SvoNotes: Watching Football, Oct. 24

For at least one day in Columbus, the I-formation was back in vogue. As Ohio State pulled away to a 38-7 win against Minnesota, much of the Buckeyes' second-half explosion came out of two-back sets. Watching Football goes over the highlights and notices some things the Buckeyes did to make it easier on Terrelle Pryor.

Finally, against Minnesota, I think we saw the offense Ohio State's coaching staff wants to run.

Jim Tressel and Jim Bollman are no hidden admirers of power football, having made I-formation running – particularly out of the "Dave" play with a pulling guard – a staple of the Buckeye offense from their arrival at Ohio State.

When executed correctly, the Dave play is a wonderful thing to watch. The standard issue play Ohio State has used in short yardage situations for years is an amazing example of teamwork when done correctly. One side of the line blocks down, clearing the defensive line out of the picture. A guard from the backside pulls into the hole, where he clears out a linebacker, and the fullback takes care of an outside linebacker at the point of attack.

It's a well-designed play that, quite frankly, the Buckeyes haven't run well consistently for the past few seasons. That's a problem when the play is a basic staple of the offense.

So when Ohio State spent the first three games struggling with interior running, the answer was to throw the baby out with the bathwater and go with a shotgun-based rushing attack that spread the field and made interior running easier.

But a funny thing happened after the Buckeyes made that change – the line seemed to become better at blocking those types of plays.

The offense Ohio State trotted out against Illinois and Indiana spread the field with three wide receivers and put quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the shotgun, but the Buckeyes were essentially still playing power football. Illinois and Indiana kept safeties deep, giving Ohio State the numbers advantage in the box and allowing the Buckeyes to run mostly at will against those teams (236 yards vs. Illinois, 212 vs. Indiana).

Wisconsin and Purdue adapted in a variety of ways, putting more men in the box and blitzing more of the time. But Ohio State didn't do itself many favors, refusing to stick to any power rushing game in favor of trying to run speed options and zone reads to the outside. When the Buckeyes did go up the gut against Wisconsin and Purdue, the results weren't bad.

So last week's SvoNotes advocated a return to interior running. Clearly, the coaching staff listened.

OK, it probably didn't. But considering Ohio State ran for a season-high 270 yards and reintroduced the I-formation back into the offense, there clearly was some sort of concerted effort to bring power football back. The Buckeyes still ran a majority of their plays out of the shotgun, but fullbacks saw an increased role against Minnesota after barely any playing time the previous four weeks, one that became larger and larger as the game went on.

Over the past few weeks, the Buckeyes' trio of left guard Justin Boren, center Michael Brewster and right guard Bryant Browning has become one of the most dependable interior trios the team has had in some time.

With the ever-dependable Jim Cordle back into the lineup at left tackle – Cordle is not perfect but hopefully is experienced enough to help the team avoid some of the total line failures that happened during the Purdue game – and right tackle J.B. Shugarts putting together a solid game, the Buckeyes were able to play one of their best games of the year up front.

The list of power plays that went well tells the story of the game. Ohio State bulled for an early first down on a fourth-and-1 play thanks to a "Dave" play in which Browning blocked two players at the point of attack to ensure Brandon Saine could get over the line.

In the second half, Jordan Hall followed Boren through a hole on the right for his 11-yard touchdown, and Jermil Martin's 39-yard run followed a pulling Browning yet again. (Also, that run deserves notice for two key reasons – Martin's patience in allowing the blocks in front of him to set up, and Andy Miller's perfectly executed pair of blocks that turned the play from a good gain into a huge one.)

In between, Ohio State ran a few play-action fakes out of the "Dave" play for the first time I had seen all year. Previously, I had noticed other teams using a guard as protection for a bootlegging quarterback, but OSU had not done so this season until it did so four times, by my count, against Minnesota.

On one of those plays in the third quarter, Pryor rolled left and had Browning in front of him. With no rush coming, Pryor had plenty of time to set his feet and notice that Minnesota had bit on Dane Sanzenbacher's 20-yard out pattern. Ohio State had run the same play earlier in the game for an easy pass-and-catch to the junior wideout.

With the Golden Gophers shading toward Sanzenbacher, Pryor had 1-on-1 coverage on DeVier Posey, and he hit the sophomore on a long touchdown bomb for the second time on the day.

That latest example shows just what can happen when the Buckeyes show a good strategic use of I-formation football. In the opening game against Navy, OSU went I about 50 percent of the time in the first half, and half of those plays out of the I were play-action passes. Ohio State was able to get the tight ends involved that day and got some easy completions out of the deal.

Against Minnesota, the Buckeyes didn't pass all that much out of the I, but when they did, it was largely effective and played against tendency. In addition, Ohio State attached a rollout component to many of the PA passes, allowing Pryor to get on the move and cut the field in half.

The moral of the story, at least on this day, was that the under-center, power looks gave Ohio State some more creativity and options. Mixing things up and breaking enough tendencies allowed the Buckeyes to move up and down the field.

**The Buckeyes did some other things to keep Minnesota off balance. Ohio State emptied the backfield on a few occasions, which didn't prove all that effective but at least was something different. The Buckeyes tried to get numbers back in their favor in the box a few times by going four-wide and then running up the middle. OSU tried an end around and some draw plays. The zone read continued to be mixed with some designed handoffs but was used sparingly enough to as to not become predictable.

**The offensive line got an easier task with a Minnesota team that has two good run-stuffers in the middle but no standout pass rusher, but everything was much calmer along the front.

What could be worrying in the future, though, is that members of the line recently admitted that line calls were a bit screwed up in the din of Purdue and given the Boilermakers' proclivity for late shifting. It will bear watching just how the Buckeyes respond at Penn State – the loudest road venue in which OSU plays.


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