Film Study: By Losing the Line of Scrimmage on Both Sides, Ohio State Lost 'The Game'

By Kyle Jones on November 29, 2021 at 11:05 am
Hassan Haskins had plenty of room to run against the Buckeyes
Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports

Warning: The Following Is Intended Only For Mature Audiences

Film Study

In this case, I don't mean mature as in only those above a specific age, necessarily, but those who scroll down should only do so if they're able to maintain their composure. That could mean avoiding the urge to post a nasty comment...or chucking their laptop off the desk...or simply putting a hole in the nearest drywall with a bare fist.

Because much of the film from last Saturday's contest in Ann Arbor is even more difficult to watch the second time around.

In eight seasons of writing these Film Study columns, I can only recall one other contest in which the Buckeyes were so thoroughly beaten in every sense: the 2017 CFP semifinal against Deshaun Watson's Clemson Tigers. Sure, there have been other contests in which Ohio State has been defeated by multiple scores, but rarely have we witnessed the team in scarlet and gray get pushed around on both sides of the ball for nearly the entire game.

Yet, in their biggest game of the season and facing their biggest rivals, this group of Buckeyes was manhandled in both the schematic and physical sense. It was evident that one team in The Game had done its homework on their opponent, and for the first time in a long time, it wasn't the one from Columbus.

Had it not been for the remarkable connection between C.J. Stroud and his trio of talented wideouts, the score would have been worse than 42-27, as the Ohio State offensive line lost battle after battle throughout the afternoon.

When OSU had the ball, the Michigan defense did an excellent job of dictating the action. The Buckeyes love to read the pre-snap alignment of an opposing defense to determine whether to run the ball or flip it out quickly to one of Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, or Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

With the strength of its defense clearly on the defensive line, the Michigan coaching staff elected to respect the pass and line up extra defenders out wide, effectively forcing Stroud to hand the ball off. Typically, that results in TreVeyon Henderson running through gaping holes created by his offensive line, but against the Wolverines, those holes were rarely found.

Though the Buckeyes had seven blockers to take on seven box defenders with little help to the boundary, tight end Jeremy Ruckert failed to complete his block on this play, leaving Henderson with nowhere to go. This would happen in some form or another any time Ohio State tried to run to the left all day, as they gained just 7 of their 91 rushing yards on that side of the line.

After acting as the foundation of one of the nation's best offensive lines all season, Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford played their worst game of the season. In Munford's case, it was his lowest-graded performance in four years as a starter according to Pro Football Focus.

From false starts to holding penalties to bad snaps, the entire Ohio State offensive line had a day it would like to forget, as the offense was consistently behind the chains on second and third downs.

“There was some penalties, and that was really frustrating because that got us off-schedule on offense. And really, when you look at the games we’ve struggled, that’s what’s got us off-schedule,” Ryan Day said of his offense's performance. “I think when you throw that much, you’re gonna put yourself at risk, and I felt like we had to down the stretch because we weren’t really getting much in the run game.”

But Michigan DC Mike MacDonald also dialed up run blitzes at the right moment, such as a double-safety blitz late in the third quarter when he guessed correctly that the Buckeyes would try to run the ball in the red zone. Down two scores, Day likely planned on going for it on fourth down, at least until Miyan Williams was stoned at the line of scrimmage by the blitz.

But Michigan didn't win this game because of its vaunted defense. The Buckeyes still scored five times and tallied 458 total yards of offense despite an inconsistent running game, the most surrendered by the Wolverines all season.

No, Jim Harbaugh's team won it with an offense that kept Ohio State on its heels (or worse) for nearly the entire game. On the game's opening drive, it used misdirection to stretch the Buckeye defense horizontally.

Steele Chambers finally looked like a guy who had been playing running back just a few months ago when he took a poor angle on a swing pass off orbit motion. The pass was combined with a pin-and-pull sweep going into the boundary, meaning he had no help flowing with him in that direction.

A few plays later, the Wolverines used a similar motion to distract the defense before handing the ball off on a reverse going the opposite way.

On their next possession, the Wolverines found themselves back in the red zone. But a great play by free safety Bryson Shaw to jump Cade McNamara's pass saved six points for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State was in a simple, Cover 3 zone on that play, perhaps leading play-caller Matt Barnes to believe that his team could continue to sit back and wait for the Wolverines to make similar mistakes as the game went on. But McNamara adjusted and had little trouble finding open receivers in the OSU zone coverage throughout the rest of the afternoon.

For nearly the entire game, the Buckeyes continued to sit in this 2-deep, 4-3 over alignment with the 3-technique defensive tackle and the cover safety/slot corner to the wide side of the field. But after putting up little resistance on Michigan's first two drives with this approach, the unit appeared to settle in early in the second quarter.

The Wolverines would line up in 3x1 sets to the field all afternoon, forcing middle linebacker Cody Simon to line up outside of the defensive end in order to maintain coverage flexibility, replacing him in the box with the cornerback to the opposite side. This alignment may have provided the Buckeyes with adequate pass coverage to the trips side, but it left them exposed against the run into the boundary.

Starting with that third Wolverine drive, the supposed strength of the unit (the defensive line) began winning one-on-one battles up front, re-routing running backs away from the designed gap with nowhere to run.

Additionally, Barnes called for his 6-man pressures quite frequently to break up run-blocking schemes and put pressure on McNamara, as the front four failed to do so on their own. One common blitz the Buckeyes have run quite often since Barnes took over the defense is this overload pressure in which the MIKE 'backer and slot corner fill the A and B gaps to the field.

But when those blitzes didn't get home against the pass, McNamara had no trouble diagnosing the 3-deep, 2-under "Hot" coverage employed in the OSU secondary.

For example, as Simon and Denzel Burke get sent on a blitz in the example below, Chambers has his eyes on McNamara, as he's supposed to. However, he doesn't pick up the crossing route going right behind him and into the space vacated by Burke, allowing for an easy completion.

But coverage issues aside, Ohio State lost this game along the line of scrimmage. Save those few instances early in the second quarter when they created penetration, the Buckeye defensive front was pushed around consistently.

Michigan called a variety of run concepts throughout the afternoon, hitting the Buckeyes inside and out as the maize and blue offensive line won battle after battle against its more heralded opponent. Time and time again, the Wolverines were able to neutralize the interior of the OSU defensive line without needing to double-team anyone, allowing blockers to get up into the faces of Simon and Chambers and create huge running lanes.

One of the most successful ways the Wolverines beat up the Buckeye front seven was with a variety of Counter runs into the boundary from those same 3x1 sets. By aligning the tight end to the wide side of the field, Ronnie Hickman no longer became part of the OSU run fit, rolling over to play the free safety position and making the slot corner fill a gap to the opposite side instead.

However, the Wolverines found constant success by down-blocking to the boundary, collapsing the Buckeye tackles inside while pulling two players from the other side around to lead the runner. Sometimes, those two pullers were a guard (who kicks out the DE) and a tight end (who bulldozes the linebacker).

After seeing this concept pick up big chunks of yardage over and over, the frustrated OSU D-line began freelancing. On the Wolverines' second touchdown, Tyreke Smith decided not to maintain the edge against the pulling guard and tried to slip inside to make a play. 

But when he failed to do so, the guard simply ran right around him and climbed to find another Buckeye to block. Meanwhile, the play had bounced outside and Hassan Haskins followed the blocks of his two big tight ends right into the end zone.

The Wolverines threw every variation of Counter at the Buckeyes Saturday afternoon, and the visiting team acted as though they'd never seen it before. Backup QB J.J. McCarthy, who spelled McNamara to provide a running threat all season long, caught Ohio State off-guard when he kept the ball on a Counter-Bash concept in which a speed sweep the other way held the linebackers in place as both the guard and tackle pulled around to lead him into the boundary. 

Michigan even attached those same swing passes seen on the first drive to Counter, pulling linemen into the boundary while throwing to the field. 

Josh Gattis and his staff did an excellent job of drawing up a game plan to take advantage of the "new" Ohio State defense led by Barnes. While much was made of the mid-season changes that seemed to reinvent a stagnant unit that watched Alabama and Oregon march up and down the field against it, Gattis showed that changes in coverage structure had simply papered over much larger cracks in the foundation. 

The Buckeyes' defensive game plan varied little from the one shown against any other opponent over the past month, playing a heavy dose of Cover 3 Buzz out of a two-deep structure while occasionally mixing in Cover 2 and the 6-man Hot pressures. Against lesser opponents, the strategy was enough, as the Buckeye offense forced opponents into predictable situations in which the Buckeyes' superior talent would eventually create a turnover or sack.

The philosophy remained a 'bend, but don't break' approach that counted on the multitude of recruiting stars to eventually step up and make a play to end a drive. But even teams like Penn State and Nebraska moved the ball against this defense by recognizing that it remained a predictable scheme that could easily be manipulated.

While Gattis put together a well-designed game plan, his offensive line and tight ends absolutely pounded the Buckeyes whenever they had the chance. For as much as they found success with misdirection early in the contest, the Wolverines seemed happier to line up and hit the Buckeyes right in the mouth.

Despite looking like a shotgun spread offense, Michigan played old-school, power football all afternoon. They even brought back the old school isolation play, (known as zone insert) in which the tight end leads the back through the A-gap.

In the example below, it was Chambers getting driven backward as Haskins fell forward for five yards and a first down.

On a day in which its opponent ran for nearly 300 yards, Ohio State's leading tackler was a safety (Hickman) who spent the majority of the day lined up 10 yards off the ball. The Buckeyes registered zero tackles for loss and zero sacks, all while allowing Michigan runners to pick up 20 first downs on the ground.

“They just stayed on schedule the whole time and that was the recipe I’m sure they had to win the game, and we weren’t able to stop that, and that’s really very disappointing,” Day said after the game. “Especially when you know they’re gonna do it."

Other Buckeye losses in recent memory can be pinned largely on the scheme (Virginia Tech in '14, Oklahoma and Iowa in '17, Purdue in '18, Alabama last year, and Oregon earlier this season), or the outcome of one or two close plays (Michigan State in '13 & '15, Penn State in '16, Clemson in '19). Rarely, however, do the Buckeyes get completely beaten by both scheme and physicality in the same contest.

Yet much as the loss to Clemson on New Year's Eve in 2016 prompted wholesale changes on the offensive side of the ball, it's time for Ryan Day to overhaul his defensive staff for the second time in three years. But scheme alone will not fix all the problems that ailed his team on Saturday. 

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