When Ohio State Has the Football
Ohio State Passing Game against the Alabama Defense
When Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan, Ohio State lost the production he delivered in 2014: a 64.7% completion rate with 2,834 yards gained through the air and his 34 TD strikes. The freshman also contributed 938 yards on the ground (with a 5.5 yard average) and 11 scores.
Meyer turned to Jones, nicknamed “12-Gauge,” for the Big Ten championship game and did not hesitate to put the football in the third-stringer’s hands. Check out the opening play of that contest:
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Meyer puts the sophomore on the move, giving him a simplified “half-field” read. The coaching staff did this a number of times against Wisconsin, making the reads a bit easier for the QB. Here is how they lined up on another play from Ohio State’s opening drive:
Working off play-action, Jones has two reads here to the weakside of the field ‒ the slot receiver on the seam route, and the outside receiver on the comeback route:
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The direction of the run fake aids the decision-making process for Jones. As he fakes the handoff he stares down the seam/curl routes as they develop. When he pulls the ball away from the RB, he knows exactly where he will go with the football.
Later, he threw his first touchdown pass of the game on this same play, another half-field read:
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Jones sends running back Ezekiel Elliott (#15) in motion to the right, setting up a slot formation. Elliott and wide receiver Devin Smith (#9) run dual vertical routes and the WR comes down with the throw in the end zone. But this play illustrates an area of concern with Jones. The QB has a tendency to throw the football late in “jump ball” fashion. While Smith comes down with the catch on this play, Jones might not be as lucky against Alabama.
Smith was one of Ohio State’s leading receivers on the season, bringing in 30 passes for 799 yards and 11 TDs. Sophomore WR Michael Thomas caught 43 balls for 680 yards and eight touchdowns. Other contributors in the passing game include Jalin Marshall (28/392/6) and Dontre Wilson (21/300/3). Elliott caught 26 passes out of the backfield for 300 yards.
Defensively, Saban allows us to introduce a new concept to readers: Cover 7. Used primarily against empty backfields, Cover 7 deploys two deep safeties and gives the defense a man advantage on each side of the field. The secondary shows two shallow defenders to the side of the field with two receivers, with a safety covering deep. On the other side of the formation the defense shows three shallow defenders against three receivers, with an additional safety helping deep:
Here is the coverage in action against Southern Mississippi:
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Using Cover 2 concepts to each side of the field, the secondary eliminates each WR on their route. The Southern Mississippi QB checks the ball down to RB running a crossing route against the LB from a slot alignment.
Cover 7 is one twist that Alabama brings to pass coverage, and while the concepts can confuse opposing quarterbacks, the Crimson Tide struggled in pass defense this season. Saban’s men allowed 223.7 yards per game through the air, ranking 57th in FBS. Against pass-happy teams like West Virginia, Mississippi State, and Auburn, the Crimson Tide labored, giving up 365 yards to the Mountaineers, 290 to the Bulldogs, and a whopping 456 to Nick Marshall and the Tigers.
Alabama also implements Cover 2, and on this play against Tennessee the defense runs the coverage to near-perfection:
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This still shows how the deep safety provides quality help on the vertical route, while the CB does a good job of turning and running with the outside vertical route from the WR:
Alabama also failed to generate consistent pressure on opposing QBs, notching only 28 sacks during the season. Senior linebacker Xzavier Dickson paced the team with eight sacks, including two in both the West Virginia and Ole Miss contests.
Ohio State Running Game against the Alabama Defense
Elliott is the main ball-carrier for the Buckeyes. The sophomore RB from St. Louis gained 1,402 yards on 217 rushes in 2014, scoring 12 TDs. He tallied two touchdown runs against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, including this 81-yarder:
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The run is impressive, but more extraordinary is the work up front. The Buckeyes offensive line is a cohesive and talented group and the achievements on this run are phenomenal:
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The line blocks down to the left with tight end Jeff Heuerman (#5) executing a trap block on the right edge. This opens up a huge hole for Elliott.
Keep an eye on left tackle Taylor Decker (#68). Meyer likes to get Decker’s big frame (6’7” and a whopping 315 pounds) out in space in front of Elliott, letting the OT use his athleticism to cut down defenders:
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Decker pulls in front of his RB on this stretch play and gets enough of a cut block on the cornerback to spring Elliott for additional yardage.
One thing we did notice watching Ohio State film is this slight “tell,” which plays into the “half-field” notion. Look at Elliott’s alignment on this play, pre-snap:
The RB lines up shaded to the left behind Jones, rather than directly behind the QB. The play is a read option to the left and Jones is brought down for a loss. If Ohio State continues to give Jones “half-field” reads and their RB continues to signal the direction of the plays before the snap, Saban and his defense will certainly take advantage.
Speaking of which, Alabama sports the nation’s top run defense. The Crimson Tide yielded only 88.7 yards per game in 2014, the only FBS school to hold opponents under 90 yards per contest. Only two opponents (Tennessee and LSU) gained more than 180 yards on the ground against Alabama, and Saban’s men held four teams under 50 yards rushing. Western Carolina actually lost eight yards running the ball against Alabama in late November, while Missouri managed only 41 rushing yards in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama’s front seven comprise a fast, attacking unit that excels at penetration. Take this 3rd-and-2 play from the Iron Bowl:
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Defensive back Geno Smith (no relation – #24) blitzes off the edge while linebacker Ryan Anderson (#7) immediately enters the backfield from a right defensive end alignment. Defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson (#86) also splits between linemen, and all three defenders force the RB to make a cut in the backfield. This delay allows Anderson and fellow linebacker Reggie Ragland (#19) to cut down the runner for a loss.
Collins led the group with 90 tackles in 2014, with 51 coming as solo stops. Ragland added 86 tackles during the season, with 8.5 of those tackles resulting in a negative gain for the offense. Dickson led the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss.
As you might expect, the Sugar Bowl features an array of talent. Cooper leads the potential Alabama draftees and is likely a top-five selection should he declare himself eligible for the draft. Collins, Yeldon, and Kouandjio are also considered first- or second-round talents. Other prospects include Dickson and Sims, as well as fullback Jalston Fowler (rated the top fullback by CBS) and inside linebacker Trey DePriest.
Ohio State’s best prospect is Bennett, ranked the fourth-best defensive lineman by CBS. Grant, Heuerman, and outside linebacker Noah Spence should also be selected. Inside linebacker Curtis Grant, WR Smith, center Chad Lindsay, and defensive end Steve Miller are also potential draftees.
After reviewing the tape, it is hard to see this game staying close. Alabama’s stout run defense forces Ohio State to try and win this game in the air. While normally a sound proposition against the Crimson Tide pass defense, tonight is different. Expect Jones to struggle when confronted with the complexity of Saban’s schemes, as multiple OSU turnovers lead to a rout.
Alabama 41, Ohio State 17
All video and images courtesy ESPN.com.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.