When does a college football team deserve universal acclaim?
Not merely praise from its own fans or kudos from select analysts, but absolutely undisputed applause for an incredible and — frankly — unexpected effort?
These opportunities are few and far between throughout a season, but the team performance on the ground that went towards Ohio State’s 34-10 victory against Michigan State this past weekend certainly qualifies.
The Buckeyes posted a team rushing total of 323 yards on Saturday, and all three of their ball carriers averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry on at least 11 attempts each. On a night where only one Ohio State receiver managed to catch more than three passes, the running attack stepped up to deliver what amounted to the finest team rushing performance any college football team has had all season.
That’s not a far-fetched take given the season Michigan State’s defense was having coming into Columbus on Saturday night. Through five games, the Spartans had surrendered only 279 rushing yards across five games, for an average of 55.8 yards per game. Had Michigan State had a BYE this past weekend, that would have ranked as the fifth best mark for any team in college football this season. Moreover, their allowing of only 1.86 yards per carry would have ranked as fourth best in the FBS, and nearly a half yard less than the next team behind them at 2.32 ypc (Wyoming).
When a team takes a top five defense and rams a football down their throat, it’s hard not to stare in awe and appreciation of what’s happening on the field. Ohio State exceeded Michigan State’s rushing yards-allowed total for the entire season by 54 yards, and J.K. Dobbins eclipsed Sparty’s rushing yards-allowed per game average in just one play.
So how did the Buckeyes do it? How did Ohio State flat-out overwhelm one of college football’s best defenses this season by attacking its greatest strength?
If you’ve been reading my previous film studies this season (thanks!), you’re probably well aware at this point that Ryan Day has gone to great lengths to keep the Buckeyes’ hybrid running style intact, i.e. a balance of zone reads and power schemes. This approach is great for developing offensive players that can adapt to any system at the next level, but one of the weaknesses of power concepts is that the defense can often follow pulling blockers with their eyes to get a sense of where a play is designed to go. Smart, swift, and reactive linebackers can use this knowledge at the beginning of a play to shut down a running back before they can do any serious damage from following their blockers out to the edge.
Conversely, zone blocking is much harder to read, but also much harder to execute. Offensive lineman absolutely have to know their pre-snap assignments for the play to function properly, and these assignments can shift after the snap depending on which defenders flood into certain areas of the field for a given play. The trade-off is that proper execution frequently ends with all relevant defensive linemen accounted for, which allows select players to make blocks at the next level that spring massive gains. However, even a single misstep from one blocker along the line can spell doom for an offense on any given play.
Michigan State’s aggressive shallow zone defense frustrated Ohio State for much of the opening stages of the game, and it wasn’t until the second quarter when the Buckeyes forced the Spartans to back off a bit that things started opening up. Power schemes would be ineffective against the speed and anticipation of Michigan State’s front seven, and thus Ryan Day made a firm commitment to using zone blocking to get the run game on track and give the Ohio State offense a base to build from.
Their first solid gain on the ground proved to be an important one. After converting a third and long on the previous snap via a pass to K.J. Hill, the Buckeyes ran an inside zone hand-off on 1st and 10 with the Spartans electing to only put six defenders in the box:
With both middle linebackers tracking the tight end and running back, the tight end’s assignment opposite from the direction of the play crosses the paths of Sparty’s defenders and gives Ohio State a moment of confusion to capitalize. All of Ohio State’s offensive linemen lock up their match-ups at the line of scrimmage, and Austin Mack does a terrific job of working back inside to pick up the safety honing in on Dobbins. With merely a corner left out in no man’s land to make the tackle, Dobbins easily discards him and rumbles to a fourteen yard gain.
That first-down gash forced Michigan State into a more compressed look on the next snap, and the next play would be Binjimen Victor’s 60-yard touchdown to kick-start the scoring for Ohio State.
Next, let’s take a look at Dobbins’ best play of the night, his 67-yard touchdown run:
Herbie does an excellent job of showcasing the schematics this play, but what stands out the most to me here is how flawless execution of a zone run can punish even the slightest mistakes by an otherwise disciplined defense. Michigan State’s linebackers are just ever-so out of alignment, given the position of the ball on the left hash and where Dobbins is poised to run with the ball should he receive the snap. Granted, the weak-side defensive end is preoccupied with reading Justin Fields in the event of a zone option, but the middle linebackers are too far inside when considering all the space available on the far area of the field.
If the Mike linebacker for Michigan State is lined up closer to the center of the field, it changes the zone assignments of Ohio State’s strong side blockers drastically. However, that’s not what happens, and Josh Myers is able to block the Mike out of the play before Fields can even finish handing the ball off. One bad angle from the lone safety later, and Dobbins has suddenly blown this game wide-open for the Buckeyes.
From then on, the smash-mouth zone runs combined with an up-tempo pace would eventually wear down the stamina of the Spartan defense. Here’s a critical play from the next drive on a 3rd down and short that proved instrumental in getting Ohio State an additional three points before the half:
With Michigan State scrambling to get into position before the snap, poor short-yardage situational alignment allows Myers and Thayer Munford to immediately look for blocks at the next level. Meanwhile, the guards neutralize the defensive linemen in front of them, and Jeremy Ruckert seals off the linebacker on the edge. It’s an easy conversion for an affluent offense to make, but this crucial play allowed the Buckeyes to stop the clock on the doorstep of enemy territory while retaining all three timeouts. In the process, they also kept the defense both honest and tired before they had the opportunity to recover in the locker room at half.
The third quarter proved to be a slog for both teams, but that was mostly due to Fields’ interception coupled with Michigan State’s domination of time of possession (the Buckeyes had the ball for barely over five minutes). Ryan Day also opted to spell Dobbins for a series with Master Teague III, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the rushing attack looked refreshed and ready to put the game away. A minute and a half into the final quarter of play, Dobbins ripped off his second largest carry of the evening:
Though the entire offensive line meets up with their assignments beautifully on this zone run, this play breaks off big simply because of Thayer Munford’s awareness and a remarkable read from J.K. Dobbins. You may notice that the Spartan linebackers have altered their alignment relative to the 67-yard touchdown they gave up in the previous half. Now much closer to the center of the field, they are correctly anticipating an inside hand-off to Dobbins.
Munford — knowing that the weak side defensive end is going to read Fields — gives the man in front of him a dismissive chip before going to the next level and picking up the Will linebacker. When Dobbins makes an unexpected cut back to the left, the Mike and Sam linebackers suddenly find themselves out of position, and Munford has already swallowed up the only remaining member of the front seven that can make a play on the ball carrier. Dobbins punishes a tackler in the secondary yet again, and Ohio State suddenly finds themselves with another red zone opportunity already up three scores.
After Fields ran in the Buckeyes’ final touchdown of the evening to cap off that drive, it was pretty much the Master Teague garbage time show from then on out. Of Teague’s 90 rushing yards on the evening, 79 of them came during the final nine minutes of the game with Ohio State already up 24 points, and 51 of those yards happened in the final two minutes of the contest. Still, the offensive line consistently held their own when the defense gave them even numbers to block against, as evidenced by Teague’s 41 yard scamper towards the end of the game that featured a two tight end set versus a 4-3 front:
It is nothing short of endlessly laudable that Ohio State’s offense successfully brought about a commanding victory by emphasizing an attack on their opponent’s greatest strength as a team. That is something that should make Ryan Day very proud heading into the Buckeyes’ BYE week, but it’s also something that should make Ohio State and their fans extremely confident heading into later-season match ups. While the Spartans were — and will likely remain — a top defensive team in their own right, Penn State and Wisconsin currently boast two of the top three rushing defenses in college football through five games this season. Fortunately, the Buckeyes will have over a month to prepare for each of those teams, and Saturday’s dominant showing proved that regardless of the opponent’s skill level, Ohio State can and will run the football over anybody and everybody in their path.