While many newly-minted stars emerged on the national stage in Oklahoma last Saturday night, there were many under-appreciated members of the Ohio State Buckeyes that contributed just as much to their team's biggest win of the young season. J.T. Barrett is firmly in contention for the Heisman with this latest performance and Noah Brown's name will be heard whenever 2016's best plays are discussed, yet dozens of Buckeyes won't hear theirs when pundits speak of the current No. 2 team in the nation.
Surely, Buckeye wide receivers and the young offensive linemen were excellent in their blocking efforts to help lead their team to 291 rushing yards, and the secondary continued to impress, even as an injury kept top cornerback Gareon Conley out of over half the contest. But while Urban Meyer's team outplayed the Sooners in nearly every phase, the most impressive, and perhaps most overlooked, performance of the evening may have belonged to the defensive line.
The existing questions surrounding a unit that was forced to replace three starters this offseason were exacerbated by the opening week loss of Tracy Sprinkle, a defensive tackle expected to fill the void left by former star Adolphus Washington at the '3-technique' spot. However, the rotation at both tackle positions on the Buckeye D-line proved to overwhelm the Sooners inside, leaving linebackers Chris Worley, Raekwon McMillan, and Jerome Baker to roam free all night and consistently stuff the Oklahoma running game with 25 combined tackles on the evening.
Nose guards Michael Hill and Robert Landers may not have stood out in the box score with only 3 combined tackles in the game, but their efforts shooting the 'A' gaps between the Oklahoma center and guards and forcing double-teams that often left McMillan unblocked and free to meet running backs in the hole, meaning the Sooner inside zone scheme never got off the ground. In addition, 3-technique tackles Dre'Mont Jones and Davon Hamilton constantly penetrated the backfield at the snap, causing havoc of their own.
For example, below we can see every member of the Buckeye defensive line do their job perfectly, as Hill forces a double team almost immediately while Jones and ends Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard all penetrate the backfield. The result is a stifled zone-read scheme that forced quarterback Baker Mayfield to keep the ball and take a big hit for no gain.
The Sooners offense is known to be powered by the duo of star running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, yet both players were largely shut down on this night. Perine, as the main inside runner, only tallied 60 yards on 17 carries, and while Mixon picked up 78 himself, 31 of those came on one long rush in the second half. Without either player moving the chains on the ground, Mayfield was forced to create offense on his own through the air, something the Buckeyes made equally as difficult.
Despite running a 'Basic' defense, according to some on the Oklahoma side, the Buckeye defense showed a brand new look in passing 'Nickel' situations with four defensive ends lined up together and both inside linebackers showing blitz. While all six gaps were threatened by defenders, coordinator Luke Fickell mixed in a variety of pressures from this look, rushing anywhere from four to seven players at a time.
With Holmes and Nick Bosa lining up in both 'A' gaps over the center, the Sooners countered by adjusting their pass blocking to a simple 'slide' protection with the entire line asked to cover only the gap to one side or the other, a measure meant to simplify things. Yet communication and execution breakdowns along the OU offensive line were exposed by the Buckeyes all night.
While the left tackle (#78) simply lets Sam Hubbard pass by, expecting Perine to pick him up before releasing (a communication issue), the right tackle (#71) expects help from the guard (#75) when Tyquan Lewis makes his inside move. Instead, the guard is waiting for McMillan to possibly blitz from his linebacker spot and doesn't feel Lewis' pressure in time (an execution issue).
To make things simpler for Mayfield, the Sooners began moving the pocket on designed rollouts, however, these efforts were also met with limited success. In this critical instance near the goal line, Mixon stays in to block as Mayfield moves to his right. But Lewis, the end to that side, reads the play and outruns the right tackle, forcing Mixon to help block him. While that seems fine in theory, Mixon was supposed to be defended in man coverage by Malik Hooker should he release out for a pass, so the ball-hawking safety can rush the quarterback unblocked while Lewis occupies two Sooners.
After harassing Mayfield and confusing his offensive line for three drives, the Buckeye defense landed a haymaker in the form of a Jerome Baker interception returned for a touchdown, its fourth score of the young season. But while Baker received the credit, Jalyn Holmes was able to tip the pass up in the air first, thanks to the chaos created by his teammates earlier.
Mayfield had actually changed the play at the line, looking to attack the Buckeye secondary as they played man-to-man coverage on the outside. But he failed to account for what the Ohio State defensive line was capable of, despite everything they'd done to make his night difficult up to that point.
While the Sooners had already dropped one game already this season to Houston, they're still likely to finish as one of America's top 10-15 teams, thanks in large part to this offense led by Mayfield, Perine, and Mixon. While that unit will likely finish statistically among the nation's best, they were held well below their averages over the past two seasons, specifically in passing yards and yards-per-play.
Given their recent losses, many will surely begin to discount the ability of this Oklahoma team and their level of competition in the Big 12 over the past season. But when looking ahead to Ohio State's remaining regular season schedule, anyone will be hard pressed to find an offense as talented as the one the Buckeyes faced last week in Norman.
Indiana always plays well against Ohio State and Nebraska appears to have taken a step forward this fall, while Michigan and Michigan State certainly won't roll over when facing this team in November. However, the Buckeye defense many had questioned coming into the season has made it clear that it's reloaded and capable of not only competing, but dominating, good competition this fall.