Second Thoughts: Navy

What did a review of the tape from Ohio State's season-opening win reveal? Plenty about what the Buckeyes did well and what could use some work.

There is really no way to distill down how Navy was able to pile up the most rushing yards against Ohio State in almost 20 years. That's because the Midshipmen did not do it in any one way, and there was not just one weak spot here or there they exploited. The fact of the matter is they run an offense that is just hard to defend when executed correctly, and they executed it correctly a lot.

For the most part, Ohio State was pretty stout in the middle, at least when Michael Bennett was in the game. He was able to take on and defeat double teams and make giving to the fullback a losing proposition most of the time. Tommy Schutt did not fare so well when he was in. Adolphus Washington was also a lot to deal with as the three-technique, so Navy spent most of the day attacking the "bubble" in Ohio State's 4-3 front.

Ultimately, Navy should serve as a reminder of why all these modern spread offenses use elements of their system because you know what is easier than blocking Joey Bosa? Not blocking him. I'm sure he had a frustrating day because he wasn't allowed to just unleash his physical ability very often, rather he had to be disciplined and play his assignment, which often meant forcing the quarterback to pitch the ball. This is where some problems came in as the pursuit was not always there.

The advantage of optioning the end is twofold as he really can't do anything until you make a move as the quarterback, and it allows more people to block elsewhere. Ohio State's pursuit got caught up in the wash fairly often, letting Navy pitchmen get outside for good gains. At times it also appeared the pursuit was just slow, whether that was the middle linebacker or the strong safety. Of the group of players this involves, Curtis Grant and Vonn Bell most often flashed positively into the screen. I thought both played with the highest level of aggression while Josh Perry and Tyvis Powell were inconsistent. Perry had a couple of nice hits, but he also overran the play a few times. Powell also missed a few tackles, but overall the team tackled very well. And I don't think it means Powell had a bad day overall. He just had a couple of mistakes.

Meanwhile, Bell really jumped off the screen. He strikes when he tackles, and he looked very fundamentally sound while doing so. It's no surprise he is listed alone on the depth chart this week.

Navy is so hard to prepare for because its option attack is just unbelievably deep. There are still a lot of teams that run the triple option in high school, but any experience gained from that has to be marginal not only because of how well Navy executes it but also how many different ways it can be adjusted. Just stopping the fullback, quarterback and pitchman 50 times in a couple of hours is easier said than done simply because of repetition, but Navy's version of the veer is a lot tougher because they will vary who gets optioned and attack different gaps from play to play. It also stretches defense sideways by formation more than the old school attacks, which eventually died out for the most part because defenses got fast enough to overwhelm them as coaches put better athletes on defense.

So in looking back at this game, there were a fairly large number of times it looked like Ohio State had someone in the wrong gap, whether that meant too many men minding the pitch, fullback or quarterback. It varied, and determining exactly what happened is impossible without knowing the defensive call. The bottom line is simply that sometimes Navy's gonna get ya, and sometimes Navy did.

All that said, I'm not sure the adjustments Ohio State made to what is intended to be the base defense really worked all that well. Perry showed he has the speed and physicality to be a good Will linebacker, but maybe there is too much to analyze in the middle. Grant, meanwhile, has struggled with that in the past but looked much better most of the time Saturday, so the light really does appear to have come on for him. Darron Lee, who was at times among the group who may or may not have been minding the wrong assignment on the edge, also thrived overall simply by getting off blocks and making tackles in the open field. He displayed a lot to like physically, and the reasons he is the new man designated to stop bubble screens were easy to recognize. Chris Worley, his typical backup who started this game to get more speed on the field, had a rough day. He was victimized on a fairly large number of the big plays Navy had, whether he missed a tackle or failed to set the edge, but maybe playing the option is just not his jam.

(OK, so that was a lot of words about a challenge the defense won't see again this season unless Georgia Tech makes an unexpected run to the College Football Playoff, but I know there was a lot of curiosity from readers about how Navy was able to move the ball so successfully. And the same is true of a football junky like myself, so I am happy to explore the topic, and I hope I brought some added value to the discussion.)

Now, what about the offense? Well, so far so good. The second viewing of the game (which was delayed by traveling back late Saturday night and then the holiday weekend) did not necessarily reveal a lot of new things but rather reinforced perceptions from watching it live.

J.T. Barrett did a good job overall, but it did appear there were a few times he could have gotten them out of bad plays before the snap -- assuming he has such freedom to do so, of course. I'm thinking most specifically of the failed third down speed option in the second quarter before Ohio State's second field goal and the failed fourth down zone run to Ezekiel Elliott in the third quarter. Both times the Buckeyes were pretty much overwhelmed by numbers, something that is not supposed to happen with this offense. There was no free safety on the failed speed option, and he had two men split to his left being defended by one Navy player on the fourth down.

Tom Herman noted he should have kept the ball on the fourth-and-1 the Buckeyes converted late on a run by Elliott, too, but that one worked out anyway. There were several times it was hard to tell if Barrett made the right decision on the zone-read/inverted veer, but I think Navy's edge defenders also did a good job of playing tight enough to play both the give and the keep. There are times that happened to Braxton Miller and he pulled it, made the guy miss and ran for 10 yards or more, but Barrett can't do that. He can run for 10 yards on a keeper if everyone is preoccupied with the running back, though, and that is enough as long as he can execute in the passing game as well as he did in his first start.

Ohio State certainly does have more dynamic runners now overall than it did last year, so the hope that Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel can combine to make up for the yards lost when Miller went down is founded. Wilson looks bigger and more explosive, and Marshall certainly knows what to do when he has the ball in his hands. Samuel has above-average wiggle, but he is going to need space to operate than a Carlos Hyde did.

Marshall's playing time might have been curtailed for a while in the second and third quarters by some missed blocks, though, as there were at least a couple of times he had a chance to spring someone on a big play but couldn't contain his man. That was not an issue for either of the Buckeyes' senior receivers, though, so it is no mystery why Evan Spencer remains a valuable part of the offense. Wilson and Devin Smith both had good blocks on Michael Thomas' touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

Other notes and observations:

  • Smith reminded everyone of his ability to burn a defense when he went 80 yards for a pivotal touchdown, but that was also a busted coverage. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo called that play particularly painful because it was Cover 2, but it appeared the safety was either looking in the backfield or distracted by Wilson on a deep crossing route. Barrett's throw could have had more air under it, but it looked better on TV than it did live.

  • Billy Price had a down-and-up day in his first time starting at guard for Ohio State. He was called for holding once and was also beaten by a blitzing linebacker on a third down play that saw Barrett have to scramble early. He came back in the second half and had a few nice blocks without the breakdowns, including a pancake block downfield on one of Samuel's runs. Price also buried a lineman trying to go low to clog up the middle on Elliott's TD run in the fourth quarter and had the key block in opening up another run by Elliott to set up the last OSU TD.

  • On Lee's fumble return for a score, CBS color analyst Gary Danielson opined quarterback Keenan Reynolds should have given the ball to the fullback. Reynolds said the same thing after the game. That was also a play where it was obvious the potential con of putting a great athlete like Bosa in space and asking him to make a play as a matter of offensive strategy. Sometimes the bear eats you.

  • Danielson was irate a third-down run by Elliott was not reviewed prior to the failed fourth down, but he missed Elliott's forearm hitting the turf before he squirmed past the line to gain. He's right it should have been stopped and reviewed, but the refs got the spot right. Maybe then Ohio State could have taken the time to call a better play, though.

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