Film Study: Buckeye Linebackers Aced Their Biggest Test by Stuffing the Michigan Running Game

By Kyle Jones on December 1, 2016 at 10:10 am
All three Buckeye linebackers showed up to play in the 2016 regular season finale

Rarely does every member of an entire position group play their best all at once. It's even more unlikely to see it happen in the biggest game of the year.

Ohio State Football Film Study

Luke Fickell's linebackers went out with a bang in Ohio State's 2016 regular season finale, as the trio of Raekwon McMillan, Jerome Baker, and Chris Worley each registered career-highs with 16, 15, and 11 tackles respectively. While the Michigan offense had been remarkably balanced to that point in the season, the Wolverine running game was consistently held in check, tallying only 91 rushing yards on 43 attempts, nine of which resulted in zero or negative yards.

Though the Buckeye defense has been stout against the run all year long, ranking 15th nationally, they'd struggled when facing 'Pro-Style' teams that operate under center and often out of the I-formation. Wisconsin and Michigan State each tallied over 200 yards on the ground, with the latter's effort coming just one week before Ohio State faced the Spartans' in-state rivals. 

The reason for these breakdowns is largely foundational, as the Buckeye defense is largely built to defend 'spread' offenses featuring three wide receivers or more. While they've done well at slowing these spread run games like their own, their smaller defenders don't lend themselves well to the heavy personnel shown by the Wolverines, often featuring multiple running backs and tight ends at the same time.

On top of the obvious physical strain brought on by all those big bodies, defenses must remain disciplined in their approach to filling all the gaps, known as 'run fits.' When facing only five offensive linemen, that means a defense has six gaps to cover: the 'A' gaps on either side of the center, the 'B' gaps outside the guards, and the 'C' gaps outside the tackles.

There are up to eight traditional gaps to cover

Tight ends can obviously add gaps outside, but fullbacks leading through the hole create additional gaps as well. As those extra blockers lead through the line of scrimmage, meeting a defender in the gap, the ball carrier now has an additional lane through which he can run.

Worley is listed at 6'2" and 228 lbs, but looks more like an NFL safety than a linebacker meant to take on pulling guards or bruising fullbacks. Against Michigan, though, he seemed more than willing to line up between the tackles and match up against the bigger Wolverine blockers.

More importantly, instead of allowing Jim Harbaugh's fullbacks to get through the line and create additional gaps for Worley and his fellow linebackers to cover, Fickell and co-coordinator Greg Schiano consistently dialed up blitzes on early downs. These rushers often met the fullbacks before they ever reached the line, forcing the runners to re-route their path in the backfield.

These run blitzes came from every direction, as all three linebackers spent plenty of time in the Michigan backfield. However, that job was not always glamorous, as this work usually freed up a teammate to make the tackle instead.

With one or two of Fickell's linebackers often working to get behind the line of scrimmage on early downs, this left Schiano to find the right coverages behind them, knowing they wouldn't be able to simply line up in a base set. As a result, the Buckeyes rotated between multiple zone and man schemes, looking to throw off the Wolverines should they abandon the run game on first downs, just as they did midway through the second quarter while pinned up against their own goal line.

Though quarterback Wilton Speight had been very sharp throwing the ball in the first half, everyone in the stadium expected him to hand the ball off after taking the snap from his own six-yard-line, so the Buckeye linebackers sent a blitz in response. But on first down, Speight faked the give to De'Veon Smith as McMillan darted through an 'A' gap untouched, forcing a bad throw right into safety Malik Hooker's 'seam' zone.

With few positives coming from the Wolverines' inside run game, Harbaugh's staff began dialing up outside runs, pulling multiple blockers around the edge in hopes of catching the Buckeyes out of position and breaking 'contain.' But once again, the unheralded effort of players like Worley, who worked to not only get outside positioning on the larger blocker but was in good position with his outside arm free, forced the runner back into the coming arms of McMillan and Sam Hubbard.

But not every play in the running game was made by the linebackers in this game. The Ohio State defensive line stepped up their game, often maintaining similar run gap discipline and occupying multiple blocks at once, freeing up McMillan, Baker, and Worley to make tackles.

One player on that front stood out in particular, though. Freshman tackle Dre'Mont Jones registered seven tackles that afternoon, giving him 46 on the season. That total ranks sixth on the team currently and is the highest among all the defensive lineman, making it no surprise that he was announced as a member of the 2016 Big Ten All-Freshman team on Tuesday.

Just as Taco Charlton left a lasting impression on the Ohio State offense during his final performance in the rivalry, Jones made sure the Michigan offensive line will remember his name, darting through gaps and causing havoc in the Wolverine backfield.

But not every tackle made by Buckeye linebackers was thanks to someone else. McMillan is built for physical contests like these, which is why NFL scouts can't wait for him to declare for this April's draft. 

Even as the Wolverines had largely abandoned the running game late, despite holding the lead, McMillan used his size, athleticism, and instincts to sniff out runs like this draw play. Not only does he immediately identify the run, he gets to his gap quickly while keeping his body perpendicular to the center, giving a very small surface and ripping through the block, a technique known as 'wrong-arming.'

Plays like these are to be expected from a veteran like McMillan, but Baker, starting in only his 11th game, played the best game of any linebacker in America last weekend according to Pro Football Focus' grading system. The sophomore had been plagued by inconsistency throughout the season, finding himself out of position on a number of the big plays the Buckeye defense allowed this fall. 

In the biggest game of his young career, though, Baker was everywhere. Along with his 15 tackles came one sack, a QB hurry, an interception in the third quarter, and countless collisions with larger Michigan blockers at or behind the line which won't be found in any box score.

These three players were the engine that drove the Ohio State defense's most critical effort of the season, forcing Speight to throw the ball 36 times in a low-scoring affair. After the Buckeyes scored their second touchdown near the end of the third quarter, bringing the score to 17-14, Michigan would drop back to pass six more times in regulation, compared to only five runs, despite holding the lead.

The Wolverine offense was largely playing with one arm tied behind its back by that point, though, as Smith was held to a meager 2.9 yards-per-carry, despite coming off a career-high the week prior. With no consistent running game to speak of, the Buckeyes were able to pin their ears back and pressure Speight in the second half and overtime, causing him to miss many of the same passing windows he had hit in the first.

Though it eventually took a full team effort to overcome their biggest rivals, the Buckeye front seven, led by their linebackers, put on a performance to be remembered for years to come. Their efforts early certainly helped Curtis Samuel and J.T. Barrett to find glory late.

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