Taking away both positives and negatives from a season-opening victory is difficult for any team. Aside from the widely-held fear in sports that resting on laurels leads to complacency, it’s just not easy, nor wise, to make sweeping conclusions about anything based on small sets of data. There are at least eleven games left on Ohio State’s schedule, and the season hasn’t even advanced beyond the out-of-conference stage yet.
However, some elements of Ohio State’s performance against Florida Atlantic this past weekend require addressing, because while this victory was by no means a fluke, it certainly shouldn’t give a confidence boost to any player not named Justin Fields. Ohio State put together a 34 minute stretch of scoreless offense, and I am completely convinced that FAU’s defense playing in laughably bizarre alignments for the first ten minutes had more to do with Ohio State’s offensive blitzkrieg than anything else.
The Owls surrendered four touchdowns in the opening nine minutes of the game, which means that they were on pace to give up over 180 points for the entire contest. A chasm of that size between two FBS teams can only exist when one of the teams is actively working against themselves to win. The first nine minutes of FAU’s season would qualify exactly as that.
Look no further than the Owls’ alignment on Justin Fields’ opening touchdown:
“Counting the box” is one of the most important pre-snap reads an offense makes, as mismatches in the box often determine the success or failure of most plays that operate near the line of scrimmage. Depending on the number and type of personnel lined up on either side, the box often gives clues as to which plays the defense is anticipating. Enlightened football minds — quarterback, coordinator, or play-caller — will use this on-the-fly information to make adjustments and audibles that catch defenses off guard and set up massive gains.
One of the easiest concepts of reading the box effectively is just reading the numbers 5-8. Five men in the box means there are six other defensive players lined up elsewhere on the field, which indicates the defense is likely anticipating a pass. Conversely, teams will often “stack the box” with an eight man alignment when attempting to narrow a talented rushing attack’s opportunities to break off big plays. Six and seven man alignments are rarely as transparent — also why they’re far more common — but can still drop hints regarding what the defense is thinking. In many cases, figuring out whether or not to run the ball on a given play is as simple as accounting for how many more or less players the offense has lined up in the box than the defense.
Less than two minutes into the game, before Ohio State had even crossed the 50-yard line for the first time this season, the Owls marched out a 3-3 box alignment and promptly got bulldozed. Granted, it executes more like a 3-4 because the Sam linebacker is still on the field, but he’s lined up with a slot receiver for what I can only imagine was the purpose of masking the coverage (the safety aligns with them as well). Conversely, the Will linebacker is a bit out of his comfort zone, as all of Ohio State’s receivers are lined up on the opposite side, which means that he has no support from his secondary on the edge whatsoever.
So lets recap: FAU has six men in the box, a linebacker that has already aligned himself out of the play, and the only other available linebacker is preoccupied with containing an area of the field he’s rarely left alone on. Ohio State has five linemen and a tight end positioned in the box. With the strong-side defensive end doomed to account for the running back, this play was a brilliant read-option fake away from an unscathed quarterback rushing touchdown.
And that’s exactly what happened:
These funky alignments from Florida Atlantic were all too common in the opening minutes of the game. Here’s another bizarre box the Owls set up in the first quarter:
There are three Ohio State players lined up pre-snap to the left of the ball, and only one of them is a skill player. Yet, FAU has five of their players — nearly half of their defense — lined up away from the strong side, where Ohio State has a tight end positioned as well as two receivers. A strong-side run in this alignment provides Ohio State with a 6v5 blocking advantage. I understand the Owls wanted to take away the side of the field that has more space to operate, but focusing on that as opposed to adjusting to what was in front of them ultimately led to J.K. Dobbins’ best run of the day:
The Owl defense’s trip to the Twilight Zone mercifully (for them) concluded just past the eight minute mark of the first quarter, but it went out with a bang. Here is the pre-snap alignment for both teams prior to the touchdown pass to Chris Olave:
Ohio State has two additional personnel tagged onto the strong side of their line, but FAU opts to keep five of their players five-or-more yards away from the line of scrimmage. This was likely a direct response to the Owls getting burned on downfield passing touchdowns two drives in a row — so, it’s understandable.
However, backing off to this extent with this many players requires them to sell out on their assignments when stopping interior runs. Fields would have been well within his right to check into a running play here, but he sticks with the play-action pass, and recent history forces the defense to bite hard on the fake. One double-move from Olave later, and the Buckeyes are officially on pace for over 100 points:
But to be fair, Ohio State’s offense did generate some reasons for enthusiasm that didn’t necessarily have to do with half of Florida Atlantic’s defense lining up in the wrong zip code. The Owls actually had a pretty good alignment on what proved to be Fields’ first touchdown pass as a Buckeye, but the design of the play call in this situation was simply too perfect:
This is another case in which it looks like OSU has a 7v6 blocking advantage in the box, but the Owls’ defensive back is reasonably positioned to account for an attack on the far edge, so it’s forgivable.
What ultimately rips the defense in half here is that two of FAU’s players get their backs turned around trying to play zone; Olave’s streak draws in the middle safety since the other DB has already cheated over to the sideline, and Luke Farrell gets a great release off of the line that completely turns the linebacker that is shadowing him around.
The linebacker can’t see that Ruckert is about to make an inside cut underneath him to the back middle, and Ruckert ends up roughly ten yards away from the nearest tackler as he heads into the end zone:
This play is one that tears a hole in almost any zone scheme when executed to perfection, and it shows how dangerous teams with dynamic tight ends can be. The play action from a seven-man front kept honest all defenders that were close to the line, the receivers pulled away over half of the downfield defensive attention, and Farrell’s release on the decoy route gave the remaining two defenders an impossible coverage assignment.
We saw great pass design and play-calling like this during Ryan Day’s three-game coaching stint last year, and I would expect that kind of innovation to breed more success as the current season unfolds.
But otherwise, Saturday’s opening minutes were really nothing more than a masterclass in how not to execute or set up a defense. Lane Kiffin should be mocked mercilessly for going down a full four scores at such breakneck speed, but he also deserves credit for making adjustments to completely close off Ohio State’s offensive floodgates for the next ~30 minutes of play. Kudos to Kiffin for learning how to count the numbers five through eight after only nine minutes of watching his team get steamrolled on national television.
As for Ohio State and the fans, when it comes to looking back on this game, don’t get used to touchdowns that arise from two starters on defense blowing their respective coverage at the same time: