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Ohio State football: Attacking the Michigan State defense

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Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi dictated the tempo in last year's Big Ten Championship Game. We take a look at how Ohio State's offense can counter the Spartan defense in this year's matchup.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The basics of Pat Narduzzi's scheme

  • The defense is always in a two-shell, this means that there are always two high safeties. The two outside cornerbacks will be pressed (inside 5-yards) on the outside wide receivers, limiting quick passes.
  • They are an attacking front and a pressure/blitzing defense. The outside cornerback's physicality throws off the timing, allowing pressure to get to the quarterback while he waits for his receivers to get a release.
  • Their base coverage is Cover 4 (Quarters Coverage), meaning the two outside corners and the two safeties will be taking away vertical routes. If all four targets go vertical, then it would be the defensive back's jobs to take away the vertical routes.

  • The two outside linebackers have the flats and underneath zones. The middle linebacker can chip crossers and he has the underneath in coverage.
  • If the inside targets do not run verticals, then the safeties can double the outside receivers with the cornerbacks.

Strengths

  • Four-deep coverage.
  • Run support from safeties.
  • Ability to double cover outside wide receivers.
  • Allows corners to play aggressive technique on outside receivers because they have help over-the-top from the safeties.

Weaknesses

  • Flat coverage.
  • Safeties are very susceptible to play-action.
  • Double coverage on outside wide receivers can be nullified by having inside targets attack the coverage of safety (go vertical).

Attacking the Spartan defense and the offensive keys to a victory

  • Limit designed quarterback runs. As we saw last year, running the quarterback draw out of an empty set became obvious and the Spartan defense was ready for it on key downs in the B1G Championship Game. Miller ran the ball 21 times last year, which is way too much. Even though Miller finished with 142 yards, he was bottled up most of the night and especially in key short yardage situations. In the two games where the offense looked poor, Barrett finished with 13 designed runs vs. Penn State and nine designed runs vs. Virginia Tech, his two highest totals of the year.
  • Call the offense non-conservative. It seems that the bigger the game, the more conservative the play calling has been by Coach Herman. It starts with the offensive line proving themselves early and making Barrett comfortable early on. This leads to another point about trusting Barrett's arm and the array of weapons around him to make plays.
  • Establish the running game. The Michigan State linebackers and safeties play a run first style. If they can establish the run game early then the linebackers and safeties will be cheating up to play the run which will open up play-action. This will give the two tight ends a couple of chances in the seam to make plays in the red zone. Also, establishing the run game will also open up the playbook to "package plays," where there are multiple options when running the zone read.

Here is an example of how play-action sucked up the safeties in last year's match-up:

  • Trust Barrett's arm and the weapons around him. Last year, Miller only completed 8/21 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. The offense has looked unstoppable this year when Barrett is in a rhythm early and spreading the ball around to the abundance of playmakers. With the outside cornerbacks playing press technique on the outside wide receivers and the linebackers having the flats, I would expect Coach Herman to try to get the ball to H-Back's Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall to exploit the slower Michigan State linebackers in the flats.
  • Challenge them deep. This will be Coach Meyer's third time going up against Coach Dantonio. You would have to assume that Coach Meyer and Coach Herman spent a good amount of time this off-season in the film room looking for Quarters Coverage beaters. As I showed above, they executed this once last year to perfection but they can look at the Michigan State game vs. Oregon for more Quarters beaters. One thing they will notice after going over the Oregon tape will be the switch verticals concept. Out of 11 personnel, (1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) the slot and the X receiver (back-side) perform a rub route, essentially a pick play.

Conclusion:

  • The game is going to come down to Coach Herman, his faith in the offensive game plan and his trust in his players to execute the game plan. If Coach Herman resorts to a simplistic, conservative approach then he is setting his players up to lose. If he comes out with an aggressive game plan where the Buckeye offense dictates the tempo and forces the Spartan defense to react, then I like their chances. After the Virginia Tech loss, Coach Herman opened up the offense and put the ball in his playmaker's hands. Let's hope that this will be the case this Saturday night in East Lansing.