We're playing Ohio State in La Fiesta and that can only mean:
a). a clash of traditional powers
b). a plethora of fat pasty drunks with goatees endlessly spelling the name of their state in Scottsdale bars
c). Ohio State men doing that as well
d). a lengthy series of erroneous Terrelle-Pryor-Vince Young comparison during the telecast
e). pre-game stories focused on Jordan Shipley and Colt McCoy's unconsummated heterosexual love affair
f). all of the above
In observation of traditional football rules, both teams will feature offenses and defenses. I will take a look at each and offer predictable quips mocking Ohio's late 19th century economy, spirit-crushing weather and cityscapes, and the Laurinaitis starter jersey/pegged acid-washed jeans/Kaepa high tops look favored by much of their fanbase; further cementing the strange bond we share with Michigan fans everywhere.
Ohio State Defense
Ohio State's defense is statistically strong - ranking in the Top 10 of every meaningful defensive category while featuring Lott Award Winner LB James Laurinaitis and Thorpe Award Winner CB Malcolm Jenkins. When you consider that Ohio State faced a Big 10 in which Todd Boeckman was the returning 1st Team All-Conference QB and Ricky Stanzi is considered a "gunslinger", you're left with the probable conclusion that you've found a league with weaker quarterbacking than the SEC; there may well be a couple of fat CPAs living in your cul-de-sac who will throw the ball with more consistency in a game of Old Man Christmas Football than Curtis Painter and Steven Threet mustered all year. Somewhere Brees and Brady weep.
Ohio State's strength is in its back seven. Not just because they're facing skill position players in a region of the country where gouda is considered a vegetable - but because they're actually good back there. Malcolm Jenkins is a legit NFL first rounder at CB, Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman rarely give up the big play at safety, and Chimdi Chekwa is solid with a potential to be pretty good down the road. DB depth is solid and they can go nickel and dime without much dropoff.
OSU spends most of the game in soft zone and their DL focuses on space eating and run stopping. That's why opponents complete over 55% of their passes. It's also why the longest pass play they've given up all year is 49 yards (an incredible statistic) and opponents average less than 10 yards per completion. They're quite content to let you catch a seven yard pass and hit you. They also do a very nice job of forcing turnovers and opportunism is their collective middle name. They play fundamental football and they're sound in their understanding of the team defense concept on all levels. They're one of the few teams in college football that you can watch play zone defense and see that every guy not only understands his role, but is capable of making decisions on the fly that reinforce the underlying concept of the defense. This would be in direct contrast to our zone where half of the secondary jumps routes like Somali pirates sighting George Soros' yacht and the rest are Wal-Mart greeters with a range of approximately three feet right and left.
The linebackers are a considerable strength. James Laurinaitis has now received so much criticism for being overrated that he is now potentially underrated - cementing him as the Coldplay of college linebacking. Say what you will about his deficiencies - an inability to stop an OL in his tracks and shed, an absence of big hits, a last name that conjures an exotic form of halitosis - but the dude is as opportunistic as a small town hairdresser with a tit job who has spotted a divorced Corvette owner at Applebee's happy hour. His best comparator is not Illinois' Dick Butkus as announcers are so wont to describe him, but Baylor's Joe Pawelek. He creates turnovers with anticipation (9 career interceptions) and he's a sure tackler. He understands the game, he flows to the ball, and he's a film rat that exploits tendency mercilessly. I wonder if he'll be able to diagnose our complex running game?
OLB Marcus Freeman is a guy who makes fewer plays than his physical make-up would suggest but he's a sure NFL guy who plays OLB with intelligence. He's OSU's 3rd best defender and the guy we're most likely to see creating problems off of the edge. He also leads them in TFL - a left-handed compliment for a team where they value the proper pursuit angle over a disruptive risky play in the backfield. The final piece of the Buckeye LBing corps is sophomore Ross Homan - undersized, reasonably athletic - and already tabbed as the Buckeye most likely to be called the "Gutty Captain" or "The Plucky Comandante" of the "Buckeye Hussars" by TV announcers once Laurinaitis moves on.
Their front four is weak, though partly by design. They don't get much pressure on the passer, they're sound against the run, and their primary function is to hold the line of scrimmage and sucker you into double teaming them and free their playmaking LB crew. Clearly, much of this is embedded in Ohio State's defensive philosophy where the linebackers are heroes and the defensive linemen play the straight man, but a guy like DT Quinn Pitcock could honor that scheme while still getting his. They don't have anyone like that. They'll rotate four mediocre DTs - Worthington, Deninger, Heyward, Larimore - who will all present a consistent motor, a good pad level, and not much else. DE Thaddeus Gibson is probably their best pressure guy off of the edge but his 4.0 sacks don't impress and he's somewhat undersized at 6-2, 240. The other DE is 6-4, 300 pound Nader Abdallah and he is as inviting as the Kuwaiti border to an opponent's pass protection. When a 40+ snap per game starting DE has one sack and 5 TFL, you'd better be playing a lot of soft zone in the secondary.
Much of their defensive philosophy is premised on the notion that a college offense is incompetent and incapable of consistent play and execution in the passing and running games. Facing Big 10 offenses does a great deal to reinforce that mindset. They force very few negative plays other than turnovers - which they harvest in bunches. When an offense shows a scab - poor ball security, a willingness to throw into coverage - Ohio State will pick on it until it bleeds and then pick on it some more. If you're a sloppy or undiscplined football team, they're your worst nightmare. Bend-but-don't-break gets a bad name, but I don't know of many good defenses that don't fit that descriptor in an era of spread offenses.
Texas will present an interesting match-up because our entire offense is premised on the notion that we will complete a ten yard route with 90% efficiency and we've mastered the art of giving defenses an executional death more surely and slowly than an optimist living in Cleveland. If you give Colt time in the pocket, we'll murder you with progressions, crossing routes, or wheel routes. Get marginal pressure, Colt buys time with his feet. Drop everyone back, Colt runs for a dozen. If we do just that on an early drive for a TD, something has to give.
So here's what Ohio State is going to do:
James L, Homan, and Freeman will stay in the game and Ohio State will lose a down lineman - probably an interior DT or Abdallah. Freeman will line up on the edge and rush/drop and Laurinaitis & Homan will line up so far from the LOS that you'll swear that they are safeties. Ohio State will bring in a nickel and essentially divide the field into quarters with one deep safety to prevent something over the top. With congestion from deep LB drops in the middle manned by two LBs who can operate in space and a secondary focused on making the play in front of them with simplified assignments, they should be able to challenge the staple of our short passing game. Alignment off of that scheme can vary greatly, but responsibilities won't - Ohio State DC Jim Heacock will be able to suggest different things by disposition while allowing his team to not do much else beyond jumping routes and making sure tackles. They'll also mix up pressure with corner blitzes off of our slot WR, which we've shown ourselves to be susceptible to at times. Essentially, Jim Heacock is going to spit on our running game and dare us to run the ball. I'm not really sure we'll be able to do so.
However, I wouldn't discount Heacock instructing his down linemen to play the run first irrespective of down and distance to prevent our supplementary running game - shovel passes and Colt McCoy draws out of the empty set. Any pressure Ohio State will get likely be with a back 7 guy coming on a blitz, so why not shut down the run entirely, maintain pass rushing lanes and containment on Colt, and force a throw into a secondary covering four with seven?
This strategy will also be heavily down and distance dependent. As I've written previously, our running game is a creature of 1st down and 2nd and short. Ohio State will scheme to those downs appropriately. 2nd and long or 3rd and 3+ will be treated as a pure passing down and you'll see what I'm describing above more often than not.
There are three ways the Ohio State deep drop, bend-but-don't-break strategy will play out. The most optimistic for Ohio State will feature challenged short routes, batted balls, bowl-game layoff rust in our precision passing game, dumb offensive penalties, perhaps even a pick six off of Malcolm Jenkins squatting on a route. We'll be completely unable to establish our lateral running game, Colt will be the entire basis of our offense, and we'll stall in the few opportunities we have in the red zone. We lose 17-16 and Greg Davis effigies are burned throughout Austin.
The most pessimistic scenario for Ohio State will look a lot like their recent games against competent offense - our athletes destroy a soft zone with good hands, smart play, and superior quickness; our running game is sufficient to gouge Ohio State when they offer disrespectful alignment, and Colt finds a lot of running room and time for improvisation in the pocket - the genesis for our big play production. The red zone stiffening that Ohio State has relied on all year never materializes and a BCS blowout ensues.
The middle ground - the most likely scenario - suggests a pliable Ohio State defense between the 20s that stiffens in the red zone and uses a compressed field, our tendency, and a stout run defense to force field goals instead of sixes. That means that there will be a premium in this game on situational play calling that resists tendency and plays to our strengths. A throw for the end zone on a 2nd and short from the 25, a fifteen yard touchdown run off of a Colt draw out of an empty set on 1st and 10, a Chris O wheel route isolated on an Ohio State LB to exploit a poor Buckeye pass rush. Vanilla playcalling will guarantee us threes instead of sixes and it's crucial for the play of our defense as much as our offense that we open up an early and assertive lead. If you want an upset, aim for a 16-13 game going into the 4th. If you want a resounding win and a psychological claim to a MNC, go up quickly on Ohio State and force them into a game in which they're completely uncomfortable, where both their defense and offense will have to play left-handed and try to create plays that they're just not designed to conjure.