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Why Ohio State’s ‘basic’ defense is so hard to beat

It really isn’t the most complicated attack in the world, but it doesn’t need to be.

Ohio State v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Week 3 was a very good one for Big Ten defenses playing press-quarters defense against spread powerhouse teams. Michigan State beat down Notre Dame while Ohio State obliterated the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman.

This came after backup OU QB Austin Kendall claimed starting QB Baker Mayfield was going to “light up” a “basic” Ohio State defense.

You can forgive the Buckeyes for preferring a “basic” defense after they lost defensive coordinator Chris Ash to the vacant head coaching job at Rutgers, six starters to the NFL draft, and another starter to the NFL. The Buckeyes have been pretty “basic” on defense for a few years now, but there was little motivation to change that up with such grievous losses.

Despite having to overcome all of that, the Buckeye defense has outscored the three offenses it’s faced this season, 24-23. Something about this basic defense is working rather well. Here are a few examples.

When you have a talent advantage, get your talent on the field ASAP.

Of the 14 Buckeye defenders who logged major snaps against Oklahoma, 10 were former four-star recruits, one was a five-star (MLB Raekwon McMillan), three were former three-star recruits, and nine were from the state of Ohio. Ohio State ranks as the country’s No. 2 recruiting team over the span of Bama’s six-year run as No. 1.

Because of their dominance of talent-rich Ohio, the Buckeyes are always loaded with great athletes. Similarly, because they have so many great talents, they are regularly raided by the NFL and lose key contributors before they’ve used up their eligibility.

Schematically, they need a system that allows them to plug in athletes, gets them playing fast early in their college careers, and is versatile enough to handle both the physical Big Ten offenses they regularly face and the explosive spread systems they will encounter in the postseason.

The press-quarters defense they adapted from Michigan State has done the job quite nicely over the last three years.

It comprises the vast majority of the Buckeyes’ calls and has enough adjustments to work against a wide variety of offenses. The goal is to allow the defense to get a numbers advantage against either the run game or the drop-back passing game.

In particular, the Ohio State system is geared to get linebackers to the point of attack on any run play, with stress deferred to the cornerbacks and strong safety. As soon as the offense’s blockers show it’s a run play, OSU’s strong-side linebacker or boundary safety attacks in a hurry, which leads to an eight-man front, with a ninth (the field safety) ready to support.

From the opening snap against the Sooners, the Buckeyes’ strong-side linebacker, Chris Worley, was firing off the edge, while their safeties were ready to clean up anything that got through:

Thanks to a backfield featuring running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, dual-threat quarterback Baker Mayfield, and occasionally fullback Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma’s focus is as a spread-to-run offense. Despite getting down early and staying down, the Sooners used 36 runs to 32 passes.

They had some success with a 35-yard sweep to WR Dede Westbrook and a 31-yard run by Mixon, but their war horse, Perine, gained only 60 yards on 17 carries. It’s hard for any team to make gains on the ground with the defense sneaking extra numbers into a richly talented front, plus involving the safeties.

The Sooners tried to spread the Buckeyes out, but that was thwarted by the lateral range of the Ohio State linebacker corps and the play of the defensive line:

If the safeties and strong-side linebacker get a pass read from the offensive line, they’re all dropping back and getting a numbers advantage over the receivers in coverage.

It’s a very difficult defense to beat with conventional strategies, and even if the offense can find leverage here or there, the safeties and overall team speed make it easy for the defense to erase mistakes.

On the goal line, this defense becomes even nastier as the space shrinks and the quarterback finds either side of the formation crowded with the increasingly closer safeties, to say nothing of Ohio State’s excellent line.

The weak spot is found by creating conflict.

The Sooners strangely did not mix in many run/pass option plays (RPOs) or play action to allow them to attack the Buckeyes for playing the run so aggressively. On the few occasions where they did mix pass options, like a bubble screen read, there were advantages to be had:

This time, instead of trying to use tight end Mark Andrews (81) to block the linebacker or safety, the Sooners have him run a bubble route. Now when Worley triggers off the edge in response to the fullback’s block, Mayfield can flip the ball out to Andrews and force Buckeye strong safety Damon Webb to make a tackle in space.

Then, one of Mixon’s better runs came because Worley hesitated on the perimeter to respect the bubble screen. The Sooners were able to finally blow open a crease:

The secret to attacking these aggressive quarters defenses is with RPOs and play-action calls that punish the defenders who make flash decisions at the snap of the ball. You can’t just spread out the Spartans or Buckeyes and expect that to prevent them from getting numbers to the point of attack against the run or pass.

But the Buckeyes have some counter measures up their sleeves.

Ohio State converted cornerback Webb into a field safety in order to get more coverage on the field and create options for the Buckeyes when teams start hitting their weak spots.

The main change-up in the Buckeyes’ playbook is to play man-free (man coverage with a deep safety) and either to drop seven defenders in coverage, with someone watching for QB runs, or else to drop six and send a fifth pass rusher on the blitz. They caught the Sooners trying to throw a bubble screen by dropping into man-free, with Webb nearby to quickly make the tackle:

Man-free is the perfect change-up to the Buckeyes’ “basic” defense because it shores up the weak spots and it serves as a base coverage for blitz packages.

So any opponent that wants to attack Ohio State’s press-quarters defense has to beware of running into a blitz. That’s when things could go south.

Oklahoma’s high-powered offense managed 403 yards, 5.9 yards per play, and 17 points against the Buckeye athletes running this scheme. The yardage total was decent, but the Sooners couldn’t win on the goal line, because they lacked an advantage either on the perimeter or in the trenches. Additionally, Mayfield threw two interceptions (and nearly three) that resulted from Ohio State simply out-executing the Sooners and forcing bad decisions and difficult throws.

When you have a big, strong, fast defense that can run, it pays to let it play basic defense and just go out-execute people.