“They force you to go over the top, and we felt like we had some matchups somewhere and if we found them right we’d take that shot,” said Urban Meyer after his team had just wrapped up a convincing victory over Michigan State on the road.
After failing to find any real success through the air in their previous two contests facing the Spartans, the Ohio State offense exploded Saturday night. Senior wide receiver Devin Smith came up with perhaps his biggest performance ever in a Buckeye uniform, catching six passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Against such a fundamentally sound defense as MSU’s, playmakers like Smith needed to emerge for Meyer and OSU to come away with a win on the road. After missing a field goal and committing two early turnovers, such an effort looked even more necessary.
Smith emerged quickly as a main cog in the Buckeye game plan though, catching three short passes on the very first drive of the game, and showing a different skill set than has often been on display in the past. Throughout his entire career, Smith has been used almost exclusively as a deep threat, hauling in passes at an average rate of 19.4 yards-per-catch.
These early short catches helped set the stage for what was to come later on, as Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman appeared to be playing chess with the MSU secondary. Coming in to the game, the Spartans were expected to alternate between their cover 3 and cover 4 zone defenses, with man-to-man coverage thrown in from time to time as well.
But instead of waiting to see the coverage, Meyer and Herman attacked, intentionally forcing the MSU defensive backs into one-on-one coverage with the OSU wide receivers. By releasing vertically, the Buckeyes could easily determine the personnel with whom they would match up, as the Spartans consistently aligned with two deep safeties, both of whom would be responsible for any deep patterns down the seams of the defense.
To ensure the safeties would be responsible for any receivers going deep over the middle, Herman attacked the MSU cornerbacks with short, 3-step inside-breaking hitch and slant routes early on. Knowing they were responsible for any deep balls on the outside, these defenders often “bailed” quickly to get depth, while leaving the area in front of them wide open.
Once Michael Thomas caught one of these short routes, breaking a tackle and racing 79 yards for a touchdown, the Buckeyes had the MSU secondary on the ropes.
Though the Buckeyes often line up with three of four receivers split out on nearly every play, the inside receivers are almost always a tight end or one of the “H” receivers, Jalin Marshall or Dontre Wilson. Devin Smith, Thomas, Spencer, and Corey Smith all rotated at the outside spots up to this point in the game, but as they faced a 2nd and ten with 1:02 showing on the clock, Herman called for a slight adjustment.
Instead of lining up outside, Devin Smith instead lined up in the slot to the boundary, or short side, of the field. Knowing that senior free safety Kurtis Drummond, the leader of the Spartan defense, would be lined up on the opposite side, Smith would likely be facing coverage from the less-experienced strong safety, R.J. Williamson.
Additionally, tight end Nick Vannett lined up in the backfield, appearing to be set up to block for running back Ezekiel Elliott on an inside run. With two players now in the backfield, the Spartan linebackers are all aligned between the tackles, meaning any action to a slot receiver must be handled by the safety.
With both corners playing tight on the line and two safeties deep, the Spartans are either in their base Cover 4 scheme, or some sort of man coverage. But by releasing all the receivers straight downfield, the called coverage doesn't matter; the Buckeyes will see single coverage.
As the ball is snapped, the Spartan corners close quickly on the outside Buckeye receivers, wary of allowing yet another short route to be caught. But the eyes of the other defenders are squarely on the backfield, where Vannett appears to cross the formation to kick out defensive end Marcus Rush (#44) before Elliott takes a handoff that never comes.
Both Drummond and Williamson shuffle as they wait to see if they should crash down on the inside run, a tactic that led to the pair leading the Spartans in tackles with 11 each that evening. While Williamson is reading the action in front of him, though only momentarily, Devin Smith takes off unabated, getting a ten-yard head start before passing the flat-footed safety.
With Vannett and Elliott helping to pick up any pass rush, Barrett has plenty of time to recognize Smith zooming past Williamson before delivering an absolutely perfect pass.
The Michigan State defense is regarded as one of the best in the nation for good reason. They are extremely well coached, and rarely make major mistakes. Williamson got caught taking a couple false steps and not getting any depth before realizing just how fast his man was.
All defensive philosophies and schemes have potential flaws, and by asking their safeties to take part in the run game as well as potentially cover receivers one-on-one, the Michigan State coaches put a lot on their shoulders. The Buckeyes exploited this flaw, and were able to dictate the terms under which their offense would operate.
By establishing a presence on the outside early, as well as showing the threat of a run inside, Williamson had no help on the deep seam route. Although Drummond recognized the situation fairly quickly, he was in no position to make a play on the ball.
Though the phrase has become cliché, it’s absolutely true that “you can’t coach speed,” and Devin Smith has plenty of it. But Barrett showed quite a bit of talent himself, delivering an incredibly accurate pass just one week after showing some inconsistencies in his mechanics while recovering from a knee injury.
Make no mistake, completing a deep throw like this is rare at the collegiate level, and is the kind of throw only NFL quarterbacks often attempt. The Spartans have long dared teams to try them, a fair assumption in the college game. To this point, the only other team to connect on a similar throw was the Oregon Ducks, who feature a pretty good quarterback of their own.
After taking the top off the Michigan State defense, Ohio State would never trail again. With both safeties worried about getting beat deep again, the Buckeyes would begin pounding the ball in the running game. The overwhelmed Spartans had no answers, and would go on to give up 568 yards, their highest total allowed since the 2010 Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech.
After exposing one of the most respected defenses in the country, Barrett, Smith, and the rest of the OSU offense has established itself as one of the most complete and talented groups in all of college football. Beating a team like Michigan State not only changes the national perception of Meyer’s squad, but also gives them a lot of confidence as they close out the Big Ten season.
Of the remaining teams in contention for the college football playoff, only Alabama have been as good statistically on defense as the Spartans were before this game. Although only time will tell if they get a chance to match up with any of them, Buckeye fans have good reason to be optimistic if they do.