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Ohio State Vs. Clemson Rematch In New Orleans: Previewing the Buckeyes Offense

Them, again?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What Clemson vs. Ohio State has lacked in frequency (the schools have only played four times) it has made up for in intensity. Three of those four games were in New Years Six Bowls, two were in the playoffs, and one ended Woody Hayes career. Through it all, the Tigers are undefeated.

Woody Hayes Punching Ken Fritz

Ryan Day’s rise up the coaching ranks is tangled in that history. After losing 31-0 in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl Semifinals, then head coach Urban Meyer hired Day as a QB coach and Kevin Wilson as a coordinator to revamp the passing game.

The results worked brilliantly, with the Buckeyes getting a QB drafted in the first round for the first time since 1982, and Justin Fields looking like a top-five draft pick. We don’t have to talk about how that draft pick is doing right now, it’s “Jimbo Fisher at FSU rules,” what counts is that first contract.

When Meyer was put on administrative leave following the Zach Smith allegations, Day served as the acting head coach. When Meyer retired at the end of the season, Day was tapped to take over the program.

To the surprise of anyone remotely familiar with the output of Florida football in the decade following Meyer’s departure from Gainesville, the Buckeyes haven’t missed a beat. As it stands, last year’s game in Glendale is the only loss of Ryan Day’s head coaching career.

Dabo has given the Buckeyes fans plenty to talk about, but honestly, I’m not sure that it’s really going to matter in the course of this game. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State being more motivated than they already were to avenge their season ending loss. The last time these teams played, the Buckeyes were driving to take the lead with less than a minute left in the game. 2019’s Ohio State team was good enough to beat the Tigers and everyone involved knows it.

As for Dabo’s comments before the season being hypocritical, I just have a hard time getting upset. I’ve been around this sport long enough to understand that, at the end of the day, coaches are going to do and say whatever they think is in the best interest of their team or themselves in that exact moment. Getting mad about the inevitable is like cursing out the sun for setting.

My personal favorite part of this has been Dabo saying he wouldn’t have put a 6-0 USC in the playoff and the rest of college football shrugging it off. Also it’s objectively funny to rank Ohio State behind Coastal Carolina.

I’m not sure if only playing six games is an advantage or a disadvantage, but I do know Ohio State has spent this year finding itself on offense. To the surprise of everyone, the heart and soul of this Buckeyes offense isn’t the pre-season Heisman candidate at QB and the bevy of talented receivers, it’s a rushing attack that has improved week after week before breaking out against a stout Northwestern defense.

Ohio State’s running game consists of inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and sweep schemes. Day doesn’t install running schemes within the season, describing the idea as “bad news. That’s gonna be a long day in the office on Saturday”.

Instead, Day has a pretty simple game planning technique. He installs his base runs, as well as a handful of variations off of them, in the off-season. That way, in season practice time is spent refreshing something his players are already familiar with. As he explained at a coaching clinic.

“As we go to gameplan, we need two tight zones, two mid zones, one outside zone, a power, a counter, maybe two perimeter runs. That’s our run game for the week. Offensive line coach comes in, he draws them up against the looks we’re seeing that week, and our game plan is done. There’s no new plays being put in.”

How do you generate an elite running game out of so few schemes? One, by executing the hell out of the things you do. Ohio State’s offensive line is massive and has dominated at the line of scrimmage. The second is finding as many ways as possible to make your base running plays look confusing to the defense.

Take inside zone. Along with power, it’s one of the Buckeyes favorite blocking schemes.

Ohio State is able to run inside zone as a zone read, with the tight end kicking out the defensive end (slice), with the tight end faking the kick out and leading to the linebacker to block for the zone read (arc), and by reversing the QB and RB’s paths (bash). That’s before we get into the RPOs designed to punish teams that overload the box.

While these plays looks significantly different to the defense, the difference between the run above and the run below is just switching the QB, TE, and RB assignments.

To hear the coaches describe it this is, “a spread college run game with an NFL-type passing game. That’s the sell to the quarterbacks. Like last year, we have a 2,000-yard running back and we have a quarterback who throws 40 some touchdown passes.”

Quarterback Justin Fields, breakout RB Trey Sermon, and “what a football name” Master Teague III (if healthy) are more than capable of taking advantage of the running lanes the Buckeyes offensive line provides. Sermon, in particular, was able to hurt Northwestern with cutback runs, and Day and Co. play-called well to take advantage of that in the second half.

Here Day uses a “quads” (four receivers to one side) set with a RB in the backfield. While this does make one Buckeyes receiver ineligible, it also gets the Wildcats’ safeties out of position to stop Sermon once he gets to the second level.

While Fields carrying the ball is almost always a possibility, Ohio State really likes to use his legs to gain numbers on short yardage and in the red zone.

They can punish the backside of defenses over-committed against the Buckeyes running backs, or Fields can carry the ball himself on more single wing looks which use the backs as lead blockers.

The Buckeyes TEs have not brought much to the passing game outside of the red zone (thirteen catches split three ways), but they are generally excellent blockers for the position. Watch #88 get downfield and spring #33 free for another chunk of yards on this outside zone run.

Although much was made of Fields return to Columbus, he’s had a disappointing 2020. The Kennesaw, GA, native has already surpassed his total interceptions from 2019 (5 vs. 3) in a fraction of the time. More concerning for Buckeyes fans is Fields’ performance against the best two teams on the schedule, Indiana and Northwestern (stop laughing, I’m serious).

In those games Fields’ went 30/57 (52.6% completion rate) for 444 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions, eight sacks, and a partridge in a pear tree.

You can pin that on a lot of reasons, and I’m inclined to believe each is a bit true. I see a mix of questionable play-calling, Fields trying to do too much, an offensive line that doesn’t pass block as well as run block, and a lack of playmakers outside of the top two receivers.

Ohio State’s passing game mostly consists of RPO’s, a handful of NFL-style concepts, screens and max-protected shots downfield. You can see why Fields was such a highly rated recruit. He’s got the arm strength to take the top off of defenses and uses his legs well in the running and passing game.

In Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Fields has a pair of targets with the speed to beat teams that load up against the running game. They both have five receiving touchdowns and at least one gain of 40+ yards to their names this season. They’re averaging around fifteen yards per reception and are generally terrifying. They’re also the only two pass catchers with more than ten receptions this year.

Olave’s absence against Northwestern helped lead to the offense grinding to a halt. He’s back for the rematch against Clemson. Olave wants this as badly as anybody. He’s the one who broke his route off, thinking Fields was scrambling, before Nolan Turner’s game sealing interception.

Ohio State has been able to get around some of their depth problems at WR/TE by incorporating the backs into the passing game. The Buckeyes are fond of using backs as outlet passes, such as on the above snag concept.

Once linebackers begin sitting on the passes to the flat, Day calls up an angle route to get the RB isolated on the linebacker in pass coverage. The pass is batted down by a defensive lineman, but look how open the RB is underneath.

Looks like this, and the backs occasionally leaking to the flats on play-action passes, could be a matchup to watch. Clemson has had issues with underneath coverage this year. But let’s not overstate the risk, Sermon and Teague III have a dozen combined receptions in 2020.

One concept Day has used to attack teams that run Clemson’s base quarters coverage is the shallow and go. The concept uses quarters rules against itself. You see, in quarters the safety has to take the slot WR if he goes vertical. Meanwhile, the corner only covers the outside WR if he runs vertical, but if the outside WR runs in or shallow the corner lets the linebackers handle it and drops deep.

By having the outside wide receiver go shallow before breaking vertically, you’re (ideally) able to get him isolated 1-on-1 with a linebacker. A wide receiver isolated on a LB in coverage is a winning matchup for the offense every time.

Fields is one of the most elusive quarterbacks I’ve ever seen, and it gets him both into and out of trouble. This year he’s had multiple wounded duck interceptions thrown while falling over, rather than just tossing the ball out of bounds or taking a sack. His offensive line hasn’t helped, struggling in particular with blitz pickup. Over 10% of Fields passing attempts this year have ended in a sack.

There have also been instances where I think the play calling is asking him to do too much. From a “going against your tendencies” standpoint, I understand the idea of running a play-action pass off a QB sweep your offense is fond of in the red zone.

From a situational standpoint, this is fourth-and-one in the red zone against Indiana, and you just called a pass where the QB has to do a 180 before seeing the defense? I know second guessing is easy but I’ve still got questions.

This should be an exciting matchup between two programs that know each other very well. Along with Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson have taken the majority of spots available in the playoffs. Whichever one wins will likely get reacquainted with the Crimson Tide in the title game.

I don’t know what wrinkles or adjustments the coaches on either team may have saved for this game. In 2019, Clemson made massive changes to its offense to break out two weapons it hadn’t before featured, building a game plan around running Lawrence and throwing to Etienne. Meanwhile, Day and his staff were able to take a 16-0 lead over Clemson after coming out in an up-tempo passing offense.

I do recall one huge adjustment Clemson made in 2019, which consisted of shifting to a dime front in the second half in order to better stop explosive running plays. With Nolan Turner only suspended for targeting in the first half, this look may be one to watch out for.

Ultimately this game will be won or lost at the line of scrimmage. Clemson has the talent at corner to match up with Olave and Garrett better than any team the Buckeyes have played so far. Ohio State has a good enough offensive line to bowl over a lot of defenses, but the Tigers’ front (as long as Skalksi and Davis stay on the field) should be able to provide a challenge.

If Ohio State is able to run the ball well enough to create explosive plays, as well as stay out of third and long situations, they’re going to be able to give the Tigers a headache. If the Buckeyes can’t, I don’t think a passing game that has struggled against the “best” opponents on the schedule is going to be able to keep up with Lawrence, Etienne, and the rest of Clemson’s offense.

Vegas views Clemson as a 7.5 point favorite. SP+ doesn’t know what to make of this game, viewing it as about a 50-50 with Clemson favored by under two points. Dabo says, “There’s no question Ohio State is good enough to beat us... They’re good enough to be a national champion.”

Regardless of which expert you decide to place your faith in, just be ready for a close one. Last year’s game was a rock fight that took years off of my life. This year is shaping up for more of the same.