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The Rose Bowl will be a window into the future of football

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Ohio State’s offense forces defenses to prioritize athleticism in different ways. Washington’s defense is built to deal with just that approach. In a spread era, the Rose Bowl could be a roadmap.

USA TODAY Sports

In New Year’s Day’s Rose Bowl between Ohio State and Washington, there’s a lot going on. It’s Urban Meyer’s last game leading the Buckeyes, and it might be Dwayne Haskins’ last one at quarterback, too. The Huskies are sending off senior QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin, four-year starters who have defined the Chris Petersen era.

Apart from those sendoffs and the spectacle of the Rose Bowl is the crucial matchup of this game: the one between Ohio State’s increasingly pass-oriented offense under head coach-to-be Ryan Day and the Washington defense that’s carried the Huskies to two of the last three Pac-12 championships while building a case as the new DBU.

The last year has shown that more pass-heavy attacking is the wave of the future at the biggest programs. The seven-on-seven era that’s come to define recruiting has now taken hold in the rest of college football. Ohio State’s gone hard in that direction, as have Alabama and Oklahoma. USC’s about to do the same. Washington’s success in the Pac-12 has largely been the result of limiting spread passing attacks with a great secondary.

Both Ohio State’s O and Washington’s D put their faith in their athletes being better than the other team’s athletes.

Michigan was exposed in its rivalry game against Ohio State for its inability to match up on the outside with the Buckeyes’ corps of burners.

The top four targets for Ohio State all follow a similar profile. They’re not big, all coming in around 6-foot flat. They were all SPARQ superstars as recruits. Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin each ran 4.41-second 40-yard dashes. K.J. Hill and Johnnie Dixon were just under 4.6 while also showing explosive numbers in the shuttle and vertical tests.

What has made Ohio State so lethal is Haskins utilizing his accuracy and arm strength to lead these WRs as they run by defenders on deep routes or crossers:

There’s a lot speed on the field, and opponents can’t stay with everyone.

Washington has a similar philosophy guiding its defense. An opposing team’s top three receivers — everyone on the field when Ohio State wants to play with a TE — are going to be the particular focus of cornerbacks Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller and nickel Myles Bryant. The Huskies predominantly play single-high safety coverages like matchup cover 3. They accept that receivers will get one-one-one looks outside the hashes against those three DBs:

Murphy is the left cornerback and the star of the show for the Huskies and had four INTs and 13 pass break-ups this season. Bryant added another four break-ups along with 3.5 sacks occasionally coming off the edge. Miller picked off two and broke up five, sometimes avoiding much attention as the right cornerback.

As much as Ohio State leans on being able to torch teams that try to match up outside on its speed, Washington leans on winning that exact matchup, so something has to give here.

One of the things that sets these units apart is how they move this same speed contest inside the hashmarks.

Ohio State doesn’t want to let opponents cover Campbell with cornerbacks. Where’s the fun and easy yardage in that? Instead the Buckeyes like to move him around inside and let him run circles around linebackers and safeties:

There, Michigan is playing a single-high coverage comparable to what Washington likes. The Wolverines have a safety over Campbell, but he trades him off inside in zone and then their “viper” (a safety/OLB hybrid) gets matched up on the tight end. That leaves Campbell running a crosser, unencumbered and at high speed, against middle linebacker Devin Bush.

Bush is good, but he’s not a space player and certainly not as fast as Campbell.

The Huskies’ solution for teams that want to spread them out and attack the box defenders is to use smaller, faster box defenders. Their leading tackler is middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, a 6’0, 221-pound senior who’s created all kinds of chaos, from fumbles to break-ups to picks. Burr-Kirven (No. 25) is ultra-quick and tends to patrol between the tackles.

They line Burr-Kirven up to the wide side of the field, freeing up Tevis Bartlett (No. 17) to play in the less spacey confines of the shorter side. While their single-high coverages often drop a safety down to help bracket tricky assignments (like a Campbell in the middle of the field), they don’t use that as an excuse to play a bigger, more blitz-oriented middle linebacker.

That’s a calculation more defenses will have to make: you can’t hold up against spread attacks like Ohio State’s with traditional inside linebackers who can’t run like safeties.

You need at least one who can play in space and cover, in addition to diagnosing the run and filling interior gaps. That ability in space is becoming more important than the jobs middle backers used to do. Teams still tried to target the middle of the field against Washington this season, ignoring UW’s recognition of spread offensive tricks and ability to counter with more modern personnel — hence Burr-Kirven’s absurd 165 tackles.

When Ohio State sees that Washington will hold a safety (like the 200-pound Taylor Rapp) near the box to prevent easy numbers in the run game, the Buckeyes will spread the field. Then they’ll push the ball deep on those three Washington corners, or they’ll make the safeties and middle linebacker trade and cover crossers over the middle.

If the Huskies can hold up defensively, the big-picture outcome won’t just be who wins or loses.

It’ll be that the Huskies gave a blueprint for dealing with highly skilled and speed-based spread passing attacks from blue-blood programs.