Though the Buckeyes were heavily favored, they only led their rivals to the north by a touchdown with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. After forcing a Wolverine punt on the previous series, the Ohio State offense was moving downfield into opposing territory.
But this Ohio State drive hadn't fit the mold of most this season, as starting quarterback J.T. Barrett was carted off the field with a broken ankle on the previous possession. As backup Cardale Jones took the field, the OSU game plan appeared to be focused primarily on running the ball, as he, Jalin Marshall, and Ezekiel Elliott all saw carries.
After picking up three first downs though, the maize and blue defense had begun to catch on, tightening their focus on stuffing the run and daring Jones to throw. Finally, on the seventh play of the drive, receiver Corey Smith hauled in a screen pass and picked up seven yards after the catch to the put the Buckeyes a yard shy of the line to gain as they faced fourth down.
As the offense lined up though, Urban Meyer and the OSU coaching staff decided to talk it over during a timeout. It was clear to anyone watching that this play could very well determine the outcome of the game, and perhaps ultimately, Ohio State's conference and national championship hopes.
When they took the field following the television timeout, the Buckeyes were in a formation they had rarely shown in conference play, with Marshall lining up on Jones' left in the backfield, with Elliott to his right. With tight ends Jeff Heuerman to the right and Nick Vannett motioning into the left side of the backfield, the OSU offense was matching the aggressive Wolverine defense with plenty of size and potential ball carriers all bunched together.
Whenever Jones has played, often in mop up duty at the end of blowout wins, he has acted as a runner primarily. Although he had two dangerous runners on either side, many had to expect that Meyer would use the big man's size to pick up the short yardage.
But although Meyer, offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and offensive line coach Ed Warriner would call a triple-option run, they'd be depending most on the blockers in front of Jones to make this play a success.
While the Buckeyes haven't run the triple-option very often, the blocking scheme for this play was a very familiar one for the offensive line: the split zone. A simple variation of the tight (inside) zone that is the bread and butter of the OSU offense, the split zone calls for the entire line to step one direction while a tight end or fullback in the backfield comes back across the formation to kick out a defender on the backside of the play, creating a potential cutback lane for the runner.
Much like the tight zone, the play's success is predicated first and foremost on the ability of the offensive line to double team the opposing interior defensive linemen. As they've done so many times this season, OSU center Jacoby Boren and Guards Pat Elflein and Billy Price neutralized the Wolverine defensive tackles, this time with an assist from right tackle Darryl Baldwin.
But defensive end Brennan Beyer (#97) is left completely unblocked, as Baldwin doubles the defensive tackle while Heuerman heads outside to block the outside linebacker. Beyer is the first player that Jones would potentially read on the play, waiting to see if he attacked the inside handoff motion to Elliott.
Beyer doesn't play the handoff though, and instead waits in the hole to see if Jones will keep and potentially pitch to Marshall on the outside. This hesitation is all Jones needs to see to complete the handoff to Elliott, as Vannett comes across to kick out Beyer.
But more importantly than Vannett's actual block was the way his movement back across the formation acted as a false key for a number of defenders. Safety Delano Hill (#44) had followed him when he went in pre-snap motion, and continued to do so once the ball was snapped. Had Beyer bit on the handoff to Elliott, it's likely that Vannett would've executed an arc block around the outside to clear a path for Jones and Marshall.
Additionally, with Heuerman, Vannett, Jones, and Marshall all moving quickly toward the sideline (and opposite Elliott), two more defensive backs immediately flow in that same direction, meaning there is no longer any help to contain Elliott if he gets past the first level of defenders.
The only defenders that properly recognize Elliott's handoff are inside linebackers Jake Ryan (#47) and Joe Bolden (#35). Ryan actually beats Elflein's effort to move off the combo block and take him on, but is only able to get a hand on Elliott, which barely slows him down. Additionally, Bolden is taken out of the play by Hill, who inadvertently runs right into him while chasing Vannett.
From there Elliott does the rest himself, easily outrunning Bolden and quickly covering the wide open field left behind by the vacated secondary.
Though both teams would each find the end zone again before the final whistle, Elliott's 44-yard score was enough to put away the team up north.
When asked about how it came about, Warriner was quick to spread the credit around.
“It’s just exciting because that means a lot of people executed really well, not just one guy," he said. "Zeke came out, he’s a hard runner and I think he ran through an arm, but there were a lot of people putting a nice block on defenders. That’s the risk you take to stop a 4th-and-1, you can also give up a big play and it worked out well for us.”
As the Buckeyes move into the most important, and perhaps difficult, part of their season, efforts like this from every member of the unit will be needed more than ever to make up for the loss of yet another starting quarterback. While Jones may still be fairly untested, the rest of the group is not, with the offensive line having stayed remarkably healthy all year long.
While much of the focus will be on Jones and his ability to execute the offense this week, the development of the offensive line, including Heuerman and Vannett, shouldn't be discounted.