Ohio State essentially started their third different QB of the season a couple weeks ago. Most teams talking up this type of fact are on the wrong end of an unexpected season, however, in this instance it wasn’t following a disappointing season. In fact, this discussion happened before and after the Buckeyes were able to put up 31 first half points on offense against a previously stout Wisconsin Badgers defense. And this wasn’t just any regular season game, it was the conference championship game. But it wasn’t because Cardale Jones – the new starting QB for OSU – came in and played lights out with the full plethora of the playbook. Instead, the surrounding Buckeye cast stepped up their game, including the coaching staff. While receivers bailed out dubiously thrown balls, Head Coach Urban Meyer and Offensive Coordinators Tom Herman and Ed Warinner planned and called a simple, straight forward, and forgiving gameplan that allowed Jones to be productive while being protected, despite only a mediocre performance. In the next two posts, we’ll look at two plays that made up nearly half of the first half playcalls, how they work together, and how that benefitted Jones.
The Blocking System
I’ve previously discussed how teams have modified some of their zone read option game by mixing up their lead blocks and QB reads. Another concept deployed in this game was the BOB read, which I discussed previously. However, the OSU coaching staff didn’t merely make the zone read option safer by adding the split block from the H-back, they took the read right out of the offense in this instance.
Urban Meyer tends to implement two basic blocking systems into his offense (note: this is different than blocking schemes, this is a system used to determine which blocker is assigned to each defender). The first, and most prominent, is what he terms the “Teen Series”. This blocking system identifies the first LB inside the box to the call side from the outside-in. This LB being identified tells the first uncovered OL the defender he needs to block. In this way, it is ensured that the frontside of the play is completely blocked, thus, this is a nice scheme for zone read oriented teams. “Out” calls also allow this to be good as a frontside option system, as the frontside OL can “Out” to a second level LB or overhang defender in certain situations for certain plays.
The second blocking system is a more familiar blocking system for most zone running teams, and it is what is often referred to as the numbering system, though Meyer calls in the “90 Series”. This blocking system has the center identify a defensive player as “zero” and then number out from there. This “zero” defender is the first player head-up or playside of the center, either at the DL or LB level. This numbering system allows the center to let everyone else know their assignments, by designating where the Center plans to block, and thus sets all the combination blocks. This system works well against teams that like to utilize hang defenders or stack the box, but also works as an efficient way to determine the appropriate side to run the ball (where, as an offense, do you have a numbers advantage) by taking care of the middle of the defense before working outward.
For the most part, OSU runs their Tight Zone with the RB aimingto the open 3T, or at least that’s the initial intention. Tight or inside zone is nice in that it allows for built in cut backs regardless of slants or interior line games, and so regardless of the backfield alignment, this isn’t an overly difficult task.
However, let’s assume for a moment that there are mitigating factors how you can align given a play call and subsequent play calls. In this instance, it is mostly desired that the H-back align to the boundary in a 2x2 formation to the opposite side of as the RB. Switching the RB alignment means switching the H-back alignment and throws off some of the play action elements OSU wants to use. And, on top of that, the “read” portion of the play is scrapped, so the entire front needs to be blocked, or at least the entire front toward where the ball is going. So what to do?
In this case, the give/keep can simply be a playcall designated pre-snap, or the give/keep can be determined through the numbering system. Nominally, the QB will want to give, as the RB is the greater threat. But if the numbers to the zone side are even with the numbers to the backside (meaning there are four defenders to the frontside of the play for three blockers vs three to the backside for three blockers), it can be seen as advantageous to keep. Let’s take a look.
There are essentially three different options on this play:
The Buckeyes line up as they would for much of the game, a twins set to the field with a split end tight to the formation to the boundary. Likewise, an H-back is aligned to the short side of the field about a yard behind the OTs butt, shaded just outside of him. The RB is initially aligned right behind the QB in a sort of pistol look.
Wisconsin, for their part, also align their 2-4 front as they typically would during this game. The front is even or slightly shaded to strength, with each DT aligned over an OG. The OLBs are aligned outside the EMOL and the LBs are shaded to strength.
Here’s the look:
In this case, it appears the OSU Center identifies the strongside DT as the Zero, however, the MIKE is also aligned headsup over the Center. As the Safety jumps up to the LOS, there are three defenders playside of the Zero if the Zero is the DT (3 defenders backside), or 4 defenders playside if the MIKE is the Zero (2 defenders backside). Regardless, 4.5 defenders to the playside are more than the 3 blockers (Center, RG, RT) can account for, while the 2.5 blockers away from the play can be accounted for (LG, LT, H-Back). The pre-snap read is to keep.
So after the snap, you see both the QB and the H-back adjust. Typically on this play, the aiming point for the H-back is the inside hip of the OLB. However, at the mesh point, note how the H-back suddenly works to gain depth, either to scoop the OLB or to arch block around him (depending on the OLB’s reaction).
The issue for the Buckeyes here is that the OLB of Wisconsin does a great job reading the play and the H-back can never seal the OLB inside. Likewise, the MIKE isn’t pulled by the run fake. What you see is the H-back bypass both the OLB and the MIKE, and the QB can’t get outside. And this play is blown up in the backfield.
FWIW, OSU got beat on this play for two significant reasons: the play of the OLB, and the slant that changed the numbers at the snap.
We’re going to look at two plays in which the QB gives, and these two plays will show why this “number” system works here.
On the first play, Wisconsin aligns in the same way, with the DTs aligned over the OGs and the OLBs a yard outside the offensive EMOL. The ILBs are shaded to strength, with the MIKE with his strongside foot on the line of the ball (meaning he’s shaded to the backside of the play).
This means that the “Zero” defender is the down DT. That means there are three defender for three blockers to the playside: Advantage OSU. Likewise, it means here are also three defenders for three blockers to the backside, but remember that default is to give.
At the snap, you see the H-back work up and into the LOS, his aiming point is the inside foot of the EMOL. This split block helps form a natural alley for the RB to hit vertically immediately, allowing this to be a fast forming play. The OL zone blocks in the opposite direction as the H-back (making for nice backfield counter flow action) and the defense must respect the QB keeping. And look how easily OSU gets a hat on a hat.
The RB probes playside, and presses the LOS, forcing the defense to commit, before cutting back into the backside A-gap. A backside scrape exchange by the defense leaves two defenders in the same outside C-gap and vacates the center of the field as no defender is left with A-gap responsibility. Elliot hits that hole and picks up nice yardage.
The play worked so well the previous down that OSU decides to go right back to it. This time, they align in a trips set with the H-back aligned to the twins side. Wisconsin aligns a bit oddly in that they still have the two DTs aligned over the OGs and the OLBs outside, but the ILBs are shaded to the boundary. Nevertheless, the Buckeyes can rely on the numbering system, and this time the MIKE is the “Zero” defender, with the DT and the OLB being the “1” defender and “2” defender respectively. That means three defenders for three blockers, and OSU is good to go.
Wisconsin has on a heavy slant, but not enough to win into the playside gap. Meanwhile, the H-back seals the backside OLB, and the playside safety chases a ghost, believing incorrectly that the QB is keeping.
That’s not good if you’re a Badger fan. The ability for this play to quickly hit the gap sealed by the H-back is evident here, as Elliot charges right through it without so much as a single cut. He then goes untouched for a long TD
The split zone is a very effective way to take the speed of the game and read away from an inexperienced QB. By utilizing a numbering system, the “read” portion of whether to give or keep is made for the QB. Likewise, the offense is able to maintain a numbers advantage while running what is essentially a standard Inside Zone run play. And by threatening the boot with the QB, defenses cannot simply crash the middle of the field from the second or third level, and must maintain discipline to prevent the QB from leaking out. This opens everything up between the tackles for the RB to hit the playside or backside hole. In essence, the play takes the decisions out of the QB’s hands, while still threatening in a similar way as a read option look.