This is a first in a series of film breakdowns of Ohio State's core offensive plays leading into the Hokies' matchup with the Buckeyes on September 6th.
Much has been made over the last decade about how Urban Meyer's offense has elevated football programs at Utah, Florida, and now Ohio State. Meyer uses elements of a variety of classic offenses in a hybrid spread system that forces defenses to account for multiple options in space on every snap. However, any good offensive system is built upon classic principles that have a solid history of success. In Meyer's system, the quarterback position harkens back to the era of the single wing "tailback." In the old single wing, the tailback received the direct snap much like a quarterback receives the snap in the shotgun today. From the alignment, the tailback was required to be a triple threat; run inside with power, outside with speed, or throw downfield.
Enter Braxton Miller. Miller is a three-year starter returning for his senior season with the Buckeyes. Ohio State's combination of misdirection, play-action, and the best athletes in the B1G get receivers open, and while Miller can be an erratic thrower, he has the arm and athleticism to hurt teams downfield. However, Miller is most dangerous as a runner on designed quarterback running plays. Many Hokie fans who watch Ohio State's game film from last season will quickly draw the comparison to UCLA's Brett Hundley. Hundley torched the Hokies on long run, after run in the first half of the Sun Bowl. However, Hundley has a bigger arm, and was most effective escaping the pocket on broken plays. Miller is a very good scrambler, but his best runs come on designed plays. Ohio State uses single wing man blocking (play side blocks down, back side pulling linemen kick out and lead) and Miller is a natural cutting off those blocks.
A bread and butter single wing play that highlights Braxton Miller's special talents is the quarterback counter trey. It features every element of the single wing: down blocking, pulling, misdirection that forces defenses to mute their pursuit, and great athleticism at the quarterback position.
Let's break down the play itself.
On the play side, the blocking rule for the right tackle and right guard is to step through the inside gap, then down a gap, and keep on their tracks until they hit a defensive lineman or a linebacker. Against a four-man front, the play side offensive tackle will block down to the three-technique gap. If the tackle is playing a one-technique, the tackle will continue on his path and seal the middle linebacker inside. The right guard will block down on a one-technique, or seal the middle linebacker inside if there is a three-technique tackle.
On the back side, the left guard pulls and kicks out the right defensive end. The center and left tackle seal to their left to prevent any penetration.
In the backfield, the motion looks similar to a read option. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back going left to right. After the fake, the quarterback takes a hard counter-step to his left, causing the linebackers to flow opposite of the running back in anticipation of the quarterback running outside of the left tackle. The quarterback plants his left foot, and then follows his tailback (who is now a lead blocker) through the hole where he cuts off the block of the tailback.
This play looks like a complex misdirection play due to the fake hand off, but otherwise it is no different than the old Redskins counter trey which utilized single wing misdirection concepts and incorporated them in a pro-style offense.
On this Redskins version, two linemen pull on from the back side of the play while the play side linemen block down, just like Ohio State. The key differences are that Ohio State uses a running back or H-Back as the second "pulling lineman", and the quarterback is taking the counter step and running the football.
Two key teaching points are:
- The jab step freezes the linebackers, which allows the right tackle or guard to seal them inside and it allows the tailback the extra second to get to his angle and set up the block.
- The quarterback runs to daylight off the tailback's block. The lead guard has to adjust to the defensive end as well. If the end jumps inside, the guard has to be athletic enough to seal him inside. Otherwise he kicks him out to create an alley.
Ohio State will use this play at almost every conceivable place on the field, down, and distance because it can be adjusted on the fly to the defensive alignment. On this first play, Miller is in a short yardage situation needing a yard on fourth down.
In this situation, the left side of the Nebraska defensive line stunts through the inside gap. The defensive tackle aligns as a three-technique, but slants through the one gap. The right guard and tackle don't have to adjust because they follow their rule. The defensive tackle crosses the guard's face, so the guard seals him inside. The tackle doesn't have anyone in the inside gap to block, so he moves on to the linebacker.
The left guard pulls across and finds the defensive end crashing inside. Rather than trying to kick him out with a bad angle, the guard adjusts on the fly and seals him inside. Because of the inside crash stunt, the strong safety jumps outside to contain the play. Miller has a beautiful alley and is off to the races.
Meyer uses a slightly different version of this counter trey against Michigan. The Buckeyes align an H-Back to the left side, which heightens the possibility of a power lead with the tailback and H-Back as lead blockers to the left. But, they come back to the right with the counter trey.
By rule, the Buckeye right side blocks gap-down-linebacker. However, the right tackle takes a poor angle at the Michigan inside linebacker. Michigan blitzes off the edge, so the left guard has to kick out the blitzer. The missed block on the linebacker kills the play.
Against Michigan State, Meyer called the same counter trey regularly, but did it mostly from an empty backfield without a tailback. For this version, the H-Back is the second lead blocker. He will align on the left side, pull across, and drive out the first defensive player to cross his face. Miller then cuts off the block of the H-Back.
It is interesting to note that the Buckeyes exclusively used the empty backfield version of the counter trey against Michigan State. I am not sure if that adjustment stemmed from something different that Michigan State did alignment wise, or if the adjustment was made in response to a weakness that Meyer spied on film. The Spartans used a five defensive back alignment with four defensive linemen and two linebackers aligned as inside backers much like the Hokies use in nickel.
The Hokies will have a small but lightening quick defensive line, but down blocking can negate some of that advantage while the backfield misdirection can freeze the linebackers. Bud Foster initially used a very passive scheme against teams (Clemson mostly) that used single wing components. However, against Denard Robinson and Michigan, Foster eliminated much of the key reading for his linebackers and focused instead on accounting for all gaps. That same approach was much more effective against Clemson in 2012. Miller is a much better thrower, but with the Buckeyes replacing most of their offensive line and without second round draft pick, running back Carlos Hyde, stopping Miller as a single wing tailback will be critical to any success the Hokies achieve.