Last week’s 26-6 win over Michigan State felt, to some, like a return to form for a Buckeye defense that spent most of the year floundering. That was a fair takeaway, at least on the surface. Holding a bad Michigan State offense to six points is what you’d expect from a good Buckeye defense, so to see this defense — which has been definitively not good this year — do it was encouraging.
I think, however, that there was a tendency to think that one game proved that Ohio State, and specifically, Ohio State’s defensive staff, had fixed the issues that have ailed the unit all season long.
That felt like a stretch at the time, and on Saturday against Maryland, it was pretty much confirmed that Ohio State’s great showing against Michigan State certainly wasn’t a sign of things to come. In retrospect, it’s easier to say that. It’s easier to say that Ohio State’s passing defense was still bad against Michigan State, and the struggles that the Spartans have at quarterback were a much bigger cause of the final score than anything that the Buckeyes did.
It’s easier to say that Michigan State being constantly pinned inside their own ten yard line killed any chances that they had to get offensive momentum going. It’s easy to say it was all a fluke. It’s easy to say that, because it’s true, of course, but also because we’ve seen Ohio State’s defense back to it’s true form this past weekend against Maryland.
That true form is — to be completely honest — pretty dreadful. It’s an unprepared, undisciplined unit, and it has been for the entire season; and I don’t think it’s on the players either. This defense is talented. It’s filled with four and five stars, guys who should be developing, should be getting better, but aren’t, because of poor coaching, and a scheme that hasn’t worked all season.
That’s on Greg Schiano, Bill Davis, Taver Johnson, Alex Grinch, and Larry Johnson. This defensive staff is tasked with creating a scheme and game plan for every team they play, and not once has it felt like the Buckeyes were well prepared defensively this season. That means that the staff isn’t doing its job, and as you’ll see in today’s film study, that might honestly be an understatement.
We’ll start this off with a doozy, just like Ohio State did, because this is the second play of the game (!!!!). Maryland doesn’t do anything too complicated here, really, it’s just a huge miscue by Ohio State, and one that they repeated all game long. Maryland’s base running attack is predicated around motion. UMD interim head coach Matt Canada loves to use motion to open up the rushing attack (something I really wish Ohio State would adopt offensively), and generally, he likes to run away from the motion if a defense is showing man coverage.
Ohio State showed man coverage all game long, and because of that, Maryland killed them all game long with this super basic running game. Let’s break down exactly what Maryland is doing here, because it’ll happen a lot in this game.
They start the play off with a motion of what looks to be a tight end, but is actually lineman Derwin Gray according to their official roster. That motion moves the defensive line further to the offense’s right, as they try to counter what they expect to be a run to the strong side (how most rushing attacks work). It also causes a slight shift in the linebackers, because they have the same idea as the line.
The second motion is the killer here for Ohio State. Maryland sends their lone receiver on the left in motion, and because Damon Arnette is in man coverage, his responsibility is to track that receiver until he goes to the other side of the field, at which point there would likely be an assignment swap with a safety (would be Fuller here). However, Maryland snaps the ball before that adjustment can be made, Arnette makes the wrong read and gets sucked up into a block.
That brings us back to the original line shift. Because the defensive line shifted down slightly, Maryland now has leverage on the left side, where they’re running. Tight end Avery Edwards blocks down, taking Jonathon Cooper out of the play, and with the help of his guard, they push Cooper into Arnette. Because the other side of the line is already out of the play, and because the linebackers are so close to the line at the start of the play, this leaves Maryland in the exact situation they want.
Running back Anthony McFarland has a one-on-one with safety Brendon White in space. White makes the wrong read, biting on the wide receiver motion, and never has a chance to make a play on the speedy halfback.
This touchdown is schemed perfectly by Canada. He saw Ohio State’s over reliance on man coverage, and their tendency to over pursue motions, and used that to create a wide open lane for McFarland to score, untouched from 81 yards out. It’s honestly a beautiful play, perfectly designed and executed, but it certainly helps that Ohio State spent the first ten weeks of the season telling Maryland how to run this play on this defense.
Just a few minutes later, Ohio State gives up another massive touchdown run, this one from 75 yards. While this isn’t as much of a scheme based score, it pretty much encompasses all of Ohio State’s defensive problems this year into one play. The line gets completely erased by Maryland’s blocking. The linebackers either don’t react (Borland), or make the wrong read (Malik Harrison), which once again leaves White one-on-one with the running back. He, of course, loses that battle, as all of Ohio State’s safeties (and most safeties in the country, to be fair) have all season long, and McFarland has another easy touchdown.
The rushing defense wasn’t Ohio State’s only issue on Saturday, as we see on this play. This was one of five chunk plays (gains of 15+ yards) for Maryland in the passing game, and the Terps completed just six total passes, which is, well, not a great sign for this defense.
Here, this is a pretty textbook example of a cornerback just flat out getting beat. Kendall Sheffield didn’t have a good day on Saturday, and this was possibly his worst play. Ohio State’s heavy man-coverage defense certainly hasn’t done Sheffield (or anyone even somewhat related to this program in any way) any favors this season, but this play is mostly on him not keeping up with his receiver.
Back to the rushing defense here, as they give up another big gain, and I want to touch on this one specifically because Maryland ran the EXACT SAME PLAY two downs earlier, for an eight yard gain. I’m not saying that they just ran to the same gap inside of the tackle on a six-man front. No. I mean that Maryland ran literally the exact same play, even down to the tight end motion fake, on first down that they did on third down.
The only difference in the way that these two plays are defended is White and Dre’mont Jones. On the first play, Jones gets onto his linemen’s hip, forcing McFarland outside farther than he wants to be, and allowing White to recover and make a tackle. On the second play, Jones once again gets separation, but White overplays to the outside, giving McFarland space to cut inside of the guard, rather than inside of the tackle like last time. There’s no one there to stop him, as he runs free for a huge gain.
This is concerning for pretty obvious reasons, but I’ll touch on them anyway. Ohio State saw this exact alignment, just seconds before this play, and nine of the 11 players on this defense did nothing to counter it. I’ll actually give Jones and White credit here, because they did make an adjustment, and played to the hole that McFarland hit last time, he just made a great play. However, watch Harrison hit the wrong hole both times. Watch Arnette get caught in the same block both times. Watch Borland take roughly three seconds to react to the run both times.
Not to sound like a broken record here, but this is all coaching stuff. This is all development stuff. These defenders are talented. They are former four and five-star recruits. By my count, nine of the 11 players on the field for the Buckeyes are former “blue-chip” recruits, with the two exceptions being Arnette and Harrison. These are good football players. They’re phenomenal athletes. They don’t just forget how to play football, they’re being taught the wrong things. They’re not being taught how to read plays as the plays are happening. And because of that, they’re being put in positions where they have to make plays that even NFL players frequently can’t.
This is a coaching failure. All of it. Giving up 51 points to Maryland, hell, giving up 51 points to any school in the country at Ohio State is a complete and utter failure. Greg Schiano’s tenure at Ohio State has been a failure, and it’s time for Urban Meyer to let him go. Bill Davis has been a failure at Ohio State, and it’s time for Urban Meyer to let him go. That likely won’t come in the form of a traditional firing, but rather with them “leaving” to take other jobs elsewhere; as Meyer has helped arrange in the past.
So are there any silver linings to take from a 51 point ass-kicking by a .500 team for this defense? Well, aside from the generally useless “they were better in the second half!!!” comments, no, not really. The defense is bad. It’s going to continue being bad. The adjustment in the second half to stop biting so hard on the jet sweep helped a great deal, but only because Maryland didn’t pick up on that and start going to the different sweep below until overtime, when they gashed the Buckeyes for 24 yards.
That play tells me that Ohio State’s defensive “improvements” in the second half were because of a band-aid fix at best, and had Maryland seen the glaring weakness in the defense, they probably would have won this game.
They didn’t, and Ohio State survived because of it. Now, the Buckeyes look forward to Michigan on Saturday. Certainly this is the same old Michigan, with a great defense and no offense, yeah? Let’s look at what Michigan did to the defense on their schedule most comparable to Ohio State’s, Wisconsin (according to S&P+).
Okay, what about against the best defense they’ve faced in conference play? Certainly they struggled there, right? Maybe Ohio State’s talent will finally show up and make some plays. Let’s just see who that team is...
oh dear god
Penn State is 12th, nationally, in S&P+, and Michigan put 42 on them. Ohio State is 38th in S&P+, and has had exactly one game since September where the defense put up a percentile performance (again, according to S&P+) above 60 percent, which would be considered slightly above average.
This is all, pretty obviously, bad. Like, super bad. Ohio State is coming into Michigan Week after one of their worst defensive showings of the year, and nearly two straight months of uninterrupted terrible defense, save for the Michigan State exception.
Michigan is coming into Ohio State Week with 11 straight wins. Their offense has steadily improved each week, and is now firmly cemented in the top 25.
Oh, and on top of that, Michigan loves motion, and will use it frequently after what Ohio State did (or didn’t do) on Saturday. Michigan is capable of completing passes, which is pretty much the bane of this secondary. Michigan has a smart coaching staff that will have its team prepared. Ohio State has Urban Meyer’s golfing buddies.
I wanted to end this on at least somewhat of a positive note, because Ohio State is still a 10-1 team! They are, by all accounts, a pretty good football team, and likely one of the 15 best in the country. They are not, however, a great football team, by any means. And Michigan seems to be. That’s not ideal.
What is ideal, is the history of this series. Specifically, the fact that Ohio State has dominated Michigan since the turn of the century. Ohio State is still more talented, even if they don’t show it. Ohio State can probably score with Michigan, and I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout. Maybe the defense steps up and just doesn’t listen to Schiano anymore. Maybe they revolt against him and play their best game of the season. There’s your positivity.