BSB Breakdown: Empty Sets Mean Big Gains

Virginia Tech got to Ohio State with some exotic blitzes, but the Buckeyes showed some new wrinkles to keep defenders out of the box vs. Kent State. One of the main strategies was to empty the backfield, spreading things out and making it easier for freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett to diagnose each play.

There has been much debate about what to take from Saturday’s Ohio State win against a clearly overmatched Kent State team.

Going back and looking at the tape – as well as listening to postgame interviews – there’s one thing we learned for sure: The Ohio State coaching staff wanted to try to see how J.T. Barrett would fare in empty backfield situations.

According to my count on a reviewing of the game, the Buckeyes showed an empty backfield 12 times, though on a handful of those, they did motion a back or hybrid “H” player to the wing to either help with blocking or to receive a shovel pass (we’ll still include those in our look at the offense just for fun). In addition, OSU generally used its base 11 personnel in each situation, splitting backs and tight ends out in order to keep the Golden Flashes off balance.

After the game, head coach Urban Meyer said that was by design as it matches the skills of the redshirt freshman quarterback.

“We actually did some empty,” Meyer said. “I think he'll be a good empty quarterback, five receiver sets, so we're still, once again, figuring out exactly how we're going to be moving the ball as an offense once we start getting to the Big Ten season.”

That came in stark contrast to the week prior against Virginia Tech, a game in which Ohio State used a fair number of max-protect sets against a blitz-happy Hokies team that still got the last laugh in the end.

This time around against a team that doesn’t quite bring the same pass-rushing bona fides as the Hokies, the Buckeyes chose to trust Barrett to make the hot read against pressure and get the ball out quickly. To the quarterback, that’s an agreeable scenario from a strategy sense because it takes potential blitzers out of the box.

"I think (Meyer is) talking about just empty, so getting people away from the box,” Barrett said. “When we have a lot of people in the box, we're really not sure where they might be coming from as far as blitzes or things like that. It just clears up the picture for us as far as protection, knowing where I'm hot at.

“I think that's what he's talking about and he's right because it makes me feel better when there's not eight people in the box like Virginia Tech and there's only five."

BSB took a look at each time the Buckeyes went with an empty backfield in the Kent State game and came up with the following statistics. In 12 plays, Barrett went 7 for 9 for 152 yards passing with three touchdowns and an interception while also running twice for 8 yards (once after a bad snap and once when flushed from the pocket). The 12th play was a pass interference penalty for Kent State.

Here’s a breakdown of a few plays the Buckeyes ran out of empty sets and the results (click each link to view).

Michael Thomas first TD
This is a perfect example of Barrett properly reading the blitz and getting the ball out quickly. Kent State tries to run a delayed blitz up the middle, something Virginia Tech did with great success, but Barrett sees it and hits Thomas cutting across the field from the right side. Thomas catches the ball in stride in the area vacated by the blitzing linebacker and scoots into the end zone for a 14-yard score. The blitzer wasn’t blocked but Barrett still gets the ball out in plenty of time for the score.

Michael Thomas second TD
An easy completion, and then Thomas for the second week in a row takes a short pass and houses it. Barrett isn’t under any pressure from the four-man rush but finds Thomas isolated on a diagonal curl route under the coverage 5 yards downfield. From there, Thomas makes multiple people miss – aided by some really bad angles by the Kent State defenders – and goes the distance for the 63-yard score. Nothing but pitch and catch as the Buckeyes are able to spread out the Flashes and then make them pay.

Michael Thomas interception
OK, so this one didn’t go quite as well for Ohio State, though I think in the end Barrett made the right read. Ohio State runs double slants on the left side and Thomas gets inside position on the corner, Demetrius Monday, and the throw is where it needs to be. Instead, the ball hits Thomas in the chest and pops up for the interception by Matt Dellinger. Monday also must be credited for pretty physical coverage. Just a play that probably could have been an inch or two better all around.

Devin Smith TD
OK, we cheated a bit here, as this is one of the plays the Buckeyes showed empty and then moved Dontre Wilson to a wing to block. But there’s still really no back in the backfield for a handoff, so we’ll go with it. Kent State tries a five-man zone blitz here, with both ends dropping into coverage and four linebackers blitzing. This is the kind of blitz that might have given Ohio State trouble the week prior, but Barrett shows calm in the pocket despite the oncoming rush and finds Devin Smith wide open on the corner route. The safety again takes a bad angle and Smith is able to cut upfield and score. Credit Barrett with the poise in the pocket to make a play like this work.

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