Film Study: A Goal-Line Stand in West Lafayette Cemented 'Silver Bullet' Status for the 2023 Ohio State Defense

By Kyle Jones on October 19, 2023 at 11:35 am
Tyleik Williams anchors a defensive line that has emerged as one of the nation's best.
© Barbara J. Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

It's been 4 years (at least).

Ohio State Football Film Study

Not since Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Pete Werner, and a number of other stars took the field in 2019 have fans been able to feel remotely comfortable with the product put on the field by Ohio State's defense. Surely, if forced to testify under oath, Ryan Day would say the same thing.

Despite reaching the national championship game in 2020 and coming a field goal away from doing the same a season ago, no supporter of the scarlet and gray would claim that the defense could be relied upon in the biggest moments. Thus, Justin Fields, C.J. Stroud, and the rest of their teammates on the offensive side of the ball surely felt extra pressure to carry an entire program to the heights expected of the Buckeye brand.

Through 6 games, it's clear that this year's OSU offense remains stocked with talent at the skill positions, but it lacks consistency along the line. As such, many in the national media have picked the team to finish behind a pair of division rivals for the first time in over a decade.

Many of those same analysts can't be blamed for not watching much of the Buckeyes' 41-7 victory over Purdue last weekend, as the contest was never truly in doubt. For the third time this season, the OSU defense held an opponent to a single-digit point total, which was relegated to an afterthought in the national conversation.

But if their eyes were directed elsewhere, the national punditry missed a sequence late in the first half that may have changed their minds about the direction of the 2023 Buckeyes. Here at Film Study, it's safe to say that it changed ours.

Few have been more willing to identify the holes in the Buckeye defense than this writer over the past three seasons, calling out numerous gaps in both the strategy and execution, even as Jim Knowles appeared to right the ship a year ago. But in year two under the veteran coordinator, the unit is playing at a championship level, and it certainly appears as though something is just...different.

Late in the first half, with the Buckeyes holding a 20-0 lead, the Boilermakers quickly moved the ball 69 yards in a minute and a half. The OSU defense began the two-minute drill by playing back and ensuring they weren't gashed by the kind of explosive play that plagued it a year ago, only to see running back Devin Mockabee take a handoff 21 yards and nearly find the end zone.

As Michael Hall Jr. and Tommy Eichenberg mistakenly filled the same gap, Mockabee ran untouched until Jordan Hancock lunged to trip him up a yard short of the goal line, leading many to wonder if the Buckeye defense was starting to crumble as it had in the past. Plays like these had undermined the confidence of the players on the field and there was plenty of reason to wonder if the visitors would simply fold, allowing the Boilers to put their first points on the board as the teams went into the locker room.

But as the Purdue offense lined up a foot shy of the end zone with just 23 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Ohio State defense responded in the opposite fashion. Over the course of four consecutive snaps, it would show why there is reason to believe that this season's unit finally deserves the Silver Bullet mantra reserved for the vaunted Buckeye defenses of the past.

1st & Goal at OSU 1 (loss of 1 yd)

The Boilermakers lined up in a four-wide look as Mockabee joined quarterback Hudson Card in the backfield. The call from the sideline was the same as the play before, which the running back had sprung for a big gain (a split-zone run), only this time the direction was flipped the other way.

Despite the ball's location, just inches from the goal line, the Buckeyes did not substitute a heavy personnel group into the game, electing to remain in their base, 4-2-5 package to match the spread look of the offense. All parties that had been on the field for the previous snap were still there, only this time, the defense blew up the play with Eichenberg and safety Josh Proctor making a tackle in the backfield. 

While those two veteran defenders deserve credit for stepping up and wrangling Mockabee in the backfield, it was the effort of the big bodies in front of them that really made the play. 

Hall drew a double team from the center and left guard, as is often the case at his nose tackle position. But in this instance, the determined junior from Streetsboro submarined both blockers by shooting out low like a heavyweight wrestler, winning the battle for leverage and driving both players backward into Mockabee's path.

On the other side, Jack Sawyer, who played perhaps his best game yet as a Buckeye, also won the battle for leverage by getting his hands right on the outside shoulder of the tackle and driving him backward. Sawyer's effort to disrupt the blocking scheme not only took away Mockabee's cutback lane, but also knocked the tight end coming across the formation off his path, eating up two blockers at once.

Hall forces double team, leaving LBs unblocked

With Hall and Sawyer each negating two blockers on the play, Proctor, Eichenberg, and fellow linebacker Cody Simon were able to mirror Mockabee's movements and beat him to the hole. Additionally, with the tight end taken out of the play by Sawyer, safety Lathan Ransom was able to spy the QB for any potential keeper around the edge.

2nd & Goal at OSU 2 (loss of 2 yds + Holding penalty)

Purdue brought in a second tight end to provide more size at the point of attack, so the Buckeyes followed suit by substituting Sonny Styles for Jordan Hancock at the nickel safety spot. While both players have seen playing time at that position this season, it certainly appears that Knowles prefers to play Styles as a SAM linebacker against two-tight end sets while Hancock fills the role when a slot receiver is in the game.

But other than that lone substitution, the Buckeyes kept the rest of their base defense on the field in the shadow of their own goalposts. And yet again, that unit stuffed the Purdue ground game for a loss, this time as Mockabee took a direct snap from the shotgun and tried to turn the corner on a G-lead sweep.

While everyone should have been alerted that another run was coming once Card motioned out of the backfield, defensive tackle Tyleik Williams identified something in the Boilermakers' alignment well before then, motioning for Hall and JT Tuimoloau to slide over a gap toward the eventual direction of the play.

Williams' pre-snap ID

As the ball was snapped, the right guard Williams pointed at took off down the line, pulling to act as a lead blocker for Mockabee around the edge. But having expected him to do so, Williams shot into the gap to his left, swimming over the right tackle meant to block him and cutting off the pulling guard before he could get anywhere.

Ransom is free to set the edge

Next to Williams, Sawyer beat the tight end off the ball and won the battle to get his hands inside those of the blocker. Able to dictate his opponent's movements, the defensive end once again drove his man directly backward, also leaving the pulling guard with no path around the edge.

While most of the Buckeye defenders fought to a stalemate with their blockers, Lathan Ransom was left unblocked thanks to the efforts of Sawyer and Williams. As a result, the safety was able to beat Mockabee to the edge and turn him back toward an eventual tidal wave of teammates who swallowed him up for another loss.

Williams set the tone for the entire play by identifying something from the right guard's alignment and signaling it to his teammates. But the official box score only notes the last-second hold on Sawyer by the tight end which moved the ball backward 10 yards and repeated second down.

2nd & Goal at OSU 12 (Incomplete pass)

Now faced with a clear passing situation, the Boilermakers went back to 11 personnel and lined up three receivers in a wide bunch set to the right with a lone wideout split left. In what appeared to be a game-planned 'check' for the Buckeyes against such alignments, the defense played a Quarter-Quarter-Half match coverage in which the secondary employed a different concept on each side of the field.

After initially looking at the slant to the single receiver on the left, Card found nothing open to the right and was forced into a scramble drill, throwing up a ball into the back of the end zone that was broken up by cornerback Denzel Burke.

The slant to the left was taken away by the Cone technique employed by Ransom as the deep safety to that side. In this technique, he acts as a double-team on the receiver who breaks inside, ready to break on the ball while the corner maintains outside leverage. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the play, the defense continued to employ concepts inspired by geometry by playing a Box concept with four defenders creating exactly what the name entails around three receivers.

Box and Cone from QQH

While both concepts begin as zones, they turn into man-coverage once the receivers break out on their routes. As Card kept the play alive by scrambling to the right, Proctor wasn't manned up on any receiver and closed on the QB, forcing a throw that Burke would eventually break up.

Such coverage concepts are a far cry from the basic coverage shown during the Kerry Coombs era and even last year in Knowles' first season with the program when he leaned heavily on man-coverage.

3rd & Goal at OSU 12 (Sack for loss of 10 yds)

The Buckeyes would employ the coverage on the next play, as the offense once again lined up in a 3x1 look, though this time with the bunch to the left side. While the Cover 2 defenders (on the offense's right) employed a different technique, as the receiver broke outside on a fade route, the Quarters defenders on the left employed another Box coverage over the bunched receivers.

'Box' QQH coverage forces sack

But while the OSU secondary once again did an excellent job of passing off routes in the Box, Card had little time to find an open man. The Boilers were in a simple, six-man protection scheme in which the running back identified any potential blitzers. 

With his eyes on Eichenberg in the middle of the field, however, that meant the two tackles were isolated one-on-one with Sawyer and Tuimoloau to either side.

Sawyer, perhaps feeling the adrenaline after beating his blocker so many times already on this series, perfectly swatted the right tackle's hands before dipping around the edge. Tuimoloau, meanwhile, executed a perfect spin move on the left tackle, allowing both players to live out every defender's dream of meeting a teammate at the quarterback.

The herculean efforts of the defensive line during this sequence are obvious. All four down linemen made at least one standout play on one of these snaps, with Sawyer dominating his opponent on three separate occasions.

But the Buckeyes have always had talent on the defensive side of the ball over the past half-decade, and many of the players on the field this season were in the same spot a year ago. The difference between now and then is the consistency in which all 11 players seem to execute their job on every snap, even if it isn't noticeable.

Proctor and Eichenberg could make a tackle-for-loss on first down because Hall created a pile in the backfield. Sawyer and Tuimoloau had time to get to the QB on third down because the coverage was executed perfectly. 

Playing opposite an offense still trying to find its way, the Buckeye defense is once again a unit worth celebrating.

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