Film Study: A Questionable Game Plan from Purdue Allowed the Nation's Best Offense to Put on A Show

By Kyle Jones on November 15, 2021 at 11:20 am
The Ohio State offense put on a show against Purdue

"We were lucky to hold them to 59." - Jeff Brohm

Film Study

These Film Study pieces usually follow a typical pattern during the season. Ohio State comes into each game with a plan to win, and we show how well it worked, or occasionally, why it didn't.

Today, however, we're going to take a slightly different approach.

While Purdue came into the Horseshoe with a solid offensive game plan that methodically hit the weak spots (aka the flats) in Matt Barnes' coverage scheme, the Boilermaker defense seemed less prepared to slow down its opponent. Despite facing one of the nation's best passing attacks, Purdue opened up by stacking the box with eight players to stop the run with no deep safeties, meaning the trio of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba would be facing one-on-one coverage.

Purdue's 8-man box against Ohio State

Perhaps the Boilermakers paid attention to all fuss about Ohio State's seeming inability to run the ball in the previous two weeks and knew it would be a priority for Ryan Day and co., intending to meet them at the point of attack. Whatever their intentions, it didn't really work.

As is often the case, Day packaged a pre-snap read into run plays for his quarterback, checking to see where his team had a numbers advantage. The defenders to the two-receiver side played a version of Quarters with both players giving a soft cushion to the receivers, so the opportunity to throw quick screens was available all day. Stroud completed 8-8 for 104 yards on such throws last Saturday.

But the Buckeyes attacked this look in drop-back passing situations as well. On the game's first score, Wilson and Smith-Njigba ran a simple In/Out route combination meant to attack the Quarters coverage. When the corner followed the #1 receiver too far inside, Wilson was wide open for an easy pitch and catch.

After watching Ohio State knife through its coverage on the first drive, Purdue switched things up on the second, employing man looks with a free safety now in the middle of the field. This simply allowed the Buckeyes to execute another element of its game plan, meant to attack the Boilermakers' best player, defensive end George Karlaftis.

As OSU fans have seen many times, teams will often leave star edge rushers like that unblocked, hoping to use their aggressiveness in getting upfield against them by stretching the field horizontally. When Smith-Njigba took a jet sweep around the left end, it not only caught Karlaftis by surprise but the Purdue secondary as well. 

The Boilermakers' slot defender (#4) was late in getting lined up over Smith-Njigba, which meant he was late in relaying the receiver's motion to the rest of his teammates. While the free safety meant to roll down and effectively swap roles with the slot defender "covering" Smith-Njigba did his best to get downhill, he had already been beaten to the spot by TreVeyon Henderson, who was acting as the lead blocker on the play. The result was a huge gain.

On Ohio State's third possession, we saw another gimmick that didn't quite work out for Purdue.

As we all know, the Buckeyes like to rely on the zone running game, specifically the mid and wide versions that hit off-tackle. Such is also the case with the Los Angeles Rams and other teams in the NFL, who have been stifled in recent years by teams employing a 6-1 defensive front (thanks to Bill Belichick in Super Bowl 53).

Purdue tried to take a similar tack against the Buckeyes, lining up six defenders on the line to keep the offense from executing double teams and leaving the middle linebacker as a free hitter to meet the running back in the hole. But when they added an additional wrinkle of slanting Karlaftis and the 3-technique tackle inside on an early handoff, it created a huge hole along the left side B-gap. 

In theory, that gap would be filled by the middle linebacker (#43) who would scrape over the top of Karlaftis, as the left guard and tackle would be too busy blocking other players to notice him there. But when the runner taking the handoff is as explosive as Henderson, it simply becomes a foot race to get to the open gap first.

No matter what the Boilermakers seemed to try defensively, Ohio State had an answer. If Purdue loosened up its coverage and played with two deep safeties, the Buckeyes were able to run the ball.

If the Boilers clamped down and added an extra safety in the box to stop the run, Stroud and his receivers easily exploited one-on-one matchups.

While Stroud put up another stat line propelling him to the top of the Heisman odds, he let his receivers do most of the hard work on Saturday. While he completed 31 passes for 361 yards, 25 of those completions were thrown less than 10 yards downfield, and 232 of those yards came after the catch.

With Wilson, Olave, Smith-Njigba, and Henderson all capable of making defenders miss in the open field, even the smallest mistakes get quickly amplified against Ohio State.

“It’s just real scary. I feel like it’s hard for defenses to cover all of us,” Smith-Njigba said after the game. “It doesn’t really matter if I’m covered; someone’s open, usually. That’s what we work on and that’s what we do.” 

Such is the conundrum for future Buckeye opponents. There are so many ways in which this team can hurt you that it's difficult to prioritize what to try and take away. Even with one of the conference's best defenders in Karlaftis, Purdue was kept on its heels all afternoon.

"At the end of the day, they made more plays than us. They came ready to play and executed really well on the offensive end," Brohm said after the game. "That could be a team that wins it all." 

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