Film Study: Dissecting the Game Plan Behind Marvin Harrison Jr.'s Career Day Against Penn State

By Kyle Jones on October 26, 2023 at 11:35 am
Marvin Harrison Jr. showed why he's the most dangerous weapon in college football against Penn State.

For the past five days, much of the discourse has been some version of: 'These were two evenly matched teams, but one of them had Marvin Harrison Jr. and the other one didn't."

Film Study

It's certainly fair to say that Ohio State remains undefeated today thanks to the efforts of its star wideout. With his running mate, Emeka Egbuka, unable to go and a running game clearly missing a steady presence in the backfield, all eyes were on #18 to deliver the Buckeyes another win against a top-10 opponent.

“I’ve got to give Marvin Harrison so much credit,” Ryan Day said following his team's 20-12 victory in Ohio Stadium last Saturday. “To go for 11 catches for 162 and a touchdown when I think most teams, the first thing they look at is ‘How do we take away Marvin Harrison?’ We targeted him 16 times and I think he was open for most of those 16 plays. So he showed up in a big spot today.”

Day was right. Despite the Nittany Lions' efforts to blanket him with NFL-caliber corners and safeties helping over the top, Harrison set a new personal best in receptions and was the catalyst for an otherwise stagnant offense. The future top pick was the lone bright spot in a game that at times looked more like a matchup of middling Big Ten West foes than a battle of top-10 heavyweights.

But Harrison's output did not come as an output of Kyle McCord simply chucking jump balls to his favorite target. Rather, Day and his staff developed and executed a game plan designed to consistently get their best player the ball against one of the best defenses in the country.

“Shoutout to Coach Day and to Coach Hartline, they did a tremendous scheming me up a little bit to help me get open,” Harrison said after the game. “I just try to do my part. If I get the ball, I’m wide open, try to get some yards after catch. Do everything I can to keep the offense on schedule.”

While the all-everything receiver was often McCord's primary read when dropping back to pass that afternoon, Day and his staff did everything in their power to either get the star man open while also making it clear to the young QB what the defense was doing.

On the Buckeyes' very first offensive snap, Harrison lined up in a condensed split, alone to the boundary. Tight end Cade Stover motioned out in Harrison's direction, however, eventually making himself the outside receiver and running a quick hitch while Harrison cut outside on a corner route in what is known as a Smash concept.

The pre-snap motion gave McCord a clear view that the defense was in man-coverage, as a safety followed Stover out wide instead of seeing the corner bump that way, which would have signaled some kind of zone. While Harrison easily beat that corner for what turned into an easy 13-yard gain on this occasion, Stover was left wide open when the Buckeyes called the exact same play later in the game.

This time, Stover's motion drew the corner out wide instead of staying put over Harrison, signaling some kind of zone to McCord. All the QB had to do was read that corner in this concept that creates a vertical stretch, and when Harrison Jr. understandably drew the defender deep with his corner, it left Stover wide open for another easy gain.

The Buckeyes used this motion from Stover multiple times throughout the afternoon, using the shift from a 3x1 to a 2x2 look to identify the defense's intentions.

Near the end of that first drive, which ended in a field goal, Harrison was schemed up to break inside on the underneath, shallow crossing route in a Drive concept. But when the Nittany Lions safeties gave away their man coverage by following Stover, McCord looked instead to the pair of vertical routes to the other side.

With a blitz coming right into his line of sight, however, the quarterback quickly took a shot to Carnell Tate down the seam, even though the freshman hadn't created much separation. Had he had more time to work through his reads, McCord would've seen Harrison streaking wide open across the middle of the field as the corner let him run free.

The internet quickly noticed this miss and decried McCord's inability to see him, despite not recognizing the QB's read versus man coverage. But Day and the Buckeye coaches remembered this missed opportunity, knowing the corner let him run free on the crossing route with the assumption that the middle linebacker would pick him up instead.

While such a concept works well on the whiteboard, Day knew no linebacker in the country can run with Harrison. So, backed up to nearly the exact same spot on the field early in the fourth quarter, the same concept was called the other way. 

This time, the linebacker attempted to pick up Harrison on his crossing route, but the result was a 28-yard catch and run.

“We had a little crossing route to me,” Harrison said of the play after the game. “I think we missed one the first drive of the game we probably would have scored on. We came back to the same play when we needed it in the fourth quarter and Kyle did a great job getting me the ball. Offensive line as well, and the receivers ran some good routes to kind of get a pick for me.”

While the motion package was more obvious to the untrained eye, there were more subtle adjustments that allowed Harrison to thrive. Rather than line up in a regular slot alignment to Harrison's side, Stover would cut his split down much tighter to the tackle, creating a larger window for McCord to throw slants to Harrison.

Double slants with TE condensed split

But the star receiver did plenty of work to help his teammates, as well. Perhaps the most impactful effort away from the ball was somewhat unintentional, as a deep dig route over the middle drew a defensive penalty well before a McCord fumble that would have completely changed the game otherwise.

Harrison Jr. is held, nullifying a fumble

But the attention he warranted opened up opportunities for other receivers, like Stover.

While the Penn State defense plays a heavy dose of Cover 1 (man-free) coverage on early downs, it will change things up by playing Cover 2 on occasion. As such, Stover would motion from one side to the other to see how the defense reacted.

On one particular occasion in the third quarter, no one followed the tight end across the formation, signaling zone to McCord. The Nittany Lions thought they could bait him into making a mistake by swapping the roles of the corner and safety to Harrison's side, playing what's known as Cover 2 Invert while the other side of the defense played a regular Tampa 2 zone.

But with a defender responsible for half the field playing over the numbers instead of closer to the hash, there was a wide-open window into which McCord could throw to a streaking Stover down the middle of the field. While the linebacker running with him made a valiant effort to keep up with the athletic tight end, no one was there to help disrupt the catch because of the threat of an attack from Harrison down the sideline.

When it came time to put the proverbial nail in the coffin, however, there was no question where the ball was going. Though he has relied upon it less and less over the past few years, Day once again made his signature play-call once the Buckeyes reached the red zone with a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter.

Stover and Julian Fleming ran their defenders right into Harrisons as they ran crossing routes in the opposite direction of his, opening up the receiver for yet another easy catch and run. This time, it ended with Harrison in the end zone for the 23rd time in his heralded career. 

There's no question that career will end at the collegiate level in just a few months, as he'll be one of the first players selected in this April's draft. But after putting on such a dominant performance, there's reason to believe that Day's game plan may have not only earned his team a victory in one of the biggest games of the season, it may have also earned his star man a trip to New York City in December.

“If it’s truly the award that goes to the best player in college football, I don’t see how he’s not in the mix,” McCord said of his longtime teammate's Heisman candidacy. “What he’s done, especially these last few games, I don’t know if we’ve seen a stretch like that, just how consistent he is, how reliable he is.”

View 23 Comments