Is another Ohio State football season already upon us? It is. Almost, at least. The Buckeyes begin their season Saturday at home against the Miami Redhawks in a noon kick-off that will mark the beginning of the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State. For this football season, this blog is working in conjunction with the Buckeye Blogger Network to provide analysis of specific matchups for the Buckeyes against their opponents. Our Honor Defend will provide coverage of Ohio State’s running game through the season and what it hopes to accomplish against the competition. This should be an exciting venture for those that like the nuts and bolts of football. While Meyer and Herman share with Tressel and Bollman the same concern for establishing a physical running game as the heart of the offense, their approaches differ considerably. What follows in this preview will introduce Ohio State fans to what they should expect Meyer and Herman to work against opposing front sevens ceteris paribus and what to expect from Miami’s personnel in particular.
First, let us begin with the personnel of the Redhawks. Unless you follow MAC football carefully (and you may), these names may lack the familiarity of some of the standouts in the B1G TEN conference. 4-8 in 2011 under first year head coach (and former Michigan State assistant) Don Treadwell, the Redhawks were a presentable unit on defense. 48th nationally in total defense (5th in the MAC), the Redhawks only implosions on defense came against the high powered Toledo Rockets and (oddly enough) the Bowling Green Falcons. The Redhawks’ best statistic of the entire 2011 campaign might have been in TFLs, where they ranked 22nd nationally.
Though a below average rushing defense in a pass-happy conference last year, expect the Redhawks to be better up front this year. The Redhawk’s base 4-3, ubiquitous in college football, should feature a five or six man rotation of all upperclassmen. Leading the charge will be senior Jason Semmes, who hails from the Mitten State. Semmes was first on the team in 2011 in TFLs (9.5) and sacks (4.5). The other notable is left defensive tackle Austin Brown, who was second on the team last year in TFLs (8.5). Opposite brown is Mike Johns, a rather quiet performer last year in overall performance. That said, Johns did contribute 6.5 TFLs, which were over half of his entire tackles for the season. The other starting defensive end opposite Semmes should be junior Wes Williams, who appeared in 3 games last year after appearing in nine (and starting two) in 2010. Williams will be an important player to watch for Redhawks fans who hope to see a more aggressive attitude from the front four under new defensive coordinator Jay Peterson. Mwanza Wamulumba will also appear regularly during this game.
The linebacker picture is considerably muddier than the defensive line picture. The Redhawks will probably struggle to replace the production of the since-graduated Jerrell Wedge and Ryan Kennedy, who were #2 and #3 respectively in tackles for the squad. Wedge, in particular, will be missed. Evan Harris, weakside linebacker, should get some playing time, though the returning starter was not projected as a starter by the Dayton Daily News’ Saturday preview. Instead, DDN projects Pat Hinkel at weakside linebacker. Hinkel is a senior who started all games last year at safety. The move to linebacker by Jay Peterson comes with the hopes of getting more speed on the perimeter of the front seven. Jaytee Swanson will anchor the middle of the linebacker corp this year, having started four of the eleven games for the Redhawks last year. The last projected starter at the strongside is Chris Wade, who played in every game last season and started none. As such, Wade is indicative of the situation at linebacker. There is a fair bit of game experience for everyone involved, though none of it signals what the Redhawks can expect of the group entering this season.
A few words can be said about new defensive coordinator Jay Peterson, a Miami of Ohio graduate who came to the Redhawks after spending a few years at Illinois State. The defense he will bring to the Redhawks is patterned after the overall philosophy of Brock Spack, the former defensive coordinator at Purdue and current head coach at Illinois State. Spack, when he felt comfortable with the personnel he had, would alternate between 4-3 and 3-4 looks in order to confuse opposing offenses. I’m not sure the Redhawks feel comfortable enough with what they have to do something like this. The base 4-3 should be schematically vanilla. But, I expect the Redhawks to maybe bite hard on misdirection and play-action in the hopes of forcing negative plays. If Braxton Miller is advanced enough with the ball fake, and the play calling is just right, this could create some opportunities for big plays for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s Running Attack
As Urban Meyer will repeat until he is blue in the mouth, not all spreads are created equal. Meyer’s spread will differ from Mike Leach’s spread, which itself will differ from what Dana Holgorsen (a Leach disciple) is doing at West Virginia. Though Meyer and Chip Kelly share much in common, even their offenses will differ. That said, a two-part classification is a helpful heuristic. Miami’s offense will spread-to-throw. Ohio State’s offense will spread-to-run.
The offense is based on simple arithmetic. In conventional “pro style” offenses, certainly those utilized by Jim Tressel in large part, the offense is at a numerical disadvantage. In 11-vs-11 contests, the quarterback removes himself as a factor the moment he hands off the ball to a tailback. Thus, an eleventh defender assigned to the quarterback is free to crash the tailback in the backfield, a sight all too often seen by Ohio State fans on Tressel’s famous “Dave” (power) play. Other pro style offenses (e.g. Wisconsin) will boot out the quarterback to keep that backside defender guessing. However, the goal of Meyer is to keep that backside defender guessing wrong. To that end, Meyer will keep Braxton Miller as a viable running threat. This shouldn’t be that hard for Miller, given his skill set. Meyer will thus attack Miami of Ohio in a manner that options the backside defender and adds an extra playside blocker. It’s the same spirit of Tressel Ball, but should be more efficient and elegant.
That Tom Herman said inside zone is a base play that could get 4.5 yards a pop has me very intrigued. Namely, it does not square with what we have seen from Meyer at the University of Florida, where his offenses were largely predicated on power plays drawn from Meyer’s days working for Sonny Lubick at Colorado State (and, conceptually, from Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins).2 Though Ohio State did not give many tells in the running game in its spring game, the first touchdown of the day scored by Scarlet was an example of a power play in Meyer’s spread set.
The quality is not perfect, and a goal line situation is perhaps not representative of the base offense. Still, you can get a glimpse of what happened in this play. The formation the Scarlet squad used indicates inside zone to the right side of the formation. You can gather this by seeing Carlos Hyde is behind Braxton Miller, as opposed to laterally to either side of Miller. As such, the offense is signalling the direction of the play, which leads the Gray squad to overload that gap between right guard and right tackle. By my count, there four defenders in that area to take away that play (not including the defender lined over center) to three defenders in position to plug the gap between left guard and left tackle. To counter, Miller hands the ball to Hyde while the playside linebacker (Sabino?) comes crashing toward the play.3 The defense, which had already overloaded to the right side of the offensive formation is at an extra disadvantage when Marcus Hall, the right guard, pulls and comes through the designated lane to spring Carlos Hyde to a fairly easy walk into the end zone.
How did this work, and why did this play not end like several Dave plays have ended before it? Again, a goal line situation is not exactly representative, but by announcing inside zone to the defense, it forced the defense to tip its hand to the direction of the inside zone play. Thus, Scarlet (in this example) ran away from the teeth of the defense and toward the part of the line of scrimmage where the Gray squad had left itself vulnerable. Ohio State then gained an extra playside blocker with Marcus Hall pulling and paving the way for Carlos Hyde to score against the defense. Inside zone as a base play set up power as a nice constraint play, something Ohio State will hope to accomplish on Saturday against the Redhawks. This little wrinkle itself sets up “dart” as another option for the Buckeyes. “Dart” is midway between inside zone and the power play, where the QB still reads a backside defender and the tailback follows the backside pulling guard.
Another play that features into this overall logic of physical, power running from spread sets is one that was particularly explosive for Meyer when Percy Harvin was with the Gators: counter trey. You’ve seen this play before. I know you have.
Notice the formation. The back to Tebow’s right is lined up laterally with him, suggesting outside zone read. The defense, in response, spreads itself to take away the edges for either option. Percy Harvin motions to the backfield and receives the handoff. South Carolina’s defensive back covering Harvin follows him, but sits out of position. He’s expecting the play to be dragged to the sideline. The backside pulling guard takes blocks the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) and the H-back takes care of the linebacker. The defensive back, out of position, was already going to concede 5-6 yards by sitting and expecting an attack on the perimeter. Instead, the ball carrier attacks the gap between guard and tackle. That the ball carrier in question was Percy Harvin just happened to make it a 26 yard touchdown run. Ohio State does not have an athlete like Percy Harvin, but it will nonetheless weave power and zone concepts like this. If the Redhawks over commit to the expected playside of an outside zone play, expect the Buckeyes to try to counter with a speed option away from it or a midline read of the defensive tackle. The speed option, in particular, will suit Miller’s strengths as a “scat” quarterback, though may not be the best for a back like Carlos Hyde.
There are a lot of different things Ohio State will do out of this base design for the offense, not the least of which will be setting up Ohio State’s passing game. Ohio State’s running attack against the Redhawks should hopefully be as informative for Ohio State fans as it will be a sophisticated attack on the Redhawks’ defense. That is: I expect Ohio State’s running attack to be mostly indicative of what it hopes to do against defenses, all else equal, rather than some plan tailor-made for just the Redhawks. This will really be Braxton Miller’s first “live” game for Meyer. The Spring Game was a passing display and Miller has remained a “caged tiger” for Meyer during fall camp.
The important things to watch draw off the two major question marks for the offense in general. First, can our offensive line block these plays? The plays are designed to make it easier for the offensive line to execute its assignments. However, if they can’t go hat-on-hat in inside zone plays, or kick-step outside on outside zone plays, or seal their blocks on power plays, nothing else matters. The hope is, against a MAC defense, the answer should be an unqualified yes. We’ll know more by Saturday afternoon. Further, the success of these plays is largely contingent on the wide receivers making the ancillary plays work or holding their blocks. If a passing game, which is largely derivative of these plays, sputters, then the Redhawks can commit more players to the box and take away the bread and butter plays. If wide receivers cannot hold their blocks on cornerbacks, the Redhawks will be in better position to limit big plays. Great wide receiver blocking is how 4 yard plays become 40 yard plays.
Be sure to check out the rest of the BBN for more on Saturday’s key matchups:
The Buckeye Battlecry: Special Teams
The Buckeye Blog: Miami/Ohio State Coaching Matchup
Buckeye Empire: Preview: Miami’s Running Game vs. Ohio State’s Front Seven
Men of the Scarlet and Gray: Ohio State’s defensive backs vs. Miami’s Passing Attack
The Silver Bullet: Ohio State’s Passing Game vs. Miami’s Defensive Backs
- I thank Michael for valuable research assistance in helping write this post, especially this section. [↩]
- Sonny Lubick, a former offensive coordinator at Miami (FL) for the Hurricanes’ heyday in the late 1980s, is from the lineage of one-back offenses like those championed by Dennis Erickson. [↩]
- I’m not sure Miller is reading him. He might be. [↩]