Paul Chryst came prepared.
The Wisconsin head coach and offensive play-caller was outclassed in his team's visit to Ohio Stadium earlier this season, scoring only seven points and failing to put his playmakers in a position to succeed. While the Badgers have long been known for physical offensive line play, this year's squad featured some talented athletes capable of hurting any defense if given the chance.
On the opening drive of their rematch with the Buckeyes, Chryst's team rectified the mistakes of the first game. The very first snap saw star Badger receiver Quintez Cephus running wide open down the sideline as OSU, getting the ball in his hands immediately.
The play design was an excellent counter to the 3-Match defense commonly employed by the Buckeyes on first down all season, as Cephus lined up as the innermost receiver in a 3x1 set. The two outside routes occupied the cornerback and outside linebacker, while a wheel route from Cephus gave inside linebacker Malik Harrison an initial key to let him release to the flat before releasing downfield to overload the zone.
The throw seemed to immediately get quarterback Jack Coan in rhythm, as Chryst looked to give him quick, open throws underneath before the pass rush could arrive. To do so, the Badger head man employed a tactic often seen by his counterparts on the Buckeye sideline, using motion to force the defense to declare its coverage before the ball is ever snapped.
Initially lining up in an empty set with the back furthest outside, Coan can clearly see that linebacker Pete Werner is lined up across from the back in coverage, showing that the defense is playing man-to-man. After the back motions in to help in pass protection, Coan hits a wide-open slant route in which Cephus is matched up against nickel corner Shaun Wade, who missed the prior game with an injury and was questionable to play in this one.
Earlier in the week, Ryan Day had compared the rematch to an NFL divisional matchup, and this game quickly had the feel of a professional game. Both teams looked to identify personnel mismatches and take advantage, which is exactly what Chryst did against a slowed Wade as well as reserve cornerback Cameron Brown.
With Jeff Okudah on the sideline with a thumb injury sustained in the first half, Cephus began lining up outside across from the sophomore. After the Badgers used the same pre-snap motion to identify man-coverage, Coan knew he had a mismatch down the sideline.
Coan and Cephus hooked up four times for 85 yards in the first half, but Chryst had a plan to attack Ohio State on the ground as well. Much as they've done similar OSU 1-high coverage structures in the past, the Badgers sent slot receiver Danny Davis in Jet motion constantly throughout the game, threatening the edges to open up the interior for Jonathan Taylor.
As Davis streaked across the formation just before the snap, the Buckeye defense 'spun' their coverage, rolling free safety Jordan Fuller down to set the edge against a sweep or pick up Davis in coverage. Behind him, Okudah rotated into Fuller's free safety spot, spinning the coverage toward the motion and swapping responsibilities between the two defensive backs.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, Wisconsin paired the motion with a CT Counter run, pulling the center and tackle to lead Taylor through the B-gap with enough bodies to account for every defender. Typically, Fuller would read this action and come upfield to fill the extra run gap, stopping the play after a short pickup.
With Okudah still rotating into position as Taylor gets the handoff, however, he was in poor position to tackle one of the nation's best runners in the open field. After an underwhelming tackle attempt from Okudah, Taylor was off to the races.
The Buckeyes continued to employ this strategy against Jet motion throughout the first half, while Chryst did an excellent job of tying it to different run and pass concepts. When Davis finally did take a sweep around the edge on a critical 4th and 4, Fuller was caught overrunning the play as he and outside linebacker Pete Werner both attempted to set the edge.
Though Fuller recovers enough to make a tackle, he was caught flat-footed and had to drag the runner down only after he crossed the line to gain.
Later on the same drive, Jet motion would result in six points yet again. This time, as Brown spun into the free safety role, he was caught entirely unprepared as Coan kept an outside zone-read and ran right by the young cornerback.
Like many NFL divisional matchups, the difference between the two teams was due largely to subtle mismatches and errors in execution, not the presence of an unexpected scheme or tactic. As such, when the Buckeye defense trotted out for the second half, their approach didn't change too much.
"Halftime we went back in the locker room, you know, I just said there wasn't no need for any yelling," Chase Young said following the game. "It was the simple things that we just weren't doing, like tackling, doing our jobs. I feel like the second half we made those corrections, I feel like you see what happened. We didn't give up any points."
One of the few schematic changes was in personnel. After spending the majority of the October matchup in a 4-4 look featuring linebacker Justin Hilliard instead of Wade, the Buckeyes showed that same look 13 times in the first half, but only six times in the second.
In its place, the Buckeyes played far more nickel, bringing in Josh Proctor and Amir Riep while Okudah returned from injury after halftime. This look appeared early, as the Buckeyes forced a quick third down and brought in a 4-2-5 personnel package.
But as Chryst called for Jet motion to confuse the Buckeye secondary, Wade followed Davis across the formation instead of spinning. This wrinkle seemed to confuse Coan, who was also pressured immediately by Jashon Cornell as the Badger offensive line double-teamed Young lined up inside.
Cornell had a big second half, beating the Wisconsin interior line on multiple occasions. Though the box score credits him with only three tackles, he had a much bigger impact on the game as he took away Coan's rhythm by forcing him into rushed throws in a messy pocket.
The fifth-year senior wasn't the only Buckeye in the Badger backfield after halftime, as Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison dialed up a variety of blitzes while Okudah blanketed Cephus outside. These blitzes allowed linebackers like Malik Harrison to blow up Wisconsin blocking schemes as pulling linemen were consistently disrupted on their paths, allowing free hitters to bottle up Badger backs.
Taylor only tallied 13 rushing yards on seven second-half carries, the most notable of which came on a 4th and 2 late in the game.
As Wisconsin tried to mount one final comeback effort, Chryst went back to the Jet motion yet again. This time, the Buckeyes did spin the coverage again, meaning Fuller flew down in the direction of the delayed toss sweep.
While the decision to run in the same direction as the toss was curious enough, a mistake from Cephus didn't help matters. Instead of blocking Fuller, the only player quick enough to beat Taylor around the edge, Cephus blocks the linebacker (Hilliard) instead.
As Davis sealed the cornerback, Fuller filled quickly, easily corraling Taylor in the backfield with Young. Instead of forcing a foot race between Taylor and the defensive end after initially forcing him inside on the fake handoff, the Badgers turned the ball over on downs to effectively end the game.
The Buckeye adjustments may have been subtle, but the results were obvious. The Buckeyes allowed only 138 yards of total offense in the second half while forcing three crucial three-and-outs which all set up scoring drives for Ohio State.
Results often magnify subtleties, but the real difference between the first and second halves didn't take place on a whiteboard.
"I think we just had to go back in and refocus, just do the simple things like tackle, do our assignments," Young added in the postgame press conference. "Coach Day, he just kept saying, Just keep swinging. We just kept swinging, kept swinging, kept swinging. We turned it out. It turned out for the best."