Throughout the year it was apparent that Ohio State’s offense wasn’t humming like it had been back in 2014 when they surged to a title. The biggest overlooked key to that run was that inserting Cardale Jones and adding more vertical passing as a constraint to Zeke Elliott rather than the QB run read made that offense more explosive. They didn’t have that dimension this year but because their defense had been so dominant and their Barrett-led QB run game so tough, it still seemed that Ohio State might find a winning formula.
Then Clemson brought that Buckeye dream crashing back down to earth by shutting out Urban’s team in a 31-0 rout. Clemson sacked J.T. Barrett three times for a loss of 23 yards, but even if you remove those totals Barrett only got eight carries for 21 yards.
It wasn’t like Clemson was configuring their defense to shut down Barrett only to concede runs from backs Mike Weber or Curtis Samuel either. Those two had 11 combined carries for 91 yards, 64 coming on one play where Curtis Samuel broke free in the fourth quarter against a prevention-minded Tampa-2 call by Clemson.
The Buckeyes targeted Curtis Samuel through either run or pass 17 times and were rewarded with 110 yards but again only 16-46 yards if you remove the long run late in the game. With their typical malaise in the passing game against a good defense (33 attempts for 127 yards, 3.8 ypa, two INTs), Ohio State didn’t have any firepower left to get on the board. Here’s how Clemson pulled off the historic shutout.
Step one: Shallow safeties
Ohio State can’t beat good teams by throwing the ball deep. They know it, their opponents know it, everyone knows it. They take their shots because it’s important to do so, but it’s a largely toothless feature to their offense. That means that a defense that trusts its corners can afford to get their safeties involved in the run game to help corral the Buckeye ballcarriers.
Clemson DC Brent Venables took advantage by playing some cover 3 and cover 2 robber, neither of which would involve safeties aligning deeper than 10 yards before the snap. Even on more conservative calls his safeties Van Smith and Jadar Johnson were aligning within 10 yards and firing downhill to stuff runs:
When Ohio State tried to utilize the power-shovel play that Urban Meyer conceived of back at Utah and Pittsburgh used to great effect earlier this year vs Clemson, they again found it difficult to make headway against the shallow safeties:
This is a fire zone blitz with SS Jadar Johnson dropping down into the boundary while FS, and nominal deep third defender Van Smith, begins the play at 10 yards depth and is flat footed at the snap and downhill in an instant. Will linebacker Ben Boulware made the play here but if he hadn’t Smith was going to be there pretty quickly either way.
With those two athletes always arriving between the tackles so quickly it was hard for even successful Ohio State runs to do enough damage to make up for the lack of passing game.
Step 2: Hit weak spots with strengths
Clemson’s defensive losses after last year were pretty heavy and it was commonly assumed that Venables wouldn’t be able to restock after losing so many juniors to the NFL. Since he’d just successfully turned the roster over the previous offseason I wasn’t quite ready to count him out but there was no doubt that he’d have to rebuild with a lot of young players.
Coming out of camp word was that redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell might be part of the solution to losing guys like Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson at DE. He managed six sacks in his first year and is really coming into his own now. Ohio State found him to be particularly problematic...
This is one of his three tackles for loss and it came on an early third and one during one of the only good Ohio State drives. The Buckeyes were trying to pick up the first with a QB outside zone run but Ferrell’s quick twitch inside was too much for Ohio State’s left guard Demetrious Knox (filling in for injured Michael Jordan).
Their left tackle Jamarco Jones struggled to handle Ferrell as well, it wasn’t just a matter of Clemson nailing a weak spot in the Ohio State roster:
Freshman nose tackle Dexter Lawrence had a nice day as well, regularly standing up double teams and serving as a nice complimentary piece in the Clemson pressure package:
Venables made heavy use of this 3-down front against Ohio State that would use leading rusher and DT Carlos Watkins as a DE while standing up the weak side DE (usually Ferrell) like an outside linebacker. Lawrence is the zero-technique nose tackle here and he stunts across the center’s face, hopefully to draw his attention and create a 3-on-2 for Watkins with LB Ben Boulware and DE Austin Bryant blitzing the right side.
The center passes him off to the right guard and is able to help pick up the pressure, but then Lawrence abuses Knox and hits Barrett while he’s trying to throw. Okay, maybe the Tigers did make a lot of hay hitting that weak spot on the line...
Step 3: Handle OSU’s bread and butter
Power-O run blocking has been the key ingredient to Buckeye football for as long as I’ve followed the game. Back in the day Tressel was running it from pro-style formations to unleash backs like Maurice Clarett, nowadays it’s a centerpiece in Meyer’s spread-option attack.
In particular, Ohio State loves the “power-read” play which leaves a DE unblocked for the QB to read while threatening the defense with either an outside sweep path by a RB or motioning WR and then a normal downhill, power path by the QB behind a pulling guard. Perhaps the key to this scheme and what makes it so hard to defend is that the play side tackle often gets a free run at the backside linebacker from a very favorable angle, as does the pulling guard on the play side linebacker.
However, Ohio State wasn’t consistently getting to the Clemson inside linebackers Kendall Joseph and Ben Boulware. Take this play on QB counter, for instance:
Counter is just power with the pulling guard kicking out the DE and then a tackle or H-back leading through the hole. On this instance, the pulling guard isn’t able to reach DE Clelin Ferrell effectively and he’s then free to chase Barrett down from behind in the narrow crease. Meanwhile Boulware is darting outside of the TE lead block to force things inside and Joseph ducking under LT Jamarco Jones to drill Barrett.
Ohio State’s problems with the Clemson DL were compounded by the speed of the Clemson ILBs that they had to try and block at the next level.
You can see all three steps in effect on this counter-toss play:
The RB motions to the boundary quickly and Barrett can pitch him the ball outside if the LBs stay home. If you watch from the play side out you’ll see Dexter Lawrence throw down Michael Jordan (this appears to be the play where he was injured) after the LT is pushed into him. Ferrell checks the LT, then gets wide to pursue the QB and help shrink the crease between Boulware’s force play on the edge and the space behind the pulling guard. Joseph scrapes past the pulling guard without much trouble and safety Van Smith arrives within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage anyways due to his shallow depth.
Ohio State couldn’t handle Clemson’s DL, Clemson’s overall speed, or the pressure that Clemson put on them with blitzes and shallow safeties. As a result, they got shut out. You're up next, Alabama.