OSU is defined by their rushing offense, one of the most efficient in the conference with 180 successful designed runs vs 124 unsuccessful ones, or a 59.2% success rate given the down & distance. They average 5.8 yards per carry outside garbage time and about 16.5% of them gain 10+ yards. That’s better than average explosiveness, but what underlies this offense is that they can control the ball for long stretches on methodical drives by churning out 5-7 yard runs regularly. Here’s a representative sample of successful runs:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 - There’s nothing particularly fancy about OSU’s zone rushing, they simply deploy a lot of blockers, work their combos up to the second level, and isolate a DB for the back to beat. I’m not sure #84 TE Quitoriano is even blocking the right guy here but it doesn’t matter, #4 RB Baylor just runs through the safety’s arm tackle.
- :11 - This pre-snap motion of the TE usually indicates a run to that side. Very clean blocks across the board by the OL here, and nice job by #88 TE Musgrave to climb up to the DB to spring #5 RB Fenwick for a bigger run.
- :28 - This run is the single most common on my tally sheet for OSU, a fairly slow developing outside zone run for just enough to keep ahead of the chains. For it to really go big the frontside and backside guards have to control their blocks better than this, and getting wins from every blocker is rare, but they usually get enough.
- :35 - Nice vision by Baylor on this I-formation run - the RG is losing his man so he cuts inside, then the LT gets caught and hasn’t cleared the safety so he makes another cut.
The most interesting thing about the Beavs is that they have two different offenses welded together: one that operates with the quarterback under center and the other out of the shotgun. The former is what they prefer on 1st downs, 2nd & short, and 2nd & medium — they’re in that formation over 80% of the time in those situations, climbing to over 95% on 2nd & short — and they run the ball more than three-quarters of the time when they’re under center. That defines a very methodical, if quite predictable, run-first offense.
When they’re behind the chains — on 2nd & long and almost all 3rd downs, including curiously enough 3rd & short situations — the Beavs switch to their shotgun offense. Out of the gun their run-pass balance flips, to running just a quarter of the time. This switch doesn’t seem to get them anything, however - their pass efficiency and explosiveness numbers don’t change at all when in the shotgun offense, but on the occasions they do run it’s a lot less effective, underwater at only 48% rush efficiency for shotgun snaps to the QB.
I think that illustrates something of a paradox for OSU’s offense that Travis and I discussed on the podcast - for as good as I think OL coach Michalczik is at developing linemen, there are still some real athletic limitations here and they’re really best at running when they have both tight ends in the formation and can win with blocking numbers. When they split out the tight ends in the shotgun, their rushing performance plummets. Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful rushes:
- :00 - The defense knows which way to slant on this strongside run and two linemen get beat off the snap, the RG by a 4-star DT and the LT by a former walk-on OLB.
- :11 - Another strongside run, with a WR who’s at least supposed to be helping. I’ve got a lot of these on my tally sheet - if the defense figures out the play, they can just create a tangle of bodies.
- :16 - OSU has been playing the same five linemen on every snap, but their starting LG has been out for the last few games and Travis tells us that there’s no word he’ll return on Saturday. The backup LG has had a few more struggles than the starter.
- :21 - Here’s a weakside wide run out of the shotgun, which is OSU’s least successful rushing play. It just takes one bad block, here by the RT, to blow it up.
For the most part, passing the ball is something OSU does only because they have to. Their per-play passing efficiency is underwater, at 109 successful designed passing plays vs 120 failed ones, or 47.6%. Their explosiveness numbers are fairly mediocre as well, with 7.6 yards per pass attempt outside garbage time and about 14.5% of dropbacks result in gains of 15+ yards.
On the podcast, Travis and I spent some time discussing #10 QB Nolan’s skill as a passer, but neither of us has a good feel for why he sometimes hits just beautiful passes but other times looks hesitant and misplaces balls badly. There’s no real pattern I can find running a correlation analysis of all the games I’ve charted. Both of us think that most of the Beavs’ passing success, rather than Nolan playing as a top-notch QB, is engineered by HC Smith’s well structured and elegant playbook, for example surprise play-action passes after a deep drop from under center or getting defenses to bite on a screen threat then hitting a sideline pass when in the shotgun. Some examples:
- :00 - Great release by Musgrave on this nine-yard drop play-action pass. The back leaking draws the WILL and the high safety has to help with the WR, so the only defender who can cover the dig is the MIKE, and he had bit so hard on the run fake that he’s got no chance.
- :19 - Passes like these aren’t all that common but I included one just to show that, on occasion, Nolan can really drop a ball right in the bucket.
- :34 - This is the more common use of TEs when they release into the pattern, rather than catching passes they’re setting up the receivers by drawing off the underneath coverage or keeping the secondary occupied.
- :45 - This is by far the most common way OSU uses shotgun passes on 2nd & long and 3rd downs, fairly simple and unambitious possession catches like this slant route. The defense is in man and the WILL follows the back so there’s no underneath coverage, and Nolan patiently waits for the window to open.
While tight ends figure prominently in this offense as blockers, they’re not particularly frequent pass targets. Instead almost everything goes to four wide receivers in fairly traditional pro-style route structures. Nolan isn’t a statue in the pocket and can scramble and extend plays a bit, but I have lots of plays on my tally sheet of him getting rattled under pressure as the protection breaks down, and I don’t see much advanced pocket presence or looking off safeties out of him, instead I generally see staring receivers down. If the play that’s supposed to be there from the playcall isn’t there, the most common result is a throwaway. Some examples:
- :00 - A few defenses over this season have, in obvious passing situations when OSU goes to the shotgun, just rushed three and dropped eight, usually successfully. Nolan is a lot more mobile than some previous OSU QBs so I don’t have nearly as many sacks on my tally sheet compared to certain seasons, but I don’t have a lot of effective scrambles from him either.
- :21 - I’ve got a lot of these on my sheet, where there’s no real reason for the throw to be this far behind the receiver.
- :35 - The backers here are defending this seven-yard play-action a lot smarter, backing out the OLB and bringing the DB instead who beats #21 RB Lowe’s attempt at a pickup. Getting pressure rushing only four is by far the most effective way defenses have stopped OSU’s passing game, since like on this play the Beavs often only have two receivers in the pattern and that’s tough against seven in coverage.
- :42 - OSU only faced a few d-lines this year that had the physicality to do this to their o-line, but simply collapsing the pocket with four is viable and Nolan tends to double-clutch like this.
The implication of all this is fairly clear: defenses win against OSU when they can win 1st downs and put them behind the chains. If OSU has a run stuffed or an incomplete pass on 1st down, they readily switch up to their shotgun offense and they’ll either pass at below-average efficiency, or occasionally run but that’s less efficient too. On the other hand, allow the Beavs to win on 1st down and they’ll just keep running or hit a deep play-action pass, and if they get to 3rd & short they’ll often switch up to their most efficient play (about a 75% success rate!) which is the wildcat with #12 LB Colletto:
Earlier this month, after losing three of their preceding four games at Wazzu, Cal, and Colorado, OSU fired their longtime defensive coordinator and promoted LB coach Bray to interim DC. On paper their effectiveness rates jumped significantly in the two games they’ve played under Bray, and on the podcast Travis said he’s a believer in the new energy that’s been infused into the squad.
I think it has more to do with playing Stanford and Arizona St teams which on film have clearly packed it in for the year (ASU had half their starters out due in part to a bizarre auto accident and was particularly scatterbrained on offense with seven false starts in the game). I’m seeing the same players, structure, and personnel groups from OSU as before - a double-eagle 3-4 with a nose tackle when the offense has two or more TEs in, and a 2-4 against one or fewer TEs where they pull the nose in favor of a nickelback but otherwise use the same assignments.
The Beavs are pretty badly underwater in per-play rush efficiency on the season, with 103 successful defenses of designed runs vs 135 failures, or only a 43.3% success rate. Travis and I discussed on the podcast how this structure will usually play a fairly light box against 11-personnel teams and that while they’ve got a couple good pieces in that front they’ve also got practically no depth and have to play the same guys throughout the entire game.
I believe I was seeing increasing breakdowns due to fatigue as games wore on, especially against opponents like Cal that have a pounding rush attack. OSU’s rush defense splits start in 1st quarters at a 50% success rate, but steadily fall about 4.5 percentage points each quarter to just 37% in the final frame. Some examples:
- :00 - The DTs and OLBs widen on this play because they’re worried about an outside run, which means the ILBs need to crash down hard on the inside run. Instead they keep back and wait to be blocked.
- :06 - With the whole DL washed inside pretty easily, this power play isos the backer, and he just whiffs.
- :19 - Watch the ILBs’ shoulders - properly flowing to the play means keeping them square to the line of scrimmage and keeping the power to resist blocks and fight back inside in the event of a cutback like this one. Instead they’re turning perpendicular to the line to just run as fast as they can, and they’re easily cleared out of the way.
- :33 - Here’s the 3-down look with former walk-on #97 DL Skelton, their only remaining nose tackle after some transfers, and #96 DL Sandberg on the frontside getting washed inside easily. The OLB is responsible for setting the edge but he jumps inside against the H-back. The #36 ILB Speights has overrun the play so the back has a nice lane.
On the other hand, OSU is pretty good at preventing explosive plays - they give up only about 4.7 yards per carry outside garbage time, and just 11.5% of rushes gain 10+ yards. I attribute that in equal parts to a pretty good transfer d-lineman, longtime backers who know this defense well, and a secondary that’s fairly effective at catching long runs. Some examples:
- :00 - Nice jump off the snap by #52 DL Rawls, and watch how #34 ILB Roberts and #7 DB Julian track the outside run and come around the edge to clean up. All three have been a starters for years but Julian looks to be out with an injury.
- :11 - The OLB gets stiffarmed out of a TFL but #3 DB Grant comes racing in to save the 1st down.
- :28 - I think Minnesota transfer #32 DL Schad is OSU’s best defensive player (Travis thinks it’s Roberts). Good patience here anticipating the counter.
- :34 - This is OSU’s calling card in defending zone-read plays - sending two around the corner so that one gets read and the other is free to make the tackle. Here that’s #28 DB Oladapo coming in late to draw the read and thus handoff, and #2 OLB Hughes-Murray with the catch from behind. It also helps that Schad is wrecking the LG.
The Beavs’ pass defense is the reverse: above water in efficiency, but with a tendency to give up explosive plays. They’ve successfully defended 144 designed passing plays vs 136 failures, or 51.4%. They’re particularly effective when they blitz and the majority of successful pass defenses on my tally sheet involve bringing an inside backer into the pass rush either as part of a blitz or as a stunt with an outside backer dropping. Some examples:
- :00 - Some good penetration here by Sandberg since the back has to take the blitzing ILB, but its even better coverage by #1 CB R. Wright.
- :08 - Roberts and Sandberg both get through on the blitz, flushing the QB to make a tough attempt on the hoof. #21 DB Hardge has to follow this deep crosser all the way across the field but stays admirably tight.
- :25 - I don’t think Grant gets credit for the tackle here but he makes this play by driving the TE back and forcing the WR back inside where he’s got lots of help.
- :33 - Another blitz that gets home, this one with both ILBs and the safety but dropping the OLBs into coverage, which takes away the hot route.
OSU is surrendering about 7.3 yards per pass attempt, which isn’t a bad number, but almost 19% of dropbacks result in a 15+ yard gain, which is. As Travis and I discussed on the podcast, I think this secondary is fine (and that’s actually a huge improvement on previous years) but they tend to break down if the quarterback is given time in the pocket, and the pass rush generates virtually no pressure when they’re bringing only four rushers. They frequently play man defense, especially when blitzing, and that requires putting linebackers on backs and tight ends to sometimes disastrous results. Some examples:
- :00 - With #56 OLB Sharp taking the back and Speights blitzing, Roberts doesn’t have any other job here but to get in the throwing lane. He doesn’t, and Wright crosses his feet.
- :08 - No blitz this time until a real late attack by the ILB, and with a pocket that holds up this long the coverage is going to break down.
- :23 - OSU’s CBs are coached to play physically on these comeback routes, but its they’re worst defended pass concept on my tally sheet. Here Wright loses is footing and #5 CB Austin is leaning and wouldn’t have been able to recover if the pass went the other way.
- :36 - The Beavs usually go to man coverage in 3rd down situations like this, and that means Roberts has to cover the back. With the DBs to the field cleared out (since they’re also in man on guys coming inside, and then they get blocked by bigger opponents) there’s too much distance and traffic for Roberts to have a chance at catching the back until after a big gain. #0 DB Arnold winds up saving the touchdown.