Gary Patterson probably had this one circled on his calendar for a long time. A chance for the 4-2-5 defensive guru to test himself and his program against an offensive legend like Urban Meyer and a powerhouse program like Ohio State. A program like TCU is always hungry to prove itself against the blue bloods of college football.
Of course Urban Meyer was not allowed on the sideline or at practices in the lead up to this game after being suspended by Ohio State. The Buckeyes were also a different sort of team against TCU than the unit that Urban was known for, emphasizing different dimensions to their run game with Dwayne Haskins at the helm rather than option operator J.T. Barrett and executing a different passing game with Ryan Day holding the call sheet.
Nevertheless, it was a fascinating matchup and an opportunity to see the defense that had been designed to allow TCU to contend against spread offenses in the Big 12 against the spread offense that was laying waste to the Big 10.
Much like our first game in this series, the Nebraska vs Michigan State showdown, this game wasn’t really settled by the chess games between Patterson and the Ohio State offensive staff. In a short sequence in the third quarter with the Frogs holding a 21-13 lead, other squads had encounters that proved decisive. First the Buckeye offense scored on a tunnel screen to Parris Campbell that broke free for a 63-yard TD, they also attempted a two-point conversion that failed. But the Frogs still had the lead at that point.
Then on the ensuing TCU possession, sophomore QB Shawn Robinson threw a shovel pass that Ohio State DT Dre’Mont Jones picked off and returned 28 yards for another TD. Now it was 26-21 in Ohio State’s favor. TCU got the ball back, ran six plays, then had to punt and had the kick blocked, gifting the Buckeyes the ball at the Frog 25 yard line.
Haskins made a phenomenal pass (more on this later) and it was 33-21, the game was effectively over. The Frogs also gave up a sack-strip that led to another Buckeye score earlier in the game, essentially yielding 21 points sheerly through offensive and special teams mistakes in a 40-28 defeat. In between those catastrophes, the battles between TCU’s famous 4-2-5 defense and Ohio State’s spread offense were well fought.
The Frogs’ plus one
A fair amount of spread strategy is designed to prevent uninvited guests from crashing their parties, particularly in the run game. They don’t write out plus one options on the invitations, the best anti-spread defensive coordinators are wedding crashers who have multiple strategies for sneaking a defender into the box that the offense can’t catch and punish.
TCU’s favorite guy to get into the box is their “strong safety” who lines up as a nickel in the parlance of most every other defensive scheme. In 2018 to start the year that player was 6-2/203 pound sophomore Innis Gaines. Despite sitting out some snaps in this game with some sort of hurt, Gaines ended up leading the Frogs with nine tackles, 3.5 of which were tackles for loss, while adding two pass break-ups to his box score totals.
Patterson didn’t waste any time in this game using Gaines to attack the Ohio State offense, inflicting one of those TFLs on the first snap of the game.
This looks like a blitz because the Frogs attack so quickly but it’s not, this is one of their base defenses. They slip SS Gaines into the box late and Ohio State sees it and tries to adjust by asking their slot receiver to slide in as well and block him. That’s a terrible idea for two reasons, the first is that he can’t block Gaines, the second is that it gives the plot away to the FS (Niko Small) behind Gaines and invites him to play downhill as well. The Buckeyes would not repeat this strategy again in the game.
You can read about this call in Cody Alexander’s recent book “Hybrids: The making of a modern defense” but the gist of it is that TCU plays a hybrid coverage called “read” that splits the difference between their normal quarters coverage and pure man-free coverage.
This has become one of their favorite ways to attack offenses and split the difference between playing getting help over WRs in the spread while still getting their strong safety involved in the run game.
The Buckeyes attacked that pretty quickly, landing a big punch later on the same drive when they were able to beat the boundary corner over the top and throw it over the weak safety who wasn’t able to flip his hips and get back over in time to stop the pass.
It’s hard to beat the Frogs, the accuracy of this pass combined with the near run of the protection are indicative of how precisely TCU makes teams execute in order to beat them up. TCU also disguises their alignments and don’t often give away the coverage until late before the snap.
Ohio State would catch them one other time attacking with their SS on the drive after the blocked punt.
The blitz is very well timed but Haskins has figured out to get an eye on that part of the field and the Buckeyes have the perfect play dialed up. They run a slot fade inside of a hitch route to hold the corner and get K.J. Hill isolated on the free safety with a clean release and a ton of grass. Even still, it takes an outstanding ball by Haskins to beat Small for the score.
Size vs speed in the box
Those two throws were 21% of Ohio State’s pass game production and set up 10 of their 26 offensive points, another seven points came on a well disguised tunnel screen that TCU whiffed on. Add in that less impressive throw and you have 39% of Haskin’s passing game production as well as the major oomph of their offense on the day.
Except that when the Buckeyes needed to seal the win up 33-28 after yielding a deep shot of their own and heading into the fourth quarter, their run game proved capable of finishing things up. On that drive Ohio State ran the ball five times for 43 yards (and the clinching TD), threw two passes off play-action for 23 yards, and then got caught on a play-action attempt near the goal line and took a sack.
The first big rushing attempt was from another 11 personnel set but a nub trips formation that put all three receivers to the same side and forced TCU’s SS way out to the field where he couldn’t hurt them as a plus one in the run game.
The Frogs had to spin their FS down over a WR to get both LBs in the box late and the first was mauled while the second was too late. TCU is no stranger to this scheme, seeing it regularly against Oklahoma in the Big 12, but this sort of run game isn’t what Patterson had been scouting from the years of Ohio State film and the Buckeyes hurt them on it the handful of times they ran the play.
The final two runs that buried the Frogs were both on split zone actions, one of which you can see here run from a pistol formation with three WRs:
TCU is in read coverage again, but their weak safety is barely concerned with dropping to help on verticals to the slot or the boundary because they know they have to stop the run to have a chance to win the game. The SS gives the Frogs one more guy where the lead blocker is inserting but the RG takes out the LB (205 pound Arico Evans) and then even with the weak safety keeping an eye to the streets there still isn’t anyone to the ball until the brilliant J.K. Dobbins has already gobbled up about 10 yards.
Finally the coup de grace:
Haskins had just two carries in this game as the Buckeyes had departed from their bread and butter offense for a new style of spread offense. Of course when they did finally drop the hammer here the Frogs aren’t well aligned against the 4x0 set and their LBs are too wore down to resist the massive Buckeye OL from washing them down. It’s also notable that these plays were all run away from SS Innis Gaines, the downside of preferring to use one particular defender as your wedding crasher is that the offense can teach security how to look out for him.
TCU was able to hold the Ohio State offense to 26 points, although that number might have been higher had the Buckeyes needed more in the fourth, and were done in more by their own offense and special teams than the Ohio State attack. At halftime the score was 14-13 TCU and seven of Ohio State’s points had been scored on defense.
TCU’s safeties were flying to the ball early and the Buckeyes were struggling to find room to maneuver, it wasn’t really until the Frogs’ meltdown and the air started to come out of Patterson’s charges that things really turned. But on the other hand, Ohio State had several plays designed to allow them to attack the Frog defensive structure and they landed several punches that ended up carrying the day. When the game was on the line, Ohio State was able to get the better of TCU’s defense and make the decisive plays to win the game.
We’ll call it Ohio State and Ryan Day by split decision but this would be a very interesting bout to see play out again.