeyes repeatedly ran lead QB outside zone.

The Buckeyes also leaned heavily on sprint-out passes for a run/pass option. As Meyer pointed out, Miller did not take advantage of scrambling opportunities this season. But this did not extend to sprint-out passing, where Miller was put in the open field where he is most effective.

This redounded to OSU's benefit against Michigan, where Miller had several opportunities to gain yards running off called sprint-out passes in the second half.

Finishing Out

Ohio State mistakes held back OSU from scoring more points in a game they otherwise statistically controlled

  Ohio State Michigan
Yardage 396 279
Plays 70 47
Time of Poss. 36:50 23:50

This yardage differential is particularly impressive when one realizes that nearly half of Michigan's yards came on two plays. The Buckeyes' success was largely attributable to perhaps Miller's best game throwing the football, certainly against this quality of an opponent. Miller looked confident in his reads, stepping up into throws and delivering a nice ball. This was particularly evident off play-action when Michigan was concerned with the run game and Miller was not concerned with the pass rush. Miller's passing efficiency allowed OSU to fully execute their game plan of attacking the holes in Michigan's zone. This game was thus a step forward for Miller as an all-around quarterback, and is a building block going into the offseason. Further, even with Miller's missed opportunities in the run game, when you subtract the negative plays from sacks and botched snaps, he still had over 100 yards rushing, which was critical to OSU's second-half success. 

In conjunction with Miller's efficient day passing, Corey Brown again exhibited that he has developed into an all-Big Ten receiver. Brown was consistently open throughout the game, made every catch thrown his way, and generally made the first defender miss on underneath throws. Brown's ability allowed OSU to attack underneath and gain additional yardage. 

But Ohio State was able to ice the game away with a clear strength that they have relied upon all season, which is Carlos Hyde running inside behind the Ohio State left side of the offensive line. The proof is in the pudding, and time and again when OSU needs tough yards they are going to run left behind Mewhort, Norwell and Linsley. Hall is also most effective pulling, adding to the Buckeyes' left-handedness. 

For his part, Hyde has developed into a different back in the last year. He has always run hard but his patience and vision running from the closer halfback position is particularly impressive. He also has great explosion through the hole. This was all on display on OSU's crucial fourth-quarter first-down pickup, where Mewhort and Norwell drove Michigan's 3 technique five yards downfield and Hyde attacked the hole.

And Now...

Of course, these Buckeyes are all back next year. Over the next month I will review the development of the Buckeyes' scheme and personnel this season and what it portends for 2013. But for now it suffices to say that the emergence of these individuals went a long way toward OSU's success. Going into the season the Buckeye coaching staff knew they had a dynamic run threat in Miller. And that is still the Buckeyes' biggest weapon, as reflected by how opposing defensive coaching staffs approach OSU. But the Buckeyes have developed an extremely talented offensive line that it can rely upon, particularly in the run game. And they have two and a half complementary skill players that have emerged in Hyde, Brown, and Smith. Miller has made great strides as a passer this season, perhaps best exemplified by this game. If he makes those same strides next season (and that includes taking advantage of his legs as a scrambler) the OSU coaching staff can continue to implement game plans that punish defenses that overplay the run game, making Ohio State difficult to defend.  

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