Ohio State has finished five games this season within one score of its opponent. The Buckeyes are 4-1 in those games, with the sole loss coming on a blocked field goal return against Penn State.
Those five games had a reoccurring theme. When Ohio State gets into a tough spot, the Buckeyes tend to fall back on J.T. Barrett and the QB run game to carry them through to victory. Here’s a glimpse of how that’s looked in tight games:
I removed sack yardage for these rushing numbers, as they truly reflect more on Ohio State’s dismal passing game. When the going gets tough, which tends to happen against teams with good enough DBs to stop up the Buckeye passing game, they can still count on running the ball with Barrett.
As a result, Ohio State has found a formula that’s pretty hard to beat, even if multiple teams have come agonizingly close.
It starts with the Ohio State defense, which is a tough nut to crack.
The Buckeyes have only given up 20 points five times this season, and two of those games involved overtime. One of the other 20-point games came against S&P+’s top-ranked offense, Oklahoma, and the Sooners only broke 20 thanks to a kickoff return. Another came against Penn State, who broke 20 thanks to that improbable block. The final one came against Northwestern, and there’s no easy explanation for that outcome, other than to say that Ohio State had an off week. No team has reached 30 points against the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes are good at cornerback this year. They’re bracketing everything in the middle of the field with a great linebacker corps and a pair of athletic safeties in Malik Hooker and converted cornerback Damon Webb. They have one of their typically athletic and stout defensive lines that’s hard to move off the ball.
Despite being a spread offense, the Buckeyes are really an old-school, “grind it out with defense and the option running game” team, like their Woody Hayes teams of old.
They have a ton of different looks to throw against opponents on offense.
Preparing for Ohio State is a nightmare and really needs to be more of a self-examination then it is a scouting eval of the Buckeyes. Their game plan when they face you is going to be one that probes you with varying formations that make your defenders prove they know their own playbook. Every play must be option-sound; that is, the defense can’t just be wrong no matter what it does.
Against Oklahoma they worked the Sooner defense over with this set:
With two wide receivers on the line of scrimmage to the same side of the formation, the inside of those WRs is ineligible to catch a pass by rule. So, you pretty much know that when Ohio State is in this set, the Buckeyes are going to run the ball. However, Oklahoma couldn’t figure this formation out at all, and it powered the Buckeyes’ way to multiple scoring drives.
This play is a QB counter run designed to look like an RPO (run/pass option) to hold the OU defenders and set up the Ohio State blockers on the weak side. The Sooners are rolled over to the strength of Ohio State’s formation (on the Buckeyes’ right), and the Sooners can’t get numbers to the point of attack.
As always, it’s fun to take note of the Buckeyes’ wide receiver blocking. On this play, 5’10, 195-pound Dontre Wilson (No. 2) pancaked Oklahoma’s 6’0, 217-pound safety, Ahmad Thomas (No. 13).
Against Michigan, Ohio State got a lot of mileage out of a traditional 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three receivers) set, particularly when running power-read plays. The Buckeyes got a crucial score when they brought out the counter for that play:
It’s an RPO, where Barrett is reading Michigan’s Heisman finalist linebacker, Jabrill Peppers (No. 5), to see if Peppers chases the RB out to the flat on the perimeter screen or stays home to defend the running play. The Buckeyes caught Michigan in a man blitz here, and your margin for error running a man blitz against a running QB like Barrett is pretty small. Here’s out it played out:
Michigan was blitzing starting weak-side linebacker Mike McCrary (No. 9) off the edge past Ohio State’s right tackle. His job was to contain the ball on any option runs and keep it inside, where the blitz was. Peppers was curiously aligned inside, and his coverage assignment in the man blitz was to cover the RB.
Man blitzes can get teams into trouble, because they often give a player who’s responsible for an uncovered gap another responsibility, too: covering a RB or TE. That leaves the uncovered gap wide open. In this case, Barrett charged through it.
On this play, Ohio State sent both the tight and and running back on routes. That cleared out Gedeon, the mike linebacker lined up here on the strong side across from the tight end. It also cleared Peppers, following the running back into the flat.
McCrary got stuck while blitzing on the other edge, and only Michigan’s free safety (No. 25, Dymonte Thomas) had a chance to stop Barrett. But Thomas was running outside — either because he was worried about that RB getting away from everyone, or because Peppers messed up and shouldn’t have been the guy chasing the RB in the first place. Probably not that.
At the end of the day, the killer feature of the Ohio State offense is Barrett’s ability to handle a big part of the load carrying the ball inside.
Ohio State only ran the play above one time against Michigan. The Buckeyes have tons and tons of plays just like it that create multiple options (or the appearance of multiple options), only to allow the Buckeyes to clear out the middle of the field and run the ball down Main Street.
It’s a lot to account for, and opponents regularly don’t have enough numbers to stop Barrett from plunging straight ahead. Those numbers are too busy trying to handle all of the Buckeyes’ options and window dressing on the perimeter.
It’s not always the first plan. Sometimes, it’s just a scramble.
The QB scramble remains one of the more potent plays in college football, as it can’t truly be anticipated or accounted for other than with careful team defense. If you’re worried about multiple other threats that are spread out over the field, it becomes difficult to play team defense against the QB scramble.
The Ohio State offense takes that same principle and makes it the underpinning of an entire offense. The Buckeyes can find a dozen ways to help you fail to account for the possibility of Barrett finding a crease between the tackles and breaking free for a first down. He’s not an explosive runner who will kill you with big gains, but at 6’2 and 225 pounds, he’s sturdy enough to get a lot of carries, move the chains, and help Ohio State play ball control, so other teams get fewer possessions against an elite defense.
This is, all in all, a lot for any defense to handle.
It’s not an overpowering formula and has generated some razor-thin margins for the Buckeyes in Big Ten play. But it’s still difficult to beat, and it was a bigger problem for Michigan than officiating was.
Ohio State’s back in the Playoff now, set for a New Year’s Eve Fiesta Bowl semifinal against Clemson (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Tigers would help themselves a lot if they could figure out a variable, however small, to keep this formula from working so well. While other teams have come close to beating Ohio State, such a solution has eluded most.