Ohio St is replacing one of the best quarterbacks in school history in Justin Fields. Over 22 games of film study on him, I was deeply impressed with his accuracy, command of the offense, and ability to improvise - the Buckeyes frequently just out-talent their opponents, but I watched several games where he put the team on his back.
His replacement, 4-star 2020 recruit #7 QB Stroud, may have that in his future, but I don’t think he’s there yet. Ohio St’s per-play success rate on designed forward passing in their opener was underwater at 40% efficiency - 8 successful dropbacks vs 12 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance, which includes scrambles. That’s a pretty big falloff from 2020’s 60.2% success rate by the same measure. Stroud was better in the screen game, 4 successes vs just 1 failure, and for most of the night the offense wasn’t trying to throw the ball deep at all.
But the Buckeye’s explosive offense is lethal - they only had five plays in the game go over 15 yards, and all five were long touchdowns, four of them passing, and that alone was enough to win the game. Here they are:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - I think this is Stroud’s most impressive throw of the night - there’s a man in his face and he’s throwing off-platform back across the field. #2 WR Olave is just too good to contain with underneath coverage alone.
- :27 - A safety who gets turned around by an outside step on a post route is simply no match for #5 WR Wilson. A clean pocket and on-time throw in stride.
- :47 - This is probably a designed screen and not a checkdown, but it’s still a pretty nice throw over and around the DE who’s gotten past #78 LT Petit-Frere to #32 RB Henderson.
- 1:07 - Nice fake and rollout to the field, and this is a challenging throw to make on the move, even to a wide open receiver.
Olave and Wilson are absolutely phenomenal receivers, and over 2020 completely took over the passing game. In 2019 there was a five-man rotation at wideout that included those two, but also KJ Hill, Binjimen Victor, and Austin Mack. When those three left after that season, the next three guys up weren’t getting their targets, instead those concentrated in Olave and Wilson’s hands:
That pattern appears to continue in 2021, with Olave and Wilson getting every target except for two thrown to #11 WR Smith-Njigba. Several Ohio St sources have told me that Smith-Njigba is the next great wideout for the Buckeyes, but I just haven’t seen the production on the field - he’s averaging under 5 yards per catch on his career. Beyond that, the WR corps for Ohio St is curiously thin: there appears to be only one other scholarship returner, #4 WR Fleming who was a highly touted recruit but similarly had very little production last year and no targets against Minnesota, plus three very talented true freshmen we didn’t see at all last Thursday. The average talent rating is off the charts for this unit, but it looks to me like just a two-man operation for Saturday’s game.
Stroud may have just had some first-half nerves against Minnesota, but I think there’s more going on in the passing game than that. I noted some problems in reading the field and locking onto a receiver, and I was also surprised at some shakiness in pass protection from a very talented offensive line.
The o-line re-shuffle for this season is absolutely baffling to me. They returned both of last year’s starting tackles, 2020’s right tackle Petit-Frere and 2020’s left tackle #75 OL Munford. But they’ve moved Munford to left guard, Petit-Frere across the line to left tackle, and brought in a backup from last year (he played the entire Michigan St game), #79 OT D. Jones to be the new right tackle. They’ve also assigned a backup who got some reps last year, #77 OL P. Johnson, to be the new right guard, even though he’s clearly built like a tackle. Chip and I talked through these moves on the podcast and they’re pretty interesting, but I’m not sold that they make more sense than simply keeping Munford and Petit-Frere at tackles and plugging in guards as needed, since several got extensive experience last year like #55 OL M. Jones.
The other interesting move is replacing the center, who last year was Josh Myers. When he was out against Michigan St, they moved the left guard, #76 OL H. Miller, to snap the ball, and it sure was an adventure - lots of bad snaps that disrupted the rhythm of the offense. Later in that game, they replaced him with #53 C Wypler, who sailed the ball over the QB’s head for a safety. Miller is apparently slotted to be the new center in 2021, but he wasn’t available against Minnesota so Wypler took over. He’s the odd man out in a line made up entirely of tackles otherwise, but I thought he played fine … though I did notice a couple of bad snaps in the game.
I think adjusting to their new roles was taking some time against Minnesota, because pocket problems contributed to a number of unsuccessful passing plays. Some examples:
- :00 - Petit-Frere and Jones just aren’t giving Stroud three seconds to work with, though I think he steps up in the pocket nicely he still over throws this deep shot. Jones is clearly enormous but I’m not wild about his technique - he’s bending at the waist instead of the knees and ankles with a good straight back, and it’s limiting his ability to move laterally and re-anchor after a strike.
- :20 - The snap clearly throws off the timing of this play, but Johnson gets caught lunging and the pocket immediately collapses.
- :33 - It’s a quick throw to Smith-Njigba because Petit-Frere is having some trouble with the end. This crosser didn’t have much hope with two defenders over it even if he hadn’t slipped. With more pocket time Stroud probably would have come back to Olave, who’s open over the middle.
- :46 - Ohio St is pretty comfortable with just two receivers in the pattern as long as they’re Olave and Wilson, as here when they’re using 8 blockers to keep Stroud upright. The problem is the new TE and new RB aren’t communicating about this pickup and their guy tips the ball, for an interception.
Ohio St’s returning starter at tight end, #88 TE Ruckert, has had some pretty memorable catches in his career. However, the Buckeyes don’t really target him much - just 5.5% of all throws last year, and one last Thursday. But tight ends are absolutely essential to this offense, and after last season Ohio St lost an excellent blocking TE, Luke Farrell to the NFL. He was throwing the key block in the majority of Ohio St’s plays last season, and when in 12-personnel with the TEs on opposite ends of the formation, the play went to Farrell’s side over 80% of the time - I just think he was a far more effective blocker than Ruckert was, which isn’t surprising because they played different roles in the offense, and replacing him is tough.
It looks like they’ve selected #16 TE Stover to be that blocking tight end. He’s a converted defensive player and I think still learning the position, because his effectiveness on Thursday was much lower than the bar Farrell set. They’ve also frequently used walk-on #34 TE Rossi as a blocker and quasi-fullback. Tight ends in the formation were useful in predicting the playcall in 2020 - they rushed about 39% of the time with one tight end in, but about 60% of the time with two or more. On Thursday against Minnesota rushing frequency was down, to 31% in 11-pers and way down to 36% in 12-pers. That reflects being in a tighter game, but also I think less confidence in replacing Farrell.
By contrast, the rushing game was very efficient against Minnesota: 13 successes on a per-play basis vs just 5 failures, or 72.2%. That’s an unsustainably high number of course coming from just one game, but last year’s 62.1% rate predicts that it’s not going to be far off for the 2021 season. The Buckeyes have to replace the great back Trey Sermon, but if anything the tailback room is in a better spot this year with returner #33 RB Teague and exciting freshmen #32 Henderson and #28 RB M. Williams.
Each got a lot of touches against Minnesota, including two touchdowns (both were on broken defenses, but it’s still impressive speed for bigger backs). What I think is more relevant to the rushing offense is their ability to power through tackles for yards after contact:
- :00 - Stover whiffs badly on his slice block, but Teague simply drags his tackler for three yards and the first down.
- :12 - The second level blocks by Munford and Johnson have their hats to the inside, allowing the backers to keep going outside and force this run back in. But Williams recognizes it and puts his foot in the ground to get through the hole with a tackler around his waist.
- :22 - Another whiffed slice block, by Ruckert this time, and it allows the end he’s supposed to hit plus the backer to get free shots at Williams, but he simply bounces off of them.
- :29 - Nice job by Rossi, who graded out as the best blocker on my tally sheet, but this play is made when Henderson recognizes that Munford has lost control of his man in the frontside hole and bounces it backside.
As the above clips show, Ohio St is comfortable operating out of the shotgun, pistol, or under-center alignments, but they mostly used an offset back against Minnesota. It’s too small of a sample from just that game, but last year the QB/RB alignment was fairly predictive of the playcall: they ran 39% of the time out of the shotgun with an offset back, 58% of the time when under center, and over 81% of the time when in the pistol.
Ohio St plays a base 4-3, and the defining characteristic is a single-high safety on virtually every snap I’ve seen them defend. The linebackers, boundary safety, and somewhat new “Bullet” safety have extensive responsibilities in the box and in coverage.
I think the defensive line, particularly the tackles, is the strongest unit on the defense. They lost last year’s big man in the middle, Tommy Togiai, but return the three other tackles in 2020’s rotation: #92 DT Garrett, #52 DT A. Jackson, and #6 DT Vincent. They also return #86 DT Cage, who got some reps last year but who seemed to be unavailable against Minnesota; instead we saw #58 DT T. Hamilton in extensive rotation last Thursday. All are big, talented guys and I’ve got very few poor reps for any of them on my tally sheet.
The defensive ends are deep and experienced as well. Again just one departure from the rotation, starter Jonathon Cooper, but returning the other three in #9 DE Z. Harrison, #11 DE T. Smith, and #8 DE Jean-Baptiste. Interestingly, it seems that three additional returners with limited experience have been jumped over for the fourth spot in the rotation, which went to true freshman #55 DE Sawyer against Minnesota. Sawyer is clearly very talented, but he looks about 15-20 lbs underweight for the job right now and I think he’ll need to grow into the role. I also spotted true freshman #44 DE Tuimoloau on some rare 5-DL fronts when Ohio St really crowded the line against Minnesota’s jumbo sets. I think each of the three guys in primary rotation are high quality ends, but over the last couple seasons I haven’t seen the truly elite game-changer this team has had in the past.
In 2020, Ohio St was operating at a 55.7% success rate defending designed runs (57.6% if excluding the Alabama game), which is a good number in my experience but not a great one. I was seeing more of a mixed bag against Minnesota: 22 successes vs 21 failures, though of course the Gophers were frequently in very heavy sets and giving up a few more efficiency runs is probably to be expected. Here’s a representative sample from last Thursday:
- :00 - The whole right of the line is getting washed inside here, including the over-eager strongside backer. The DB is being read by the QB and held outside by the mesh, and when he does get to the back he’s not square and gets dragged a few yards.
- :23 - Just sound assignment football here, particularly by Hamilton and Jean-Baptiste - those were the least experienced guys at their respective positions but they showed out well, so I think the d-line is in good hands.
- :29 - Vincent does a great job blowing up this play by penetrating so far into the backfield it interrupts the backside pullers, along with Harrison. Reader, note on this play that they’ve moved the Bullet safety high and spun the free safety down over the strong safety, which is a clear signal of a blitz.
- :38 - Harrison is getting too wide and upfield, while Garrett is getting trapped inside, leaving a big hole which the MIKE is on the wrong side of. The cat blitz from the boundary isn’t relevant to the play, but this does show how they bring the safety down from an initial two-high look to cover the void - this is almost always a bluff that indicates blitz, they want to play single-high.
The linebackers are the crux of this defense, and Ohio St is replacing just about everybody from last year - all three starters and the primary rotational backer (arguably fourth starter, since they sometimes went to a 4-4-3): Tuf Borland, Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard, and Pete Werner. The four who replaced them got a handful of reps last year, but I still think they showed some inexperience against Minnesota.
The structure of the defense means there is a WILL and a MIKE on every play. The former was played by starter #3 LB Mitchell with a few late reps going to converted running back #22 LB Chambers, and the latter was a fairly even split between starter #35 LB Eichenberg and backup #30 LB Simon … I think Eichenberg looks a bit more technically sound but Simon has a higher ceiling.
This front provided a pretty effective pass rush, generating a sack or scramble on about 12% of all dropbacks. Here’s what those looked like:
- :00 - The motion reveals man coverage, with the Eichenberg following the back out - pretty typical for this defense. They bluff blitz with Mitchell but it’s a four man rush with one end beating the LT outside and the other twisting inside to flush the QB.
- :13 - Classic double-A blitz with no one picking up Simon. Pretty good coverage on the back end, which needs to hold up just long enough for him to get home, but with Simon that’s short.
- :25 - Great move by Harrison to get around the LT and knock the ball out, which bounces like a basketball into Garrett’s hands after he works around the LG.
The SAM spot is where it gets interesting. When Minnesota had two or more tight ends in (sometimes these were extra offensive linemen moonlighting as TEs), Ohio St matched with their third backer - #19 LB Gant on every such snap. When the Gophers went to 11-pers, the Buckeyes subbed in #14 DB Hickman, whom I hadn’t seen much in 2020, as the “Bullet” safety, who looked to me to have basically the same responsibilities as a SAM but is a bit more mobile for pass coverage. What’s somewhat confusing is that on about half of those 4-3 reps when Gant is in, Ohio St kept Hickman in as well, but instead of playing the Bullet role on those reps, Hickman was just replacing the strong safety with those duties instead.
Even though the defense is therefore showing more technically nickel looks than it has in the past, this still looks like simply a modified 4-3 structure to me. Ultimately I don’t think it matters much who’s playing SAM, Bullet, or strong safety - there’s always two of those three in, and with well defined roles. That means, like last year, linebackers continuing their one-on-one coverage responsibilities, occasionally leading to some strange matchups with backers sprinting down the sideline in coverage.
I thought this new group of backers got into the most trouble last Thursday covering the pass. Some examples:
- :00 - This looks like assignment confusion between Eichenberg and Hickman to me.
- :09 - Mitchell is out of position watching the mesh routes in front of him and forgetting the tight end coming over the top. This exact same play, with this exact same coverage problem, happened later in the game as well, but there was an ugly injury on that one and I don’t want to show it.
- :30 - Here’s Mitchell out in coverage over the back who’s split out wide and the defense is in cover-1, not exactly the best use of his size and skills. Simon doesn’t do him any favors by not getting in the underneath throwing lane.
- :41 - This RPO slant pass should be pretty familiar to fans of modern offenses - the linebackers get sucked up by the run threat, out of the throwing lane, and the corner can’t possibly close in time. RPO throws were curiously rare from the Big Ten opponents I watched Ohio St play and so my tally sheet only has three successful defenses of such passes in all of 2020, while Alabama and Penn St were pretty effective with them.
Ohio St’s defensive backfield is facing some challenges. It wasn’t great in 2020, and they appeared to have some guys missing against Minnesota. Those issues contributed to only a 50.8% success rate against passes and screens last season (54.9% if the Alabama game is excluded), and what seems like a worse unavailability situation against Minnesota dropped them to just 40.7% - 11 successful pass defense plays vs 16 unsuccessful ones. It’s just one game and I expect more improvement here than anywhere else on the team, but that is dangerously deep underwater.
I was expecting to see last year’s slot corner / boundary safety, #21 DB Williamson, but he was absent and I’ve heard no explanation of his status. Instead his spot was played by #12 DB Ransom, a 2020 recruit. #41 DB Proctor returned, he was the starter as last year’s free safety but missed some time in 2020 with injury. At that time he was replaced with #23 DB Hooker, but we didn’t see Hooker last Thursday, instead #17 DB Shaw came in when Proctor was hurt again.
The Buckeyes had to replace starting outside corner Shaun Wade, but the other starter, #7 CB Banks should be returning. However, we didn’t see him against Minnesota either. I’ve been told by multiple sources that he is the most likely of all the missing guys to return, so here are the best clips I have for him from last year to illustrate what I thought was pretty good but still beatable coverage (I trust these need no narration):
The three outside corners I saw in rotation against Minnesota were all freshmen: #29 CB Burke, #4 CB Cavazos, and #16 CB Watts. I saw some pretty grabby coverage and hips getting turned the wrong way, which are issues common to young corners:
- :00 - Some assignment confusion here; Burke gets his hips flipped and isn’t in position to make a quick or effective tackle.
- :20 - Watts’ reaction is priceless.
- :47 - This one surprised me when Cavazos didn’t draw a flag.
- 1:14 - Ransom as slot corner bites on the outside step and gets taken inside.
I think the biggest single issue I would identify in some of Minnesota’s longer plays came with all these new backers and DBs tackling in space. A lot of attention has been paid to the Gophers constantly running the ball with big offensive line sets and getting “three yards and a cloud of dust,” but where I was seeing Ohio St get into trouble was letting short plays get big with tackling footwork and technique problems from young players:
- :00 - Giving up 4th & 1 to this back and this many OL in the formation is probably inevitable, but it didn’t need to go 56 yards - that comes from a whiff by the corner and a bad angle by the high safety.
- :25 - Hickman has (or should have) help inside, and so should be committing to outside leverage so he doesn’t get stiffarmed to the ground when trying to change momentum. Proctor lets the ballcarrier get three more yards by tackling high.
- :34 - I count 10 yards after contact here.
- :51 - I’m really not sure what Ransom is doing here.