Please tackle better than this, thanks. (Photo credit: Eric Francis/Getty Images)
On Saturday, Michigan plays a 6-5 team coming off two straight losses—one to Purdue, of all teams—that can barely complete a forward pass and is already ironing out contract details with their next head coach. In a world where I maintained my knowledge of college football but had entirely ignored the happenings of the past year, I'd guess Michigan was facing bizarro Northwestern, but these are your 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Thank you, Terrelle Pryor.
In a scenario nobody saw coming before Tat-gate, and really not even then, Michigan is the team entering the final week of the regular season with a great shot at a BCS bowl while OSU is content to play the spoiler while hoping for a brighter future. This week's FFFF looks at Ohio State's 20-14 loss to Penn State, a game that had me asleep on my living room couch early in the third quarter. Big Ten football: Taste the excitement!
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Hybrid. Ohio State mainly uses the I-form, especially on early downs, but will also throw in a fair amount of the pistol as well as the shotgun, though they often keep fullback Zach Boren in the game and have two backs flanking Braxton Miller in the gun.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Ohio State runs all the time—Miller's two highest number of pass attempts (18 and 17) have come during comeback efforts in the last two weeks, and otherwise his season-high is 13 back against Colorado—which may have you thinking MANBALL, but they're zone blockers. You'll see the occasional pulling guard and some QB power, but mostly they let Miller and Herron pick a hole and go.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Miller has turned in three 100+ yard efforts in the last four weeks (sacks excluded), and has really become the most dangerous rushing threat on the OSU offense. He's clearly still a freshman and will make some bad reads, but he has deceptively good speed, solid power, and great change-of-direction skills. His freewheeling style born of inexperience, while sometimes detrimental, also makes him largely unpredictable and can be an advantage, as you'll see later. I have no choice but to give him a 9.
Dangerman: WR Devier Posey (#9). After multiple run-ins with NCAA law, Posey finally made his season debut last week, and he managed to catch four passes for 66 yards from Braxton Miller, which is wildly impressive. He can do this...
...which, like, wow. Posey's four-catch-per-game average places him well above any other member of the Buckeyes—tight end Jake Stoneburner leads the team with 13 catches in 11 games—and there's an outside chance he becomes the team's leading receiver in just two games. It's safe to say Posey's presence entirely changes the outlook of Ohio State's offense.
Zook Factor: The worst thing Luke Fickell did against Penn State was call for a punt on 4th-and-13 from Penn State's 35, which of course went for a touchback and netted all of 15 yards. That isn't a good decision, but again, Ohio State can barely complete a forward pass. I still would've called for a QB draw just to see if Miller could break something open there. So, yeah, good news—Fickell's definitely got some Zook in him.
OVERVIEW: Man, I want to sound all smart and write a detailed breakdown of Jim Bollman's complex and imaginative offense, but it's just not possible. They run a lot, mostly with zone blocking. Miller and Herron are both good-to-great with the ball in their hands, and backup RB Carlos Hyde is a big back who's good for picking up around five yards per carry (Jordan Hall gets nearly as many touches as Hyde, but I don't know why, as he's stuck at an even 4 ypc this season).
As BlueSeoul pointed out, they like to run from unbalanced sets—whether it be from the I-form (like in BlueSeoul's picture pages) or the pistol—forcing the defense to make on-the-fly adjustments and stay extremely disciplined because of the threat of Miller. Despite Ohio State's impressive rushing numbers, the offensive line appears to be mediocre—they're kinda big and slow for zone blocking, and you'll see some blatant whiffs, especially if the defense brings pressure.
The Buckeyes pass only when absolutely necessary—or when their first-down run gets stuffed and they think it's surprising to pass on 2nd-and-11—and will usually do so out of the gun, though on occasion they'll try a play-action pass from the I-form. Those are usually a terrible idea, as between OSU's plodding offensive tackles and Miller's inexperience, they give up 3.27 sacks per game, good for 116th in the country—Miller usually tries to escape pressure by stepping up in the pocket, and he has a habit of stepping right into defensive tackles and linebackers.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: Here's two plays for the price of one (I'm so generous!). As BlueSeoul pointed out, Braxton Miller will often just improvise and go wherever he wants instead of sticking to the design of the play. Sometimes this fails miserably, but other times it works like the first play in this clip, in which he sees a lurking Devon Still on a speed option and makes a sharp cut up the middle instead of trying to keep the play outside—it cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for Michigan to maintain gap discipline, as Miller is liable to end up just about anywhere. On the second play, Miller once again finds a seam up the middle, then makes a great cut to the outside and cruises to the pylon for a touchdown:
This is, well, scary. There's only so much you can do to prepare for a quarterback like this, because Miller won't always do what is intended on a given play, making it really difficult for the defense to stuff a play even when making the proper read. He'll reverse field, go through the wrong gap, wait around in the backfield until he finds a crease—there's just no guessing where he is going to go. The best way to defend this is through dominant defensive line play, and luckily Michigan has had that in spades recently—it's going to take a big day from the entire line, as well as the linebackers, to keep Miller from amassing 100 yards.
- Miller is progressing a bit as a passer, and the return of Posey really helps, but he's still just not very accurate. That said, however, he does a surprisingly good job of not turning the ball over—on 109 attempts this season, he has just three interceptions, and only one since October 1st—and he very much prefers to scramble instead of force a throw into coverage.
- When the Buckeyes get into the red zone, pay close attention to Stoneburner, who becomes Miller's favorite target near the goal line. He came up with a nice seven-yard touchdown catch on an out route, and seven of his 13 catches this season have gone for touchdowns despite him averaging just 12 yards per catch. If Miller is looking to go deep, he'll obviously target Posey, but also 6'3" freshman Devin Smith, who averages 22 ypc on his 11 receptions this season. He was a complete non-factor against Penn State, however, and we'll just have to see how much playing time he gets now that Posey is back in the picture.
- The Buckeyes busted out the wildcat with Carlos Hyde a couple times, and it really makes zero sense for them to do so. Hyde is a big back with less speed and big-play ability than Miller, and he's even less of a threat to throw, so why bother to put him out there when defenses are already loading up against the run? Wait, what am I saying? Run the wildcat all game, Bollman. That Miller guy totally sucks.
- As evidenced by the atrocious sack numbers, Mattison's blitzes should hit home with regularity. Both Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts looked very susceptible to speed rushes off the edge, and also will inexplicably blow assignments—this sounds like the perfect storm for an Okie zone blitz bonanza. If Michigan finishes the game with fewer than three sacks, I'll be very surprised.
- Center Mike Brewster, a preseason All-American candidate, had a lot of trouble with his shotgun snaps, including one comical third down where he snapped the ball into his own ass while Miller was in the gun. Not sure how much this will play a factor, but it certainly made me laugh.
After the jump, I take a look at Ohio State's defense. Jump!
Base Set? Ohio State essentially runs a nickel package as their base, with Tyler Moeller—a 6'0", 210-pound former linebacker—as the "star," a linebacker/nickelback hybrid. Think Lavonte David [ed-Seth: or senior S. Brown at Spur] except not nearly as good, thank goodness.
Man or zone coverage? This was very difficult to tell since ESPN decided to film the PSU game in Michigan Stadium replay-style super-zoom, but it looked like OSU was comfortable switching up their coverage a fair amount, though they seemed to tend towards man, especially on third down.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? More Greg than GERG, though falling mostly in the middle—the Buckeyes tend to wait to bring heat until third down, and even then it's usually just sending one extra rusher while playing man behind it. They average two sacks per game, placing them 49th in the country.
Dangerman: This would normally be linebacker Andrew Sweat, but he's hurt and will likely be out on Saturday. Instead, and this will make recruitniks sad, it's DT Jonathan Hankins (#52). While the 6'3", 330-pound behemoth doesn't provide much of a pass rush, he's a monster against the run, tallying 60 tackles and nine TFLs this season. For a guy his size, Hankins is shockingly quick—just check out this play, where he absolutely engulfs Brandon Beachum after fighting off a quick double-team:
Most of Michigan's success on the ground has come off the edge, so hopefully they'll mitigate Hankins's impact simply by staying the hell away from him.
OVERVIEW: Ohio State's statistical profile is interesting, as they're 14th in the country in scoring defense (19 points per game allowed), but just 42nd against the run and 35th in pass efficiency D. Normally I'd expect a ridiculous turnover margin to explain this disparity, but Ohio State has forced just 16 turnovers in 11 games, tied for 86th in the nation.
Instead, their defense just appears to be wildly bipolar, holding Michigan State to just ten points and Illinois seven but allowing 34 to Nebraska and 20 first-half points by Penn freakin' State's abysmal excuse for an offense. Even after watching them in detail, I have no clue how to explain this, as there doesn't appear to be a pattern—they can be good or bad against mobile QBs, pocket passers, run-heavy teams, pass-heavy teams, whatever. They're just weird.
What I do know is mostly outlined in the previous sections. I wish I could be more informative here, and would love some help in the comments from those who have seen OSU play, but mostly I see a non-vintage, susceptible Buckeye defense that doesn't have much of an identity other than "don't run at the somehow-mobile Great Wall of Hankins." The main tendency I noticed was that they play a fair amount of one-high coverage with man underneath, especially on third down, and even against Matt McGloin, who's basically Rex Grossman Jr. when it comes to his love of chucking it deep.
PLAY BREAKDOWN: Ohio State's man coverage is a bit iffy. Penn State picked on cornerback Travis Howard early, drawing a pass interference on a double move (that would've been a long TD if not for the PI) and completing an easy slant against him for a first down. Then again, they got a huge play out of their defense thanks to fantastic man coverage on a crossing route by safety C.J. Barnett:
I think this is one-high coverage again (couldn't tell from the camera angle—help is always appreciated), and Barnett basically runs the tight end's route for him and McGloin forces in a pass he never should've thrown. That would be comforting if not for Denard's frustrating habit of forcing intermediate passes into coverage. Prepare yourselves now for a migraine-inducing interception, because there's a good chance it happens.
Freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier is filling in for the injured Andrew Sweat on the weak side, and although he came up with an impressive 15 tackles against the Nittany Lions, he also looked like a freshman. On this play, Penn State came out in a wildcat—probably the best simulation of Michigan's offense that we're going to see from PSU—and ran a simple zone read give. Shazier (#10, the linebacker on the near side) just freezes despite being unblocked, and Stephfon Green just blows right through the middle of the defense for an easy touchdown:
Though Shazier is the main culprit on this play, safety Orhian Johnson (#19) takes a terrible angle and allows the play to go the distance. He's now listed as a backup on OSU's depth chart, so I'm not sure how much that'll factor into Saturday's game, but safety play against the run was a big issue for the Buckeyes, as you'll see below:
The first big issue here is linebacker Etienne Sabino (#6) hauling ass away from the hole before realizing—too late, of course—that he's leaving open a huge gap, but watch safeties C.J. Barnett (#4) and Christian Bryant (#2, and the player listed above Johnson on this week's depth chart). Barnett comes up way too aggressively and whiffs entirely, while Silas Redd jukes Bryant so badly that he barely gets touched until Sabino(!) has to sprint back and make the tackle 42 yards downfield. Can Fitz Toussaint do what Redd did there? Oh, you bet he can. I foresee another 100-yard day for him, and at least one play where he makes a Buckeye safety look like a big white turnstile with nuts stickered to his shiny silver helmet.
- I'm still not sure I want to see Michigan test the middle that much with Hankins eating up so much space, but they could get their opportunity to do so when freshman DT Joel Hale rotates into the game. On back-to-back plays against Penn State, he got sealed off easily as the Buckeyes gave up decent chunks of yardage, and he didn't hold his ground very well when the PSU linemen just tried shoving him downfield.
- Defensive end John Simon is by far OSU's best pass-rushing threat—he's a 6'2", 270-pound junior who has great speed off the edge and the strength to knock an OT to the side en route to the QB. He has six sacks this season, three more than any other Buckeye. Shazier is one of two Buckeyes with three sacks, and he's solid on the blitz, where he can unleash his speed without worrying about making reads.
Overall, I'm sticking with what I said on the podcast—I think Michigan wins this one with relative ease, as Ohio State's passing offense just doesn't pose remotely enough of a threat to keep the defense from loading up against the run and forcing Miller into third-and-long situations, which tend to end in sacks or punts. The Wolverines should find room on the edge, and I think Toussaint will have a big day with multiple 20-yard runs, and if Denard can find the room to scramble, he might do likewise. The key, which is really obvious, is for Denard to limit/eliminate turnovers, as that's really the only way I see OSU staying in this one. Apologies in advance for the fervent optimism, but Ohio State is a more limited version of Nebraska, and we all saw what happened last week.