SvoNotes: Watching Football, Sept 12

Jim Tressel's offensive game plan has taken criticism since Ohio State's loss to USC, and Jeff Svoboda tries to break down what went wrong in this in-depth issue of Watching Football. One major conclusion: When take so few gambles, the ones you take better work.

Jim Tressel has been the recipient of criticism from just about every direction in the wake of Ohio State's 18-15 loss to USC on Saturday in Columbus.

Much of that hand-wringing has dealt with the game plan Tressel and his offensive coaches drew up for the Trojans. The Buckeyes managed just 117 yards during the final three quarters and frittered away leads held for more than half of the game.

What caught my eye as the game went on was just how poorly the Buckeyes fared on first downs throughout the final trio of quarters. Much was made in the postgame interview room about OSU's 4-for-13 mark on third downs, but the Buckeyes earned a net loss of 14 yards on their final 12 first down plays, making third-down conversions that much harder.

So I decided to look at each first down play to see exactly what happened, both from a play-calling and execution standpoint. After the raw data (which I admit will be a little hard to follow) comes a few conclusions about what the Buckeyes were trying to accomplish.

Second Quarter
-9:50 left at the OSU 36: I, TE left; USC shows two deep safeties, one races to LOS near snap; Bryant Browning pulls left, leaving three rushers from the right to Jim Cordle to block on the backside; tackle made by backside rush; Brandon Saine gets 2 yards. Series result: Three-and-out.

-1:49 left at the OSU 27: 3 WR, Ace, Under Center; Terrelle Pryor has time to throw but overshoots DeVier Posey down the left side on a streak route; could have been hit with a nice throw; still not a high-percentage play; no gain. Series Result: Three-and-out.

Third Quarter
-12:32 left at the USC 49: I, TE right, 2 WR left; Eight in the box; No one lines up on Dane Sanzenbacher; Run between the tackles with Dan Herron; USC seems to see it coming; Wes Horton gets by Jake Ballard to start the play; Jurrell Casey also comes off of Browning; no gain. Series result: Three-and-out

-8:56 left at the USC 43 (after safety): I, TE left; USC does show two deep safeties, seven in box; Michael Morgan comes off the edge and Kevin Thomas blitzes from corner; 1-yard gain for Herron between the tackles. Series result: First down.

-7:37 left at USC 22; Shotgun, Ace, 2 TE (new formation); A play that should haunt OSU; USC puts its only safety well to the right of the formation. The lines show what will happen. OSU will run playaction left as Stoneburner, coming off the left of the formation, races into the open area behind the linebackers. While it's tough to assume this is what the Buckeyes were looking for, it's also a mismatch that favors OSU that should have been noticed.

As we advance the play a little bit, you can see that both linebackers follow the run and Stoneburner has acres of space in front of him. However, you can also see budding problems circled in purple. Horton has gotten inside of Cordle (after lining up there) and Browning is slow to see the edge pressure. If Pryor throws at the instant below, the play has a chance, but he's literally just set up.

Unfortunately, moving a frame or two ahead, both rushers have closed in on Pryor, who starts to scramble. Perhaps he's afraid of just heaving the ball toward Stoneburner because of the turnover potential, but again, the safety is nowhere to be seen.

As we hit our final frame, Pryor is forced to double back and cannot complete the pass. Still, Saine wheels out of the backfield and goes up the left sideline, totally uncovered. Pryor sprints left and just overshoots the running back with a pass that floats out of bounds.

On this one, the Buckeyes gave away two chances at a touchdown. Instead, it goes as no gain. Series result: First down.

-6:20 left at the USC 10: OSU goes into its shotgun, 3 WR, speed option formation, which results in, not so stunningly, a speed option. This might be the most predictable play call of them all, as this is something OSU did just about every time it was this close to the end zone in 2005 and against Navy. With eight USC players in the box, Pryor thinks he has a hole but is stuffed. He pitches to Herron but the ball hits the turf. Play result: minus-8 yards, net. Series result: Field goal.

-0:01 left at the OSU 20: Bunch Ace (Triangle left); Nine in the box, but no edge pressure; Jake Ballard kicks right; Michael Brewster gets to the second level on Chris Galippo; Herron reads the play well, going outside of DT Christian Tupou; LB Malcolm Smith is in a gap and blocked from the hole, but Herron slips as he goes through; 2-yard gain. Series result: First down.

Fourth Quarter
-13:51 left at the OSU 31: 3 WR, Ace, Under Center, TE right; eight in the box, USC brings five; streak pass down the left side too far for Posey; Pryor throws off back foot; no gain. Series result: First down.

-12:58 left at the OSU 44: 3 WR, Ace, Under Center, TE right; Two deep safeties but CB blitz left; Andy Miller misses cut block on Jurrell Casey, who slams Herron for a 2-yard loss. Series result: Punt.

-10:20 left at the USC 45: Bunch Ace (Triangle left); nine in the box; OSU sneaks Laamar Thomas into the bunch left and he runs an end around; There's a hole for Thomas, despite the fact that Everson Griffen gets upfield on Ballard; Miller, Browning, Brewster and Taurian Washington all get their blocks; Cordle pushes Taylor Mays out of the play; Thomas' cut is just a bit slow and he runs into the back of an OSU blocker, so USC makes the tackle; 6-yard gain. Series result: First down.

-9:27 left at the USC 35: Ace, 2 TE, fullback on wing right, WR left; Looks like a playaction pass against nine in the box but the play is blown dead. Tressel furious. They run the same formation but switch the TEs; this time it's a handoff to Herron; right side blocks down; DE/S on that side stay home and make play; Herron gets 3 yards; Series result: Punt.

-1:01 left at the OSU 36; 3 WR, Ace, Shotgun, wing right; USC brings six on a blitz, OSU has seven to block; two guys get through, with Herron choosing the one up the middle; no one blocks safety charging off left; Pryor forced into intentional grounding. Loss of 18 (although it should have been 8). Series result: Downs, game over.

There's a lot of information to digest in there, but there are a few themes for those who don't wish to read it all. With Ohio State ahead for the majority of these plays, the Buckeyes tried to be conservative, but they did take a few shots as well. One or two execution errors (such as Herron slipping when he had a hole even against a nine-man front) also hurt.

As the 12 plays unfolded, six were runs between the tackles and two were streak passes to Posey. Given the defense USC was playing (generally strong on the edges with single coverage wide and Cover 1 over the top), the runs up the middle were bound to struggle thanks to backside pressure.

The streak passes, meanwhile, had a good chance to work if Pryor could throw the ball with accuracy. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, it was an off night for the young quarterback. After a few very good early throws down the middle of the field, Pryor could not adjust and hit the sideline routes, especially as his footwork broke down as the night went on.

I classify these plays as having a low percentage of success. They almost hit a few of them, but the margin of error is rather large given everything that was working against the Buckeyes. (I'll also throw in here the speed option near the goal line – OSU should have just announced the play over the loudspeaker before the snap).

As for the other three first down plays, one – the one on the final drive – can be thrown out because the game situation was so specialized.

That leaves you with two play calls I would call interesting, and possibly great. The end around to Thomas was set up well out of a formation the Buckeyes often use but rarely for that call, an attempt to use the aggressiveness of the USC defense against it in order to make a big play. It very nearly did, as well; the 6 yards were nice, but Thomas had to kick himself watching film when he saw how the blocks lined up for him. If he hits the hole with speed, the play probably would have gained at least 10 yards and cemented OSU's place in field-goal position.

The other play was the one I went in-depth above with the graphics. Simply put, the Buckeyes had to have gotten what they wanted; their pass-catching tight end racing behind linebackers biting on a play fake with no safety over the top. Unfortunately, I'm not sure why the play was blocked why it was; asking Cordle to keep a quick end who already had inside leverage from getting into the backfield was too much, and Browning had a hard time getting outside to meet the blitzer. I'd have to imagine it was blocked this way because of the way the corresponding run play is schemed, but the blocking also served to be the downfall of this play, so what have you really gained?

Either way, one point I'm trying to get to is that the creative play calls the Buckeyes *did* attempt to use on first downs were set up by earlier ones that may or may not have been successful (this is also true of the play whistled dead that so infuriated Tressel; he must have had something cooked up there he really liked, given his anger at the officials).

So this is sort of the eternal conundrum of the Jim Tressel era when he doesn't trust his quarterback 100 percent to hold on to the ball (especially when said quarterback gives away seven points on the third play of the game). He's not afraid to be quite conservative in his choices if he knows that perhaps a predictable play in one situation begets a twist later that could end in big yardage. In other words, tendencies must be set.

The question becomes, just how predictable is too predictable? There's a law of diminishing returns when the plays you work so hard to set up as out of the norm don't net the big gains you had been hoping for when you created them. Too often in big games, it seems the big ones the Buckeyes have tried to hit have missed, keeping the offense under wraps and the coaches looking like luddites to the world rather than geniuses.

There's no doubt Tressel wants to win his way, and his way has won a lot of games (including big games). Field position, ball control and winning the battle in the trenches are as elementary in today's game as they were 50 years ago. Even those teams running "advanced," new-age offenses operate under those principles as much as Ohio State does.

Where many fans get frustrated with Tressel, though, is his perceived inability to adjust when his way doesn't appear to be working. Hoping to maximize your changeups while mostly throwing fastballs becomes tough sledding when the other team can hit the fastball. There is little margin for error left over, especially when the change is fouled off and not hit into a double play. And it seems like Tressel is OK if a few fastballs don't work (and they are designed to work, remember) if only to get to the offspeed stuff.

I was one who was fairly critical of the offensive game plan simply because it seemed accentuate OSU's weaknesses and showed little variety. Pryor was forced both by the game plan and USC into a pocket passer, and the Buckeyes tried to run repeatedly into stacked fronts. Screens, rollouts, intermediate routes and playaction were in short supply, especially given the offense the Buckeyes ran the week before against Navy.

There's no guarantee those plays would have worked any better. If luck goes the other way and the plays Tressel did call are executed, his game plan looks smart. The same things that spelled doom for those plays could have well ruined any other adjustments.

The thing I wonder is, why not try?

Other Observations
**Two other points that didn't quite fit into that essay as much as I wanted them to: Pryor is still a young quarterback whose limitations hurt what the Buckeyes can as far as play-calling; and the rest of the offense is almost entirely new. Only two players – Pryor and Brewster – are playing in the same spot they were at the end of last year. With that in mind, there are going to be growing pains. It's quite possible that this team will have a dangerous offense at the end of the year; the unfortunate thing is that they had a big chance against USC to make a statement and couldn't convert, and one or two different play calls might have made the difference.

**While many fans – and OK, this writer – complained about the play-calling near the goal line on the drive that resulted in a field goal at the end of the first quarter, execution also hurt. In particular, Miller struggled with Casey on the second- and third-down runs. On second, Miller got a piece of Casey but not enough, forcing the fullback to take Casey instead of a linebacker. On the next play, third down, Casey threw Miller aside and gummed up the play from the beginning, resulting in a loss.

Either way, while I advocated a quarterback sneak on third down from inside the one-foot line, the play-calling sequence wasn't that awful. On first down, Pryor should have hit Jake Ballard on a PA pass but too much mustard on the ball. The second-down power play gained nearly 2 yards, just like the touchdown run on the same play call earlier in the first quarter. Going back to the well again might have been predictable, but it had been working.

**A few plays in the running game perhaps could or should have been bigger gains than they were. One of those turned crucial as the Buckeyes tried to run out the first-half clock. On second-and-10 with less than two minutes left, Herron took a handoff over the left side and had a hole but appeared to trip over the feet of his fullback. While the play still picked up what was a necessary 7 yards at the time, if Herron had kept his feet and gotten a first down, it would have been much less likely for USC to march down and score the field goal.

**One play that might have been missed at the time came after USC got the ball near the end of the first half. After Stafon Johnson's 29-yard run that gave the Trojans confidence to try to move down the field, USC called a pass play on which Doug Worthington was not blocked. But Matt Barkley noticed the onrushing Worthington and spun away from him, gaining a few yards and getting out of bounds. A sack there would have changed the complexion of the Trojans' field-goal drive.

**I feel like I've been overly negative in this post, but people do want answers. Having said that, let's all take another moment to laud the defense for how fantastically it played. I had felt the Navy game struggles for the defense were an aberration based on the Midshipmen's system, and the USC game seemed to prove that. The defensive line, linebackers and secondary all were fantastic. There doesn't appear to be a true weakness in the OSU defense, and it should keep getting better and better as some of the new starters become more and more comfortable.

**A few defensive helmet stickers:
-Major props to Brian Rolle for two huge tackles after USC was gifted the ball on the 2-yard line for its first drive. He hasn't been perfect, but Rolle suitably has answered those who questioned whether he could be a starter.
-Devon Torrence's game was as excellent as his eight-tackle, one-sack stat line would indicate. Andre Amos is a capable cornerback and won't hurt Ohio State, but Torrence is showing signs of being an NFL-quality corner by the time all is said and done. It bears watching to see if he'll gain more playing time as the year goes on.
-Cameron Heyward was everywhere, well earning the BSB honor as the Giant Eagle Buckeye of the Week. USC All-America candidate Jeff Byers struggled at left guard, and that was partially because he couldn't handle Heyward at times.

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