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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Ohio State Buckeyes Offense

Cal struggled to contain its first two opponents and now we face one of the toughest, most experienced offenses we'll see all season. Let's look at how Urban Meyer terrorizes opposing defenses.

Jamie Sabau

[Disclaimer: Past performance does not predict future results. Last week's patsy may become this week's juggernaut, and vice versa. The quarterback is liable to go Masoli on us, the running back may do his best Chauncey Washington impression, the receivers will channel their inner Paul Richardson, and, of course, the tight end will almost certainly turn into Ed Dickson. Prepare for surprises--both good and bad--each game.]

"There is one great thing that you men will all be able to say after this game is over and you are home once again. You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great battle against Ohio State, you won't have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, 'Well, your Granddaddy let tight end Jeff Heuerman sneak right past him for an uncontested 75-yard touchdown reception' No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, 'Son, your Granddaddy kept the defense in front of him, didn't bite on Braxton Miller's rollout, and returned that wobbling pass for a game-clinching pick six!'"- General George S. Patton, Jr.

This week we face Ohio State in a rematch of last year's heartbreaking loss. The Brendan Bigelow show was cut short thanks to a sub-par performance by the defense. Overaggressive attempts to stop Miller from breaking free helped open up several wide-open lanes for receivers and tight ends. The Ohio State offense we saw last year is very similar to the one we will see on Saturday. Many familiar faces return, although starting quarterback Braxton Miller is questionable with an MCL sprain. His potential replacement is a senior QB who runs the offense as well as Miller does. As one of the top offensive minds in the nation, Urban Meyer has built an offense that does a great job of building on his players' strengths while limiting their weaknesses. Without many of its key players, the Cal defense will need a near-perfect performance to shut down this Ohio State offense. Do we have a shot? Let's take a look at the Buckeyes' offense and find out.


I am thankful that our SBN Brethren at Land Grant Holy Land have made my life easier this week. Additionally the writers at Eleven Warriors have put together several gifs to illustrate the Buckeyes' concepts on offense. This week I'm changing the format slightly and will break this section into passing and rushing concepts. First, a note on how Ohio State attacks defenses until they relent, at which point the Buckeyes attack with an increasingly versatile arsenal of plays. This offense pokes at the defense until it draws blood, and then the offense pours salt, lemon juice, and battery acid on that wound. (Source)

Meyer's offense is predicated upon arithmetic. The Buckeyes want to run against two deep safeties until they force a defense to commit an additional defender against the run. The passing game is designed to attack one-high safety schemes. If a defense gets even more aggressive and plays with no safety support, Meyer and Herman's primary answer is one of two things – beat man coverage over the top or attack the edge with speed option.


First, did you see LiffeyBear's breakdown of Ohio State yesterday? He covers several facets of the running game in great detail. If you haven't read it, check it out.

Ohio State can run the ball. Their quarterbacks (both Miller and Kenny Guiton) are excellent runners, and they're supported by a stable of talented running backs. Fortunately for Cal, Ohio State's most productive running back in 2012, Carlos Hyde, has been suspended for the Cal game.

Much like our past two opponents, Ohio State runs plenty of option and zone read. Their best two linemen are the left tackle and left guard, so they like running through the A-gap (between tackle and halfback) as they seal the edge. They are led on the ground by Jordan Hall, but expect to see a heavy dose of Braxton Miller/Kenny Guiton, Dontre Wilson, and a pinch of Ezekiel "25:17" Elliot. The quarterbacks are as adept at running the ball as the running backs. In fact, Braxton Miller led the team in rushing last year by a large margin. How do they do it?

They run the option:



They'll run the zone read.


They'll use bunch formations to lure all the defensive backs away from the playside. You can't see it in the gif below, but Ohio State used a quad formation (four WRs) on the bottom of the screen. Naturally, SDSU had to bring 4 players down to cover them. This opens up the middle of the field for Kenny Guiton's run. Watch as left tackle Jack Mewhort (#74) takes out the lone safety (#31), who is the only one with any hope of stopping Guiton once he breaks free.


Like Dykes-Franklin, Urban Meyer is very good at getting his playmakers in one-on-one matchups in space.

Oh look, a pistol formation.

Seven players in the box against eight tOSU players? Yep, they're doomed. If tOSU leaves an edge defender (OLB or DE) unblocked, that's six defenders against six blockers. That leaves no one to cover Kenny Guiton or Jordan Hall. DOOOOOOM.

Ohio State has plenty of weapons to run the ball and they have one of the best O-lines in the nation paving the way for that rushing attack. Surely the solution is to stack the box, right? Let's see what happens when opposing defenses drop a safety into run support. The following is not for the faint of heart (or anyone who has watched Cal's pass "defense" this season).


Land Grant Holy land has a timely post on how the Urban Meyer offense attack defenses with deep passes. First, we'll look at the post-fly-drag concept.

A play that Meyer has run for as long as I can remember is a Post-Fly-Drag concept. A lot of teams will have a similar concept in almost any kind of offense, and it will almost always come off play action. One of the reasons it is so successful for Meyer and OSU is because, well, you blitz Braxton Miller at your own risk. Mistimed blitzes or blitz on the wrong side and roll back the playside defenders and you're going to pay the price.


I won't go into all the details (see the post for a thorough explanation), but this will exploit a cover-one or cover-zero defense by giving the X or W receiver a one-on-one matchup in open space.

One of the better ways to counter this is with a cover-two defense (two DBs drop back, one covers each half of the field). In the image above, this entails CB and FS covering receiver X on his fly route, and the strong safety ($) and strongside LB (S) covering W on the post route. Unfortunately (for the defense), receiver Z has the chance to streak across a wide open field using his designed drag route. This drag route is a great safety valve if the QB faces pressure. Additionally, the QB can decide to tuck and run if he doesn't like what he sees. As we saw last year, that is a very dangerous option.

By going cover-two and sending an extra LB (either W or M, but not both because someone has to cover the tight end (Y), Cal can force Miller to make a quick read and possibly bait him into throwing a double-covered receiver. Of course, Cal has to have some excellent DBs to keep up with these receivers, stick with their assignments, ensure communication among the back seven, and make sure the QB doesn't break free if he runs. Simple, right? Prepare to see our defense get annihilated on this passing play. Oh yeah, they playaction out of this all the time to get defense to bite on the run (ALEX LOGAN, ARE YOU TAKING NOTES?)

Here it is in action, with Miller throwing a TD pass to the X receiver:


This isn't the only play Urban likes to use to terrorize defensive backs. The post-corner concept relies on the same basic read for the QB: where is the free safety going?


Does FS bite on Z's go route and slide across the field to cover him? If so X, will be cutting across the field with a one-on-one matchup against (right) CB in open space.

Does FS help the left CB cover X's post route? If so, you'd better hope the nickel back (N) doesn't release the tight end (W) on the assumption that FS will pick him up...

They also like to mix this with playaction to get the defense to bite on a run.

LGHL summarizes why this is so effective and easy for the QB to execute:

Basically, what this amounts to is that the plays that Meyer has designed to give Miller provide easy, clear reads. Very rarely is he trying to read underneath defenders, which he might struggle with because of his height and the amount of movement going on in a small area. Instead, he's reading a FS deep and making a decision off of that. The goal I believe, from Meyer's perspective, is to give Miller a fast read to get the ball out of his hands relatively quickly for a 5-step drop. The way to defend these plays is to bring pressure or run some sort of Cover 2 man under, which has its own risks. Blitzes can leave defenders out of position, and man coverage takes eyes out of the backfield and keeps players locked on receivers. Mixing man, zone, and blitzing, and then using proper techniques and having perfect communication are the only ways to get a beat on OSU. Otherwise, Meyer will find a tendency and exploit it for big points.

Our D-line has struggled mightily to generate pressure so far. Let's say they miraculously turn things around and start beating the all-conference tOSU O-line. Urban has an answer for that.

Against Buffalo, Ohio State struggled to contain Khalil Mack. Mack repeatedly abused sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker and disrupted the pocket. To counter this, tOSU moved the pocket.


Eleven Warriors explains.

This changed the blocking and launch angles on Mack, keeping Mack off-balance. For instance, OSU had success with their tight end blocking across the formation, allowing the offensive line to down block on the interior defensive line.

And before you start getting your hopes about the possibility that Braxton Miller may not play, watch this perfectly delivered pass from Kenny Guiton to a double-covered receiver for a TD.


What is most horrifying about this team is that it may not even be the best offense we face this season...

Let's learn more about who has been haunting Andy Buh's dreams this week.


* Denotes returning starter


*Braxton Miller: 6' 2", 215 lbs., Sr.

Kenny Guiton: 6' 3", 208 lbs, Sr.

We all remember Braxton Miller. He scored 5 touchdowns against the Bears last year in one of the best performances in his career. He set several schools records last season, including 3,310 yards of total offense, a QB-record 1,271 rushing yards and 13 TDs. Last year he finished fifth in Heisman voting and was one of three finalists for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. He has started 25 consecutive games for the Buckeyes, but that streak is in jeopardy this week.

Although Miller struggled with accuracy prior to Urban Meyer's arrival, he has improved steadily under the Meyer offense. He still has bouts of inaccuracy, but (as we saw) he is a legitimate passing threat. While he does not run as much as he did in his first year, he occasionally tries too hard to suppress his old run-first habit. He has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, leading to sacks.

Braxton Miller sustained a mild MCL sprain last weekend against San Diego State. Cal fans briefly envisioned the grand Ohio State offense grinding to a halt without Miller. Then Kenny Guiton piled up 3 touchdowns and 235 total yards. Although Guiton possesses neither the speed nor arm strength of Miller, he runs the offense about as well as Miller. In fact, his stat line against San Diego State was very similar to Miller's against Buffalo, although Guiton passed more often than Miller.


  • The simplified Urban Meyer offense masks several of Miller's shortcomings
  • Guiton will run the offense just as efficiently as Miller
  • Both are reasonably accurate passers and very dangerous runners in open space


  • Miller holds onto the ball a little too long sometimes

Running Back

*Jordan Hall: 5' 9", 191 lbs., Sr.

Brionte Dunn: 6' 0", 220 lbs., So.

As we have seen, the Ohio State offense runs the ball very well. So far this season Hall and Dunn have combined for 351 yards and 3 TDs on about 5.5 yards per carry. They're off to a fast start in relief of the suspended Carlos Hyde. Hall missed most of last season with a cut foot and later an injured knee, which forced a medical redshirt. Dunn played as a true freshman last season and tallied 133 yards and 2 TDs on about 5.3 yards per carry. The talented sophomore should carry the ball several times against the Bears.


  • They run behind an all-conference offensive line
  • Hall is an explosive runner who can break off long TD runs


  • Without Hyde or Miller, the offense will be missing two-thirds of last year's rushing production

Wide Receiver

*Corey Brown: 6' 0", 190 lbs., Sr.

Evan Spencer: 6' 2", 205 lbs., Jr.

*Devin Smith: 6' 1", 198 lbs., Jr.

James Clark: 5' 10", 170 lbs., True Fr.

Devin Smith should sound familiar to those who saw last year's game. He scored the game-winning TD reception last season after the Cal defense let yet another unguarded player slip down the field. In fact, he had a career game against the Bears and collected 145 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow starter Corey Brown led the team in receptions last season and caught nearly one-third of the team's receptions. As the consensus best receiver on the team, he won the Paul Warfield Award in 2011 and 2012. Backup Chris Fields is off to a strong start this season with 53 yards and two TDs after catching only 4 passes last season. Although true freshman James Clark is listed on the two-deep, he has not caught a single pass this season. With 4.4 speed, he's a dangerous player on go routes. He's due for a long TD reception any game now. Let's hope this week is not that game.

In addition to keeping these guys in front of them, the Bears need to watch out for Dontre Wilson on jet sweeps and other off-tackle runs. He already has 8 runs, 62 yards, and a TD.


  • Great mix of experience, speed, and versatility
  • Devin Smith still gives Alex Logan PTSD


  • No one has Victor Dean's 6' 6" size to give our cornerbacks fits

Tight End

*Jeff Heuerman: 6' 6", 252 lbs., Jr.

The Buckeyes may not have a 6' 6" receiver, but they have a 6' 6" tight end. Even worse, he has a vertical leap of 36.5 inches. I don't know who is going to guard him in goal line situations, but I do not envy him. Can anyone besides Chris McCain match up with this guy? And will we even use McCain against him? (Probably not).

Heuerman started 9 games last season but was not as productive as Jake Stoneburner. He only tallied 8 receptions, 94 yards, and 1 TD last season and so far he has 4 receptions and 45 yards this year. Despite his tremendous size and athleticism, he hasn't been well integrated into the passing game.

If you weren't concerned enough about him, he can catch and subdue a 200 lb. tarpon with his bare hands.



  • Height and athleticism make him nearly impossible to guard
  • Feared by fish worldwide


  • Only has 12 receptions in his career


Chris Fields: 6' 1", 200 lbs., Sr.

Remember Dan Vitale? Of course you do. Fields is their version of Vitale. Despite being a halfback, he averages 17.67 yards per reception and has scored 2 TDs on his three receptions this season. With only four receptions last year, Fields is taking a bigger role this year. Fortunately he doesn't possess the size and physicality of Vitale.


  • He's not a WR, so he won't be covered


  • Not Dan Vitale

Offensive Line

Taylor Decker (RT): 6' 7", 315 lbs., So.

*Marcus Hall (RG): 6' 5", 315 lbs., Sr.

*Corey Linsley (C): 6' 3", 297 lbs., Sr.

*Andrew Norwell (LG): 6' 6" 316 lbs., Sr.

*Jack Mewhort (LT): 6' 6", 308 lbs., Sr.

I've saved the best for last. This is a big, physical line with four returning senior starters. In fact, this may be one of the heaviest lines in the nation. These starters have combined for 90 starts in their career. Additionally, Hall, Norwell, and Mewhort each played an incredible 827 (out of 837 possible) snaps last year. Andrew Norwell was an all-Big Ten first teamer last season while Corey Linsley was an all-conference honorable mention. Norwell shared the team's offensive lineman of the year award with Jack Mewhort last season.

It hasn't been good news all year, however. Urban Meyer said his line was "not functional" early this offseason. But by Media Day, he had changed his tune and said he would be "disappointed" if his line isn't one of the best in the country. A strong spring practice and fall camp have turned the line from a question mark into a strength. After two games they are paving the way for a rushing attack that allows 272 rushing yards per game and 6.16 yards per rush.

If the line has one weak point, it is right tackle Taylor Decker. He has struggled to replace NFL draft pick Reid Fragel and defenses have keyed in on him as a point of attack for the pass rush.

One final note: Andrew Norwell has not cut his hair since he joined the Buckeyes in August of 2010. I can neither confirm nor deny that his locks are the source of his stellar play.


  • One of the nation's biggest O-lines
  • Incredible durability from Hall, Norwell, Mewhort
  • Years of experience
  • Defenders have had their way with Taylor Decker this season


I know, I know. You're already feeling pretty depressed. You might as well stick it out through these stats. They may not make you feel better, but...well, you've already come this far. What are you going to do instead, work? Watch some more Brendan Bigelow highlight vids? Actually, that sounds like a good idea.

Individual Statistics (2012)

QB Braxton Miller:

  • Passing: 2,039 yards, 58.3% completions, 8.0 yards per attempt, 15 TDs-6 interceptions
  • Rushing: 1271 yards, 5.6 ypc, 13 TDs

Braxton Miller is no longer the inaccurate interception machine he once was. He remains, however, the explosive runner he has always been.

WR Corey Brown:

  • Receiving: 669 yards, 11.15 ypc, 3 TD
  • Punt returns: 12.28 yards per return, 2 TDs (18 returns)
In addition to being the team's leading receiver, Corey Brown was a dangerous threat on punt returns. We need to keep the streak of unreturned punts alive.

WR Devin Smith
  • 618 yards, 20.6 ypc, 6 TD

Just be happy I didn't show you his highlights against Cal last season.

Team Statistics (2012)

  • 37.2 ppg (21st)
  • 242.25 rushing yards per game (10th) 5.20 ypc (20th), 181.5 passing yards per game (105th), 138.86 efficiency (47th)
  • 156 rushing 1st downs, 86 passing 1st downs

This is a productive, efficient rushing offense. While the passing offense is reasonably efficient, the Buckeyes do not rely too heavily on it. They are, however, fully capable of using the passing defense to win games (such as last year's Cal game).

  • 18 turnovers (29th)
  • 2.42 sacks per game (90th); 5.67 tackles for loss allowed per game (63rd)
  • 64.5 penalty yards per game (107th)

The Buckeyes take care of the ball well, but are prone to negative yardage due to TFLs and penalties. The sack numbers look worse than they ought to be thanks to Miller's tendency to hang onto the ball too long.

  • 30:07.33 (59th), 25.91 seconds per play (SLOOOW)
They are about average in terms of time of possession. They run the offense at a pretty slow pace, however.
  • 42.41% third down conversions (48th)
  • 77.78% red zone TDs (2nd)
Oh dear Oski. Look at that red zone conversion number. We saw their TD conversion success firsthand last season.
  • 180 10+ yard plays (61st), 53 20+ yard plays (70th), 29 30+ yard plays (34th), 14 40+ yard plays (41st), 10 50+ yard plays (19th)

They're only average in terms of medium-yardage plays, but they're pretty good at generating 30, 40, and 50+ yard plays.


The offense is best summed up by this quote we saw earlier:

Meyer's offense is predicated upon arithmetic. The Buckeyes want to run against two deep safeties until they force a defense to commit an additional defender against the run. The passing game is designed to attack one-high safety schemes. If a defense gets even more aggressive and plays with no safety support, Meyer and Herman's primary answer is one of two things – beat man coverage over the top or attack the edge with speed option.

Once the bleeding starts on Saturday, it will be very difficult to stop. They key is playing well enough to avoid making such advantageous (for tOSU) adjustments. Can we do that on Saturday? Probably not.