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.