The Ohio State Buckeyes knocked off the Nebraska Cornhuskers 26-17 in another game that was more stressful than it needed to be in Lincoln. There was a record-setting performance by Jaxon Smith-Njigba and the defense put on a solid showing outside of two plays. Issues remain though for an Ohio State team with lofty goals, and the Buckeye faithful’s expectations make every mistake seem amplified. Last week against Penn State there was a lot to clean up, and in a tough road environment, Ohio State did not fix those issues.
Offensively, Ryan Day has not been at his best as a play-caller, and this has been a significant issue in five out of nine games this season. The inconsistencies and lack of commitment to the run game are two of the main proponents to the failures of the offense. On top of that, Day has lacked creativity in key spots, relying on their “bread-and-butter” plays — inside zone, mesh, and shallow concepts — which allows teams to key in on certain looks in certain situations. If the Buckeyes want to get back to being an elite offense, they need to focus on creativity, establishing the run, and then execution.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was impressive for all but two plays. This week, we’re going to look at what went wrong on the splash plays Nebraska was able to hit, and see how the Buckeyes can avoid those in the future. The pass rush is alive and the defensive ends probably had their best showing. The corners were once again elite and there wasn’t much to complain about with the linebackers until late. Ohio State has some issues against the RPO game, but teams will never be 100 percent successful stopping that.
Before we get started, Ohio State did hand Nebraska their worst loss of the season, and outside of Georgia there wasn’t a team that came away from Saturday happy about their performance. Now, let’s take a look at the failures, so maybe next week they won’t occur.
The Short Yardage Run Back at it Again
The Buckeyes have struggled on third down the last two weeks and in short yardage situations for a significant portion of this season. As a friend of mine says, “It’s not about where you’re at, it’s about where you want to be,” and the Buckeyes are not at the level they want to be at. On third down, the Buckeyes were just 9-of-19 in converting, and this will not cut it against great teams. These numbers get worse once the Buckeyes get into the redzone. Not being able to consistently pick up third-and-short situations has been the Buckeyes’ kryptonite, and will need to be a huge point of focus as the season approaches its end.
In the first play we’re going to review, the Buckeyes are in one of these vaunted 3rd-and-short situations. After already failing a few times in this scenario earlier in the game, the Buckeyes go away from their typical inside or split-zone run game and call a stretch play to gain the three yards.
Ohio State lines up in a tight end trips set to the short side of the field. The Buckeyes should be able to pick this up given the talent in the backfield and on the offensive line. The play is “stretch,” which is an outside run where the OL uses reach blocks to create cutbacks or running lanes outside. For a defense to defend this play, they need to get immediate penetration through the OL, so the offense can’t create running lanes for the running back.
Paris Johnson Jr, Luke Wypler, and Dawand Jones on the right side of the line fail to impede the process of any of the defenders, and this makes the play a failure. The interior run blocking has been a major issue, and the Buckeyes will need to play much more physically at the point of attack in the run game. Too often plays are blown up to the point Treveyon Henderson does not have a chance to make a play. Three yards should never be a question with the Buckeyes.
At the end of the day, I’m happy they did something new in this situation and did not commit a penalty, but execution wise they need to be a lot better.
Red Zone and C.J Stroud Decision Making
C.J. Stroud is a quarterback and his job is to throw the football, which is weirdly an unpopular take in these parts. I understand the angst with the fanbase, but the thing is, Stroud is right. His job is to throw the football to playmakers. His second job is to make sure that he does not turn the ball over and that he keeps the chains moving.
Stroud has been reluctant to run the football, and oftentimes to the complaints of the fan base does not even consider it. Now I’m torn. When he is able to deliver throws in tight windows on the move it negates his need to run, but when he’s struggling to move the sticks or there is not a play, he needs to be able to pick up those three to four easy yards. The next clip we’re going to look at embodies every complaint fans have for the quarterback, but once again fans are complaining for the wrong reasons.
As a passer Stroud has excelled against the weaker competition on the schedule since his return from the A.C. joint injury, and has been able to put to bed the questions on if he should be the starter or not. Now, Ohio State fans have been clamoring for him to use his legs to get a couple of yards here and there, but for years quarterback coaching has aimed at quarterbacks keeping their eyes down the field and making a play with their arm.
On this play, Ohio State was driving down the field and was deep in Husker territory. Ryan Day called a pass play on 1st-and-10, as the Buckeyes ran a traditional “play-action bootleg flood.” A flood concept has the inside receiver run a short out, the middle receiver runs a 10 yard out, and the outside receiver runs a go route to clear out the side. The boot action is used to get the quarterback an easy throw on the run and to move the pocket. Nebraska runs “Cover-3” and the corner goes vertical with Julian Fleming. The linebacker is responsible for the seam-curl-flat (SCF) zone, and is able to mirror Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s route. The defensive end for Nebraska is under the short out to Cade Stover with linebacker help behind him.
Nebraska covers this play exceptionally well, and the DE for Nebraska makes Stroud question if the run is there, leading to him forcing a throw. Stroud could have tested the waters running and gained a couple of yards, but the real issue is the decision he makes when there are two better options. Stroud should have thrown this ball away and lived to see another down (or ran to the sideline and picked up as much as he could with his legs). In the red zone, it comes down to making good decisions.
Defensively, there should be no complaints in this game outside of the two plays we’re going to look at. Ohio State’s defense is hard to throw against and even harder to run against. Nebraska was able to take advantage of a few things Penn State did, but if it takes RPOs and great protection to even get started moving the ball, the defense will be fine against anybody. The run defense should give Ohio State fans a lot of confidence, and overall the Buckeyes will continue to improve as they get deeper into the season, as they have improved in a new aspect every week.
Throughout the season, stacked and bunched receiver looks have given Ohio State’s man coverage a ton of issues. Nebraska drew up a one-high beater and the play attacked Ohio State’s defense to perfection.
Nebraska uses a hard play-action to hold the safety. This keeps Bryson Shaw in the box a split second longer. What makes this play work is how Nebraska’s receiver in the front of the stack runs an over route. This draws Shaw’s attention and brings him down away from the deep middle. The receiver off the ball in the stack takes a release up the field and away from the safety. This allows the action that clears the middle of the field to happen.
This was a great play design by Nebraska, and Shaw needs to be more disciplined in holding his coverage. Lathan Ransom has the receiver in man-to-man coverage and he loses his leverage. If he is able to maintain inside leverage, this play is null and void. These small mistakes in man coverage are often amplified because there is no help for defenders at times, especially when the safety takes himself out of the play entirely.
The Cornhuskers were not done yet with the big plays, and once again they were not going to go away without throwing a few haymakers. In this play, Ransom is once again in man coverage.
This next concept is a “four verts” concept with a lot of window dressing, but that is Scott Frost exemplified in a lot of ways. When I first watched this play, I thought it was a flood concept, and then I thought the concept was the same as the play above. The outside receiver for Nebraska runs a “go,” the inside receiver runs a deep over route, and the TE comes out of the backfield running a wheel route. The Buckeyes are once again in man coverage and Nebraska runs a hard play-action fake. This is a long developing play to get the receiver isolated across the field from all the action.
It looks like the purpose is the same — to distract the safety enough to get the receiver away from him and create a one-on-one match up late in coverage. This play works as Ransom is unable to keep up with the Nebraska receiver. Nebraska is in a max protection, so the back and the TE on the line of scrimmage stay in and protect. No one is able to get any pressure, leaving Martinez a clean pocket to throw from. Then the poor tackling occurs, and the Huskers get the ball to the one.
Ohio State has fixed a lot of issues on their defense by switching to zone coverage, and both of the big plays came in man coverage. This once again burned the Buckeyes, and will have to be looked at to see if man-coverage can really work with this group.
In this week’s bonus play, it is a “He’s Cooked,” and this was the only real explosive play of the game for Ohio State. Jaxon Smith-Njigba runs a spot route on 3rd-and-6, he gets the first down with the catch and sells his shoulders inside. This drill was called “Tunnel,” when we did this in practice, and the key is to give yourself an opportunity to get to the sideline. Smith-Njigba makes his move and the rest is in the jets. This was one of many in JSN’s record-setting day reception wise, and he was cooking the entire Nebraska secondary in this one.
(Special shoutout to Chris Olave for making not one, but two blocks to ensure his wingman gets into the end zone).
Ohio State was able to escape Lincoln with the win this week, and gave Nebraska its worst loss of the season. Despite this game being ugly, we are to the point of the season where the Buckeyes should be in survive and advance mode. They gave up a few big plays defensively, but overall they had a great performance and came up huge multiple times when the offense failed.
The offense worries me. After reviewing this game and seeing some of the issues, there was not just one issue this week that needed to be fixed. There were a lot of issues that came up at different times throughout the game — from Stroud’s decision making, to the offensive line turning into swiss cheese in the running game, or penalties leading to long third down situations. If Ohio State can play a disciplined game and not make as many mental mistakes, they should be able to get back to the level they were at.
This week they have the always upset-minded Purdue. The Boilermakers will be out in full force to play spoiler for another top-five team, and the Buckeyes will need to clean up the mistakes if they want to make it to their matchup with Michigan State without stumbling. WIth an extremely tough three-game stretch, these mistakes can’t keep happening if Ohio State wants to compete for a national title.