Ohio State’s made its bones under Urban Meyer with an option run game and the 4-3 press-quarters defense, borrowed from Pat Narduzzi and Michigan State.
In a 49-21 win over Indiana, the Buckeyes tried to go more pro-style on both sides of the ball, flexing out TE Marcus Baugh regularly and throwing 21 times for 95 yards (4.5 ypa) before the half. Meanwhile, OSU’s man-free defense was getting beaten on key passing downs by Indiana QB Richard Lagow dropping in nice fades to big Simmie Cobbs Jr., who had seven catches for 98 yards and a TD at the half.
With the score at 14-13 at the half and Indiana in the lead, things were getting pretty interesting in Bloomington.
Then Ohio State started to mix back in two-deep quarters coverages and standard run schemes and put the game away before the fourth quarter had begun.
In the process, we learned the following three things.
1. Ohio State is still limited on offense.
The better part of J.T. Barrett’s passing yardage, by far, came from hitting speedsters on short tosses over the middle and then watching them house TDs. This was evidently Kevin Wilson and Meyer’s solution to patching up the passing game, rather than adding some of the other dimensions that had served Wilson well as a coach at Indiana or Oklahoma.
In particular, they did a ton of damage on mesh concepts over the middle, such as this Chip Kelly special:
Johnnie Dixon: MAKIN' HOUSE CALLS pic.twitter.com/v4QYSOBs8b— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) September 1, 2017
Like the Ohio State QB run game that served as a handy trump card in 2016, this concept is designed to overstress the defense in the middle of the field and allow Barrett easy throws over the middle, often to guys catching on the move. This requires good reads and a quick trigger, but that’s always been within his wheelhouse.
The only issue here is that this overlaps with what Ohio State attempts to do in the run game. Both are designed to work between the hash marks or on the perimeter. The Buckeyes still don’t have a way to attack teams vertically and outside the hash marks, and based on most of the throws Barrett was firing in that direction, they probably won’t.
Eventually, the Buckeyes will face a team that can match up in the middle and dare them to win outside.
2. Indiana is pretty good.
We knew they’d be good on defense this year, but the Lagow-to-Cobbs combo really hurt the Buckeyes. I don’t know if this is going to be the most devastating QB/WR combo Ohio State will face, like Kirk Herbstreit suggested, but they certainly presented major problems.
Indiana converted four third downs to Cobbs, often off plays in which Lagow would work back-shoulder routes against man coverage. At 6’4, 220, Cobbs was hard to handle on that concept, and there wasn’t much Ohio State’s speedy, physically overmatched cornerbacks could do. He finished with 11 catches for 149 yards and a lot of film to suggest man-free coverage might not be viable for the Buckeyes.
Fortunately, the Buckeyes haven’t totally abandoned the quarters coverages that’d propelled them to excellence.
They started mixing those in to get some bracket coverage on Cobbs, when he was aligned on the boundary. Lagow had to go elsewhere and eventually threw (his second) interception while trying to hit another receiver on a back-shoulder throw to the wide side of the field.
The Indiana defense was quite good in 2016 — Meyer said it was the best OSU had faced all year to that point — and returned eight starters, making for a potentially explosive unit. The defensive tackles gave Ohio State’s OL all they wanted, but the Hoosiers couldn’t match up with the Buckeyes’ athleticism.
3. The Buckeyes’ DL is their strongest feature.
Indiana’s early pace and lead into the third quarter spoke of a familiar doom that could befall the Buckeyes. If Ohio State’s DL were to wear down enough for Indiana to run the ball or even just set up Lagow to have time to throw, then the Buckeyes were going to be in big trouble.
Instead, backup DT Jashon Cornell produced a sack-strip deep in Indiana territory early in the fourth quarter, after the D had already defended nearly 80 plays. That put the game away.
Ohio State’s depth along the DL and ability to produce a pass rush late in games is going to be important against Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan. Alabama and Atlanta were beaten in 2017’s college and NFL title games when their pass rushes couldn’t maintain pace over 80-plus snaps. In this game, Ohio State had the horses to keep up the pressure on Lagow, protect an overmatched secondary, and bring victory.
They also held Indiana to 47 yards on 20 carries, only 2.4 per carry. This was a dominant performance by the Buckeye linemen and one they are likely to repeat several times this year.
Ohio State looks good again, but it’s not yet clear that the Buckeyes will get over the humps that obstructed their path to a title last season.