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Film Review: Ohio State offense struggles in red zone, defensive line dominates Iowa

The Ohio State Buckeyes beat Iowa 54-10 in a game where the offense left points on the field and the defense bullied an overmatched offense.

Iowa v Ohio State Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes won 54-10 over the Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa Hawkeyes in a game that could best be described as clunky, at least in the first half. Ohio State struggled offensively in the opening period, especially in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Despite the offensive struggles, the game never felt in doubt because the Buckeye defense added more fuel to the national narrative that Iowa’s offense is the worst in the country.

For the Buckeyes on offense, they never really got a consistent running game established. The balance that Ohio State strives for was stifled by an Iowa defense that ranks with the best in the country in limiting touchdowns in the red zone. Despite failing to capitalize by scoring touchdowns, Ohio State maintained its 100% red zone scoring percentage, but the inability to score touchdowns gives us a look at how defenses can attempt to limit Ohio State in the shortest part of the field.

Defensively, the game started and ended up front. Ohio State’s defense was able to control the line of scrimmage and force Iowa’s offense into six total turnovers. The secondary was never challenged — outside of a few plays made by Iowa tight end Sam Laporta — but made plays every time the ball was thrown to them. In a game dominated by the defensive line and defensive backs, Iowa was never able to do anything productive.

Looking at the game, Ohio State’s red zone struggles are fixable and the defense did exactly what they were supposed to do against Iowa’s offense.

Offensive Red Zone Struggles

Ohio State came into the game 100% in converting points in the red zone, they also left the matchup against Iowa still converting points in the shortest part of the field at a 100 percent clip. Despite maintaining perfection from a point conversion standpoint, Ohio State’s red zone performance left a lot to be desired.

The Buckeyes had six drives starting in Iowa’s territory starting at the 29, 27, 34, 32, 15, and 40. Only two out of six of those drives resulted in touchdowns for the Buckeyes which is not good enough. Doing some simple math, Ohio State left 16 points on the board. They figured it out, scoring on the final two drives, but the play-calling as well as the execution left a lot to be desired.

To get started here, my film preview for the week discussed Iowa’s defensive flow to the football. After finding success running the ball between the tackles and passing downfield, the Buckeyes tried something different on offense the following drive. They ran two unsuccessful plays leading to a 3rd-and-short situation. The ball gets snapped and Iowa wins the battle on the line of scrimmage eating blocks.

The flow of the backers forced Dawand Jones (No. 79) to take the inside backer instead of the outside backer he initially tracked towards. The interior penetration forces Miyan Williams (No.3) to take a deeper route than the play intends. By the backers flowing the person Jones was supposed to block is able to meet Williams in the backfield, and this also allows a backside defender to get back into the play and help. The outside run against a defense that fills in the run better than most in the country is a questionable decision, and this set the tone for the first half.

On the next play, Ohio State ends up in a 3rd-and-long just inside the 20-yard line. In the post-game press conference, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Iowa threw a lot more man-coverage at the Buckeyes than expected.

Now, in this case, the play was going to be a pass, but the man-coverage matches up really well against this Slot Fade concept. Against man-coverage the landmark and angles change for the receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba gets up field and Stroud leaves the ball inside.

Now the arguments about penalties can come into play, but this play concept tends to be a Cover-2 beater. Against the man-coverage this ball needs to be thrown deeper and further outside to give the receiver a chance. Now the play-call is not the problem here, but the execution could have been better.

The struggles continued in the first half for the Buckeyes. Iowa was bringing pressure from the second level at a much higher clip. This is something where relying on situational film can create advantages for an opponent. Ohio State had preconceived understandings of what the Hawkeyes liked to do in the red zone. Coming off the bye week, Iowa decided that it was going to throw the kitchen sink at Stroud instead of just playing their stiff red zone coverage.

Iowa showed it was going to bring seven, but they end up bringing six with one of the blitzers bailing into coverage bringing six in total. Stroud catches the snap and knows he only has six blockers for the six defenders.

Pressure slips through because Miyan Williams steps up into the middle to assist on the interior blitzer. This leaves the outside blitzing backer unaccounted for by the protection. Stroud is unable to step into his throw and the ball falls flat. Once again, this play could have worked, but the pressure was able to force a bad throw, which ends up just being a good play by the opposing defense.

In the last play — before Ryan Day decided running wasn’t the answer — Ohio State is in a 3rd-and-2 situation at the 5-yard line. Ohio State decides to go back to their inside run game, once again the play-call is a normal play-call; running the ball inside in a short-yardage situation. Despite the predictability, the offense should be able to gain two yards, but again the offensive line loses the initial push which allows Iowa’s backers to get into the backfield. Stroud being a running threat here could have opened up the inside run, but what he’s shown on film is a give all the way.

For the Buckeyes, despite the execution being at its lowest level of the season, they still never left the red zone without scoring points. In a way, these failures should aid the Buckeyes in the long run, giving them some tough film to look at for the first time since Week 1.

Ohio State was still effective, but the perfect execution we’ve become accustomed to was challenged. The Buckeyes didn’t execute and that was the biggest part of the issue.

Late Game Red Zone Success

When Ohio State did execute, it was a thing of beauty. Following the previous play, Ohio State was done settling for field goals and decided it was time to attack these man-coverage matchups.

The Buckeyes are in an 11 Wing-personnel with Stover as the lone tight end. Iowa loads the box up with 8 players in the area committing to stopping the run. After seeing the alignment the play before, Day puts Marvin Harrison Jr. (No. 18) as a single receiver to the field side.

In this scenario, they trust Stroud to deliver and Harrison Jr. to create enough separation for an easy touchdown. Harrison Jr. wins his battle with all the space to work, the play is well-blocked, and Iowa gets out schemed on this fourth down play.

The Buckeyes have a 1st-and-10 in the next play, just inside the 15-yard line. Iowa is in a Cover 2- Man Under coverage meaning they have two high safeties and man underneath the half-field coverages. The routes to the trips side have Stover running a seam in the middle of the field, Egbuka running an out-and-up, and Harrison Jr.’s running an in-breaking route in the end zone.

Stover’s seam keeps the safety in the middle of the field, and Harrison Jr.’s takes the corner away from being able to help on the outside. This creates a one-on-one match-up for Egbuka who makes a great catch on a perfectly placed throw.

Once again, Day attacks the tendencies Iowa had shown throughout the game. This time using the additional receivers as decoys to create the same type of matchup to the outside. By making this adjustment Ohio State found success in three-state red zone trips converting touchdowns to close out the game.

The last play is just fun. Any time Mitch Rossi gets involved in the passing game, the world becomes a better place. Earlier in this article, we discussed Iowa’s defensive flow, and this play Ryan Day takes advantage of the tendency.

Iowa’s outside backer overcommits to the play-action fake, which gives Rossie the window to escape and Stroud floats the ball out to Rossi for a touchdown putting the exclamation on the second-half performance.

Defensive Line dominance

On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s defense dominated Iowa’s completely overmatched offense. The success for the Buckeyes started up front, and mainly behind the best performance. From the first play of the game Ohio State’s defensive line was living in the backfield, so narrowing the performance down was tough.

The first play we’re going to look at is Zach Harrison’s strip-sack. Ohio State shows blitz on the inside with their backers, but once Iowa motions to empty they make a coverage check. This leads to the Buckeye defense only bringing four rushers. Zach Harrison beats the right tackler immediately and uses his strength to fight through the hands.

The coverage is good behind the rush forcing Iowa’s quarterback to hold the ball and this allows Harrison to force the fumble. This was a perfect example of the havoc the Ohio State defensive line was causing, and hopefully, the dominant performance from the defensive ends is the next evolution of Jim Knowles’ defense.

Continuing forward, the Buckeyes force a 3rd-and-3 for the Hawkeyes. This play is made during the week of preparation and here’s why. Iowa loved to use jet-sweep motions to get their “athletes” out in space.

Ohio State’s defenders know to key on this, as you can see by Tommy Eichenberg cheating pre-snap and how Zach Harrison explodes off the ball. Iowa hands the ball off, Harrison makes quick work of the tight end attempting to block him, and he engulfs the receiver in the backfield. This play shows the confidence in the preparation and you can see how fast, and aggressive the defense is playing.

All of the interceptions were passes altered by defensive line pressure, but the final play is special. The scenario is that Iowa has a 1st-and-10 inside their own territory. Ohio State keeps it simple, only rushing four and dropping into coverage. J.T. Tuimoloau is lined up over the right tackle and rushes upfield.

His initial move doesn’t win, but he is able to use his strength to fight past the offensive tackle. He gets his arm up matching the hand and is able to alter the throw by hitting Iowa’s quarterback’s arm. This forces the throw off-target right into the arms of Eichenberg for a touchdown.

The defensive line was making plays all game, and even when they weren’t sacking the quarterback, they had a significant impact in forcing turnovers. This performance — I know Iowa’s offense is bad — should still give Ohio State fans a lot of confidence moving forward.

Bonus Play

Alright, I’m not done yet and no I’m not apologizing. Cade Stover literally hurdles an Iowa defender and Stroud looks incredibly athletic. Enjoy this play, it is an all-timer for an Ohio State tight end.

Now Ohio State played far from perfect and if you gave Ryan Day some truth serum, he would definitely have some play calls he would like back. Despite that, the Buckeyes beat Iowa 54-10 and never lost any semblance of control. Scoring the most points on Iowa in the Kirk Ferentz era is no small feat, but even in a performance of that caliber, the Buckeyes left points on the board.

That shouldn’t be seen as good enough by fans because the expectation is a national championship or bust. Where I will say the Buckeyes improved was in-game adjustments, they found a way to take the game over. The issues for the Buckeyes in the red zone should be seen as a combination of play-calling and lack of execution. But once Ohio State was able to key into some of the tendencies Iowa’s defense showed, they attacked and executed some plays to perfection.

Combine the second-half offense with the full-game defensive performance and Ohio State fans should have a lot of confidence heading into Happy Valley to take on Penn State. This was a game that Ohio State won handedly, and if they clean up the red zone offense, the rest of the country is in trouble.