When Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State in late 2011 he brought in a little-known 36-year old offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from Iowa State named Tom Herman to run the Buckeyes offense. From 2012 to 2014 Herman oversaw an Ohio State offense that averaged 3,732 rushing yards per season and added 123 scores on the ground in total.
Today, Herman just finished up his first season as a head coach while leading Houston to a 12-1 record and invite to the Peach Bowl against Florida State. In his absence, the Buckeyes turned to former Notre Dame assistant (2010-11) Ed Warinner who was promoted to co-offensive coordinator alongside newly hired quarterbacks coach Tim Beck from Nebraska.
Suffice to say, it wasn't a smooth transition for Ohio State as they dealt with a quarterback controversy all off-season and well into the fall as Cardale Jones initially got the nod with J.T. Barrett eventually claiming the starting spot. Through a championship hangover of a regular season the Buckeyes were held under 30 points on 4 separate occasions and held under 200 yards rushing on 5 separate occasions culminating in an embarrassing 132 total yard effort in a loss to Michigan State just a few weeks ago that ultimately cost the program a chance to defend its title.
Yes, it's been a crazy year in Columbus with Urban Meyer even commenting back in early September that "the read-option wasn't a big part of the offense anymore" which is like hearing Mike Leach say that 4-verts isn't a big part of the Washington State offense anymore.
In the wake of the colossal disappointment against the Spartans it was up to Urban Meyer to figure out a better gameplan for The Game against bitter rival Michigan. That included taking more responsibility for the offense on gameday, moving Warinner (who also coach's offensive line like he did at ND) up to the press box, and feeding the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott who had some, ahem, choice words for everyone after a 12-carry game against MSU.
The result was a season-high 369 rushing yards against a stout Wolverine defense, including a season-high 30 carries for Elliott, as the Buckeyes displayed flashes of their National Championship potential in a blowout win over their rival. Today, we're going to take a look at the run plays that Ohio State used against Michigan and how they might try to attack Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
Early on against UM, the Buckeyes were held in check on the ground with just 15 yards on 6 carries. Then, OSU went back to some trusty option concepts and Elliott broke free.
Power-Read aka Inverted Veer
Notice how the right guard pulls and that both the left tackle and the tight end (who motioned to the play-side) leave the defensive end unblocked. Being able to option off that defensive end is what makes this play tick. The second tight end (lined up in the slot shaded near the line) comes across with a nice block on the strong-side linebacker, while the motioned tight end is able to get to the second-level and get just enough of the safety to keep a lane open for Elliott to burst through.
If you're Notre Dame there's hope that Jaylon Smith will do a better job 'cleaning up' this play than his counterpart Joe Bolden (#35) does for Michigan. After chip blocking the DT, the Michigan left tackle does a poor job getting a hat on Bolden but the linebacker isn't quick enough to stop Elliott. Jaylon Smith is faster, much faster.
Just two plays later, the Buckeyes run the same exact play. This time Barrett reads linebacker James Ross (#15) who aggressively shoots into the back-field. Barrett easily reads this and even with not-great blocking the quarterback is athletic enough to score the touchdown.
On Ohio State's third drive they ran the Power Read again and Barrett scampered for a 25-yard gain.
The third Buckeyes drive is when they really started cooking on offense. Following the Barrett run above OSU put Braxton Miller in at quarterback for two snaps who ran QB Power then kept the ball on the Power Read.
When Barrett came back in at quarterback they ran the Speed Option after motioning a tight end to the play-side.
You can see linebacker Gedeon tell Desmond Morgan (#3) to move over to no avail. The Wolverines get completely out-numbered so much so that the tight end has no one to block until he's well over 10 yards down-field.
Tight (Inside) Zone Read
For years, this has been the play that Urban Meyer's offense uses more than any other. It's their bread and butter, get north-south, move the chains play that can get a defense on its heels when the Buckeyes run it quickly.
Following Barrett's Speed Option the Buckeyes entered the red zone and ran the Tight Zone 3 straight times beginning with 5:34 on the game clock and scoring with 5:01 left in the 2nd quarter.
The speed running these plays is really difficult to deal with. On the first play, Barrett kept the ball for 7-yards, then Elliott got it for 8 more yards. On the touchdown play, the Buckeyes snapped the ball with 30 seconds left on the play-clock and just 13 seconds after the previous play ended.
I've included the real-time replay from the end of the second-to-last play until Ohio State scored.
There isn't much fanciness to the play. The left side of the line along with the center block down to their left and the right guard does a nice job getting up to block the linebacker. The right tackle and tight end leave Michigan's defensive end alone, Barrett reads him as he the end sits on the QB, and it's an easy give to Elliott who scores the touchdown.
Now in the 3rd quarter Ohio State is faced with a third & short in their own territory. They turn to an old staple of the Meyer/Tebow days with the Double-Wing Option. Barrett is in an empty backfield but OSU puts hybrid backs Jalin Marshall (#7) and Curtis Samuel (#4) at H-back positions just behind the outside shoulder of each tackle.
Once again, Ohio State leaves the play-side defensive end unblocked. The first option is the shovel pass to Marshall coming across the line but the end stays home on the pulling right guard to close up the hole. Barrett then options off the outside linebacker and makes the pitch to Samuel who uses his speed for a big 11-yard gain.
You may notice that Ohio State's left tackle and left guard both get up-field to block linebacker James Ross while linebacker Ben Gedeon is left unblocked. Even with this mistake, Barrett is able to option off both linebackers making a play on the ball and Samuel's speed is too much to handle.
To finish off this drive with another touchdown the Buckeyes went back to the Double-Wing Option again.
Except this time Marshall runs behind Barrett on an orbit sweep sucking bodies to the field-side and Barrett takes advantage by utilizing QB Power with his athleticism. Eleven Warriors wrote extensively about Meyer re-introducing the Double-Wing against Michigan and wondered whether we'll see some pass attempts down field as teams load the box to stop the run. Something to keep an eye on in the Fiesta Bowl, perhaps.
You could read something ten times as long as this and still not highlight all of the variations to the Ohio State running game. They're plenty physical and strong but what really makes the Buckeyes difficult to defend is how many different ways they can run the ball (out of the same formations, especially), how they combine pace with the ability to confuse defenders through the option, and of course how they have some of the most athletic and dangerous playmakers in the country.
Counter Trey, Power, Outside Zone, Split Zone, and Pin & Pull are some of the other favored plays for Ohio State, and of course they will utilize many different ball carriers from time to time by putting multiple runners in the backfield while also giving former QB Braxton Miller snaps at quarterback, running back carries, and touches from jets sweeps, etc. etc.
The Good News for Notre Dame
The generally accepted way to slow down a strong read option run game is to win a lot of physical battles up front, stay disciplined with assignments, and disrupt the mesh point with blitzes.
Physically, the Irish should like what they're bringing to the table and even adding minimal snaps from a healthy nose guard Jarron Jones will help. While facing Ohio State isn't the same as Navy or Georgia Tech, the Irish put together some great assignment football earlier this season and should feel good about Bob Elliott working his magic for a month.
Certainly, no one will confuse Notre Dame as a great blitzing team. However, no one will confuse Ohio State as a great passing team, either. Knowing you're facing a run-heavy team and having great athletes in the front seven with the great eraser Jaylon Smith could be a good recipe for Notre Dame.
The Bad News for Notre Dame
I would imagine Urban Meyer having a month to prepare against Brian VanGorder doesn't give some people much confidence. I generally think the Irish are a good run defensive team but the Ohio State run game will be by most accounts the toughest faced all season.
The Buckeyes pace especially could be troublesome. You may recall this was an issue last season when North Carolina, Northwestern, and USC averaged 91 plays per game yet no team snapped more than 77 plays this year against the Irish. Even if Ohio State doesn't typically pile up a ton of plays their selective use of turning up the tempo can cause Notre Dame all sorts of problems.
As we inch closer to the Fiesta Bowl there may be nothing more important to debate than if Notre Dame can control Ohio State's run game. During Brian Kelly's recent press conference he mentioned they'll focus most of their attention on J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott and rightfully so. How successful can the Irish be? Will other players like Miller, Marshall, and Samuel be the difference? And lastly, will the Irish fall victim to giving up big pass plays after selling out against the run the way they did in the regular season finale against Stanford?