With a 49-37 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing, Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes put themselves on the College Football Playoff committee's map in a major way.
While the Buckeyes lack other major wins and have a huge hiccup on their resume in the form of a home loss to 4-5 Virginia Tech, they have the handy excuse that it was redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett's second game starting after a fall camp injury took Braxton Miller out of the equation. Additionally, they could pad their record with a win at 7-2 Minnesota on Saturday and a Big Ten championship win over Nebraska or Wisconsin.
They'll probably need some luck in the form of a two-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champion, but the chances of Ohio State winning the Big Ten and showing up in the Playoff are real. So are the Buckeyes a contender?
I've covered Urban Meyer's program in the recent past, asking if his offense had reached peak form and examining the hire of Chris Ash and whether Ohio State would recover its defensive tradition. In light of that success in East Lansing, it's time to revisit those questions.
Safe and sound defense
Ash's version of quarters coverage, or cover 4, is unique in that it is designed to offer the safeties more time to read a play for run or pass. It is thus less susceptible to play action and deep passing plays.
Ash isn't forcing the edge with his safeties, but instead leaves that task to the corners or linebackers. He uses the safeties to fill the alley and pursue the ball from shallower alignments. The keys are having a defensive line that protects the linebackers, 'backers who can play sideline to sideline, and safeties who can reach the football sooner than later.
It's taken the Buckeyes time to master the base defense, but they've begun to stop the run without sending extra players to the front.
Here, facing the Spartans' favorite play -- power -- defensive end Joey Bosa protects the linebacker by slowing down the offensive tackle and steps inside as far as he can before meeting the pulling guard inside out to force the run wide. The Sam linebacker is forcing the ball in, and the Mike linebacker is free to meet the runner.
Of course, crafty Spartan back Jeremy Langford makes the Mike linebacker miss, but now the safeties have had time to arrive and make the tackle before too much damage is done.
Underneath, the Buckeyes have found some real playmakers. Sam linebacker Darron Lee was outstanding against the Spartans and has been an impact player all year. Due to his athletic ability, he's able to play in the flats as a space-backer, where he has two interceptions and two pass breakups, but he's also useful as a blitzer and has 9.5 tackles for loss. His speed also allows him to serve as an eraser of sorts, a role that Ryan Shazier filled in 2013.
On this play, after successfully forcing the run inside (where his compatriots are getting beat), he's able to come off a block and tackle Langford from behind. Failure to make that play would have required safety Vonn Bell to beat the fullback's block and make the tackle himself, or at least force it back inside to pursuit. There's zero chance of stopping a first down run here if not for Lee's play, and it's even possible the play goes for a TD.
In part because the Buckeyes fit their safeties into the run defense more conservatively than other quarters teams, and in part because Ash uses his linebackers to protect them from free-running slot receivers, S&P ranks them eighth nationally in pass defense and 24th on pass downs despite being only 50th in rushing defense.
So they can be run on, but they don't give up big plays very often. Their zone pressures help them to rank eighth in interceptions and 24th in sacks per game. If that kind of defense can be paired with a high-scoring offense, the Buckeyes can be very good as opponents who are trying to match scores may abandon the run and play into their hands.
The diverse offense
Ohio State's offensive line coach Ed Warinner has to be considered one of the best teachers of the position. A year after losing four starters from an OL that produced one of the most potent rushing attacks in recent years, the Buckeyes plugged in newcomers nearly everywhere and are now ranked fifth in rushing nationally.
But it's not been just Warinner's great teaching that has allowed the Buckeyes to maintain their dominant run game.
Barrett has been able to relieve pressure off the running game with a passing offense ranked second in the nation (17th in 2013). However, it's not so much that Barrett is a brilliant passer comparable to players like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, or his opposite in East Lansing, Connor Cook (though Barrett ranks behind only Mariota in passer rating).
Instead, what Barrett offers the Buckeyes is a QB who can still run the option-heavy attack while executing the play action complements that punish teams for bringing numbers to stop the run. This was crucial in defeating the Spartans, who live off outnumbering the running game.
The Buckeyes' game plan was unique, for them, in that they built their attack around constraints. In 2013, they were more likely to simply line up and destroy you with their insane run game talent.
Much of the game plan was built around inside zone schemes, particularly zone slice, which blocks the backside defensive end with TE/H-back Jeff Heuerman. However, they didn't actually run the traditional play very often, but simply relied on punishing the Spartans for the way they defend it.
They attacked the Spartan outside linebackers for playing the edge against the run:
The announcers highlighted the route combination but ignored the play action component that made the play a one-on-one matchup, where a missed tackle meant total breakdown. With pop and play-action elements attached to basic run plays, the Buckeyes are able to make the passing game simple for Barrett.
The play of his receivers has been huge as well. He never had to make a read on that throw, staring down his intended target. The Sam linebacker is sucked in by the run action, leaving the safety and corner to account for the two receivers without help. The slot receiver runs a post route that the safety follows, which leaves the corner on an island playing press coverage against the outside receiver. Michael Thomas beats the corner with the inside move, and that's all she wrote.
The Buckeyes ended up getting the ball again before halftime and once again dialed up play action off zone slice.
This time, Ohio State caught the Spartans in a blown coverage. MSU uncharacteristically mixed a single-deep safety coverage on a non-blitz, and free safety Kurtis Drummond failed to get over the top in time to stop the deep post to the speedy Devin Smith.
Barrett can also execute in Meyer's offense as a runner, which sets the table for everything else. Against the Spartans, their favorite scheme was, again, zone slice, but from a four-wide set. Barrett only shared the backfield with Heuerman.
The Spartans struggled with this. The weakside linebacker overaggressively attacked the edge. That allowed Barrett to dart behind the double team of the nose and between the guard-tackle gap, which the middle linebacker vacated in order to fill the center-guard gap abandoned by the weakside linebacker.
This was a go-to play in short-yardage. The spread formation makes it difficult for even the Spartans to get numbers into the box quickly. Ohio State can still run a downhill scheme with a big lead blocker for a very effective runner.
Ohio State also threw the ball out of these empty formations. But for the most part, the Buckeyes did their damage with constraint plays that punished MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's minions for their aggressive style. OSU didn't ask Barrett to go through pro-style passing progressions.
With Barrett and the WRs capable of executing so many constraints off their base runs, the Buckeye offense reaches another level. While the 2013 offense was an exceptional unit, sometimes it's better to be very good at several things than great at just a few.
Ohio State Buckeyes, Playoff contender?
Ohio State's big problem
If Meyer can guide his team through the rest of its regular season schedule (very likely) and defeat the Big Ten West champion (not unlikely), there is definitely a chance of his team competing in the Playoff.
Once there, the Buckeyes' growing ability to play sound defense and be multifaceted on offense should make them immune to drawing a buzzsaw matchup, as few teams could be perfectly designed to exploit their weaknesses. This is not an elite team, and Urban's full development of the Buckeye program is still an ongoing process (an older OL, QB, and secondary would push this team to the next level), but Ohio State remains relevant and nationally competitive.
If they don't make the push this postseason, look out for them next year, when about eight starters return each on offense and defense. It's only a matter of time before Meyer drags the Big Ten back into the spotlight, and his Buckeyes are getting close to doing it.