Holding a late fourth quarter lead, the Silver Bullets stymied Notre Dame’s last ditch comeback effort with a strong pass rush and well-designed blitzes.
After pulling to within 10 points on an 81-yard touchdown reception by wide receiver Will Fuller on the previous drive, the Irish offense took possession of the ball down 41-28 with 6:04 to play. Knowing the Irish needed a quick touchdown to cut the Buckeye lead to one possession, the depleted defensive line made its presences known in spite of missing three of four starters due to suspension (Adolphus Washington), injury (Tommy Schutt), and ejection (Joey Bosa).
Facing an Empty Right formation on first down, Buckeye co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash (now the head coach at Rutgers) dialed up a beautiful 5-man ‘red dog’ blitz. Effective blitzes are designed to scheme open free rushers by conflicting the offensive lines blocking rules, leading to missed assignments. This particular blitz integrated two stunts, or twists, to scheme open a free rusher by confusing the right side of the Irish offensive line. The first twist is a ‘NUT’ stunt between the nose and defensive tackle.
The nose tackle will aggressively slant into the strongside A-gap from a 1-technique, hoping to occupy the right guard and center, while the defensive tackle loops around behind the nose tackle from a 3-technique into the area the nose tackle previously occupied.
The second stunt, executed by the middle linebacker and left defensive end is known as a ‘slant-loop’. The defensive end will aggressively attack the C-gap, attempting to punch the right tackle and tight end, while the linebacker (in this case middle linebacker, or MIKE, Raekwon McMillan) loops around the end.
If executed properly, both stunts act in unison to overload the right side of the offensive line. The Irish offense runs a play action concept with a pulling guard, utilizing slide protection in which each lineman blocks an assigned zone rather than a specific man. Focus on the right tackle and tight end below. When the nose tackle and MIKE hit their assigned gaps, the tackle and tight end come off their double team of Tyquan Lewis (#59), giving him a free go at the quarterback. Due to the pressure by Lewis, Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer is forced to rush his throw, resulting in an incompletion.
Without knowing the exact protection call, it is impossible to say for certain who missed their assignment on the play, although it was likely the tight end should have picked up Lewis when he shot through the C-gap.
The Irish again elect to run an Empty Right formation on second down. The Buckeye defense switches up the pass rush by only bringing four linemen, while dropping seven defenders into a two-deep coverage shell.
This time Lewis gets his man through sheer hustle. The sophomore bends the edge, attempting to speed rush around right tackle Mike McGlinchey (#58) and attack the quarterback’s front side. Because Lewis doesn't bend his inside shoulder and rip his arm through contact, McGlinchey is able to use his momentum to ride him past the quarterback. Unfortunately, the first-year starter fails to stay on his block. Due to excellent downfield coverage, Kizer is forced to pull down the ball and run for the first yard. Because Lewis fights back towards the quarterback after being run out of the play, he end up in position to make a diving sack on the Irish signal-caller, resulting in a third and long. Hustle plays like this demonstrate exactly why players are coached to play until the whistle.
On third down Chris Ash brings his signature blitz, a 3-deep, 3-under ‘fire zone’.
Many of Ohio State’s 2015 zone blitzes featured future NFL linebacker Darron Lee, as the junior’s size, strength, and quickness created matchup nightmares for opposing offensive linemen. Lee followed up a seven-sack 2014 season with 4.5 sacks in 2015, albeit with limited pass rushing duties.
In third and long situations, the OSU defense usually moved to their 4-2-5 Nickel package, replacing a box player with an extra defensive back. The front seven often aligned in a UFO look, with several players crowding the line of scrimmage. To increase the confusion, some defenders will stand while others align in a 3-point stance. The stacked box is designed to confuse the offensive line’s blocking schemes, as any defender is a potential blitzer in this look.
Ash elects to run an overload blitz to the left side of the offense’s formation, utilizing three down linemen, the standup 5-technique, and the field slot defender.
The Buckeye defense plays a 3-deep, 3-under Cover 3 behind the blitz, looking to avoid giving up a long play downfield. Like traditional Cover 3, the shell features three defenders who will divide the deep part of the field into thirds. Each is responsible for his third, and must stay ‘deep of the deepest’ to avoid letting a vertical route hit over their head.
The underneath defenders will split the field into thirds as well, although their responsibilities will vary based on their alignment.
The two outside defenders will play a ‘SCIF’ (Seam, Curl, Into Flat) technique against all underneath routes. This technique is very effective because it creates a set of rules for underneath pass defenders to follow, putting them in position to play the most dangerous route first (the seam) before moving on to the next area of danger (the curl zone), and finally letting the ball take them to the flat if the quarterback checks down to a short route. SCIF defenders must ALWAYS focus on rerouting the #2 wide receiver as the seam is a major weak spot on a 3-deep zone.
The middle defender will play the strong hook zone, opening to the #3 receiver and carrying the route if necessary.
The blitz is designed to scheme a free run at the quarterback by the slot defender, freshman cornerback Damon Webb (#3). The three down linemen all slant away from the slot blitz, while the standup blocker over the wing (#10) attempts to attack the outside half of left tackle Ronnie Stanley (#78).
The Irish are in a slide protection in which each lineman is responsible for the gap to his right. The running back completes the protection by covering the C-gap to the left side.
The Buckeye defenders do a good job of disguising the coverage until just before the snap, with both corners bailing to their deep third and the field safety (Vonn Bell) dropping to replace the blitzing Webb. Notice that Bell does not reroute the #2 WR as he enters the seam, a major error in technique. The deep coverage holds up, forcing Kizer to hold the ball.
Focus on the offensive linemen’s feet as they slide to the right. After checking his B-gap assignment, Stanley turns to his left to pick up the standup rusher, quickly creating a wide lane between himself and the right guard. With the running back picking up the blitzing slot, the line should have this blocked with a six-on-five advantage.
Rushing from a 3-technique (aligned over the guard’s outside shoulder) redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard (#6) uses violent hands to shed the left guard’s block and sack Kizer, ending Notre Dame’s bid for a late-game comeback.
While the loss of Ash to Rutgers and several key contributors to the NFL will hurt, expect few changes from new co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano as he integrates himself into the defensive staff. With a large group of young four and five-star recruits, new playmakers on the defensive side of the football will emerge to carry on the tradition of the Silver Bullets.