OSU v Wisconsin Game Recap: OSU Defensive Review
For Ohio State fans looking for the shortfall in the Buckeyes' performance against Wisconsin, one need look no further than the defense and kickoff coverage. Both in terms of scheme and execution, OSU's defense was hit in the mouth with a 2 by 4. The kickoff return and fumbled option play put all the momentum in Wisconsin's favor, and Wisconsin literally kept that momentum rolling with their zone run game. The OSU defense took 3+ quarters to adjust enough to slow down the Wisconsin run game. In so doing, Wisconsin was then able to turn to the passing game, and OSU could not make a play in the secondary or up front to keep Ohio State in the game.
The Wisconsin Scheme: You Can't Cover 8 Gaps with 7 Defenders
This causes a problem for a team that wants to play a shaded, one gap defense such, as a 4-3 under or over. Against your standard I formation, the 4-3 under works well because you have a defender for every gap and you outnumber the offense to each side of the centerline. But if the offense introduces a second tight end, suddenly the defense in a shade has lost its number advantage. To the side away from the formation call (above the left hand side), the offense now has a numbers' advantage. What is more, the shade naturally creates blocking angles to that side.
A defense must respond in one of two ways. You have to either get out of the shade and play the offense head up and have someone responsible for two gaps, or you must bring an 8th defender up over that backside tight end into the front. If the defense does not, the offense will have great angles for zone blocking.
To start the game, OSU did not fully follow this prescription and Wisconsin outflanked them. OSU came out in the base 4-3 under, creating precisely the problems described above. While the corner would be playing off the backside (TE) see above, this was insufficient given the corner's pass responsibilities to counter Wisconsin's two-tight end fronts. Here at the snap you can already see the advantage Wisconsin has to the offense's left: 4 offensive linemen, including the center, to the defense's 4, and a natural bubble between the guard and tackle for easy combo blocks.
In hindsight, its easy to ask why OSU did not come out with a more aggressive front to counter what Wisconsin obviously wants to do, which is employ a zone run game from two-tight end formations. In the defensive staff's defense, I believe that OSU has had so much success recently against the run game, that OSU believed they were sufficiently talented to stop Wisconsin from their base looks without committing more defenders, leaving their secondary to try to create turnovers like 2009. In addition, with an injury-plagued secondary, the OSU coaches were trying to protect against big plays.
Like Gasoline to a Fire...
Unfortunately, the OSU front seven was in no position to overcome any numbers' deficiencies. It is pretty well-known that the defensive line had difficulties . Wisconsin was repeatedly able to re-establish the line of scrimmage, as seen above. But perhaps less noticed was the poor linebacker play. The linebackers did not seem to be reading keys. They would either sit in place, rather than attacking their gap downhill, allowing the offensive linemen to block them four yards down field, or they would overrun the play, creating natural cutback lanes. A linebacker 'catching' an offensive lineman five yards down field is not going to yield productive results. Brian Rolle was also repeatedly pulled out of position by the fly sweep fake, rather than playing his gap responsibility. All a zone team needs is one gap left unfilled to create a cut-back lane. This play sequence demonstrates these problems:
Here, OSU is in their basic 4-3 under. Rolle is responsible for the playside B gap, and Homan the backside A gap. On the fly swep action you can see that Rolle has widened significantly outside the tackle box. Meanwhile Homan is in the same position and the offensive guard is already to him.
As one would expect, a giant hole is created. Rolle has taken himself out of the play and Homan is put on roller-skates, finally making the tackle past the first-down marker.
The defensive line did not help the linebacker play because they did not command double teams, providing a free release onto the linebackers. Nonetheless it was a disappointing performance from a veteran linebacking group, who looked unaware how to play keys against a downhill run game.
As the game wore on, OSU made the necessary adjustments, playing a more aggressive front to stop the Wisconsin run game. First, OSU firmly walked up the backside corner over the weak tight end, effectively creating the 8-man front I discussed above. Second, OSU also brought Hines down in run support, effectively bringing nine men in to stop the run.
This was successful but Wisconsin--to their credit--remained on the attack, quickly turning to their passing game to take advantage to the shift in numbers. In particular, Wisconsin was able to exploit man coverage opportunities with Toon. OSU simply needed one stop, down 21-18. On 3d and 4, Wisconsin was able to get Chekwa to bite in man coverage on a double move, keeping the Wisconsin drive alive and serving as a dagger to OSU's comeback hopes.
Frankly, I had higher expectations for what the veteran OSU cornerbacks could do than what transpired Saturday. The cornerback play was inconsistent. They inexplicably provided very loose coverage all game long, providing easy pitch and catch opportunities. They were also inconsistent in coming up in run support. OSU was also stung by the loss of Tyler Moeller in this game. OSU--for the first time in memory--could not stop bubble screen plays, stretching the OSU defense out horizontally and softening up the interior. Clearly, the defensive coaches are trying to protect the inexperienced defensive backfield that has been harmed by multiple injuries. My hope was that the experienced corner backs would be able to cover the injuries at safety and nickel, but unfortunately they could not make a play to keep Wisconsin within three points.
A Word on Kickoff Coverage
I would be remiss to not discuss the problems behind the kick-off coverage. The opening kickoff return had a far greater impact than the 7-0 lead it created, putting the Wisconsin home field advantage on steroids. I see several problems with the kickoff team, both in terms of scheme and personnel, that need to be addressed. First, the kickoffs themselves need more consistency. I saw Drew Basil in preseason consistently kick the ball into the endzone, so I know the potential is there. Even if he is not going to do that, he at least needs more height on his kickoffs. Kicking low line drives allows a kick returner a running start and puts the coverage unit in a bind. Second, people obviously need to stay in their lanes. Carlos Hyde completely lost his lane on the return. Third, the outside contain men need to stop running so far downfield. This is a constant problem I see. Dominick Clarke ran himself right out of the play. The outside players job is not to run a footrace downfield--it is to funnel the play in. But if they overrun the return man, they do nothing but create bounce out opportunities. They need to maintain proper depth. Fourth, the personnel on the kickoff team's right side needs to be examined. Teams our exploiting this side. It may be harsh, but there are several individuals out there that should not be playing in a major college football game. Finally, I question why the kickoff team has no deep safety. At this point, I would leave someone back who has some athleticism that could make a tackle if the kick returner gets past the initial coverage. Most teams you will see even if the returner gets to the 40 there are more people to make tackles. With OSU, if a team gets past that initial front, they are gone. All these issues simply need to be fixed for OSU to improve their coverage.
I believe this game reflects a defense that got complacent in their success, and less a reflection on the talent level. This defense, particularly up front, has more talent than was demonstrated. This unit has been wracked by injuries that show no sign of letting up. With Ross Homan and Christian Bryant's injuries, I would like to see individuals like Storm Klein, who have shown flashes in limited play, step up into the void. With so many injuries in the back seven, the defensive line must both step up against the run and produce some type of pass rush.
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