A second look at the Buckeyes’ win on Saturday revealed that Ohio State and Iowa staged an interesting chess match Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State had more answers, both in terms of Xs and Os and Jimmies and Joes.
A second look at the Buckeyes’ win on Saturday revealed that Ohio State and Iowa staged an interesting chess match Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State had more answers, both in terms of Xs and Os and Jimmies and Joes.
Ohio State’s first season in Urban Meyer’s spread offense was a big success by most measures, but the head coach and his offensive coordinator want much more in year two. We examine how they can improve and take a look at a past example of an OSU offense going from good to great in its second season with a new attack – Scout.com: Buckeyes Want To Add Read, Speed in 2013
After breaking down the defense previously, it’s time to take a look at the offense.
The 2012 season was a fascinating one on that side of the ball for Ohio State as the Buckeyes worked to absorb the new spread offense of head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who also serves as quarterbacks coach.
It will be no less interesting this year with that pair hoping they have more parts to allow the unique and innovative attack to truly take flight.
Meyer expressed frustration regularly last season about the lack of playmakers on offense even as the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring and finished just four touchdowns shy of tying the school record in a single season (they had 60).
He hopes to have tackled that problem this winter by adding a trio of players that are tough to bring down in the open field: Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and James Clark.
Marshall was the first to commit (in January 2012) and might have faced a heavy load as the Buckeyes’ slot receiver if not for the recent decisions of Wilson and Clark to jump on. The top-rated player in Ohio, Marshall is a solid 6-0, 190 pounder who played quarterback at Middletown and brings a variety of skills to the Buckeyes. Wilson (5-10, 174) and Clark (5-11, 170) are smaller, scat-back types whom Meyer hopes can stretch defenses horizontally with pure speed and make yards after the catch with their agility.
The youngsters probably won’t be able to walk right into a starting role, though, as the addition of a couple more athletes might result in a re-shuffling of the wide receivers already on hand. In addition to the slot receivers, Meyer secured signatures from Corey Smith and Gareon Conley, two bigger prospects (6-1 and 6-2, respectively) who can go down the field and battle corners for catches, creating space for the others to work underneath.
A four-star cornerback prospect, Conley could end up on the defensive side of the ball, but Smith is expected to compete immediately for playing time on the outside. A junior college prospect, the 180-pounder’s presence could allow senior Corey “Philly” Brown to move inside to the slot. The speedy Brown led the Buckeyes in catches last season but might be miscast as the possession receiver he essentially became as the 2012 campaign wore on.
Tight end Marcus Baugh figures to find playing time hard to come by this season, but the 6-4, 245-pound Californian might be able to carve out a niche as a change-of-pace when compared to veterans Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. The elder players don’t lack athleticism, but they are more traditional Big Ten tight ends who excel as blockers while Baugh is known for his ability as a receiver in the open field.
The only traditional running back in Ohio State’s class of 2013, Ezekiel Elliott will not be lonely when he shows up for his first position meeting. Thanks to Jordan Hall’s medical redshirt, the Buckeyes have six running backs on scholarship for the coming season. The group includes power backs Carlos Hyde (who will be a senior after running for nearly 1,000 yards last season), junior Rod Smith, sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball as well as the smaller, shifty Hall.
Offensive line is the only area Meyer expressed some disappointment, admitting the ability to sign only two players puts the coaching staff on notice to stock up on big uglies in 2014. Neither Evan Lisle, a four-star prospect ticketed for tackle, or Tim Gardner, a three-star who seems fit for guard, figures to be pressed into duty any time soon as four starters return for 2013 and the staff is high on the potential of rising sophomores Chase Farris, Taylor Decker and Jacoby Boren. However, four starters will graduate after next season, so a strong freshman campaign could set up one or both of the new signees for a run at major playing time as a sophomore or redshirt freshman. The 6-6, 290-pound Lisle in particular is considered a major prospect for his long, athletic frame.
Lastly there is quarterback. There is no spot less primed for an immediate impact than signal caller, but that is probably fine with everyone involved. J.T. Barrett is a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, but the 6-1, 225-pound Texan is still rehabilitating a knee injury that cut short his high school career. Meyer and Herman have already observed a work ethic and leadership they love in the youngster, who will find himself fourth on the depth chart this fall and is likely ticketed for a redshirt.
All in all, it should be fascinating to watch the staff put together the new pieces. Herman spoke at the signing day press conference about using the additional speed and shiftiness at receiver (out wide but especially in the slot) to “protect” the running game that revolved around dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller and Hyde last season. That represents something of a twist on the old “run to set up the pass” mentality, and it is a reality of playing spread football in the 21st century.
Michigan and Wisconsin provided a blueprint for slowing down the OSU attack last November by crowding the line of scrimmage on early downs and doing just the opposite when the Buckeyes fell behind the chains, but speedsters in the slot could create new ways to punish such strategies in 2013.
This week’s column comes from Jim Hendrix, if for no other reason than no song has more versions in my iTunes playlist than Red House.
What we learned last week: Indiana is not ready for prime time. The Hoosiers’ game against Wisconsin started at noon on Saturday, but they left little doubt about that with how they performed. As such, they won’t be in the Big Ten championship game a couple Saturday nights from now.
The final numbers say Wisconsin dominated in every way, but Indiana missed some chances especially early on to put together some drives. The quarterbacks did not execute opportunities with open receivers to keep the chains moving.
Of course, Wisconsin’s success on the ground came as no surprise. Indiana had already shown it can’t stop the run, and Wisconsin had already shown it can run all over bad defenses. What we don’t know yet – even with 10 games down – is if Wisconsin can run on a good defense. Or if Wisconsin can stop good passing offenses. I hoped to learn about the latter this past week, but Indiana seemed to leave a lot of opportunities on the field.
I would say there’s no doubt Indiana still has a lot of work to do from a cultural standpoint, too. Head coach Kevin Wilson seems to have the program moving in the right direction, but there is something to be said for expecting to win, in feeling like you can compete with the teams at the top of the standings. Wisconsin has thoroughly dominated Indiana the past few years, and Indiana looked somewhat intimidated. That probably had something to do with the lack of execution in the hurry-up spread offense. Of course, there is hardly a better example than the Badgers themselves for an example of how things can change over the years (See: Wisconsin football, 1963-92).
Wisconsin (2012 edition) does get credit, though, for turning things around based on all the negative momentum the Badgers seemed to have through the first month of the season. The Big Ten is not all that formidable this year, but you’ve still got to take care of business. Wisconsin has been doing that, at least against the lesser teams in the league. It’s no coincidence to me that they have lost to Michigan State and Nebraska, two teams along with Ohio State and Michigan that are better than the rest, whatever that might mean this year.
Of course, it is fair to wonder about Ohio State’s level of competition. The Buckeyes’ best win would be against Nebraska, followed then I suppose by Penn State and the disappointing Spartans.
I’m not sure Indiana will ever be able to put together a defense that will scare anyone (you can’t hide subpar athletes on that side of the ball), but the other Big Ten school in the Hoosier State already enjoyed a pretty nice decade (including a conference championship, something Indiana hasn’t won since 1967) with a throw-centric, spread offense.
Stranger things have happened – Like Wisconsin winning all or part of five of the last 20 Big Ten titles after winning none of the 31 before that.
What we can expect to learn this week: Which is more “back” – the Wisconsin offense or the Ohio State defense?
OK, that is sort of over simplistic, but the trip to Madison definitely provides some interesting matchups this week as Ohio State’s strength – physically running the football – faces an improved Wisconsin front seven. However, I think Ohio State’s ability to spread the field presents some problems for Wisconsin, whose athleticism I’m still not sold on.
With a much less coherent plan on offense and more raw players in key spots, Ohio State ran all over the Badgers last season. Wisconsin looks better up front this time around – some seasoning on the line has helped – but Ohio State is much, much better on all fronts on offense.
Wisconsin’s pass defense is untested, but Ohio State’s passing offense is still searching for consistency. This could be a week for Braxton Miller to make hay with his arm, but he will have to do a better job of controlling his emotions than when he went to Penn State. There are now proven threats on the outside if the sophomore signal caller can get them the ball.
Miller’s talent eventually showed through in Happy Valley, but he was fortunate some early miscues were not exploited by the Nittany Lions. Recent history has already shown us what happens when an Ohio State team goes to Camp Randall Stadium and lets the Badgers get off to a hot start.
Like the Wisconsin offense, the Ohio State defense has spent a fair amount of this season looking for ways to rekindle past successes. The Buckeyes are trending upward in that area, however, and more of their problems have come against the pass than the run.
What success Wisconsin has had moving the ball through the air this season came with Joel Stave at the helm, and he is out for the season. With Danny O’Brien ineffective in relief of Stave, Bret Bielema turned to Curt Phillips last week but revealed little about what the oft-injured upperclassman can do with his arm. Phillips was considered a guy with enough athleticism to hurt teams outside the pocket before injuries derailed his career, and he flashed a little bit of that in Bloomington despite all that time on the shelf. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada draws up more things to take advantage of Phillips’ legs this week considering the Buckeyes have had some problems with dual-threat quarterbacks. I thought he did a good job varying his running game against the Hoosiers as he avoided putting much on Phillips, who threw only seven passes in Bloomington.
One also wonders if Ohio State will have any problems preparing for a quarterback for whom there is very little scouting report.
The Buckeye defense will have a definite advantage on the outside, where Wisconsin has not found anyone to complement Jared Abbrederis at wide receiver now that Nick Toon has moved on to the NFL. The Badgers do have a few interesting athletes at tight end/fullback who can provide matchup problems, but can they take advantage with Phillips at quarterback?
Overall, this has to be considered a good matchup for the Ohio State on both sides of the ball, but getting a win in Madison is never a sure thing.
This week’s column looks to Lynyrd Skynyrd for inspiration as we examine why the Buckeye defense has looked more like its old self the past couple of weeks. Hint: It’s really not that complicated. With Ohio State off this week, we also take a look at the most interesting Big Ten matchup on tap while also keeping an eye on the Buckeyes’ next opponent.
What we learned this week: It’s amazing what better players can do for a defense.
That Ohio State is playing better when the other team has the ball is no coincidence when you look at the players in the lineup.
There is no doubt they were missing Nathan Williams, who was not there for Indiana, and they needed players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington to step up.
Perhaps the unit would have rounded into form sooner with the improving play of Etienne Sabino against Michigan State and (a very good) Nebraska offense, but his injury set them back yet again before that debacle in Indiana on Oct. 13.
Zach Boren’s move to linebacker from fullback was necessitated by the broken bone in Sabino’s leg, and the Boren of the 52-22 win over Illinois is a better player than the one of the 52-49 win over the Hooisers three weeks earlier.
Don’t forget CJ Barnett was out of the lineup for a few games and needed a little time to get re-acclimated with the rest of his teammates in the speed of the game, too. That was key as it allowed Orhian Johnson to return to Star, where he has been the most productive player at the position this season.
I hate to sound like an excuse machine for the coaching staff, but sometimes people go a little overboard in looking to blame people when something goes wrong. Often there really are reasonable explanations for why things don’t turn out exactly how they’re expected to.
On top of all that, you’ve got a new staff learning what each member knows, what the players can do within that knowledge and how to put it all together.
I like the potential of the quarters coverage that they went into the season wanting to play, but I can see where it could be a dicey situation, with a variety of people learning it all at once. I like the different options it gives you, and I think it’s just about the best coverage out there – when played correctly – but then I’m a little old school in defensive philosophy. I grew up in an old-fashioned 5-2 set that involved hitting, reading and shedding blocks at every position up front rather than all of mostly anchoring one spot. I get the ups and downs involved. I see that it puts a lot of responsibility on each individual player, and that it leaves the door open for one guy’s mistake to make more of a negative impact on a play, but done right it’s pretty dang hard to beat because when you have so many guys playing two gaps, you’ve got multiple outs all over the field. It can work out to be the equivalent of having extra defenders out there, a reverse of what the offense is trying to do with the zone read and option stuff that hs become so prevalent in the past decade.
To their credit, the coaching staff never seem to panic. They’ve all been through transitions like this before, and surely they had seen some of the similar struggles. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight no matter how badly everyone wanted it to.
Urban Meyer’s greatest strength as a coach is undoubtedly his passion, but sometimes I think that gets him in a little trouble. And I’m not just talking about his famous bout with burnout, I’m talking about even just with the things he says.
As a member of the media I certainly appreciate his bluntness and honesty with us in terms of a lot of different things he says, but I think sometimes he gets a little ahead of himself. Sometimes we hear him talking about what he wants to see in an ideal situation, but I am pretty confident he’s realistic enough to know he’s going to have to settle for less than perfect on a regular basis, particularly in Year One, whether he likes it or not. That usually comes out through the course of a 30-minute press conference, but sometimes it gets lost in our little soundbite world that we now live because the first thing is often what gets highlighted even if the next sentence hollows it out a little bit and brings it back to the center.
Slowing down that Illinois offense is no great feat in and of itself, but holding any team under 200 total yards is to be commended. It’s more than we probably would have expected to see from this Ohio State unit even against a bad offense prior to this week, so in a world where average is somewhat understandably surprising to see, we should know when the defense turns in a dominant performance.
Meanwhile, the offense putting 50 points on the board without Braxton Miller going absolutely crazy is noteworthy as well. It speaks to the development of a lot of guys around him. The offensive line obviously did a lot of work to make holes for Carlos Hyde, and the junior running back did his best to take advantage.
Meyer sounded a little bit sour after the game, but when you can nitpick a specific part of the passing game after quarterback throws for 220 yards and a touchdown, you must be living okay. Don’t overlook the fact he was complaining about only the drop-back passing game, not the play-action part that was just fine, and quite productive as a matter of fact.
Bottom line: Players are developing and/or getting healthier on both sides of the ball, and that usually makes coaching a lot easier to do.
What we can expect to learn this week: How good is Wisconsin’s defense in space?
The Badgers have stopped a two-year slide in effectiveness of their stop unit this season, but I’m not sure how tested they truly are yet.
Nebraska spent half its win over the Badgers in late September running into itself and shooting itself in the foot and still gained 340 yards and scored 30 points in the conference opener.
Since then, Wisconsin’s defense has played somewhere between well and okay, but the competition still hasn’t been much to be scared of, particularly as far as passing goes.
Purdue has good threats on the outside, but hapless Danny Hope played around with his quarterbacks that afternoon and probably hurt the chances of his team getting into any type of rhythm. As against Ohio State, the Boilermakers picked up almost all of their yards on a handful of big plays. Wisconsin picked off two Minnesota passes, but that was against a true freshman in his first start. Andrew Maxwell, the league’s No. 10-most efficient passer at the moment, threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns without an interception as Michigan State beat the Badgers in overtime two weeks ago. The Badgers slowed down Le’Veon Bell, but most good defenses do because of the poor quality of the MSU offensive line.
And why does this matter? Because Indiana has the best passing game in the Big Ten and plays host to Wisconsin this weekend in what could turn out to be a de facto Big Ten Leaders division title game.
Not only are there high stakes, the noon game is of added interest because the Buckeyes are idle and Wisconsin is their next obstacle to a perfect start under Urban Meyer.
If Indiana can stretch the Badgers out from sideline to sideline, and execute consistently, there should be plenty of opportunities to make things happens. Running back Stephen Houston is a weapon as well on the inside for head coach Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers.
The Buckeyes have to like their chances against that Wisconsin defense if it has problems dealing with improving Indiana. Although what they want to accomplish with their formations is different, the Buckeyes will be able to provide some of the same problems in space in two weeks in Camp Randall Stadium when they look to improve to 11-0.
Observations from a second viewing of the Buckeyes and Bears…
Pretty simple reason the Ohio State defense struggled against the run in the second half: Cal went with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) to get Ohio State to remove a guy from the box as it was aligning the front line strength to the field. (Hat tip to Ross Fulton for pointing this out on Twitter right after Urban Meyer made reference to it during his weekly press luncheon.) This was sound to begin with but made even more effective by the physical state of the defensive end to that side. John Simon would probably not admit it, but his bad shoulder seemed to hinder him against the run more than the pass as he was regularly unable to disengage from a blocker when the play was at him. I guess time will tell how good of a blocker the Cal tight end is, but Simon is typically going to beat even talented guys one on one regularly. I think then we also learned that Ryan Shazier is better as a run and hit guy than he is holding a gap on the play side. I don’t think Shazier was doing anything wrong (he made 13 tackles and graded out as a champion when the coaches did their film review, so he clearly played well), but he is not as dynamic when a team runs right at him. Then he is forced to spill the play rather than attack it. It didn’t help that the fill from the safety was inconsistent and the flow from the middle linebacker – whoever that happened to be depending on package and alignment – was pretty much nonexistent.
Playing off that, the base defense isn’t very good right now either because Curtis Grant isn’t offering much production. He had a running back stood up on one of Isi Sofele’s long runs in the first half but hit him too high and did not wrap up. Storm Klein did not offer much more when he replaced Grant, and then OSU played mostly nickel in the second half. The nickel wasn’t much of an improvement as neither Etienne Sabino (who moves to the middle in that package) or nickel back Orhian Johnson did much to impact the Cal running game.
The Bears strategy not only gave them a regular numbers advantage, it effectively avoided Johnathan Hankins. That made sense because they could not block him at all. He had 10 tackles and was all over the place. Before last missed field goal, OSU went with its own eagle look and Hankins stuffed the fullback dive basically by himself. He stoned a double team at the point of attack long enough for Sabino to pursue down the line and clean it up with the help of Christian Bryant. The coaching staff adjusted after the last long Cal touchdown run and began aligning to the strength of the formation regardless of which hash the ball was on, allowing Hankins to be involved in more plays.
I think both Bear running backs are tough, talented runners, but tackling was a glaring problem all over the back seven for the Buckeyes. Lots of sloppy technique.
Ohio State effectively mixed in some more pressures to get three sacks early, but the Bears also caught them in a couple of blitzes with screen passes. It’s worth noting the blitzes were effective despite not being very transparent. Until late in the fourth quarter, they only deviated from the field over defensive alignment when they were going to blitz. Then they did a couple of different things, including roll out a new version of their 3-3-5 “dime” defense that had the Leo (Nathan Williams mostly but also Noah Spence a time or two) playing in the middle with Sabino and Shazier on the outside. I cannot recall ever seeing Ohio State do this. It will be interesting to learn if this is a new scheme or just moving people around within what they were already doing.
Regarding the Buckeye offense…
Cal seemed to do Ohio State a favor by coming out in a four-man front instead of the “Bear 46″ look the Buckeyes were expecting. The move to the Bear with a nose guard over the center and linemen in both guard-tackle gaps caused some confusion in the third quarter, but I think mistakes and penalties had as much or more to do with the Buckeyes’ struggles during that stanza. The response was to get Braxton Miller to the outside with a couple of speed options (he even pitched effectively, something we hadn’t seen much of before) and then to empty out the formation to take advantage of where the defense had fewer people.
It is interesting that the strategic reaction within this offensive world is to keep taking people out of the box if things are gummed up rather than try to block it a different way. At least that has been the answer so far, but it has only been three games. With different personnel available than Meyer had at his previous stops, I wonder how this will evolve. Health of the backs will play a role, too, of course, but he has multiple guys who are both athletic and can block. I think he likes the mix of a speedy quarterback, big running back and then a ‘tweener in the slot. Better to have the running back be the battering ram than the quarterback regardless of how great Tim Tebow was as a short-yardage runner. That limits exposure of the quarterback by giving you a different go-to option on short-yardage situations, plays that dictate using the best available weapon regardless of how many times he might have already carried it. Plus quickness is better in a change of pace than power, and the times the quarterback has the ball are more likely to be in potential big-play situations – out on the edge with the defense perhaps preoccupied. Unlike anyone else, the number of carries a quarterback can end up with is an ever-changing one as a game progresses.
However, there is no doubt Miller is their most dangerous weapon. Meyer said he expects to see teams come at Ohio State with ways to get the ball out of Miller’s hands, in which case his response might be more designed runs for the quarterback. So he is not going to retreat from using Miller. They are comfortable with him being the tip of the spear, as they should be. They have to do what they have to do to win games.
To this end, I almost wonder if the tackle beating Marcus Hall and Corey Linsley to the inside via a stunt did OSU a favor by flushing Miller on the game-winning pass play to Devin Smith. He throws more accurately on the run at this point in his career. Multiple times this season he has had a guy open like Smith and rushed it and delivered a less accurate throw. When he is out on the run and not thinking too much, he can let his gifts take over and just sling it. Or juke a guy out of his shoes, of course.
The pieces are in place for the offense to be very good. Miller and Smith are developing both chemistry to work with each other and their individual talents to take matters into their own hands when necessary. The line has been solid but has room to grow, and Jordan Hall needs some time to get re-acclimated to carrying the ball. I think he needs Carlos Hyde to come back so he can slip outside sometimes into a role that fits him better, too. Hyde’s power presence is essential for the overall picture of the offense to be complete.
Defensively, I’m wondering if there are some people who are just going to have to be replaced. The line is banged up but still offering a lot of production. Shazier is a stud at linebacker but he hasn’t gotten much help. The corners look good, but the safeties continue to make the same mistakes they made last year, particularly when it comes to tackling. One wonders how long that will go on.
A second viewing of Ohio State’s 31-16 win over Central Florida mostly reinforced some things from watching it live at the stadium.
Braxton Miller was the man of the match mostly because of his feet, quick enough to get him out of trouble that was sometimes his doing but usually someone else’s.
He made things harder for himself at times because he was misreading the zone reads and inverted veers, but he was still able to outrun defenders and make people miss to create something out of nothing. Obviously there were a handful of other times he was left high and dry by someone else missing an assignment, too.
While much has been made of his running, I thought he took a step forward in the passing game. There was the interception that came on a bad throw and probably a bad read, but overall he was challenged to keep his composure and take what the defense was giving him. He did that, regularly checking down and completing short routes as UCF was determined to play a deep shell in passing situations, which made sense because it has the linebackers to run and cover ground underneath. His pace was better than last week, and he continues to refine his mechanics.
The line is clearly leaning left at this point as tackle Jack Mewhort and guard Andrew Norwell are the most reliable blockers the Buckeyes have while Corey Linsley has also excelled inside. Right guard Marcus Hall had a hit and miss day, while Reid Fragel struggled some in both run blocking and pass protection.
The wide receivers continue to come along, working well on the underneath stuff. Devin Smith in particular had a nice play where he had a corner fading hard on a go route then cut outside to give Miller a nice target on an out pattern. Then he made the same guy miss in the open field and picked up about 15 yards. Smith, Corey Brown, Evan Spencer and Jake Stoneburner all had notable blocks on big running plays as well. That was hard to miss, in fact. One of the biggest came when Smith stalked a guy well enough to interfere with him and give Miller room for the last five yards on a crucial third-and-long pick up late in the first half. That led to a touchdown. On the downside, I did think on one of Miller’s overthrows Brown was too easily impeded in his route by the defensive back. He needs to win those one-on-one battles.
As for the running backs, Bri’onte Dunn is just what the coaches have said: He runs strong with the ball in his hands, but he has to make sure he’s going the right way if he wants to get it. Whether as much is true of Rod Smith remains to be seen as he hasn’t even gotten as many opportunities yet.
UCF did not seem to have much trouble getting a feel for what the Buckeyes wanted to do from a schematic standpoint. They were leaving seven in the box (maybe shading to the slot a bit some times) and rushing the free safety into the play to gain a numbers advantage if OSU had a running back and Zach Boren in the game together.
OSU did not do a lot to counter this within that formation, although the Knights’ approach would have been less effective if Miller had read some things better and kept it when he had room or given it when the back was open. That’s kind of the point of the option – to negate a defensive player without blocking him.
Additionally, one has to guess the Buckeye coaches were less comfortable calling downfield passes without Hyde. I’m not sure Dunn or Smith is reliable yet in pass protection. You can’t throw it if you can’t protect, so much of the passing game was of the quick variety.
Conversely, UCF was committing to the pass when the Buckeyes lightened up and spread things out more, so the adjustment came in running Miller from that look to keep the chains moving when questions arose at RB.
While the Ohio State offense relied mostly on Miller to make big plays to overcome mistakes, the defense had the opposite kind of day. The Buckeye stop troops graded out well in terms of general efficiency but again suffered from lapses in coverage and missed tackles that led to big plays. These are just things they have to get ironed out if they are going to contend for a division title even with the Big Ten looking very vulnerable at the moment.
Orhian Johnson’s big game could be a huge development as they have been waiting for years for him to step up and be a game changer. He was all over the place, getting in passing lanes and making tackles in space, something he’s struggled with in the past. Johnson has always been a heady guy and can bring a lot of leadership to the field if he can play well enough to justify a spot in the regular lineup.
Johnny Simon and Johnathan Hankins showed up in that they were drawing extra attention. Same with Ryan Shazier, who plays at a very high pace and can’t be missed out there. Who else is going to step up and make something happen when they are singled?
Christian Bryant has had a solid couple of games, and Travis Howard continues to be opportunistic (despite playing through a stinger, which should be commended), but C.J. Barnett and Bradley Roby both had lapses that shouldn’t come form guys of whom much is expected, Barnett as a tackler and Roby drifting out of his area in pass coverage.
Schematically, they are a little limited by youth, but I think doing a little more to stir things up is appropriate. That has not been the style of Luke Fickell since he started calling the signals last season, so it will be interesting to see if he changes his stripes at all now. As far as that goes, Fickell was continuing to follow the path set down by Mark Dantonio when he came here with Jim Tressel in 2001. They did away with the in-your-face press defenses of Fred Pagac Sr. that first drew the Silver Bullets moniker in 1996, forced instead to take a more measured approach to combat the proliferation of spread offenses across the country. I think they’ve moved too far in the direction of conservatism, though, the past two years.
UCF did OSU a favor with the game plan. They might have been harder to defend if they had tried harder to establish the run. It wasn’t hard to get a read on what they were doing because they leaned so heavily on the pass despite having the personnel to run the ball and give the Buckeye defenders more to think about. Perhaps that could have created some more big-play opportunities for wide receivers who did not seem to have the ability to make their own against coverage.
The young defensive linemen held their own, but it was easy to see this was not a MAC offensive line as Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt had a harder time pushing them around. They were more in survival mode. Noah Spence was isolated in coverage on a UFC touchdown pass on which the defense looked to be misaligned. They were badly outflanked by the formation.
On a side note, I thought Joey Galloway put in a solid day as an analyst. His delivery was not always great, but his knowledge was clear. Recognizing things as they happen and explaining them accurately with any detail before the next play is the most difficult task of that job, and he handled it well. It’s much easier to see it on replay, but he was seeing coverages and did a good job of explaining things as they unfolded.
This week we find a standard from one of the greatest albums of The Beatles as we examine what is going on with the Buckeyes after two games. Specifically that has to do with the offense, but we promise to write about the defense some day…
What we learned last week: Perfection isn’t necessary when you have really talented players, even if only one of them is really ready to play at a high level.
Braxton Miller is no stranger to carrying a team on his back, but that does not make his efforts against Central Florida any less impressive. The sophomore quarterback handled the ball on 51 of Ohio State’s 75 plays (more if you count zone-read handoffs) and accounted for 296 of the Buckeyes’ 411 total yards. He had to do so much heavy lifting because the offense around him remains very much a work in progress in pretty much every department.
That includes Miller’s arm, his receivers, the running backs and the offensive line.
None of this comes as a great surprise of course, but it has been interesting to watch things develop, and that figures to continue to be the case throughout this season and probably into the next couple of them.
Urban Meyer came to Ohio State as a brand name, but his offense is truly still not fully developed. It was in its adolescent stages at Florida and now we get the chance to see it deal with the trials and tribulations of early adulthood in Columbus.
Why do I say that? Well, it started as a way to use the width of the field to create room for overmatched offensive players he had at his first two stops as a head coach.
It found the perfect trigger man and complementary piece at Florida in Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, but even with those two in place, the full offense was never really seen. That’s because it wasn’t really needed. When you have one guy who can run over anyone in his path whenever he needs to and another who can outrun them, why get too fancy?
This is by no means a criticism because it obviously worked well enough to win two national championships and it quite frankly is just a common sense way to do business (effectiveness be damned).
Along the way, he found defenses adjusting to the different ways he was utilizing his players, so he had to add more and more things to the offense. He was not at Florida long enough to build a second version of the attack, however. Perhaps he would have figured out a way to use a drop-back passer and some speedy running backs, but we’ll never know. Obviously, his successor did not.
Now he’s at Ohio State and we’re seeing him deal with a different type of personnel than he had at Florida. The early results have felt mixed, but the team is still averaging more than 43 points per game, so a few things have gone right.
Obviously expectations play a role in how people – fans and coaches alike – the early returns from this offense, but there is one undeniable lesson: Athletes in space can do a lot to erase mistakes.
That is the major difference between this offensive philosophy and the one that preceded it here. Being in the spread full time means that many more chances for Miller or someone else to break a tackle and turn three or four yards into 10-15 or more because it is just harder to swarm to the ball when you have to account for people over a wider area.
What we figure to learn this week: How Meyer and his staff adjust.
Obviously, the status quo is not going to do it forever. No one seems to think that even though many feel the need to point it out anyway.
Much like Jim Tressel getting into his old comfortable I-formation when it was time to put a game away, Meyer rode Miller hard down the stretch because it was the surest way to gain yards and keep the opposing defense off the field.
How this thing evolves, both next week and next month and next season, is going to be fascinating.
The past few years have proven that many teams can match speed for speed when it comes to defending the spread. That is why the pure spread as it was constituted not too long ago is not really a great equalizer anymore. It’s just another way to try to score points, one best used only if that’s what the personnel dictates.
Meyer has gradually added more and more elements of power football into his version of the spread, and that is a good thing for his circumstance since he is more likely to find elements of that type of game readily available in the recruiting ares of the Midwest than he is pure speed guys who can just burn up extra yards in space.
It all brings it back to execution, and that means execution by everyone, just like in the power days of yore. In the spread, one can take half the field away and ask a smaller group of players to execute things, but as it contracts, the numbers shift more back toward the defense. They don’t ever have to go all the way back to where they were when everyone’s quarterback was just a handoff machine on running plays, but they aren’t what they were when Vince Young was feasting on wide open fields in the southwest in the middle of the past decade and Pat White was doing the same thing to the defenses of the Big East.
Meyer’s interviews leave no doubt he is willing to do whatever is necessary to move the ball and score points, so I don’t believe he will let himself be driven into a corner like Rich Rodriguez did at Michigan. Meyer also has better skill people in place now and a greater variety of pieces to use than Rodriguez had early at Michigan.
With a soft schedule and plenty of margin for error because the national title is not on the line this season, Ohio Stadium should provide a fun lab for experimenting on the next version of Meyer’s spread.
The next chance to play around with it comes Saturday against California.
Thoughts on the Big Ten: Oh boy, was that an ugly weekend. I had low expectations for the conference coming into the season but I may have to reevaluate and adjustment down.
At this point only Michigan State looks like a legitimate contender to make any noise nationally, but they don’t seem quite ready for prime time yet. On the bright side, the Spartans’ deficiencies are largely based on youth and inexperience, meaning there is reason to believe they could improve significantly as the season wears on.
That Michigan would struggle to contain the option of Air Force is no great surprise, nor is it that Denard Robinson was talented enough to bail the Wolverines out when all else was failing. It’s too early to make any final conclusions about Brady Hoke’s club considering they have faced one very tough team and one very quirky team. That lined up like a bad pair of matchups all along. I do think there are issues in the trenches that aren’t going away, though.
Seeing Wisconsin take a step back is not a surprise, but watching their offensive line get stuffed so thoroughly was. A significant amount of coaching talent left Madison in the offseason, so how Bret Bielema handles this adversity should be interesting to watch. Montee Ball was the bell cow for the Badgers last season, but in this day and age it is harder for running backs to carry a team. Paul Chryst always did a great job in Wisconsin of maximizing his talent. Maybe his replacement at offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, will be able to match his efficiency, but it is probably going to take time for him to learn his new personnel and adjust.
As far as Nebraska goes, any time a team gives up more than 650 total yards in a game, there can’t be just one thing to fix, but I think the No. 1 issue could be personnel. I’m not sure they have had much luck replacing any of the handful of standouts they have lost over the past three years, first along the defensive line and then in the secondary and now at linebacker. Growing pains under a new defensive coordinator could be partly to blame, too, but it does not seem as if they have done a whole lot different schematically. Either way, they must tackle better. Tough to waste a 30-point game from an offense that looks like it will be very dangerous all season.
Illinois obviously needs Nathan Scheelhaase to compete offensively, but the Fighting Illini defense was shredded at Arizona State. That continues a trend for Tim Beckman since he left Ohio State. His squad probably still has the ability to make some noise in this weakened league, though.
Along those lines, I think Purdue has enough skill players to maintain a puncher’s chance in a flawed league, but the Boilermakers just can’t ever seem to hold things together for too long.
Bottom line: If Michigan State shores up the offensive line, the Spartans shouldn’t lose a conference game as long as Andrew Maxwell doesn’t completely implode on any single Saturday.
New offenses are not taking early on at Penn State and Iowa, but I’m not sure that is much of a surprise.
Northwestern had a nice win against Vanderbilt, but the Wildcats are bound to play down to the level of someone and get knocked off sooner or later. That’s kind of what they do.
Indiana had a shot to scare some people with their offense until losing Tre Roberson, but that might reduce the odds that Penn State goes winless in the league.
We knew PSU was depleted by transfers, but if the Nittany Lions’ best chance to win involves throwing more than 40 times per game, I don’t see that ending well.
With a dynamic senior at quarterback, perhaps Minnesota becomes the most dangerous team toward the bottom of the standings if you’re looking for upsets later in the season.
DVR Directions: To check out Ohio State’s week four opponent, you’ll need Fox Sports South, ESPN GamePlan or ESPN3 as UAB will be taking on South Carolina at 7 p.m. on Saturday night.
If possible, I recommend recording that one to watch later and tuning in to see Michigan State play host to Notre Dame at 8 p.m. on ABC. The Buckeyes are headed to Spartan Stadium in two weeks.
(Observations from watching the Buckeyes and RedHawks a second time.)
One of the side benefits of getting into sportswriting was avoiding math for the most part. That might not be true anymore now that Urban Meyer and Tom Herman are in town.
They stressed several times during the offseason that a major aspect of their offense is getting the right numbers to work against, and they certainly proved it in the season-opening win against Miami University.
As Meyer referenced in his postgame remarks, Miami came out with a plan to stop the Ohio State running game from its basic three-wide receiver, shotgun set. While a couple of missed reads by quarterback Braxton Miller on the zone read/inverted veer helped the RedHawks’ rate of success, they certainly had a good idea of what they wanted to do early. I wondered before the game how teams would treat Jake Stoneburner in their assessment of Ohio State personnel groupings, and the answer would seem to be as a tight end because Miami was keeping seven in the box when he was in the slot and Zach Boren was the H-back/tight end along with Carlos Hyde at running back.
That did not make it impossible for Ohio State to move the ball, but it put more of a premium on executing because everything was fitted up pretty well from a defensive perspective.
The Buckeyes’ response was to lighten up on the personnel and shift those numbers from side to side. They replaced Boren with a wide receiver and moved Stoneburner back toward the line of scrimmage, but they used a trips set to put the RedHawks in a bind. This was evident on the first touchdown drive as it opened things up for Hyde on the inside power run (a great block by Andrew Norwell helped, too) on first down that really got things rolling. It opened up the roll out for Miller, who hit Philly Brown on a play-action pass to finally get the Buckeyes into Miami territory.
Herman played the numbers game again on the first touchdown, going back to his bigger personnel to get Miami thinking run. That gave Devin Smith a one-on-one opportunity on the outside, and he took advantage with his spectacular one-handed catch.
Getting first downs gave Ohio State a chance to turn up the tempo, and they were often able to keep the RedHawks on their toes after that.
They were also able to play around with personnel sometimes by splitting the running back out but leaving Boren in as a wing or H-back then running the quarterback off tackle or around end. It was really heady stuff, but that shouldn’t come as much surprise.
Miller definitely had his ups and downs. He misread some zone reads and did not see some open receivers. He still got a little jittery in the pocket at times and floated passes, but he obviously has all the ability he needs to make this offense hum. He made three big split decisions on his 65-yard touchdown run, first to pull it on the option, then to keep it on the edge and of course his stutter step to keep the pursuing defender from getting the angle on him. When he can play on instincts, he is tough to stop because he seems to have a great sense for the game as long as he isn’t overthinking it.
Hyde made some nice runs, showing more wiggle than last year and very good acceleration with power through the hole. Arm tackles aren’t going to do it with him.
The interior line looked good as both guards were able to move and pick people off on the power plays, although Norwell seemed to be the culprit on the failed run at the goal line on the final play of the second quarter. That was a version of the infamous “Dave” play as the front side blocked down and he came around end but tripped, leaving a defender a lean shot at Hyde, who then exacerbated the problem by leaving his feet for some reason. He might have made the guy miss or fallen off him into the end zone if he had kept his feet. Before you get too down on the play, though, the exact same thing worked on an earlier drive down there with Norwell making the key block and Hyde cutting off it nicely.
They added a wrinkle by using an unbalanced line, something Miami recognized the second time and called timeout to make sure it got lined up correctly. Also keep in mind they use a very similar blocking scheme regularly on their runs out of the shotgun.
Miami’s ends gave the OSU tackles some troubles in pass protection and the running game, so it will be interesting to see how both units go for the rest of the season.
As for the defense, the film did not have a lot of new lessons from the first watching.
A lot of Miami’s success moving the ball had to do with quarterback Zach Dysert knowing what he is doing within that offense and finding the soft spots that inevitably are going to occur with any scheme. The big plays were a result of miscommunications. Tough to find any times anyone from Ohio State lost a physical battle. This has obviously got to be shored up as it was a problem throughout last season, but it’s also a better predicament to be in than needing to make up for a lack of ability.
The numbers game applies to the defense in the sense that the choice was generally to drop eight, probably a nod to Dysert’s ability to read and react on the fly and an acknowledgment that bringing down most of the Miami guys after they made a catch was not a terribly tall task.
Tackling seemed to be for the most part better in game one that it was last season, although C.J. Barnett threw himself at a wide receiver on a post pattern and missed, leading to one of the RedHawks’ explosive plays.
New nickel back (“Star”) Corey Brown got toasted on a touchdown pass (tough to know if he was expecting help over the top), but he was impressive the rest of the time. I liked how he came up and filled against the run and screen passes.
Nathan Williams looked very good as he played a surprisingly large number of snaps. It was interesting that he played so much because they were more comfortable with him in space than youngster Noah Spence. I would have expected the first thing Williams would bring was going from point A to point B with speed and playing in space on his surgically repaired knee would have come later. Of particular note was a very nice open-field tackle on a third-and-short where he closed on a receiver in the flat and brought him down short of the line to gain.
Speaking of Spence, he really looked good for a debut. He can get to the edge with quickness but has the strength to dip his shoulder and not get knocked off his route. That is the No. 1 thing you want in an edge rusher. He even rocked left tackle Zach Lewis out of his base once, so there is more to his game than pure speed. Lewis, by the way, held up very well against Ohio State’s edge rushers.
Spence wasn’t the only young defensive lineman to look good. Adolphus Washington not only has a lot of agility for a guy his size, he has long arms to disengage blockers. I was also impressed with Tommy Schutt, who made contact and picked through the trash for a tackle on more than one occasion.
The weekly “Cus Words” column returns with a Zeppelin song to kick things off as the Buckeyes look toward facing Miami University in Urban Meyer’s first game as head coach of his home state’s flagship university.
What we learned last week:Change has a way of highlighting all kinds of good and bad things about a situation. It also changes the perception, swinging some things from one category to the other.
The offseason was certainly the most fascinating I have been a part of covering college football as the new Ohio State staff learned what to make of their new faces and put the players through their paces.
I could try to sum up the last eight months in a tidy little package, but I’m not sure that’s possible. Besides, I’m sure you’re as ready to look forward to an actual game sason as I am, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
What we can expect to learn this week: How someone else constructs a game plan, and how Urban Meyer adjusts to his personnel.
As I wrote last week, the spread offense has arrived at Ohio State in an advanced form, and Buckeye fans should realize that and be grateful.
One thing that often struck me when studying and reading/hearing people talk about various types of spread over the years was that many of the “early adopters” of the offense were pretty much predisposed to think they couldn’t win at the line of scrimmage so there was no point in even trying.
That is definitely not the point of view of Meyer and co-offensive coordinators Tom Herman and Ed Warinner, although I think they are completely against doing anything when outnumbered. When in doubt, they would rather have space to work with than anything else. That’s why they are always in the spread instead of switching back and forth like the old staff here.
Some spreads don’t give you any more to think about at one time than does a double-tight I team, but that is not the case with Meyer.
Jim Tressel, Jim Bollman, et al were very clear they saw the pros and cons of spread and “tight” football, and they had a playbook that had enough stuff in it to give teams a lot to think about and prepare for, but they weren’t very good at balancing those things from week to week. The result was their plans could be read pretty easily.
The way defenses generally align against each look, tight formations can actually produce more big plays, but spreads tend to be able to create more consistent short and medium gains. It’s not always bad to face a loaded box if you have the ability to take advantage of it.
If the I-formation were a person, I would kind of feel bad for it based on the way Tressel and his staff sometimes treated it. I can’t blame anyone who came to the conclusion it was a dinosaur of a formation because they often only used it in prehistoric ways. If they were in the I, it was going to be a power run, an iso handoff, or a drop-back pass. Sprintouts and bootlegs were mysteriously rare, even with athletic quarterbacks such as Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor.
Other Big Ten teams like Iowa and Penn State were often more creative within the realm of the I-formation and its close cousins because they lived more exclusively in that world.
Ohio State, on the other hand, would flip flop between the I and shotgun sets with three (rarely more) wide receivers in both passing situations and when it wanted to free up some room for the quarterback to run.
I always found that a bit curious because Dick Tressel himself said once that a quarterback can be more dangerous as a runner if he begins the play under center. Why? The defense is generally more mindful of him keeping the ball if he is in the shotgun. They never really used that to their advantage despite that stated opinion.
Their version of the shotgun was not really tricked out, either, but it was a little more versatile than their pro sets.
All in all, the entire deal was just strange because they would show off just about every play anybody involved with football ever dreamed up (not only in practice but also in games), yet there rarely was much cohesion with how everything was used. (I did not intend to go off on a long screed about the past decade at Ohio State, but it doesn’t hurt to relive some parts of it as we look toward the future.)
I’d say pretty much everyone expects an upgrade in the offense with Meyer’s attack in place and Herman calling the plays. Though the I-formation will probably be seen only rarely, if ever, the staff insists there will be no loss of physicality.
The commitment to the shotgun spread (which does nothing more than promise the quarterback won’t be under center and at least three guys won’t be attached to the five offensive linemen) figures to bring with it the opportunity to more easily package plays.
That in and of itself should make the offense a little less predictable, but I also am convinced pretty much every fanbase suffers from the thought that it can tell what is coming from its coaches on a regular basis, so predictability can be a bit overrated at times. (Guess run or pass and you’ve got at least a 50/50 chance of getting it right, yeah?)
Meyer has been susceptible to such claims, too. He had two perfect players for his scheme – Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin – at Florida but fans still mocked him for doing little besides having one of them handle the ball on every play, which I guess tells us a few things.
First, that whole idea about predictability being overrated probably has merit, and even diversified schemes can fall back on safe choices at times.
I have often wondered since Meyer took over here if the unique state of the offensive personnel – several big backs, a quicksilver quarterback and some long-striding wide receivers – could actually serve to force him and his staff to learn more about how their offense works than if he just had a couple of guys to rely on play in and play out.
He clearly wants the latter as he has talked endlessly about looking for another Harvin (of course this is fed by his being asked about it regularly, too) even as he salivates at the possibilities Braxton Miller presents. Meyer also one day acknowledged Harvin-type guys are few and far between, so I wonder how often he’ll ever even have one at all. That would make learning to adjust that much more important.
However it all shakes out, this should be a fascinating year.
Meyer not only brings a new offense but also many new ways to run a program. Regardless of the effectiveness of the old ones – Tressel’s teams almost always got better as the season went on, and I think he really did make an extreme effort to bring in high quality people for his team and staff – Meyer’s ways of cultivating a locker room culture are really interesting. Clearly, they are not for everyone, but I have talked to plenty of people who really respect the ideas he has with treating players like adults while understanding they are kids who make mistakes. It can be a fine line, and there will be those who fail to see the nuances and write him off as playing favorites, but I think overall it’s a good strategy for this day and age.
Tressel was very conscious of dealing with the modern athlete. He commented often about how kids these days are more interested in knowing why they are doing something as opposed to simply following orders. I think that’s a change that has been going on for decades, but he gave the impression he felt things weren’t the same even since he took over at Ohio State. I think ultimately he gambled and lost with who he brought in towards the end, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Meyer is here having gone through his own ups and downs. The scars are there for everyone to see, but now he has a new set of challenges.
Tressel had already reinvented his program a couple of times, as any good coach has to do if he is around for three decades. This is really the first time Meyer has had to do that, and that makes it even more interesting to see how this whole Ohio State experiment works out.
It’s not just a new place. It’s home. It’s where he was forged, where he came from. There are feelings involved that you can’t just find anywhere. He also comes from a scary place not that long ago, something that surely colors his approach to this redux.
When we have talked to him in preparation for this season, he definitely looks like someone ready to get back to football.
I know I am, too.
How about you?