The Buckeyes spent the week after the Illinois game dancing around questions of whether the new shotgun-based offense was something put in to beat Illinois or a fundamental shift in philosophy going forward. It apparently turned out to be the latter.
While the Buckeye coaches continue to talk about the need to run a variety of formations – and they did experiment again with the I-formation throughout the night especially as time ticked away – it seems reasonable to think the team's base look for the foreseeable future will include a shotgun set and at least three receivers.
Ohio State ran four main formations from the shotgun against the Hoosiers – a four-wide set with a tight end on the wing; a four-wide set with a back in the backfield; the famed three-wide, H-back set which came back from last week; and a conventional three-wide look with the tight end on the line.
In fact, the Buckeyes came out in that three-wide formation with Jake Ballard on the wing for the entire first drive and promptly showed more variety out of that formation than a week before. On four of the seven plays, the Buckeyes threw passes whereas that look was primarily a run setup the week before.
However, that early preponderance of passing was not to continue. By the time the first half had ended, Ohio State had a total of 28 rushes against 14 pass plays. OK, a few of those rushes went to Terrelle Pryor on plays that originally were called passes, but it seems to me that the Buckeyes are becoming more of a run-first outfit. Many of the plays used against Illinois in the rain were back and present against Indiana, with the major change out of the wing formation being the increased use of a "Dave"-like play in which Justin Boren pulls to the right.
Many people have spoken quite a bit about the changes the shotgun approach has made to OSU's rushing attack, but it's still largely spoken about as a major alternation rather than a simple way to exploit what defenses are giving the Buckeyes that still uses most of the same principles that OSU's under-center attack gave.
For example, quite a bit of the blocking schemes are similar. There is one scheme out of the wing on the inside zone play where the Buckeye line blocks down, but blocking down is a major part of the "Dave" play as well, so it isn't a new concept. Much of the team's improvement over the past few games has come from the fact that the Ohio State offensive line has simply played better.
Then again, there are some obvious benefits, starting with the fact that the spread look helps clear the middle of the field for Ohio State. With three wide, teams are forced to at least pay attention to those receivers, clearing some room in the middle of the field (see Illinois' totally exploited six-man front). If teams choose to start dedicating more men to stopping the run, that three-wide look should result in more space being open down the field for the passing game.
The deception provided by the shotgun look has also been a major help. Defenses are forced to at least keep an eye on Terrelle Pryor even as it has become clear on a lot of plays that he's not reading the defense all that often even though the Buckeyes are using a zone-read type of look. Teams still must keep an eye on Pryor because the Buckeyes have been active using play fakes in which Pryor keep the ball to run or throw. If OSU adds in a few more read plays in the future, defenses could be really hamstrung.
The quarterback's rushing has also appeared more decisive since Ohio State went to the shotgun more often. One particular play against IU – an option left in the first quarter in which he cut upfield behind a seal block from Justin Boren – was a good example of that. He hit the hole decisively while leaving the Hoosier linebackers, who had overrun the play, behind.
The Buckeyes also appear to be using some schemes that help their young offensive tackles in Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts. Instead of having those guys go straight ahead on every play, a fair share of angle blocking has helped the youngsters get comfortable. The play in which Ballard kicks to the backside defensive end from the H-back spot uses down blocking, which allows the linemen to push the defense from side to side to create the hole.
Ohio State also seemed to want to use the aggressiveness of Indiana defensive ends Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew – perhaps the two best players on the Hoosier defense – against them. There were a number of runs – including a 30-yarder for Brandon Saine on the second possession – in which the tackles shepherded those ends upfield while the OSU guard sealed the inside to create a hole.
The three-wide formations with both a tight end and a back have helped in pass protection as well. The typical running back motion on a run in these sets is across the quarterback and to the tight end to start; in a number of passing plays against IU, the back would just continue that motion and help the TE block on the edge. Pressure from opponents taking advantage of OSU's backs and tight ends – an issue early in the year –has gone down significantly in the past two games.
The use of the shotgun and emphasis on running has worked immensely well the past two weeks. Illinois was unable to stop the Buckeye rushing attack in the rain and then Indiana gave up 6.5 yards per rush in the first half to Ohio State. In both games, OSU topped 200 yards rushing, a stated goal in every game by the Buckeye offensive staff.
Now, though, the Buckeyes will run up against a Wisconsin team that has been solid against the run. Though a look at the Badgers' roster makes one think they don't have an elite run-stuffing unit, they are at least solid, keeping opponents to 3.6 yards per carry on the season.
It will be interesting to see the result.
**One thing I wondered about live: On four third-down situations in the first half, three of them third-and-long situations, the Buckeyes chose to call a run for Pryor – whether it was a QB draw or a speed option – rather than put the ball in the air. This will bear watching going forward. There certainly seem to have been some conventional passing situations this year where the Buckeyes have chosen to have Pryor run the ball instead. He's certainly a freak of nature with the ball in his hands and defenses leave some green space open while playing pass defense that he can exploit, but color me surprised on some of those calls. I wonder what it says about the coaching staff's confidence in his throwing. It could be nothing, but I still have to wonder.
**I think I can count on one hand the number of plays in which Justin Boren has been beat this year in the run game. He's proven to be the real deal after a year's worth of stories about how he was OSU's best run-blocking lineman. Michael Brewster is starting to really flash the ability to use his quickness to get to the second level, and Bryant Browning is racking up offensive lineman of the week awards from OSU. The interior of the OL just keeps getting better.
**John Simon seemed to relish his role in the game once Dexter Larimore was lost late in the first half. Simon – who was third at that tackle spot behind Larimore and Todd Denlinger – now figures to split reps with Denlinger, and if he plays like he did against IU he should be a big help against the Badgers' power attack. Simon shed blockers rather easily and was in on a handful of tackles on between-the-tackles rushing plays in the second half, providing OSU with the type of valuable run-stopping DT teams dream about.
**Rob Rose got a sack in the second half on a spin move, something he's used effectively in his repertoire this year. Keep an eye on that. Rose has quietly put together a solid year in spot duty behind captain Doug Worthington.
**The best part of that dominating OSU defensive line? It just keeps coming. A number of quarterbacks have thrown picks this year thanks not to an unmarked blitzer but rather a Buckeye continuing to push the offensive lineman back into the set QB's face, disrupting timing and his footwork. Think Doug Worthington on Anderson Russell's second-half pick for an example. Worthington just kept pushing his man back, slowly but surely; Ben Chappell had to hurry and couldn't step into his throw.
**Live I had wondered how Indiana's Tandon Doss had gotten so wide open for a long pass play that kick-started the Hoosiers' lone touchdown drive. Indiana ran only two receivers into the play-action route, so it didn't make sense why he was so open. On the tape, it was clear; the outside receiver set a pick on Hines, who was coming over the top to get to Doss, while Doss ran an out to the sideline.