Before playing the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing last year, Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes were on a trajectory for yet another 10-win season devoid of postseason glory. Thanks to an early season loss to Virginia Tech, they were pretty much disqualified from national contention in the eyes of many.
Then they pounded Mark Dantonio's Michigan State squad on the road, establishing themselves as legitimate threats to make college football's first Playoff and paving the way for an eventual national championship.
Because of that title, the Buckeyes already had the nation's attention and respect before playing Michigan State this season, and were favored by as many as 14 points playing at home. If it had been widely known that Connor Cook would be out, perhaps the line would have been higher.
Then the Spartans delivered the most severe defensive drubbing a Meyer-coached offense has ever received. The Buckeyes were held to 132 yards, five first downs, 2.9 yards per pass, three yards per rush and scored points only when turnovers gifted them short fields.
Criticisms of the game plan by Ohio State's own players and coaches all follow the assumption that this was an avoidable catastrophe had the Buckeyes been better prepared and deployed.
Here's what the film had to say about what went down in Columbus and why the Spartans are now in the driving seat in the Big Ten East.
The Spartans Game Plan
There was very little different from the Michigan State game plan of 2015 than the one that saw them get ripped in 2014, save for a few alignment and technique shifts for the cornerbacks and a greater awareness of the Ohio State offense.
Here's how the Spartans lined up most snaps against the Buckeyes last Saturday:
The "star" linebacker Darien Harris, a space-backer backed up in coverage by free safety Montae Nicholson, and the strong safety opposite him (Demetrious Cox), are the primary run supporters. After checking pass, Nicholson will fill the alley as a ninth defender against the run.
The cornerbacks, who used to rely on press-man coverage under former defensive coordinator pat Narduzzi, now play an off-coverage technique. This makes them less vulnerable to deep shots downfield while making it easier for them to see the play and become involved making tackles.
The Spartans' first concern from this base defense was how to stop the Ohio State run game, especially QB runs, which allow the Buckeyes to regain some numbers advantages in the box. In 2014, the Buckeyes did a lot of damage converting third downs with a QB slice zone play from a four-receiver formation that paired Barrett in the backfield with a tight end.
Barrett was able to pick a crease behind double teams and plunge forward for first down after first down while the Spartans linebackers would fly to the H-back's trap block and give up a crease somewhere else:
This time around, the Buckeyes were well prepared at defensive end to stop the QB run game and control the edges so that Barrett couldn't get loose. When Ohio State tried to dial this play up ,the Sparty DE blew up the H-back's trap block while the linebackers focused on filling the gaps behind the double teams:
Barrett was then run down in the open field by Nicholson short of the marker after having to turn his shoulders laterally to the line of scrimmage to run around the collapsed block.
Zeke Elliott had a tough time as well, evidenced by his 33 yards on 12 carries. As he maintains, the Buckeyes did have some success running the ball on the Spartans with power runs behind some double TE formations in short-yardage scenarios, and on a play where they caught the Spartans in a stunt.
They also tried to run that play against the Spartans' base defense and saw this result:
Somehow Elliott managed to spin through that mess and fall forward for a seven-yard gain, but the Spartans clearly had that play beat on the chalkboard, with two players in position to make this tackle. Once again, the attempted kick-out block of the defensive end didn't open up a crease inside, but instead forced the ball outside where the run support was coming.
Trying to run the ball inside was a nightmare all day for Ohio State. The Spartans linebackers play the run first without concern for passing responsibilities and attack downhill quickly, as Kirk Herbstreit was noting all afternoon. That means the double team blocks on the DL have very little time to open up creases before one of those OL needs to come off the double team and hit a linebacker.
This was a fail all night for the Buckeyes, and they particularly struggled to pick up middle linebacker Riley Bullough or to effectively control nose tackle Malik McDowell.
Ohio State is a run-centric team, but the Buckeyes were totally squashed trying to run the ball on this Michigan State defense that had clearly been preparing for this game all year. But then, what actually killed the Spartans last year was J.T. Barrett throwing the ball for 300 yards and three touchdowns. In the cold and rain of this game, that wasn't happening.
Michigan State vs. the pass
The nature of the Spartans coverage yields quick throws to the outside because of the aggressive run support from the star linebacker and strong safety, and because the corners play off coverage rather than press. Dantonio and his staff dared Barrett to beat them by executing the quick passing game against these techniques. Barrett was not up to the challenge.
Early on, Meyer tried to set Barrett up with rollouts where he could throw a quick hitch or pull the ball down and run. But the Spartans were ready for these, and the game started with the Buckeye QB pulling the ball down and taking some big licks trying to cut upfield against the grain.
Barrett also failed to execute on several bubble screens and hitch routes, either throwing the ball behind his receiver and buying time for the Spartans to recover to the ball or just plain missing the target. On one read-pass option where the Buckeyes tried to ease pressure from Elliott and the running game with a pass option on the outside, Barrett simply chose not to risk the throw and instead handed off into one of the Spartans' patented six-man zone blitzes.
Ohio State needed the passing game to come through in the worst way to relieve pressure off the run game. The Buckeyes' 2.9 yards per pass attempt did not do the trick.
What should Ohio State have done?
The danger here is to assume that Ohio State was the better team and needed only to do X, Y or Z and they would have surely beaten Michigan State. Spartans fans fresh off a victory in which their best player sat on the bench surely have a dozen retorts ready to go in the face of that narrative.
That said, Elliot is right that Ohio State could have had a better plan for taking on the Spartans defense, but he was wrong about what needed to happen.
The first thing to note about this game was that it was played in cold, windy, and rainy conditions. In a cold weather game with tough elements, every hit is worse, every cut is more difficult, and the level of difficulty for everything on offense is greater.
Running the ball in tough elements requires the offense be able to flank the defense and find angles, which was obviously going to be next to impossible against this Michigan State defense. What often translates best to cold weather games is actually the passing game if the quarterback is capable of delivering accurate throws while gripping a cold, wet football and throwing into the wind.
Obviously J.T. Barrett wasn't up for that challenge, but the Buckeyes happen to have a humongous, strong-armed QB on their bench: Cardale Jones. Jones is also the guy that took over around this time last year and led Ohio State to three consecutive postseason victories and a national title. When Michigan State is forcing you to try and run over one of the Bulloughs (of which there seems to be an endless supply) do you want the 6'2 225-pound speedster or the 6'5 249-pound tank who ran over one of Oregon's nose tackles last year?
If you need someone to push the ball through the cold and beat man coverage, do you want the guy who specializes in the QB run game or the guy who opened up running lanes for Elliott last year with several deep bombs down the field?
The Buckeyes' inability to take advantage of softer coverage on the outside with quick, accurate strikes to playmakers like Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller really cost them some easy opportunities to move the football in that game.
But whoever played QB for Ohio State should have had more opportunities like this one, in which Miller ran a vertical route down the field isolated against the Spartans safety asked to defend him in wide open spaces. When a team runs play-action it has the effect of automatically sucking in the Michigan State linebackers and strong safety and results in the slot receiver having the chance to run a vertical route with a two-way go against the deep safety:
Defending these routes is the single greatest weakness of the Michigan State defensive scheme, and landing a few deep shots here would have not only given Ohio State more points on the board but also blown open the entire Spartans defense and eased up room for Elliott and the running game.
Nevertheless, Ohio State didn't go back to this, but instead decided to drudge ahead and try to win the game by hammering their heads against the Spartans in the trenches. That's a recipe for defeat every time.
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