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How Penn State took full advantage of Ohio State’s problems on offense

A game like this was bound to happen sooner or later for the Buckeyes. PSU was ready to pounce.

Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2016 Buckeyes never seemed quite as multi-faceted and dominant as the 2014 squad that won the national championship. The defense is impressive, but the offense lacked an imposing passing attack to complement the run game.

The same was true in 2015, and it eventually brought the Buckeyes down when they had to play a physical Michigan State defense on a cold, rainy day.

In 2016, despite some big-scoring OSU games early in the year, it was Penn State who had the chance to make the most of inclement weather (and a raucous home crowd) and expose some of the cracks in the Buckeyes’ armor.

Penn State’s solutions are evident on the scoreboard, where the Buckeyes scored only 21 points, or in J.T. Barrett’s box score, which reads as follows:

  • 43 passes for 245 yards, 5.7 yards per attempt, one TD, zero INTs.
  • Six sacks for 38 lost yards.
  • 11 carries for 64 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and zero TDs.

Here’s how the Lions managed to slow down the Buckeye offensive machine and allow a block-six to win the game.

How Penn State corralled Ohio State’s run game

Penn State has some lengthy defensive ends. Torrence Brown is 6’3, 257, Garrett Sickels is 6’4, 260, and Evan Schwan is 6’6, 263. Ryan Buchholz (6’6, 270) and Shareef Miller (6’5, 255) also got snaps against the Buckeyes. They’re good athletes, but that length is valuable, particularly against an option-heavy team like Ohio State.

Like most good option defenses, Penn State has a few ways they like to play the zone/power-read combos that teams like Ohio State build around.

The issue that most defenses face is that the QB read creates an extra gap at the point of attack, and then the QB punishes the defense for whichever gap the end chooses to defend. The only way to make up for this is either to insert an extra defender into the box or to have one of your defenders defend two gaps.

Penn State’s main strategy was to have that unblocked DE step up and inside, but then to basically two-gap, with an eye toward containing the QB:

If the H-back blocks him, he’ll try and spill the block. If the H-back tries to go around him, the DE will look to obstruct his path to help whoever the H-back is trying to block.

Because the DE is slow-playing the option and making both the QB’s choices look imperfect, the linebackers are free to play their normal gaps while the secondary can focus on its normal assignments.

Here’s one of several instances in which a Penn State DE navigated that assignment thanks to good footwork and positioning. Watch No. 48, Miller, tie up the entire backfield by himself:

Between the length of the quick DEs (which also makes it easier for them to make arm tackles) and the wet conditions, the Buckeyes struggled to find openings all evening. Between those five DEs, the Lions got 21 tackles, six tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks.

That also freed up other defenders to be aggressive. Weakside linebacker Brandon Bell finished with 19 tackles, and Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen combined to chip in 23 more.

“I told the media and the team our plan was to play those guys about 25 plays, because to expect them to come back and play a full game wasn’t realistic,” James Franklin told SB Nation about Bell and Cabinda, who’d been injured. “Bell finished with 69 plays, so: so much for planning. He got hot.”

The Buckeyes can’t afford to lose advantages at the point of attack, for a variety of reasons. One is the nature of their run game, which features a lot of pistol formations and WR blocking, rather than the spread-out linemen and run/pass options you often find from spread-option teams.

The Buckeyes have their receivers line up tight, and they account for DBs by trying to block them, rather than forcing them to defend lots of screens and similar routes. If they don’t get good WR blocking, that means opponents can get extra hats to the ball quickly. That tends to make for a less explosive running game (OSU ranks No. 75 in Bill Connelly’s rushing explosiveness stat), even if they are winning the point of attack more decisively than they did against Penn State.

The other problem this sets up is when the Buckeyes have to rely on their passing game. On first down against Penn State, Ohio State ran 21 times for 79 yards (3.76 yards per carry); 12 of those set up second down as a passing down (8 yards or more needed for a first). They tried to mix in the pass to mix things up, but Barrett was only three-of-nine for 9 yards on first down.

The dirty little secret: Ohio State’s passing game isn’t very good.

If a defense can force the young Buckeyes to throw in order to move the ball, which is usually a big if, it becomes apparent their passing game is rather rudimentary and their mastery of it more than questionable.

The Buckeyes rank No. 20 in raw passer rating, but No. 56 in opponent-adjusted Passing S&P+ and No. 96 in Passing Success Rate, or the ability to keep the chains moving on schedule. Their receivers and offensive line have disappointed.

How about Barrett?

Their passing attack is largely built around empty formations that are intended to give Barrett simple reads, force opponents to handle athletes in space, and create the opportunities for the scramble if no one can get open. It’s all good in theory. But the Buckeyes struggle to push the ball downfield, and when facing a blend of pattern-matching zone and blitzes like the Lions brought, they are vulnerable.

One of their favorite concepts they ran over and over again without inflicting damage is this “scissors” route combo that Penn State also loves.

The Lions stymied the Buckeyes with a variety of blitzes all night, but here, Ohio State caught PSU in a bad look and couldn’t take advantage. The fade route Barrett threw to didn’t go into the end zone, which would’ve forced PSU to open up the slot receiver on the deep out route. The timing and rhythm simply weren’t there, and the ball sailed into the wet turf.

The Lions typically kept deep defenders and forced Barrett to check down to unproductive swing passes to Mike Weber, who had eight catches for 36 yards.

On their next drive, Barrett missed the opportunity to hit a post route:

The Lions have two deep defenders to the left, with man-to-man on the right and a linebacker blitzing.

Ohio State is running “scissors” again on the left, with the post route (Z) to the other side:

The Lions cover well, but the blitz leaves the corner on an island against that deep route. It doesn’t matter. The Buckeyes don’t nail many throws down the field. They rank No. 97 in 30-yard completions this year.

In terms of his decision-making in the option and his running ability, Barrett is the ideal quarterback for Urban Meyer’s system. But without the ability to hit the deep balls like Cardale Jones did in 2014, this offense can’t take down top defenses with one-dimensional play.

The path to a Big Ten championship is going to require taking down Michigan’s elite defense and perhaps Wisconsin’s again, and this game doesn’t suggest that’s likely.