Just one week after setting personal bests of five catches and 95 receiving yards against Minnesota, Jalin Marshall found himself in the spotlight yet again on Saturday. While the redshirt freshman from Middletown matched those same numbers against Indiana, he also found the end zone on four occasions that afternoon, matching Indiana running back Tevin Coleman's big day and leading the Buckeyes to an important victory.
After receiving quite a bit of criticism from a small, but vocal minority of Buckeye fans following a pair of fumbles on a cold day in Minneapolis, Marshall made news by spending his free time catching punts in the snow. Apparently his work paid off, as he returned a punt for a touchdown for the first time in his young career.
Trailing 20-14 late in the third quarter, the Buckeyes set up a punt return for Marshall to the wide side of the field. Though they had lined up as if they were going to try and block the kick, members of the Ohio State special teams unit released downfield with their opponents after the snap.
The first wave of Buckeyes to get downfield were Armani Reeves (#26), Curtis Grant (#14), Noah Brown (#80), and Gareon Conley (#19), all of whom make sure they have let their assigned opponent release toward's Marshall's right, giving them leverage when he cuts to the left after catching the ball.
That entire group not only maintains their leverage, keeping up with their defenders, but also make solid contact with their men as well, highlighted by a block from Reeves that takes out not only has man, but Curtis Grant's as well.
But while the first wave of defenders has been taken care of, OSU freshman linebacker Dante Booker (#33) wasn't able to keep his man blocked off the line, allowing him to have a free run at Marshall downfield.
But thanks to his vision and quickness, Marshall stutter steps and easily jukes the Hoosier, who never lays a finger on the returner. At the same time, Booker gives a great effort, not giving up on the play even though he lost the first battle. Instead, he hustles downfield and finds another free-running Indiana defender to block, which seals the alley on both side through which Marshall runs.
Make no mistake though, Marshall does plenty of the work on this return. The young man showed excellent vision and patience, reading the blocks set up for him by teammates, and then beats two different defenders with juke moves in the open field.
Both Booker's man and the punter never really stood a chance on a play that shifted momentum back to the Buckeyes at a critical time in the game. Not only had OSU re-taken the lead on the scoreboard, but a cold, quieted crowd was energized and back in the game as well.
Marshall's work was far from done though, as he'd become the focal point for an OSU offense that had struggled for much of the second and third quarters. Once the Buckeyes got the ball back early in the fourth, they methodically worked their way down to the Indiana six-yard-line, where once again Marshall would steal the spotlight.
The Buckeyes called on Marshall to run the "Jet Sweep" shovel pass with a hoard of blockers in front of him. Lining up in the slot to the left with two tight ends and a running back aligned opposite, Marshall goes in "Jet" motion before the snap. As soon as quarterback J.T. Barrett receives the ball from center, he softly tosses the ball with two hands like a basketball chest pass to the motioned Marshall, who already has forward momentum.
By passing the ball forward instead of simply handing it off, the play becomes a pass in the box score, and while the tactic has become more popular in the last few yards, many have wondered why teams choose to do so. The best answer given is that if anything goes wrong with the exchange, the play is dead and ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble, an explanation that does have some merit. However, it's more likely that teams prefer this method because it does help their passing stats. Usually a receiver is the one carrying the ball, and a touchdown catch looks better than a touchdown run.
Up front, the offensive line blocks the play just like they would on an outside zone handoff, all taking lateral steps toward the direction of the play, trying to get their hands and shoulders across the face of any onrushing defenders.
But the most important blocks on the jet sweep come from the tight ends and running back. Unlike in a regular outside zone play, where the runner looks for a cutback lane around the the area where the tackle lines up, the jet sweep looks to lead the runner around the outside of the furthest player on the line, who in this case is tight end Nick Vannett (#81).
Though Vannett and the other tight end, Jeff Heuerman (#5), take the same steps as the rest of the offensive line, they're looking to immediately seal a hole for Marshall. Heuerman immediately recognizes that the middle linebacker is reading the play, and chops him down with an excellent cut block while Vannett's man, the outside linebacker rushes so hard upfield that Vannett simply allows him to run, kicking him out toward the sideline and creating a nice hole between he and Heuerman.
From there, Marshall simply follows the lead block of running back Ezekiel Elliott, whom the TV broadcast and coaches both recognized this week for his effort and ability to block for other players, a trait rarely seen in feature backs. Elliott leads the way straight through the newly-created hole, and makes enough contact with the final Hoosier defender to allow Marshall to get in the end zone.
Although his teammates did a great job creating a hole for him, Marshall once again showcased his own abilities on the play, running through arm tackles and maintaining excellent balance, never allowing the Hoosiers to come close to taking him down before scoring.
The jet sweep proved so effective that when the Buckeyes got the ball back late in the game, they ran the exact same play, but this time to the opposite side. On this occasion, however, Vannett and Elliott swapped roles from the previous touchdown, with Vannett leading Marshall through the hole while the running back kicks out the furthest defender to the edge.
Jeff Heuerman also comes up big yet, taking out the middle linebacker again, this time blocking him straight into another Hoosier linebacker, totally sealing a giant hole to the inside for Marshall.
The result is a wide open lane for the runner, who this time needs only to turn on the afterburners, going untouched for 54 yards before hitting pay-dirt.
The crown jewel of Marshall's day was the touchdown pass he caught with just over four minutes left in the game. On the first play after Tyvis Powell picked off Indiana quarterback Zander Diamont, the Buckeyes once again called Marshall's number, looking to find him in the end zone in single coverage.
Throughout the game, Indiana had shown man-to-man coverage from their defensive backs once the Buckeyes entered the red zone. OSU offensive coordinator, Tom Herman had taken some criticism throughout the game from fans on Twitter for his play-calling, but made an excellent call on this occasion, taking advantage of the Hoosiers' single coverage.
Lining up in a five-wide formation, the Buckeyes split running back Ezekiel Elliott all the way out to the right side. Thanks to this subtle change in alignment, the Hoosiers are forced to show their hand before the snap, sending a linebacker all the way to the outside to cover Elliott while a cornerback lines up near the middle of the field over Marshall. Such a swap in alignment is dead giveaway that the Hoosiers are in man coverage, and with the rest of the Hoosiers showing blitz, Barrett will have a simple read.
Knowing he'll have an open read to the right side, Barrett calls receiver Evan Spencer in from his slot position on the left side to line up like a tight end, giving the Buckeyes an additional pass blocker to counter the Hoosier rush. Spencer once again shows what kind of player he is, as few senior wide receivers would probably be called upon to protect the passer in the fourth quarter of a one-score game.
But Herman and Barrett know where the ball is going right away. The "China" concept is fairly simple, and very similar to the "Smash" concept found in every playbook across America, which calls for the outside receiver to run a short hitch route with a corner route on top of it from the inside receiver. Smash is a great way to beat zone coverage, as it creates a vertical stretch on the cornerback, who must choose which receiver to cover in his area.
China asks the outside receivers to run short slants or crossing routes, dragging their defenders to the middle of the field and creating an opening over the top for the corner route. Though the concept can be run with only two receivers, it's often most effective with three, giving the corner route more space to outrun his defender since it starts closer to the middle of the field.
Barrett has one, very simple read after taking the snap, as he simply waits for Marshall to feign an inside route with a stutter-step before cutting to the outside. The quarterback knows that once his receiver gets outside, there is no one there to stop him, as the Hoosiers have no deep safeties.
Before Marshall even looks back at the QB, the ball is already in the air, leading him to a wide-open spot in the end zone.
Though the ball was just slightly overthrown, Marshall once again showed his athleticism, making a spectacular one-handed catch for a touchdown, and sealing a win for the Buckeyes.
Though his involvement in the offense has progressed throughout the season, Marshall has now established himself as a true weapon for the Buckeyes, and it couldn't have come at a better time. With the loss of Dontre Wilson to a broken foot, Marshall has proven to be an extremely dangerous open-field runner, something he regularly showed in high school as the quarterback of a triple-option offense.
But his emergence as a route-runner and receiver is even more impressive. After redshirting last year to learn the position, he now looks like a wideout that can run after the catch, and not a running back trying to catch the ball. The move he put on Indiana's top cornerback on the China route was both textbook in intention, and nearly impossible to replicate in athleticism.
As the Buckeyes head into their most important game of the season, followed by the Big Ten championship, opposing defenses now have one more weapon to worry about. What's even scarier is that Marshall may have the highest ceiling on his abilities of any player on the roster, with as much athleticism as anyone to go along with a work ethic and attitude that the coaches love.
Assuredly, Herman and the rest of the OSU staff will be looking for more ways to get the ball to the newest star of the #Zone6 bomb squad, and this won't be the last time we break down the ways Jalin Marshall finds the end zone.