Virginia Tech had gone down to take a 17-14 lead just before halftime, capping a run of 17 unanswered points, and the stadium was rocking. Hokie fans were hungry for another upset, and it seemed like they had a chance to pull it off.
A lesser team would’ve buckled under the pressure, but Urban Meyer had prepared his guys for this test. You don’t get to stay on the top of the mountain without having a big target on your back, and the opening drive of the third quarter was a perfect response to all the momentum that Virginia Tech had managed to build up before halftime.
Let’s look at exactly what happened, and why.
SEE IT (Sequence starts at 1:23:57)
Play #1 | 1st & 10 | -25 Yard Line | 15:00 3Q
Gain of 1 yard on the jet sweep by Braxton Miller to the left.
It’s always good as a play caller to keep a couple of things up your sleeve for the second half, so you don’t give your opponent the opportunity to talk about it and adjust at halftime. This play is a great example of that.
One of the challenges that Virginia Tech presents with this defense is that its aggressive upfield rush of the edge defenders makes it tough to consistently get the ball to the perimeter. Meyer and his staff are attacking this problem right away with the first play of the second half.
Forget about the jet sweep itself for a moment. Instead, take a look at the alignment of the back and the tight end to the left. With two skill players to that side serving as blockers on the jet sweep, Ohio State wants to outnumber the defense at the point of attack, so that any effect the edge defenders may have is nullified. The thought is that the edge defenders come straight up the field to cut off any run or throw out wide, forcing the play up inside of them.
On this play, Ohio State does a great job initially of blocking the front side of the play, but the “B” backer is very smart about his depth. He’s very careful not to blindly overrun the play, and once he sees the play start to develop inside of him, he works back across the face of the blocker, and ends up helping bring down Miller after a very short gain.
Bud Foster has this defense coached up for the different adjustments they expect to see from the Buckeye offense, and while Meyer may come back to this later on in the game, Virginia Tech is able to win on first down.
Play #2 | 2nd & 9 | -26 Yard Line | 14:32 3Q
Gain of 20 yards and a first down by Cardale Jones on the QB counter play up the middle.
Contrary to popular belief, you can still pull your linemen against the "Bear" front that Virginia Tech stayed in most of the game, it’s just a lot harder to do.
The problem you need to solve is how to block the guy lined up over that guard you’re trying to pull.
One solution is to tighten down the line splits, or the space between each offensive linemen, so that you’re not creating a ton of extra room in the line when you pull, and the other linemen are close enough to get a body on the defensive lineman right away.
Football is all about spacing, and that includes the big guys up front.
As for the play itself, it’s a classic counter scheme, with Cardale Jones as the ball carrier instead of the tailback.
Cardale gives a quick look to the single receiver side to allow the back to his left to get in front of him, as well as to sell the pass play, and then takes off up the middle.
Ohio State tried challenging the defense to the outside on the previous play, and this time the Buckeyes keep it between the tackles, with much better results.
The offensive line does a great job of creating room and blocking at the point of attack, and the key block that allows Jones to take off for a much bigger gain is the block by the receiver No. 3 Michael Thomas on the free safety. That creates a lane that opens up space down the field, and if Cardale was a little faster he could’ve taken this the distance.
In fact, it’s the unblocked Will linebacker who ends up chasing down Cardale from behind and making the tackle, but not before he picks up 20 yards and nearly gets the offense to midfield on the second play of the drive.
Play #3 | 1st & 10 | -46 Yard Line | 14:08 3Q
Touchdown! Pass complete to Braxton Miller from Cardale Jones for a 54-yard score.
It’s often said that offenses go fast in order to catch defenses off guard or get them when they’re not looking. While that can be true at times, there’s another great reason why so many offensive coaches are so keen on keeping their foot on the gas pedal.
The reason is that sometimes you want to catch the defense thinking, because when you’re playing fast, the tendency is to go with your gut, and to fall back on your preparation and experience. Ohio State ran this play three times in the first half, each time throwing the flat route quickly underneath the defense.
Now, if you’re a defender and you see No. 15 Ezekiel Elliot coming in motion to your side in the flat, you’re thinking, “Here we go again.”
For Virginia Tech, once the football is snapped, both defenders chase after the flat route, leaving the short “sit” route wide open underneath.
But that’s not why offensive coordinator Ed Warinner called the play.
Jones was coached up in the locker room at halftime to look for the corner route the next time this play is called, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, for the reason we just talked about. The defenders will probably start to sit on this route since they’ve seen it so many times already this game.
The other reason is because of the simple pass coverages Virginia Tech is playing behind its aggressive front to stop the run.
With so many defenders up near the line of scrimmage, Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster is limited to basic man coverage in the secondary, and they’re not even able to double anyone out wide because they don’t have any extra defenders to spare.
Because the free safety has been aligning to the side of the single back in the backfield (to play as an extra defender against the option and the QB run game), he is also responsible for adjusting to the motion when the back moves out of the backfield and heads to the wide side of the field.
The free safety is responsible for defending the first vertical route out of the route concept, so he’s the man assigned to cover the deep corner route. In this case though, it’s not just a matter of one-on-one coverage, because for most of the game, everyone for Ohio State is in single coverage.
Instead, it’s about leverage.
The corner route is incredibly difficult to throw consistently because of the small window you have between the nearest defender and the sideline. By making it so that the free safety has to come from the other side of the field to cover the route, it’s a lot more difficult for him to cover the corner route effectively, and as a result, you give Jones a much bigger window to throw the corner route to Braxton Miller.
Alex Kirby is the author of Every Play Revealed, a breakdown of the national championship game between the Buckeyes and Oregon you can find here, and he will write about the Buckeyes' X's and O's throughout the season.