OSU Football Second Thoughts: Minnesota

How did Ohio State take another step toward the Big Ten Championship Game and improve its standing in the College Football Playoff rankings? We take a closer look through a review of the film.

This game represented another step in the maturation of the Buckeyes, who not only kept making big plays but continued executing offensively even when things went wrong. That hasn't always been a characteristic of this unit during the Urban Meyer era (though things haven't gone wrong very often).

Minnesota was impressive. The Gophers didn't fade. They showed pretty much exactly what they had in previous weeks. They have a very good running game, a very good tight end, a bad quarterback and a solid defense that just couldn't handle one of the best offenses in the country. That's more a positive reflection on Ohio State than a negative one on the Gophers.

I know Penn State's defense has better numbers, but I think this Minnesota unit is tougher to deal with because of a better secondary, which makes what the Buckeyes did in Minneapolis that much more impressive to me. I guess on a side note the Golden Gophers getting burned on so many big plays is an example of why Penn State's strategy of keeping everything in front was sound, but I still think Ohio State did more to make it effective than the Nittany Lions did.

Regardless of the opposing strategy, Ohio State really executed everything it wanted to do offensively. The offensive line was again fantastic, and really the blocking is above average or better at just about every position on the field, from running back to wide receiver.

J.T. Barrett handled everything that was thrown at him. Not that he was perfect, but one would have to really nitpick to find much wrong with his game.

Jalin Marshall certainly showed enough explosiveness to explain why the coaching staff would rather build him back up than sit him down, and Ezekiel Elliott also continues to get better at finding holes and making cuts.

Defensively, the OSU front seven had its ups and downs, but I am inclined to understand why the coaches weren't too down on the performance. The quality of the opponent does have to be taken into considering. Not only was the blocking pretty good, David Cobb made some good reads and cuts to extend runs. That said, depth is a real concern. They tried to spell the starters, but none of the reserves did a thing when they were in the game.

Minnesota is certainly unique in its commitment to putting a bunch of big personnel packages on the field and running the ball. They're the antithesis of Meyer's offensive philosophy in that they're not necessarily against running into a stacked box. They say if you want to load the box, that's fine. We'll load it better -- kind of like Wisconsin. Ohio State didn't really adjust to this. The front was fighting a numbers game. Yeah, the cornerback might come in to join the fun as an eighth defender, but Minnesota would have eight blockers (two tight ends and a fullback) along with the quarterback and tailback. That was probably a fair gamble, especially when you know your offense is going to make a lot of plays so you can afford to let the other team move the ball a little bit. For a certain potential opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game, a customized game plan may be in order however.

If Ohio State wants to be a shut-down run defense, the linemen need to come off blocks better but they need stronger fills by the linebackers and more aggressive play by the safeties. Perhaps this would compromise the pass defense too much, or perhaps it's prescribed by the defense but the safeties just aren't comfortable enough with the new scheme to play it as downhill as they could. Or perhaps they just see an old-fashioned running game so rarely they aren't used to making that read.

Notes and observations:

  • Facing third-and-1, the Buckeyes came out in a set with a split end to the left and two receivers and the tight end split to the right, what is called a "trey RT" set in Urban Meyer's old Florida playbook. Minnesota shifted its defensive front into a "bear" look -- yes the same one that worked so well for Virginia Tech but not so much for anyone else who has tried it -- with five men on the on the line of scrimmage, including three over Ohio State's three interior offensive linemen. A safety walked up as a third linebacker, leaving no one deep in coverage for the Golden Gophers. This would be key as there was no last line of defense when Barrett faked a pitch to his right then cut back to his right through a whole created by center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price. The linebackers all moved toward the fake, giving Barrett time to outrun them to the second level of the defense. Michael Thomas got a good piece of the corner. Then it was off to the races for the redshirt freshman quarterback, who apparently surprised even his head coach when he was not caught by the Minnesota cornerback to that side of the field or the safety coming from the other. Eighty-six yards later, Ohio State had a 7-0 lead and Barrett had the new record for longest run by an Ohio State quarterback. This was a key play because it exploited Minnesota's choice to sell out against the run, and it highlighted the growth of Barrett as a playmaker and the coaching staff's work in coming up with ways to combat how teams defend their base offense. Later they ran the fake toss for a big gain again, but it was out of a different formation entirely.
  • Great recognition of a screen by the entire defensive line on Minnesota's second drive. Washington got in the throwing lane and Bosa cleaned up.
  • Ohio State's third drive included a really nice call of a swing pass out to Elliott to deal with the aggressive scheme of Minnesota. He just outran the linebacker to the sideline to pick up the first down on a third down.
  • OSU's second TD was just Barrett making something out of nothing. Good coverage, good initial protection. One of Minnesota's best defensive players Cedric Thompson was there but couldn't make a play on the ball.
  • Great read and trigger by Doran Grant to break up a short third-down pass attempt for Maxx Williams. The Buckeyes sniffed out a middle screen on the first drive of the third quarter and seemed really ready for this type of stuff until they were protecting a big lead late. It does feel like this defense is more disciplined than last year and getting better every week. They did a great job handling Minnesota's trick play with the reverse pass. Darron Lee read and reacted very quickly, covering a lot of ground to take him down, and both safeties were in position to defend the throw down the field. Raekwon McMillan also got a reroute on Williams to further disrupt the timing of the play.
  • Cobb's first TD was a patient run. He let his right tackle block down on Washington, the pulling guard neutralize Perry and ran through an arm tackle attempt by Bosa. Williams handled Powell. The drive started with Tommy Schutt and Tyquan Lewis in the game but neither did much. On Cobb's second touchdown, the Gophers ran the old power play to the weakside and it broke open back to his right thanks to blocks on Adolphus Washington, Darron Lee and Curtis Grant. Tyvis Powell could have prevented a first down but Cobb made him miss.
  • On the first play of the next drive after the first Minnesota score, Washington got great push and pursued down the line to take care of the tackle as Bennett held the point on the front side. He still gets a little high sometimes and can be moved out, but his unusual movement ability to for an inside player is obvious.
  • The jet shovel pass toward a two-tight end alignment is really a great play. They used it to get out of their own end after a deep Minnesota punt in the second quarter. It essentially creates an extra gap and becomes very dangerous when the running back becomes a lead blocker. Marshall burst for a big gain (just two plays after he muffed a punt but managed to pick it up, so that's a nice job of not letting that linger) and got blocks from Heuerman, Vannett, Price and Decker with Elliott not having anyone to pick up until he was about 10 yards downfield. This was a useful play earlier in the season against Maryland's cover 0. If they have run play action off it yet, I can't recall, so that could be something to keep in mind. It just about went for a touchdown later but this was also the play call when Marshall fumbled. That was a play where the defender deserves credit more than anything.
  • Curtis Samuel showed a lot on his big kickoff return late in the second quarter: speed, of course, but also vision and balance. He's a smooth runner.
  • If both safeties were Vonn Bell, this defense would be pretty darn good. I thought Tyvis Powell was playing pretty well in the first half of the season, but he's been in the middle of some bad plays the last couple of games. He has struggled in run support. Bell plays with good instincts against the run and pass, and he really strikes people when he goes for a hit without being a headhunter.
  • On the screen pass touchdown to Evan Spencer no on even needed to be blocked because five guys were caught up the field rushing and there was no one in the middle of the field.
  • Minnesota ran two plays on the drive that followed the Marshall muffed punt. The Buckeyes stuffed a regular old power play with everyone in their gap and doing their thing, including Curtis Grant, who made the tackle. Then Minnesota kept its 13 personnel in the game but put the quarterback in the shotgun and ran zone read. They didn't block Bosa, meaning there were basically eight guys to block eight even with a safety and corner in the box. Steve Miller and Joshua Perry both filled the same inside gap so Cobb bounced it outside and got a block downfield from the left tackle on Powell.

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