SvoNotes: Watching Football, Sept 19

This week's edition of looking back at Ohio State's last game focuses mainly on just how the Buckeye defense was able to pressure Toledo's Aaron Opelt into a miserable day. The conclusion should leave Buckeye fans smiling, but how much will OSU's scheme carry over to Saturday's game with Illinois?

My, how things can change in the span of a week.

Seven days ago, this column contained an attempt at a detailed breakdown of some things that went wrong in Ohio State's taut 18-15 loss to USC that left the Buckeye fanbase so up in arms.

Criticism poured in from Buckeye fans – and national media – toward Jim Tressel's game plan in that game, so it was only natural that Watching Football would cast a critical eye and also try to look at why things went wrong. And trying to figure out what went wrong often takes a lot more work – and space – than saying what went right.

This week's column is proof of that. After last week's piece that checked in at more than five pages in Word, this one will be a tad shorter.

Against Toledo, Ohio State won 38-0, just as it was supposed to, so there's naturally a little less to try to explain. The Buckeyes had better talent than Toledo, executed their game plan and won going away. It was as simple as that.

But there are still a few things I noticed upon a second viewing of the game, so a column shall be written.

The No. 1 thing I wanted to take a look at on the tape was just how many times Ohio State blitzed Toledo. Quarterback Aaron Opelt was under tremendous pressure all day – Tressel said he'd never seen a signal caller throw away so many passes – and live it appeared that blitzes were few and far between for the Scarlet and Gray.

And sure enough, that was the case. I took a look at Toledo's 29 first-half plays, plus a 30th that resulted in a holding call, and the result was a grand total of five plays in which the Buckeyes brought five players, only one of which resulted in a throwaway by Opelt. Another put pressure on the Toledo senior but still resulted in a completed pass.

Meanwhile, four other times the Buckeyes brought something that I'd call a zone blitz, in that a defensive lineman (or two) dropped and a linebacker rushed in his place. Of those four plays, the Buckeyes got pressure three times, resulting in one throwaway, one other incompletion and one completed pass.

On the other 21 plays – 16 passes – in which the Buckeyes rushed either three or four and didn't bring a linebacker, there were six throwaways and another pressure that resulted in an incompletion. And that's against an offense that was trying to run quick patterns out of the spread for small gains in many situations; remember, Toledo had given up only one sack in two games going into Saturday.

What can we learn from that? The first thing is that Ohio State's defensive line had a tremendous effort. There were even a few times that the line got pressure with just three players rushing, which you normally only see in Hail Mary situations. The Buckeye defensive line gets a gold star for that effort, and it's hard to say that anyone had a bad game or didn't stand out. Ohio State's defensive line has rotated nine deep at times this year, and those players all have played well.

But the one thing that really stood out upon a second viewing was just how well the Buckeye linebackers and defensive backs played in coverage. A good number of the pressures on Opelt were caused by the fact that he simply had no one to throw the ball to.

For that, one has to surmise that the nickel look the Buckeyes used in most situations was effective in covering a group of receivers whose top two players had combined for 27 catches a few weeks earlier against Purdue. The Buckeyes covered deep – think Chimdi Chekwa's breakup of a go route down the right sideline early – and short, keeping even the intermediate routes and curls from being open.

Much credit also has to go to the Buckeye linebacker group. OSU used Ross Homan, Brian Rolle and, to a slightly lesser extent, Austin Spitler throughout the game and had few issues with coverage. That's a pretty big plus for a unit with two linebackers in Homan and Spitler who, at first glance, might be known more for their strength and play at the line of scrimmage than their speed. Any questions about the abilities of Homan and Spitler to play in space got an emphatic answer against the Rockets.

Now, with Illinois on the docket, it will be interesting to see what strategy the Buckeyes come out with. The Fighting Illini's spread doesn't necessarily bear a lot of similarities to that of Toledo, and last year the Buckeyes tried to blitz the heck out of UI with Tyler Moeller playing in place of the injured Jermale Hines. With the pass coverage abilities the Buckeyes showed last week, it will be interesting to see if the Buckeyes play a more passive game or send the dogs after Juice Williams and his teammates.

**I have to take issue at one Toledo play call: At one point in the first half, the Rockets sent Opelt out as a wide receiver and had a single back in the backfield to receive the snap in the trendy "Wildcat" formation. This player then ran the ball right up the gut on a draw-type play. Is this really creative? Is this really a good idea? At least when the Miami Dolphins use the formation, they run a few different plays and some misdirection. Just running the back up the middle hardly passes for inventive offense anymore.

**Major credit to Dan Herron and Duron Carter for effective downfield blocks as Terrelle Pryor ran for 43 yards on one scramble in the third quarter. Without those two, the Buckeye quarterback goes down much earlier.

**Brandon Saine also had a big run in the second quarter over the right side, and recognition should go to Bryant Browning and Adam Homan for their blocks on that one. Browning, playing tackle, pushed his man downfield 5 yards and sealed the edge, while Homan kicked right and picked up the linebacker, giving Saine a huge hole to burst through on the way to his big run.

Browning and Andrew Moses also bear mentioning for the blocks they made on a big-gaining screen pass to Saine.

**There was some debate on the Ask The Insiders message board as OSU was kept from scoring late in the second quarter on whether or not the team should stick to what has been its standard goal-line play-calling or try to add some creativity to the mix. I'd have to go with the former; why not try to see if your rebuilt line with a big lead can push forward for yards against a team like Toledo? And why tip your hand and use some bootlegs and other goal-line plays when they could be better served for Big Ten play?

**In past years, Ohio State would like to debut a formation for one game, run 8-10 plays out of the package and then return it to the mothballs. Against Toledo, OSU debuted a new offensive formation it used about 8-10 times: an I-formation look that included three wideouts as well and no tight end. Whether that one will come back or was based on what Toledo was giving remains to be seen.


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