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The Buckeye test

Ohio State’s offense has limitations but it’s lethal between the hash marks. Can Oklahoma’s unproven new defense hold up?

Ohio State v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I wrote recently about the Ohio State offense and what they showed against Indiana in their entertaining season opener. In particular I highlighted a mesh passing concept that they installed to help J.T. Barrett maximize his ability to make quick reads and throws in the middle of the field.

And I noted the following about its impact for their offense...

Well now the Buckeyes are already squaring off against a top 10 opponent in the Oklahoma Sooners. This game has a lot of big time matchups such as the battle between Oklahoma’s veteran OL and Ohio State’s loaded DL, massive flex TE Mark Andrews vs Ohio State’s linebackers and safeties, or Baker Mayfield vs Greg Schiano in a contest of the minds.

However the battle between the hash marks between J.T. Barrett and the Oklahoma interior on defense could be one of the more portentous for these two teams over the course of the season.

Setting the stage for the focal point...

There are two factors that could diminish the gravity of the matchup between the defense’s interior five (the LBs and Ss) and the offense that probably won’t have that impact in this contest.

The first is the play of the cornerbacks. We now have several games over four different seasons of play that suggest J.T. Barrett simply isn’t very threatening when trying to push the ball outside the hash marks. He lacks the arm strength and accuracy when throwing out wide to regularly beat good coverage, which means that a pair of good cornerbacks can probably handle those spaces without much help and thus free up the LBs and Ss to focus their efforts on the Ohio State run game and interior passing game.

Oklahoma returns star cornerback Jordan Thomas, who struggled in this game a year ago but is generally a guy that a team like Ohio State would prefer to avoid. They’re now pairing him with Parnell Motley, an athletic D.C. kid that had a meteoric rise this offseason to claim the job. Between these two players OU should indeed be able to focus numbers in the middle of the field.

The other factor is a dominant DL that could disrupt the Buckeyes and take away their ability to move past the line of scrimmage or give Barrett windows to throw in. The Hoosiers actually gave Ohio State’s arguably over-tall guard tandem (both are 6-7) some problems by getting under their pads and holding the point of attack. However, RB J.K. Dobbins was still able to slip through gaps while running for 181 yards. Additionally, DL is something of a question mark for the Sooners at this point.

Instead, this contest will probably be won or lost by the battle just past the trenches. Unfortunately for the Sooners, that’s where their biggest question marks are on defense. Middle linebacker Kenneth Murray is a true freshman who learned the position in the offseason and actually started out at weak side linebacker in the spring. Free safety Will Johnson is a converted nickel who moved to free safety over the summer. They’re about to face a very challenging physical AND mental test in front of 100k screaming Ohio State fans.

Matching up in coverage

The Buckeyes are akin to an Air Raid team in the way that their passing attack is designed to focus on attacking linebackers and Urban Meyer has always taken from guys like Mike Leach in constructing his passing game. If your safeties need to play bracket coverage outside or the linebackers need to be dropping into curl windows all day then that seriously complicates things in terms of stuffing the run or matching these Air Raid-inspired crossing routes. That’s already a pretty rough challenge, as you can see on this J.T. Barrett scramble against Oklahoma from a year ago...

The Sooners are playing four-deep/four-under coverage here while bringing just three pass-rushers and matching up tight on the the Buckeyes’ crossing routes only to yield the big scrambling lane that Barrett exploits on third and five.

This is a really challenging issue in defensing Ohio State, countering the many threats they present to the middle of the field. The threats are also diverse and include big, rumbling TE Marcus Baugh, Barrett himself who mixes great mobility with some size and power, and then explosive receivers like Johnnie Dixon and Parris Campbell.

The big questions confronting the Sooners are what kind of personnel package to play and whether they want to try and handle all of these threats by pressuring Barrett or dropping eight. A nickel package would allow the Sooners to take a page from Ohio State’s playbook and play man coverage while focusing the two safeties and remaining two linebackers on controlling the middle of the field.

Their base 4-3 hybrid package would eliminate that option but get bigger and sturdier personnel on the field, in either event Oklahoma will have to lean on thin, inexperienced positions as inside linebacker and nickel are both manned by young players.

Here’s a glimpse into what they have been doing out of their hybrid, base package early this season:

This blitz aims to find balance between disguise, confusion, and risk-aversion. The jack DE/OLB hybrid spot manned by Obo Okoronkwo is dropping into coverage as a weak side linebacker while the two ILBs are both rotating hard to the passing strength to replace space-hybrid Caleb Kelly who’s blitzing the edge. They have to cover a lot of ground but they are good athletes for the task and the two-deep safety coverage and use of field cornerback Jordan Thomas means that none of them have to carry receivers deep.

They could look to mix things up like this against Ohio State and try to confuse Barrett while leaning on the two-deep coverage to prevent failures from becoming catastrophes. Or they could look to play similar coverages while bringing only three pass-rushers and spying Barrett with one of these linebackers.

It’s a lot to sort out but OU’s LB play against the pass has generally been solid in recent years and there are solutions they could employ to keep Barrett under wraps. The real problem is...

Stopping the Buckeye run game

This task just got harder than it was a year ago thanks to the aging of their OL and the infusion of J.K. Dobbins into the mix. The slippery freshman that ran for 181 yards against the Hoosiers is the rare back that can actually makes his OL better and transcend scheme and surrounding context.

Check out this carry on a split zone run against Indiana:

The design is for the H-back to trap block the DE but Indiana thwarts the design by stunting the DE inside to the B-gap and forcing the H-back to try and find the weak side linebacker in space after the snap. Things are perfectly corralled into the lane being filled by the free safety (no. 19) but Dobbins shows an outside step and then cuts hard back inside past the hapless safety.

A player who’s athleticism can ruin plans and preparation with spontaneous moves on the field is a real game changer and it’s not like Ohio State wasn’t already a good running team. There’s not really a great solution for this sort of player other than getting lots of hats to the ball and playing with great team leverage.

The other big challenge with stopping Ohio State is their QB run game trump card, especially that split zone play GIF’d above but executed from a spread set with Barrett as the ballcarrier.

This play has been a nearly automatic first down from five yards in for four years now. The split zone run is ordinarily difficult because it requires that a defense involve a nickel or safety FAST to fill all the gaps but when the offense spreads the field with four receivers and runs it for the QB then the basic problem is exacerbated.

Meanwhile, here’s OU’s young LB corps defending a two-back zone run from UTEP in week one:

The nasty thing about these types of zone runs is that the insertion of a new gap by the fullback or H-back requires accounting for but if the LBs flow to the lead block then the ordinary zone gaps are still there for the ballcarrier to exploit.

For the last two years it’s been all too common for OU’s linebacker to get confused on whether they are supposed to flow with the lead blocker and leave the original gap to a DB or to stay in their normal zone paths and let the DBs handle the lead blocker’s new gap.

They’ll surely be practicing this hard for Saturday but Ohio State can throw a lot of looks at them in the run game, bring in a lot of conflicts, and then execute it with a much higher caliber of personnel than the Oklahoma tends to face from Big 12 run games. What’s more, OU will have a lot of youth and inexperience on the field in the crucial linebacker and safety positions trying to play with great team leverage against a veteran, talented, and well-coached opponent.

If the Sooners survive all of this and put their own brilliant offense in position to win the game, they could have another B12 title-winning team and a shot at another playoff berth. What’s more, that will not portend good things for Ohio State in facing better and more veteran defenses in the Big 10.

If the Buckeyes blow through the Sooners then we’ll be left to wonder if the young OU defense is going to hold up in conference play against emerging contenders like Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Meanwhile tOSU will survive and advance to take on the next challenger. Either way, the loser is probably out of the running for the playoffs either due to resume or exposed flaw.

Should be an enlightening game.