I’ve been baffled by the Ohio State Buckeyes all season long. From poor defensive (and offensive, to a lesser extent) personnel decisions, overly aggressive blitzing, extremely conservative offensive play-calling in big games, and a complete lack of willingness to adapt to the talent on either side of the ball, there was plenty to be frustrated over with the 2018-19 Buckeyes.
The thing that was so baffling all year, however, wasn’t all of the bad. The bad was there, sure, in almost every game, but the baffling thing was how frequently it was paired with these untouchable highs. Think about the Michigan game, the fourth quarter of the Penn State game, the second half of the TCU game, and now, the first half of the Rose Bowl win over the Washington Huskies. All of those felt like Ohio State finally realizing its immense potential and the coaching staff just getting the hell out of the way.
Unfortunately, none of them actually were that. Just like they did all season long, Ohio State came back to earth after its excellent first half against Washington, and turned a 28-3 beatdown into a 28-23 slog fest. Ryan Day, or Urban Meyer, or whomever was calling the offense saw all of the success they had with motion, and with play-action in the first half, and cut it out of the playbook in the second half. Ohio State finally let their stars run rampant in the first half, called them into the locker room, and broke their legs. A team full of five stars, future pros, and the best quarterback in school history were held back for one last time in a season filled with self-imposed road blocks.
It’s easy to say all of that when just looking at stats. Ohio State was noticeably worse in the second half in pretty much all measurements, including their whopping 15 yards in the fourth quarter. It’s even easier to say it when you watch the game again, and look at the plays being called, and how they were being executed. Let’s talk about those differences.
Ohio State attacked Washington’s zone heavy defense almost immediately as the game opened, taking just one poor opening drive to pick up on what Washington was doing and picking it apart on the second drive.
A sizable chunk of Ohio State’s yards on this first touchdown drive came from what was essentially the same concept on three different plays, all shown in this video. The first is a bit different from the latter two, as it isn’t a counter concept with a veer fake for Haskins but rather just a basic inside zone run, with Mike Weber to the right of Dwayne Haskins. Haskins reads the linebacker rather than the end because Rashod Berry is on the line to block that end. He hands it off, and because Ohio State isolated that linebacker and brought in a tight end, they have a numbers advantage and Weber is able to pick up a solid gain early in the drive.
On the second run, a little bit later, Ohio State twists this concept slightly, moving Weber to the left of Haskins and having him run a counter into that same gap they attacked earlier. This time, Haskins isn’t making a read, this is a handoff the whole way, but Ohio State is still isolating the defensive end on a delay to make the defense think it’s another inside zone rather than a counter. Malcolm Pridgeon pulls and blows open a hole for Weber, who picks up yet another large gain thanks to a numbers advantage that Ohio State gained from misdirection and tight end help.
The last play twists that concept a little bit more, with Berry still offset on the line, Weber still on the right, and Pridgeon still pulling. Haskins still fakes to the right to freeze the safety over the top. However, Weber isn’t cutting back this time, and the line isn’t trying to open up a hole between the center and right guard. Everyone (including Berry) but Malcolm Pridgeon blocks down to completely seal off the line. Pridgeon pulls out to clear a path in the second level (Berry was also responsible for second level blocking here). Those second level blocks, and Haskins fake to the outside paired with the wash from the rest of the line creates a wide open runway for Weber and he runs free for about 15 yards with his security detail (Pridgeon).
This is how you create numbers advantages when your quarterback can’t run. This is what Ohio State needed to be doing all year. Take a fairly basic concept, add wrinkles to it, and only run when you have a numbers advantage. Create chaos for the defense and make it easy for the line. This is what good play calling and design looks like. This is what Ryan Day needs to be doing every game as the head coach.
Just a few plays later, Ohio State, facing a third and long, runs a play I’m not sure I’ve seen from them all season long, which makes me think it could’ve been Haskins’ call at the line. Out of a five wide look, Haskins reads man, with just five men in the box, and motions Demario McCall into the the backfield. Because Washington was in man, the player responsible for McCall follows him to the right side, leaving the left side of the Washington defense covered entirely by one defensive end, a safety about 15 yards off the ball, and a corner playing man on Bin Victor.
The line leaves the weakside end unblocked, seals off the rest of the line and both linebackers on the right side, and gives two options for McCall to either bounce inside or outside of the tackle. He jumps it outside (inside honestly may have been a better choice but it still worked) and picks up nine easy yards with his speed and quickness.
There isn’t a player on this team more suited to run in this situation, and McCall proved it here. I’ve been pushing for him to play more running back for much of this season, and I think in a Ryan Day offense, McCall should get at least a third of the carries next season. His vision still needs some work, but he’s too fast, and too electric to keep off the field. He’s the perfect back for a wide open, air raid inspired offense.
On the following fourth and one, Ohio State calls maybe my favorite play of the whole game. The Buckeyes come out in a pistol, with both Luke Farrell and Rashod Berry lined up on the playside to counter Washington’s seven men in and around the box. However, Ohio State doesn’t want even numbers, they want an advantage, so they isolate the corner out on the left, motion Chris Olave in, and use him as a proxy for the quarterback keep threat. The line blocks down and seals off the six defenders in the box, Olave freezes the corner for just a second, and Mike Weber slips right past his inside shoulder for a big gain. Beautiful. Short yardage situations don’t have to be bully ball, and Ryan Day recognized that here.
A few plays later, Ohio State capped this beautiful drive with an equally beautiful touchdown pass. They set up in that same look as they did three prior times, with Weber to the side of Haskins and Rashod Berry offset on the line. Washington reads it preplay, and brings a safety (#11) on a blitz, while faking another with a corner (#5) before dropping him into a zone. Haskins picks up the blitz, looks off the other high safety, and drops in a touchdown pass to the wide open Parris Campbell right over top of the blitzer, into the spot he just vacated.
The other first half drives I want to focus on are the last two before halftime, that got started in large part thanks to this run by Mike Weber. Ohio State lines up in the pistol again (I think this is going to be a common thing under Day), and uses Luke Farrell as a sixth blocker to match the six in the box for Washington. They isolate and read the outside linebacker, creating a six on five advantage. Both Pridgeon and Farrell pull to knock out the weakside defenders, while the Davis and Prince seal and Jordan and Alabi push the playside defenders enough to open up a hole for Weber. It doesn’t go for huge yardage, but Ohio State once again gives itself a numbers advantage with simple motion, pull, and read concepts.
A little later in the drive, Ohio State finds more success running up the middle, as JK Dobbins picks up about ten yards on another basic inside zone read concept. The line isolates the linebacker (#25) to get even numbers on the six man box, washes the line down and gets in the way of the interior linebacker, creating a nice hole for Dobbins to get an easy first down. Unfortunately Ohio State couldn’t find the endzone on this drive, but they did shortly after.
This two play sequence might be the best passing sequence Ohio State had all game. Dwayne Haskins attacks the super conservative cover four across the middle on the quick hit to Victor underneath for a first down on the first play. Immediately after, Ohio State hurries to the line, send Victor underneath and Campbell to the corner again. This time, the defense over pursues to cover Victor underneath, and Campbell is wide open for the corner route and a first down.
The great play calling didn’t stop in the red zone. Ohio State goes five wide here to spread out the Washington defense, and Dwayne Haskins make a quick read and throw to hit the only-slightly-open Farrell for what was a very nearly a touchdown.
To follow that up, Ohio State dials up a play close to my heart: play action tight end slip into the flat on the goal line. The Buckeyes come out with a power look, three tight ends, and run splits on the line. Haskins fakes a keep up the middle to pull the defense in for just long enough that Rashod Berry can sneak into the flat for an easy touchdown. Ohio State was killed with this countless times this year, and it was great to see them turn it on someone else to end the half.
The second half actually started pretty well for Ohio State. The Buckeyes forced Washington to punt, and immediately scored a touchdown to go up 28-3, as it looked like they were about to run away with the game.
That quick touchdown was entirely thanks to these two plays. The first, a bomb to KJ Hill, was just the result of a good matchup for Ohio State. KJ Hill running a seam with no high safety covered by a linebacker is going to be a big gain every time, and Dwayne Haskins makes a great throw for the nice play.
Then, Ohio State goes back to that counter concept from the first half, the line gets good push, and JK Dobbins scores an easy touchdown. This drive was pretty much the last “good” drive of the day for the Buckeyes. They got extremely conservative in the last two quarters, went away from the play action and motion concepts that worked so well in the first half, and failed to adapt to Washington’s shift towards a more aggressive, blitz and man heavy defensive look.
To spare you from watching all of the three and outs, I’ll focus on just this one, because it was pretty representative of the whole half for the Buckeyes. First down, Ohio State runs without a numbers advantage, and uses no motion or isolation to create that advantage. Second down, the line doesn’t identify the blitz, and Dwayne Haskins is forced to throw before he can read the field. Third down, the line once again misses a delayed blitz, and Dwayne Haskins throws underneath on a medium on a defense with four players right on the first down line. Not good. Three uninspired play calls, and a quick punt.
That was the whole fourth quarter. Ohio State getting the ball, screwing around for three plays, and punting. They were completely lost in the last quarter and it very nearly came back to bite them.
The only real remedy for the second half woes is simply “coach better.” Ohio State can’t afford to take their foot off the gas when they think they have a win in the bag. They have to keep the creativity going, they have to adapt to what the defense is showing them, and continue to take what they’re given.
Every defense has a weakness, no matter what its doing. Ohio State identified the weakness and destroyed it in the first half. In the second, they were lost, and unwilling to move off of concepts that just wouldn’t work against the new looks Washington was running. Ryan Day is billed as a brilliant offense mind, and as he shifts into the head coaching spot, he needs to prove it in 2019 and beyond with better second half adjustments, and more aggressiveness, even with a lead. The days of Tresselball in Columbus need to be behind us.