Ohio State Second Thoughts: Virginia Tech

What did a second look at the film of Ohio State's loss to Virginia Tech reveal? That a lot of things added up to the upset, some that will be easier to fix than others.

Given the revealing nature of interviews with Urban Meyer and his assistants on Monday morning, I sat down with the thought this would be one of the more interesting film reviews I have done. Coaches telling reporters pretty specifically what their opponent did to cause them problems is not a common thing, so this seemed like it would be a great opportunity to learn.

Whatever there was to learn about schemes was overshadowed by a reminder that the game almost always comes down to players performing, though. That's because more than anything, what Virginia Tech's defensive coaches did was tell their players, "Hey, beat that guy across fro you." They said your blockers are not going to be able to help each other on the inside, and our defensive backs don't need help on the outside. That means your plans to outnumber us with the option won't work because we'll have someone for the quarterback and the running backs even if you option one of our guys up front.

Ohio State was not drawn dead at that point, it just had to face the fact an offense that is designed to put defenses at a disadvantage in the running game would not really be able to do so. And that meant it was back to the essence of team sports: winning enough one on one matchups to add up to overall success.

Meyer knows this is something teams can do to try to stop his offense, and that is why he emphasizes recruiting the way he does. I could probably make the case that what he wants more than anything is to have those one-on-one matchups on the perimeter because as much as he admires old-school, smash-'em-up football, he is really enthralled by big plays and speed. His offense is based on making you stop the inside run, but he loves watching the big plays.

Hearing him talk about how Virginia Tech often defended the Buckeyes with no free safety, I was reminded of a passage in the biography of him written while he was still at Florida about how rarely teams would do that, but when I went back to look for that quote, I stumbled across one more telling.

"If they play no deep," Meyer told author Buddy Martin, "that gives them a one-man advantage. Except for one thing. This guy is Percy Harvin, that's Bubba Caldwell, that's (Cornelius Ingram) and that's Louis Murphy. Do you really have four players who can cover our four best receivers?"

The answer is supposed to be no, but Saturday night for Virginia Tech it was yes, at least well enough to dodge most of the bullets Ohio State threw at the secondary with a quarterback playing his second real game in almost two full years.

J.T. Barrett did a lot of good things. He showed a great deal of toughness along with adequate athleticism and arm. He had a few throws I bet he would like back, though, some that made defending his receivers who looked like they had a step easier. The Buckeyes weren't always able to get open, but there were times they did that the throw as not where it needed to be. Other times it just wasn't caught, and others still a great defensive play simply was made. It added up to an effective formula for Virginia Tech, but there is no doubt the Hokies played with fire and I'm sure came away happy to only get singed.

Virginia Tech showed Ohio State the benefits of playing a style of defense like the Buckeyes spent the entire offseason saying they want to play. The Hokies also showed the potential downsides, considering Ohio State hit three big pass plays and quite likely should have had at least a couple more. Is the tradeoff worth it? Probably. The difference between the performance of the two defenses was one suffered a few mental breakdowns while the other did not.

Other notes and observations:

  • The wrinkle of the "bear" front worked for Virginia Tech to really bother the Ohio State running game because it prevented the Hokies from getting overpowered in the middle and they have athletic enough ends and linebackers to keep up on the perimeter. Over and over again it was hard to tell if Barrett was reading the zone reads and inverted veers correctly because of how VT ends squeezed their gap. They were athletic enough to confuse the read and recover after Barrett made his decision, and the undersized linebackers were fast enough to run inside out and avoid blocks. Even Curtis Samuel was caught on one option pitch by the rover.

  • As far as Ohio State's defensive approach, the first VT play of its second drive showed how the cornerback can help against the run as Eli Apple filled to clean up. Adolphus Washington also beat a block to force the runner outside. However, VT exposed Curtis Grant in coverage several times, including twice on the first touchdown drive. He looks pretty good when he can attack downhill against the run but gets stiff in pass drops. They were able to attack him with trips, a typical way to deal with quarters coverage, so it was kind of ironic Virginia Tech was able to identify some of the weaknesses in the Buckeyes' new defense before Ohio State has even really gotten to enjoy the positives from running it correctly.
  • Ohio State was to a certain extent inviting extra rushers as Virginia Tech looked to usually be using a check-release with the linebackers simply coming if their man (tight end or running back) stayed in or picking him up if he went into a pattern. That's kind of surprising. It's a nod to Barrett's inexperience, but I would have thought they might believe he was better off reading the rush and hitting those guys in patterns.
  • VT offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler might not have been able to remake Tim Tebow for Urban Meyer (and the NFL), but he remade the Virginia Tech offense to utilize the talents of heady quarterback Michael Brewer with some tempo, rollouts and quick passes.
  • For the most part, Ohio State's problem was not a lack of aggression even though some seem to expect them to knock receivers off the line of scrimmage on every snap. Twice on Virginia Tech's second touchdown drive, Ohio State had a run blitz that opened up a big hole. Not sure if Brewer checked to these or it was just a fortunate call from the sideline. I thought the line did a good job providing pressure, but Brewer smartly got rid of the ball quickly a lot. He also extended some plays, including blitzes that weren't executed well and thus left the secondary vulnerable.
  • A bad snap kept Barrett from shoveling to Wilson on a play that looked like it was set up for him to get the edge. Instead Barrett had to take on two defenders and couldn't get away. Another bad play Braxton Miller might have turned into a big one because there was no one behind those two guys at the line of scrimmage.
  • At the end of the second quarter, Virginia Tech managed to get pressure twice while bringing the fewest rushers it had to that point in the game -- five -- as confusion led to a couple of unblocked players even though numbers wise OSU should have been OK. Ohio State actually dealt with this worse than when the Hokies brought six or seven guys, and that was true again late in the game when they turned loose a rusher untouched to sack Barrett more than once. There were also a couple of times a lineman was just physically beaten, but overall I don't think that was a major problem. Most of the time in the run game, there were just too many guys to block.
  • Joey Bosa only beat two linemen on his way to the quarterback for his strip sack. There must have been good coverage down the field because the QB held the ball for a while before getting hit.
  • After Ohio State tied it up, there was a big sequence with the bad kickoff, pass interference on Apple and then an unfortunately timed double A-gap blitz when the Hokies were running a jet sweep. Virginia Tech's go-ahead touchdown not bad coverage but a great throw and catch. Buckey Rogers is going to be a matchup problem for a lot of teams. He also caught a fade for a TD the week before.

  • Tech got more exotic in the final minutes, leading to better pressure even sometimes with fewer rushers. Barrett also appeared to have a hard time deciphering what they were doing in coverage as they dropped more back. Hazards of having a young quarterback. It appeared either he or Corey Smith misread what the defense was doing on the final interception. Just a guess, but Smith may have been right to keep going deep when he saw the corner squat on the route. On all three of his interceptions, Barrett seemed to throw without knowing what he was seeing.
  • Lastly it should be noted special teams were a huge problem. Aside from two missed field goals, all four of Virginia Tech's touchdown drives started with some kind of Ohio State kicking miscue. The kickoff team gave Virginia Tech good field position for two touchdown drives, first with a personal foul on a late hit and then with a kickoff out of bounds. The Hokies also scored on a short field after a shanked punt, and poor coverage turned a great Cameron Johnston punt into more good field position later in the game. On top of that, the return units contributed next to nothing positive. For as many problems as there were to deal with on offense and defense, the Buckeyes might have stolen a win with better showings in those areas.

  • Buckeye Sports Top Stories