College News & Analysis

Galina: The Ohio State Buckeyes stumbled over the finish line vs. Indiana, but it's not time to panic yet

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) tries to toss the ball away under pressure during the third quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Cfb Indiana Hoosiers At Ohio State Buckeyes

Just as it looked like Ohio State was on its way to smashing another Big Ten foe, the Indiana Hoosiers nearly mounted a historic comeback in the horseshoe last Saturday and put a scare into the Buckeyes.

The Hoosiers have been the Cinderella team in the Big Ten to start the season, but they still went into Columbus as 20-point dogs, depending on where you looked. That’s how good Ohio State has been to start the season. The offense hummed as Justin Fields played like the best quarterback in the country. And the defense, even with so many high-profile losses throughout its starting 11 from a year ago, produced at a high level.

So, what do we make of Fields looking like an average Joe playing quarterback and the defense having its worst day in the conference since 2018 against Indiana? Not much, really. Plenty of issues beset the Buckeyes in the drizzling rain Saturday, but most are fixable. The problem areas were schematic breakdowns and not losing personnel battles.

Let’s start with the offense, where the running game kept churning out yards but the passing attack couldn’t move the ball consistently. Since 2017, there have been only seven worse games from Ohio State's passing game than against Indiana, and none came in 2019 or the start of 2020. The Buckeyes busted so many blocking assignments that led to quick pressure on Fields.

Again, it’s not that they lost one-on-one matchups all over the field — they literally just forgot to block people. Fields was pressured on 17 dropbacks, the most since he came to Ohio State. That led to zero completions, two interceptions and five sacks. There are two different types of pressures baked into this pie: complete busts on the offensive line and nasty coverage rotations that forced Fields to hold on to the football in the pocket.

This one would go under the complete busts category. It's not easy to say for sure what’s happening here, but it looks like No. 52 gets nervous about the linebacker blitz when it’s probably not his assignment. The running back is coming over to pick that guy up. With the center initially sliding left, that left side is normally responsible for the two down linemen plus the linebacker on that side, No. 47. This puts the right guard, right tackle and running back on the three defenders to the right side.

Usually, the offensive linemen are going to handle the down defensive line and the running back will take the linebacker. The right guard probably should have stuck on his guy and let the running back and then the center take the linebacker. It’s not a very difficult blitz to deal with. Indiana is just trying to get a one-on-one with its linebacker against a running back and, instead, they get a free rusher.

The Buckeyes simply not blocking a down defensive linemen happened more than once in this game. That's not good, but you can’t imagine something so simple becoming a trend for an offense of this caliber. Where things are a bit more concerning are with how Indiana confused Fields, which led to pressure on him.

The Hoosiers had shown a very nice Cover 2 rotation where they hover around in a single-high safety look before vaulting into Tampa 2 at the snap and often sending their nickel back on a blitz. They did this rotation 19 times against Penn State in their opener but only 12 times in the three games after. Either way, Ohio State has seen this on film.

When we remove the Indiana pressures from these weird Ohio State offensive line busts, 80% of the remaining pressures came with some sort of funky rotation in the secondary. The Buckeyes actually caught Indiana in this rotation on the first play of the game and hit Garrett Wilson between the two safeties for a huge gain to set up their first touchdown. After that, the explosive plays dried up, and the sacks came hot and heavy.

Look at this nice one in the fourth quarter. The safeties are bouncing around before the snap, and right before Fields calls for the football, it looks like they are going to rotate in one-high with the weak safety patrolling the middle of the field.

Wrong. It’s Cover 2.

Fields is probably thinking that when the weak safety rotates high, he has a nice one-on-one down at the bottom. Instead, that receiver is essentially double covered. Fields moves his eyes to his right but doesn’t like any of the routes over there. Now the pressure is coming. He ends up making a good play to find his receiver on the sideline, but simply beating pressure every time is not sustainable.

You’d like to see some better answers from the Ohio State offense against this considering there is a good chance they’ll see Clemson again in the postseason. Fields probably could have found a few more backside routes before escaping the pocket, as well. However, it's better to see this type of stuff now and win the game rather than be surprised by it later in the season.

Turning to the defensive side of the ball, we find similar issues. The problem going into the season for Ohio State was whether the team could hold up at outside cornerback. The Buckeyes defense wants to show offenses that they are playing man coverage and then, well, play man coverage.

When it seems like every one of your cornerbacks gets drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, you can get away with it. Sevyn Banks and Shaun Wade had played decently heading into the Indiana game, and when you look at how many points the Hoosiers scored, your first thought might be that they did indeed get burned in man coverage. That’s not exactly what happened. Ohio State busted a ton of zone coverages that led to explosive plays.

On this play, Ohio State is playing Cover 3. In Cover 3 against trips, most teams will play man to man on the backside to the single receiver and running back. Indiana motions out its running back, and the linebacker follows him. It's pretty clear it’s man to man back there. Then, the linebacker just decides to play Cover 2 outside. I'm not sure what else this is but a severe mixup. Of the six (!) Indiana pass plays that gained 20-plus yards, the first four were because of major busts in the secondary and the last two were really just great plays by Ty Fryfogle.

A real concern would have been if the Buckeyes had just not been able to hang one on one. That still remains a worry going forward, as they will eventually have to face a team with a fleet of outstanding receivers should they make the College Football Playoff. These clear-as-day busts are easier to clean up, though.

Ohio State is still the cream of the crop and will most likely return to form because its defense will almost certainly not play as poorly as it did for at least the rest of the Big Ten slate. Their offensive line will not allow free rushers time and time again as it did against Indiana.

The concern is going to be with Fields, who played easily his worst game as a Buckeye. There were plays to be made even with all the fun rotations and coverages that Indiana sent his way, and he didn’t quite deliver. With that said, you’d expect a bounce back — and by the way, Ohio State still scored 35 points on offense.

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