As I walked out of Notre Dame Stadium after the Irish's season opener against my Longhorns, I wasn't sure if the 38-3 shellacking was a result of incompetence on the part of Texas or a masterful performance by an elite Notre Dame.
In retrospect, it was some of both, but there's no doubt the Fighting Irish had one of the more talented teams in the country this year. They were unfortunate enough to lose their star QB in week two when it appeared he might be ready for a breakout.
Thanks to narrow losses to undefeated Clemson and Pac-12 champion Stanford, No. 8 Notre Dame will miss the Playoff. The Irish will still face another Playoff-caliber team loaded with talent in No. 7 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes also had high expectations after returning the better part of a nucleus that rolled through the first Playoff. For the Buckeyes, problems stemmed more from a struggle to adapt to losing offensive coordinator Tom Herman and a failure to establish an identity behind either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones at QB. When they took on a Michigan State bent on stealing the East's spot in the Big Ten Championship, their lack of a fully formed offensive identity reared as they couldn't relieve pressure off their run game.
While this game might be a consolation prize and a what-might-have-been contest, it'll also be a fun game featuring a ton of NFL talent, with two of the country's top four recruiting powers putting four potential 2016 top-10 picks on the field. Only Alabama had more consensus All-Americans than either the Irish or Buckeyes, who had two each.
If nothing else motivates these teams, perhaps the challenge of facing other premier athletes will do the trick.
There will be money at stake when the Buckeye front takes on the Irish OL.
Notre Dame's group up front is one of the best in the nation, led by future first round selection Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. He is bookended by Mike McGlinchey, a 6'8, 310-pound monster the Irish love to run behind. Center Nick Martin is no slouch either, and this team pounded opponents all season while keying an attack in which the top two backs (C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams) both averaged over 6.5 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have two of the best edge defenders in the entire country in space-backer Darron Lee and DE Joey Bosa, another future first-rounder. Bosa has been the left end in the Ohio State D*, a 4-3 over unit that plays its DEs and DTs as simply "left" and "right" so they each must learn multiple techniques. Lee plays as the field side outside linebacker and remains there. So at times he is opposite Bosa and at times he's playing behind him.
In the latter scenarios, Ohio State's edge blitz package is particularly fearsome, but the two have combined for only 7.5 sacks. Establishing the run against this DL so that Notre Dame can throw off play-action and avoid having to block Bosa in obvious passing situations will be a priority for Brian Kelly.
How can Ohio State cover Will Fuller?
The Notre Dame WR is one of the greatest challenges in all of college football, averaging 20.45 yards per catch. Unless you're covering him with Mackensie Alexander in bad weather conditions, it's probably going to require bracket coverage from a safety.
Ohio State's title was achieved largely thanks to a strong CB tandem and the exceptional play of safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell. They carried that success into this season with a No. 4 finish in passing S&P+ and No. 5 finish in defending pass downs while replacing CB Doran Grant. The Buckeyes also didn't face many WRs of Fuller's stature, though they did fare well against WMU's Corey Davis and Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge.
Fuller presents two particular challenges. The first is he's insanely athletic and can make you pay either over the top or by housing a pass on a quick route. He's the type to punish errors with touchdowns rather than first downs.
The second is that he's hard to bracket because he tends to align as the outside WR to the field, the side of the offense with the most distance between the center and the sideline. Most college defensive coverages differ to that position because few college QBs can make throws out there.
Here's an example of Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer hitting about a 60-yard frozen rope to Fuller. The Cardinal tried to play off-man coverage:
All Kizer had to do was recognize the coverage (single high safety), which told him Fuller was working in a one-on-one matchup. Kizer didn't even put much air on the ball, but it didn't matter.
The Buckeyes tend to rely mainly on Cover 4 and some Cover 1 (which they played a great deal of against Michigan's Jehu Chesson, who beat them for 111 yards), neither of which are coverages that typically bracket Fuller's position. Michigan went after that space to the field side against the Buckeyes, both with deep fades to the outside receiver as well as deep out routes to the slot receiver isolated against the field-side safety.
There aren't great solutions here for Ohio State that won't leave its run defense undermanned. The Buckeyes have to rely on pressuring Kizer, provided their studs up front can win battles against the Irish OL.
Has Ohio State fixed its running game in time?
Notre Dame's strength on defense has been stopping the pass, while the Irish are average against the run. However, with so many talented defenders in the front seven like tackle Sheldon Day and linebacker Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame's battle against the Buckeye run game, No. 8 in S&P+, should make for good theater.
The Buckeyes struggled to run against Michigan State. The Spartans exposed the problem with spread offenses that don't force opponents to commit to stopping the pass.
You can tell a great deal about what a team is trying to accomplish by whom it uses at the inside WR positions. The presence of TEs and FBs indicates a desire to get big blockers to the point of attack and run the ball. Smaller players indicate a desire to go around the defense via the forward pass. Even spread-to-run teams like Ohio State that use slot receivers have to throw these players the ball, or defenses will cheat without fear of getting beat around the edge.
Against Michigan, Urban Meyer conceded Ohio State needs to be more about getting blockers to the point of attack. The Buckeyes shredded the Wolverine defense and restored the run game by using double-TE sets like this:
Starting TE Nick Vannett (6'6, 260) began split wide to the boundary before motioning into the box to play as a fullback, while the slot receiver next to the OL up top is Marcus Baugh (6'5, 250), another TE.
The spacing forced Michigan to play tough in space, rather than in confined quarters. Ohio State hit the Wolverines with base play counter:
The Buckeyes had lined up in a two-back spread formation with TEs split wide to either side, so Michigan had lined up in an eight-man front with the sam linebacker (S) to the boundary and the strong safety ($) dropped to the wide side of the field. Ohio State motioned Vannett (H) into the box before sending him on a wide path to take out the strong safety while Baugh (Y) cracked inside. Barrett read whether the weakside linebacker would try to get wide to stop Ezekiel Elliott on the sweep or stay home to stop the QB between the tackles.
Michigan was repeatedly flummoxed by this. They Wolverines would send the weakside linebacker wide to stop the sweep, then find themselves in trouble trying to tackle Barrett inside of the pulling guard's block and behind the double team.
With double-TE formations, Ohio State can use space to accomplish its real aim, playing smashmouth football.
Notre Dame will try to handle these schemes from its 4-3 defense.
That's what Michigan did, but ND will use split-safety schemes to try and keep its safeties free to run to the ball. The Irish will also look to do damage from the backside with three-technique Day and the best pursuit linebacker in the nation, Smith.
Here's an example of how their 46 or bear front might look against this same play from Ohio State:
In the Irish defense, the safeties are better aligned to avoid getting outflanked. Vannett has a tough task finding the strong safety in space and clearing a lane. The bear front can help the Irish DL avoid facing double teams.
The real story is on the right side, where the Irish tackle and DE/LB would crash to fill the backside while freeing up Smith to run to the football. Michigan has great linebackers, but no one who can cover ground like Smith.
The Buckeyes will probably use different concepts than this variety of power to target Notre Dame's fronts, but the challenge will remain the same. Ohio State will need to flank a split-safety scheme that is less vulnerable to motion, and get blockers to Smith against a Notre Dame front designed to keep blockers off him.