At first, it looked like (yet) another lousy throw.
Spencer Petras' Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day began by throwing a perfect spiral directly into the hands of Tanner McCalister. The only problem? McCalister does not play for Petras' team, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
For anyone who follows the sport of college football outside of just Ohio State and the handful of other programs that compete for spots in the College Football Playoff, the performance of Petras and his colleagues that make up the Iowa offense lived up to expectations last Saturday in Ohio Stadium. This is, after all, a team that won its opening game against South Dakota State 7-3 by scoring a field goal and two safeties rather than finding the end zone.
Against the Buckeyes, Petras would eventually get benched in the second half after completing just 6 of 14 attempts for 49 passing yards and amassing a QB rating of only 43.69, the lowest of his career. Surely, Iowa fans welcomed the change under center, despite the fact that his replacement, Alex Padilla, produced a stat line that wasn't much different by the game's end.
The Iowa faithful welcomed this change due to the fact that while the interception to McCalister might have been excused for early game jitters, the second appeared to be inexcusable.
Standing in the shadow of his own goal line, Petras dropped back to pass on first down, only for the ensuing pass to look like it was once again intended for a player in a scarlet jersey, this time landing in the outstretched hands of middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg. The redshirt junior capped off yet another impressive game by rumbling past the scrambling Iowa blockers turned would-be-tacklers and falling into the end zone, putting points on the board for the first time in years.
“Somewhere around (fifth grade)," Eichenberg told reporters when asked about his last touchdown. "I don't even remember the last time I scored a touchdown. But yeah, it's been a long time."
But to write off that play as just another poor throw from Petras masks the effort put forth by all 11 Buckeye defenders and the coaching staff who put them in the position to make such a play.
All season, the Silver Bullets have impressed under the tutelage of new coordinator Jim Knowles, ranking in the top ten of nearly every important statistical category. But many at both the local and national levels have still held off from evaluating the unit, however, given the relative weakness of the Buckeyes' schedule thus far. Yet even against the nation's worst offense, Knowles' defense showed that it is not winning on mere talent or athleticism alone.
As both teams lined up before the snap, the Buckeyes showed the 3-deep safety look for which Knowles is known.
Such an alignment may not strike the common fan as unique, but it makes it more difficult for the quarterback to identify the defense's intentions. The Buckeyes could just as easily drop into any call from either of the 1-high or 2-high coverage families, but the QB must wait until the ball is in play to truly get a better picture.
Only once the ball was snapped did Knowles show his hand, dropping Ronnie Hickman from his spot as the Adjuster safety down into the box with Eichenberg and fellow linebacker, Steele Chambers. Behind them were the Nickelback, Cam Martinez, and the Bandit safety, Lathan Ransom, creating what looks like a typical 4-deep, 3-under coverage, otherwise known as Quarters.
But here's where Knowles really got tricky. While he calls for Quarters quite often, he didn't on this occasion, despite initial appearances.
Instead, he was employing a pattern-matching version of a Cover 3 zone that is quite different than the one employed by his predecessors so often. While Jeff Hafley, Kerry Coombs, and Matt Barnes all called an old-school iteration of the classic 3-deep, 4-under zone with seven sets of eyes on the QB at all times, the version implemented by Knowles incorporates the best of both zone and man coverage techniques.
This version, initially pioneered by the godfather of modern defense himself, Nick Saban, does not simply ask the corners and free safety to each occupy a deep 1/3 of the field while the underneath defenders drop into four zones.
Rather, the corners play MOD (Man On Demand) technique, meaning it can turn into simple man-to-man coverage if and when the receiver runs vertically downfield.
If the receiver runs a horizontal route, then the corner drops into a deep 1/3 zone and looks to help any teammates by doubling any receiver that might venture his way.
Similarly, the Apex defenders lined up over the inside receivers (which in this case are Martinez and Chambers) employ the same MOD technique despite starting the play at different depths. If their receiver runs a horizontal route, however, the Apex will play an underneath zone outside the hash marks, known as the 'curl' area.
Between the two Apex players are the Hook defenders, Eichenberg and Hickman. These two players are looking to fit the run (it is first down, after all), but then look to pick up any crossing routes or blockers that release late as a relief valve for the QB.
Behind of all of these defenders is the free safety sitting deep in the middle of the field and reading the eyes of the QB, a role filled in this instance by Ransom.
As the play unfolded, each of the coverage responsibilities described above would come into play. The receiver to the top of the screen ran a shallow crossing route, meaning the corner to that side, JK Johnson, would drop into a deep 1/3 zone.
That crossing route became the responsibility of the Hook players, with Hickman quickly cutting it off. Eichenberg, meanwhile, eyed the running back who released on a pass route instead of staying in to block.
Behind that action, though, we can see members of the secondary help one another out.
Both Apex players employ a 'trail' technique on the receivers they're covering, meaning they are running just behind the receiver and taking away any back-shoulder throws. While that may seem risky, the presence of the deep-dropping Johnson and Ransom provided leverage over the top in this instance.
In fact, it appears that Ransom had baited Petras into throwing to the tight end, Sam LaPorta (#84), who is the QB's favorite target by far, who looked to have left Chambers in the dust with his deep crossing route. But just as Petras wound up to throw to LaPorta, Ransom jumped the route and was in a position to break on the ball.
Yet it wasn't the free safety who would come down with the football, of course, as the outstretched hand of defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau hit Petras' shoulder as he followed through.
While the former 5-star DE hadn't begun the play looking to rush the passer, once it became clear that the Hawkeyes were throwing the ball instead of handing it off, the talented sophomore beat the right tackle and got just enough contact on the QB to affect the play. The football floated long enough for Eichenberg to pick it out of the sky and run 15 yards to paydirt.
Eichenberg is on pace to earn all-Big Ten honors this season, if not more, and this play will assuredly be one of the first highlights shown when he's discussed on TV. But to credit only Ohio State's middle linebacker on this occasion would be a disservice to the other defenders who made it happen, both in the secondary and along the defensive line.
Such effort surely isn't lost on Knowles, who seemed impressed by the effort of his players that afternoon, regardless of their opponent's record prior to the game.
“We don’t discriminate. It’s whoever you’re going up against, that’s who you have to stop,” Knowles said. “It’s definitely a mentality that I’ve been preaching to the guys and they’re buying in. It doesn’t matter what the score is, who we’re playing. Are we going to operate with a mentality of going out there and stopping them every time? If we’re playing with that kind of mentality and their offense is struggling, you see us rise up. The time’s gonna come when we’re gonna need that mentality when the game is close.”