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Film study: Ohio State’s offense destroyed Michigan from the inside

It was a master class in play design from Ryan Day

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Offense really hasn’t been the issue for Ohio State this season, save for maybe one or two games. They’ve struggled with creativity, and couldn’t run for a couple weeks (still can’t really, but we’ll get to that). It felt at times like the 2015 offense with Cardale Jones: an offense with unlimited potential and a freakish, dominant quarterback that just can’t quite shift into that highest gear. For much of 2018, Ohio State’s offense was a Ferrari driving the speed limit. Sure, it gets the job done, but it just feels like there could be more.

On Saturday, Ohio State stepped on the gas and sent Michigan to the eighth circle of hell. The Buckeyes offense was completely in sync almost all game long, came in with an excellent gameplan, and shellacked the No. 1 defense in the land because of it. Ryan Day, Kevin Wilson, and certainly Urban Meyer to an extent were prepared for what Michigan does on defense, and called the perfect game to destroy the Wolverines.

How is that possible? How did the staff that spent the year dancing around near losses on talent alone, getting outschemed at every turn, decimate one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Don Brown? Well, as much as both fan bases hate to admit it, Ohio State and Michigan are very similar, and not just in the culture of the fan bases.

Ohio State and Michigan run, essentially, the same defense. Don Brown, like Greg Schiano, loves cover one, heavy man coverage, blitzing, and trusting his talent to make plays. They depends on their front seven getting pressure, while letting what should be four future NFLers in the backfield shut down receivers. The only real difference between the two defenses this year is that Brown’s scheme is a bit less all or nothing, and Michigan’s defense is coached better, or at least they were, for 11 games.

Because of that familiarity, and because Urban Meyer and his whole staff have watched teams gash Ohio State’s defense all season, they had something to work off of. They’ve seen Nebraska and Minnesota dink-and-dunk their way down the field. They’ve seen Maryland run for a billion yards thanks to pretty simple motions. They’ve seen Penn State abuse the middle of the defense by, well, attacking the middle of the defense. Ohio State knew how to beat Michigan’s defense because they are Michigan’s defense, just a lesser version of it this year.

To say that Ohio State’s offense simply “beat” Michigan’s defense may not be fair. Ohio State’s offense picked Michigan’s defense apart as meticulously as any offense has picked a Michigan defense apart since at least the turn of the century. Ohio State put Michigan on freshman mode, set all their defensive sliders to zero, and committed a war crime for 60 straight minutes.

Because of how thoroughly Ohio State’s dismantled Michigan, we have a lot to talk about this week. For the sake of organization, and because Ohio State did different things well in each half, I’m splitting this film study into the two halves. Let’s watch some tape.

First half

We’ll start with the first touchdown of the game, because it encompasses the whole strategy of the game pretty well. First, let’s talk scheme. Ohio State rode this mesh concept all game long, because mesh is just about the best way to beat a man coverage defense. It develops quickly, allowing a quarterback to throw the ball within just a second or two, and if the coverage isn’t perfect, you’ll get at least four yards out of it almost every time. This play here was just a basic variation that mesh concept. Luke Farrell and KJ Hill are essentially just decoys going down the field (Hill actually gets away with a pick here) to clear the middle of the field for Chris Olave running a drag and Parris Campbell on a slant. This play is designed to go to Olave the whole time, and they run it perfectly.

Now, let’s talk about personnel. Ohio State knew they were going to attack Michigan underneath and across the middle all game. What do you need to do that? Speed. That’s why Chris Olave is getting the ball here. He’s a smooth route runner, and one of the fastest players on the team, making him perfect for drag routes like this one. The other three receivers clear room well, Ohio State leaves J.K. Dobbins in to help the line give Haskins just enough time, and Michigan never has a chance to catch Olave.

Meet the new rushing attack, same as the old rushing attack. While the passing game was awesome, and devastating in the first half (and all game), the running game really didn’t get going until late in the game. Luckily Ohio State didn’t really need it, because this Dwayne Haskins option keeper was just about the best run of the half. I don’t love using Haskins as a runner, but it seems like that’s just what Ohio State is going to do, and it’s working fine for now, so I can’t complain too much.

Back to the passing game, I want to talk about two plays that go hand in hand. Both of these plays are more individual effort than anything, and I want to give credit to the players responsible, because both were huge plays. The first comes via Terry McLaurin:

And the second via Parris Campbell:

These plays are both fine when it comes to design and execution, but that’s not what makes them happen, and I think they both encapsulate perhaps the one thing that I’ve truly enjoyed all season long with this team. This receiver group absolutely never quits. Pretty much every receiver on this team that sees significant time has had a rough game or two, sure, but every single one of them have played their hearts out all year. Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor, Chris Olave and C.J. Saunders are the backbone of this offense. They’re not the most talented receiver group in the country, but they block, they fight for every yard, and they’ve been just excellent all year.

Back to scheme analysis, this was more of the same for the Buckeye offense. After a couple stagnant drives that saw a little too much horizontal passing a forced running, Ohio State went back to what was working and hit Hill on another mesh concept. Just like earlier with Olave, Hill turns on the jets and Michigan has no chance, as he goes for a big gain.

Just a few plays later, Ohio State strikes across the middle again, this time down the field, for Chris Olave’s second touchdown of the game. This concept isn’t super complicated, and it’s essentially a spread out version of what Ohio State did all day. The trips right bubble screen decoy paired with play action gets Michigan’s linebackers to bite just enough, giving Terry McLaurin and Chris Olave one on one matchups on an entire half of the field, with just a safety over top to worry about. McLaurin in on a go route straight at the safety, which takes both him and McLaurin’s corner out of the play. Olave wins that one-on-one every time, and glides for an easy score on a perfect throw and route. Beautiful play.

Speaking of perfectly designed touchdown passes, Michigan got totally torched here. This was one of the few times they played what seemed to primarily be a zone (with man on the outsides), and it absolutely did not work. Binjimen Victor’s cross brings in one safety, while the go route on the other side freezes the other safety so perfectly that Johnnie Dixon goes completely unnoticed. That’s the fear with a zone-man combo. The safeties don’t trust their corners (the corners are actually fine here) and they abandon their responsibilities, creating a blown play and the easy play.

That touchdown pass, along with the one before it, were both a bit surprising, because in case you didn’t notice, Dwayne Haskins missed on several deep balls in this game, as he has over the past few games. I’m not sure if he just doesn’t handle the cold well, but it feels like he’s just off on deep passes. He wasn’t there, obviously, and it created a big play for Ohio State.

While we’re talking about downfield passing, real quick, I want to highlight this pass. This is a dime. Dwayne Haskins put this throw right on the money, and I really think that if it wasn’t for the interference, Johnnie Dixon pulls it in. The good news for Ohio State is that they did get the 15 yards, and just a play later, Haskins showed off his awesome, albeit inconsistent touch on this pass to Demario McCall.

This is, on top of being a beautiful throw, yet another variation of the mesh. Because Ohio State killed them across the middle all half, Michigan’s defense is super anxious to pursue inside when they see the drag routes, and that half a step of pause from his corner is all Demario McCall needs to get open.

I don’t want to say this is all scheme though. Ultimately, Demario McCall is really fast, his defender isn’t as fast, and sometimes that’s what football comes down to. This probably works even without a half of mesh-centric pain for the Wolverines, because Demario McCall is a weapon.

Second half

As many expected, Michigan made some adjustments at halftime, and while they didn’t completely solve the Ohio State offense, they slowed it down for at least a little while by dropping linebackers into a zone to take away the mesh and forcing Ohio State to either run or throw downfield. Ohio State couldn’t for much of the third quarter, so the only scoring came from Chris Olave’s punt block. That is, however, until Ohio State inverted what they were doing in the first half.

Words really can’t do justice to how perfect this play call is. Ohio State comes out in a similar look to what they showed all of the first half, and for the first two seconds or so, it’s obviously the same mesh Ohio State has been running all game. Every defender reads that, and tries to jump it to either get an interception or cause an incompletion. Then, just as Terry McLaurin runs into the mass of defenders, KJ Hill stops on a dime and cuts back outside.

Oh, and remember that Demario McCall wheel route? Michigan is thinking about that here, and it takes the safety completely out of the play. This clears up a wide open path for KJ Hill down the field as he runs free for about 20 yards before being tracked down.

This level of preparation, attention to detail, and reversal of expectations is what I’ve wanted to see from this offense all season long. This is what elite offensive play calling looks like. This is elite play design and game management. This is what Ohio State should be doing in every game. Find a weakness in a defense, attack it, and when they over adjust, flip it and break them. Ohio State is talented enough to do this to every team they play.

Remember what I said earlier about Demario McCall and speed? Here’s another one. Michigan’s defense is completely gassed at this point, and Parris Campbell is just faster than anyone Michigan can put out on the field. Dixon and Rashod Berry both have great blocks, and the threat of a hand off freezes the linebackers (again, this was set up all day long), and that’s all Parris needs.

That was pretty much the story of the fourth quarter. Michigan’s defense had fully unfurled, and Ohio State was getting whatever it wanted, both on the ground and in the air. That’s what happens when a more talented team takes advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. That’s what should’ve been happening with this Ohio State team all year long. Outsmart them for three quarters, outrun them for one, win by almost 30 against the No. 4 team in the country.

Now, can Ohio State keep this whole “being prepared for an opponent” thing going? I don’t know. I’m not confident enough in this staff to say that. However, this game was as encouraging as it could’ve possibly been. Ohio State was the better team, and they were the smarter team (they would’ve won by even more if not for sloppy penalties and mistakes). That’s what we’ve been calling for all year. Ohio State has the talent, they just need the coaching to unlock their potential. For one game, at least, we saw what that looks like, and I’ll say, it looked pretty damn good.

Film study will be back later this week for an in-depth look at Northwestern, so stay tuned.