Ohio State’s offense is gonna have its hands full against Michigan. The Wolverines are elite on defense, and that’s the main reason they’re 10-1 and projected by S&P+ to win by a touchdown on the road.
Michigan will come after Dwayne Haskins with marauding waves of pressure. It’s going to be the most Ohio State’s QB has seen all season and the stiffest test he’s faced in his career, and that includes the Michigan team he faced during part of the win last year.
Ohio State can beat that pressure by leaning into the screen game.
To stop Ohio State, Michigan will follow a blueprint similar to the one Penn State used to almost beat the Buckeyes in October.
Penn State certainly didn’t invent the strategy of blitzing the hell out of a talented quarterback, but they used it. Effective blitzing is how you give yourself the best chance to win against every quarterback from Haskins to Tom Brady. Through eight games, 28 of Haskins’ 30 touchdown passes came with a clean pocket.
The Nittany Lions came after opponents quite a bit early in the season, but they haven’t blitzed anywhere near the rate they did against the Buckeyes in September. Penn State blitzed on nearly half of Haskins’ 39 passing attempts, and it wasn’t just in passing situations when the Nittany Lions brought the heat. For instance, on seven of the 10 first-quarter plays OSU ran (pass or run), PSU brought more than four guys.
All night, they came up the middle ...
... and off the sides ...
... and from the secondary.
And even when they only brought four, an effective pass rush was getting to Haskins, forcing quicker decisions with awkward arm slots. Haskins is talented enough to make things work some of the time.
But was he good enough to do it for 60 minutes with a conventional downfield pass game? Ohio State didn’t think so, but we’ll get to that.
First, just know that Michigan’s going to force Haskins to make money throws into tight windows and under pressure.
Expect to see a ton of this tight coverage look from Michigan:
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said this at a clinic in 2017.
Defensive backs are instructed to play press coverage without regard for risk. “We’re going to come up and deny any free access,” Brown said. “You might be a DB, look behind you and say, ‘Holy s—, there’s 90 yards behind me.’”
Expect blitzes to come from it, too.
Penn State merely adopted the pressure. Michigan was born in it — molded by it. That’s thanks to Brown.
Michigan is one of the most efficient blitzing teams in the country, easily the best in the Big Ten. It’s quality and quantity, because the Wolverines blitz more often than other Big Ten teams too. They get home quicker than any unit in the conference, and those quick pressures come at a higher rate than any team that Haskins has faced.
So how does Ohio State have prolonged offense success? They do exactly what they did against Penn State.
Haskins didn’t have a lot of success through the air in the first half against the Nittany Lions. But this play late in the second quarter produced Ohio State’s first touchdown, capping the only drive of the half that didn’t end in a punt or turnover.
Penn State initially showed blitz before dropping off, but that screen pass worked perfectly, and JK Dobbins did the rest with exceptional perimeter blocking. The Buckeyes leaned heavily on the screen game in the second half, in a nice adjustment by coordinator Ryan Day.
Take this screen from early in the third quarter:
Ohio State was ready for the pressure from the short side of the field. You can even see the wideout at the top of the GIF pointing it out. OSU screened away from it and got a first down.
Haskins was 11-for-11 for 164 yards on screen passes against Penn State. It’s the reason the Buckeyes won the game, and it was a huge halftime adjustment. The Buckeyes ran three screens in the first half and eight in the second half. Penn State didn’t have a counter to the adjustment, and that was clearest on Ohio State’s go-ahead drive.
This wasn’t a total departure from what Ohio State had done to that point. Haskins only threw one pass beyond 10 yards in the air in the first half of that game. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he didn’t have time to push the ball down the field.
But focusing on screens proved hugely successful, and Haskins has done major damage in other games with high percentage throws near the line of scrimmage.
Dwayne Haskins did the majority of his work yesterday against Indiana in the 0-9 yard range past the line of scrimmage pic.twitter.com/FgywUaryEQ— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 7, 2018
This won’t be automatic. Michigan has its own built-in way to give itself a leg up over screens.
Remember, the Wolverines play a lot of man defense. Guess what gives even NFL teams trouble when they try to screen?
In zone coverage you have defenders dropping into their zone spots, and they are typically in an area where a lineman can easily see them. In man coverage, the linebacker on the running back can come across the center, depending on the location of the back, or he can be play side and aligned head up on the back. As the screen begins, the man coverage player moves quickly to cover the back. Because that defender is a tad quicker covering the screen, the blocker must release into the screen just a tad quicker than usual. Blockers must also recognize that it’s man coverage, something most seasoned offensive lineman can spot.
Penn State played more zone than Michigan will, and much more off coverage than the Wolverines will, too. Tight man coverage is going to make wide receiver screens in particular a lot harder to execute. But if you can get Parris Campbell and KJ Hill in space, even Michigan will have a hard time catching up.
It isn’t foolproof, but screens are the key to the Buckeyes having consistently good offense against Michigan.
To put it extremely nicely, Ohio State’s running game has fallen off:
Ohio State’s struggles in the run game have been baffling. The Buckeyes are 57th in Rushing S&P+ — 49th in rushing marginal efficiency and 114th in marginal explosiveness. Even when they carve space for the ultra-talented J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, open-field opportunities have been limited to a startling degree.
We can debate why — the lack of QB run threat (departed QB J.T. Barrett was tremendous on the ground), the shaky offensive line, etc. — but OSU stinks at running the ball. Meanwhile, almost everyone stinks at running the ball against Michigan (ninth in Rushing S&P+).
Haskins has so much arm talent, but if he doesn’t have time in the pocket to show it off, it’s worthless. And if pressure doesn’t give him the time to unleash his massive arm in the vertical pass game, deploying screens in the right places is a good way to neutralize that pressure:
With a run game that’s punchless against defense that is as good as any in college football, a failed screen will probably net you more than a failed run. And Ohio State’s shown that successful screens against an aggressive defense can power them to a win.