Infiltration tactics and the 2020 National Championship

Ian Boyd

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Jan 14, 2014
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Ypsilanti, MI
A little over a year ago I wrote this piece while trying to summarize college football''s evolutions from a big picture perspective:


One of the key points I tried to make was how modern offense aims to attack the structure of the defense with vertical passing from HUNH spread systems. The comparison I made was infiltration tactics that were developed toward the end of World War I as a solution to the horrific stalemate of trench warfare.

What I’ve found looking back at college football history is that the solution has always been more or less the same. The best offenses infiltrate opposing defenses with some sort of vertical passing dimension, ideally a deep threat, and then clean up with the run game after compromising the structure of the defense. The HUNH spread is a favored way to accomplish that goal these days and it’s really hard to beat if you have either a field general at quarterback who can handle checks at the line of scrimmage (Joe Burrow) or else a master play-caller who can anticipate and signal in precision strikes quickly (Lincoln Riley, Steve Sarkisian). Looking back though, the dive-heavy offense of Bo Schembechler's initial Michigan team who spoiled an Ohio State title run relied on play-action shots in the seam to tight end Jim Mandich. That same year (1969) the Texas Longhorns' famous wishbone offense really made hay by creating open alleys with the threat of split receiver Cotton Speyrer, who took the top off against Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout when the Sooners tried to outnumber the triple-option.

The RPO spread/play-action offense which was really pioneered by Art Briles at the turn of the decade and can be a HUNH spread approach is built purely around infiltration strategy. Compromise the defense down the field with wide splits, perimeter screens, and regular deep shots, then clean up with the power run game on the diminished fronts left behind by the defense after they scramble to stop quick-strike scores deep or wide.

Alabama’s offense, which I’ve referred to as “pro-style Briles” is similar in nature. Steve Sarkisian was basing on the RPO game and then had a number of complements designed to punish teams for overplaying the run or trying to match up in man coverage. All of if was ultimately designed to break down the defensive structure and allow the infantry (power run game) to clean up what was left behind and take ground and touchdowns.

Heading into the game I really thought both teams understood the dimensions of this game and what it was going to take to win. In my preview over at Football Outsiders I projected both teams would emphasize taking away the explosive passing dimensions, theorized Ohio State would and should play more nickel, and it could come down to which power run game was more efficient.

After all, Ohio State had just presented Clemson with a gameplan in which the Buckeyes maintained their base defensive approach but widened out the linebacker splits in order to encourage the Tigers to run the ball at their defensive tackles behind an iffy interior offensive line. The Tigers couldn't keep up or handle Ohio State's defensive tackles and the Buckeyes rolled.

Ryan Day’s Maginot line

The Germans’ upgrade of infiltration tactics with mechanized divisions (creating the “blitzkrieg” strategy) was really made stark in WWII against France when the French came into the war expecting a repeat of WWI and built a series of impregnable fortifications and firepower across the border named the "Maginot line." The Germans famously went around it, compromised the structure of the French defenses, and within six weeks Paris had surrendered.

It took about one quarter for that to happen to Ohio State in this game.

This was an all-time bed-wetting by Ohio State from a gameplanning perspective. A complete and total thrashing. Their plan on defense was wildly overfocused on matching up with Alabama in the trenches when the obvious answer was staring them in the face. The Tide’s slot receiver, DeVonta Smith, came into this game with over 1600 receiving yards, 20 touchdowns, and the Heisman trophy. Alabama’s RPO and play-pass game regularly targeted him and it was clearly the dimension to their offense with the most destructive potential.

Instead they sat at the border behind the Maginot line.

With about 11:30 left in the second quarter and the game ostensibly evenly matched at 14-apiece, Sark made his maneuver. He’d worked out Ohio State’s response to 12 personnel in this game was to present the following personnel package:

Ohio State 4-4 stack.jpg

There’s more to playing good football than having lots of blue chips on the field. Especially if they’re all 230+ and no one is a 5-star at covering slot receivers (or else have been moved outside due to NFL defections and indictments to other defensive backs).

This is the personnel to run the 4-4 stack defense, which Ohio State utilized this season at times when facing teams not deploying spread personnel. You may vaguely recall the 4-4 stack defense as the preferred base defense for the T.C. Williams Titans in the Disney classic “Remember the Titans.” The Titans have to abandon the 4-4 stack and move over offensive players to get more speed on the field when their opponent runs a shotgun spread in the Championship game.

Well, the Buckeyes must have missed that part of the movie. They stuck with the 4-4 stack and Alabama scored touchdowns on five of their next seven possessions. The other two possessions were a field goal and a punt just before the half. Ohio State proved predictably vulnerable to getting exposed down the field by Devonta Smith or with misdirection that forced their big linebackers to diagnose and change directions in space. It was an absolute catastrophe and one of the all-time worst defensive performances against the spread I’ve seen, even as someone who’s chronicled some epic beatdowns in the Big 12 over the last 10 years.

The right answer

Brandon Staley of the L.A. Rams had this money quote in an Athletic feature on his defensive philosophy earlier this season.

“...just from a schematic standpoint, my big belief system is 1-on-1s in the run game and 2-on-1s in the passing game.”

This change in philosophy is going to be hard for many people to accept, but put another way I think it becomes more clear. Ohio State should have made it their emphasis to double team DeVonta Smith, who’d just won the Heisman trophy. Stuffing Najee Harris was a completely worthless exercise, and if your roster is filled with blue chip defensive lineman and linebackers you want to leverage while protecting your secondary, the right answer is to play fewer of the former.

It’s simple game theory. If you want the game to be settled in the box you need to flood the backfield. Make sure you have 2-on-1s against the dangerous receivers and all of your vulnerable defensive backs have the help they need. Then what happens? Alabama determines their best path is to try and hammer you in the box with runs to Najee Harris and now your best players can determine the outcome of the game. What’s more, they aren’t isolated in space.

If you want to beat Alabama by virtue of having 5-star linebackers and big, physical defensive linemen then you need to play less of them, not more. Especially when your opponent's base strategy on offense is to throw the ball to speed in space when teams attack the box with numbers. This is well established, there's no excuse.

You can’t just “run your stuff” and win a playoff game, particularly not against a team with all-time potency in Alabama when your own roster is somewhat depleted. You can go to the media afterwards and say “we wanted to stay true to who we are, despite the COVID issues” if you feel better about that answer but it’s a coward’s way out. Ohio State media should be all over Ryan Day and his staff for this pathetic display.

Texas fans rejoiced watching their head coach-to-be torching Ohio State for a National Championship and putting up big stats. Everyone is enticed by the narrative of Nick Saban’s offensive transformation and throwing for 464 yards and five scores while the star receiver drops 12 catches for 215 yards and three of those passing touchdowns.

To me the real story was this, Ohio State didn’t get it. They were made to look ridiculous, which was really a fitting capstone on the 2020 season for the Big 10 conference.
 

bHero

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This feels like the effects of distance from Urban Meyer's leadership. Ryan Day might be showing cracks in his vision for the Ohio State program.

The lack of double teams on Smith was surprising from the start... and they weren't really even prepared for Bama's defense... at least not like other teams have been vs them this year. Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and even Texas A&M had more YPP than Ohio State did this year.
 

sherf1

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Dec 8, 2018
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A little over a year ago I wrote this piece while trying to summarize college football''s evolutions from a big picture perspective:


One of the key points I tried to make was how modern offense aims to attack the structure of the defense with vertical passing from HUNH spread systems. The comparison I made was infiltration tactics that were developed toward the end of World War I as a solution to the horrific stalemate of trench warfare.

What I’ve found looking back at college football history is that the solution has always been more or less the same. The best offenses infiltrate opposing defenses with some sort of vertical passing dimension, ideally a deep threat, and then clean up with the run game after compromising the structure of the defense. The HUNH spread is a favored way to accomplish that goal these days and it’s really hard to beat if you have either a field general at quarterback who can handle checks at the line of scrimmage (Joe Burrow) or else a master play-caller who can anticipate and signal in precision strikes quickly (Lincoln Riley, Steve Sarkisian). Looking back though, the dive-heavy offense of Bo Schembechler's initial Michigan team who spoiled an Ohio State title run relied on play-action shots in the seam to tight end Jim Mandich. That same year (1969) the Texas Longhorns' famous wishbone offense really made hay by creating open alleys with the threat of split receiver Cotton Speyrer, who took the top off against Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout when the Sooners tried to outnumber the triple-option.

The RPO spread/play-action offense which was really pioneered by Art Briles at the turn of the decade and can be a HUNH spread approach is built purely around infiltration strategy. Compromise the defense down the field with wide splits, perimeter screens, and regular deep shots, then clean up with the power run game on the diminished fronts left behind by the defense after they scramble to stop quick-strike scores deep or wide.

Alabama’s offense, which I’ve referred to as “pro-style Briles” is similar in nature. Steve Sarkisian was basing on the RPO game and then had a number of complements designed to punish teams for overplaying the run or trying to match up in man coverage. All of if was ultimately designed to break down the defensive structure and allow the infantry (power run game) to clean up what was left behind and take ground and touchdowns.

Heading into the game I really thought both teams understood the dimensions of this game and what it was going to take to win. In my preview over at Football Outsiders I projected both teams would emphasize taking away the explosive passing dimensions, theorized Ohio State would and should play more nickel, and it could come down to which power run game was more efficient.

After all, Ohio State had just presented Clemson with a gameplan in which the Buckeyes maintained their base defensive approach but widened out the linebacker splits in order to encourage the Tigers to run the ball at their defensive tackles behind an iffy interior offensive line. The Tigers couldn't keep up or handle Ohio State's defensive tackles and the Buckeyes rolled.

Ryan Day’s Maginot line

The Germans’ upgrade of infiltration tactics with mechanized divisions (creating the “blitzkrieg” strategy) was really made stark in WWII against France when the French came into the war expecting a repeat of WWI and built a series of impregnable fortifications and firepower across the border named the "Maginot line." The Germans famously went around it, compromised the structure of the French defenses, and within six weeks Paris had surrendered.

It took about one quarter for that to happen to Ohio State in this game.

This was an all-time bed-wetting by Ohio State from a gameplanning perspective. A complete and total thrashing. Their plan on defense was wildly overfocused on matching up with Alabama in the trenches when the obvious answer was staring them in the face. The Tide’s slot receiver, DeVonta Smith, came into this game with over 1600 receiving yards, 20 touchdowns, and the Heisman trophy. Alabama’s RPO and play-pass game regularly targeted him and it was clearly the dimension to their offense with the most destructive potential.

Instead they sat at the border behind the Maginot line.

With about 11:30 left in the second quarter and the game ostensibly evenly matched at 14-apiece, Sark made his maneuver. He’d worked out Ohio State’s response to 12 personnel in this game was to present the following personnel package:


There’s more to playing good football than having lots of blue chips on the field. Especially if they’re all 230+ and no one is a 5-star at covering slot receivers (or else have been moved outside due to NFL defections and indictments to other defensive backs).

This is the personnel to run the 4-4 stack defense, which Ohio State utilized this season at times when facing teams not deploying spread personnel. You may vaguely recall the 4-4 stack defense as the preferred base defense for the T.C. Williams Titans in the Disney classic “Remember the Titans.” The Titans have to abandon the 4-4 stack and move over offensive players to get more speed on the field when their opponent runs a shotgun spread in the Championship game.

Well, the Buckeyes must have missed that part of the movie. They stuck with the 4-4 stack and Alabama scored touchdowns on five of their next seven possessions. The other two possessions were a field goal and a punt just before the half. Ohio State proved predictably vulnerable to getting exposed down the field by Devonta Smith or with misdirection that forced their big linebackers to diagnose and change directions in space. It was an absolute catastrophe and one of the all-time worst defensive performances against the spread I’ve seen, even as someone who’s chronicled some epic beatdowns in the Big 12 over the last 10 years.

The right answer

Brandon Staley of the L.A. Rams had this money quote in an Athletic feature on his defensive philosophy earlier this season.

“...just from a schematic standpoint, my big belief system is 1-on-1s in the run game and 2-on-1s in the passing game.”

This change in philosophy is going to be hard for many people to accept, but put another way I think it becomes more clear. Ohio State should have made it their emphasis to double team DeVonta Smith, who’d just won the Heisman trophy. Stuffing Najee Harris was a completely worthless exercise, and if your roster is filled with blue chip defensive lineman and linebackers you want to leverage while protecting your secondary, the right answer is to play fewer of the former.

It’s simple game theory. If you want the game to be settled in the box you need to flood the backfield. Make sure you have 2-on-1s against the dangerous receivers and all of your vulnerable defensive backs have the help they need. Then what happens? Alabama determines their best path is to try and hammer you in the box with runs to Najee Harris and now your best players can determine the outcome of the game. What’s more, they aren’t isolated in space.

If you want to beat Alabama by virtue of having 5-star linebackers and big, physical defensive linemen then you need to play less of them, not more. Especially when your opponent's base strategy on offense is to throw the ball to speed in space when teams attack the box with numbers. This is well established, there's no excuse.

You can’t just “run your stuff” and win a playoff game, particularly not against a team with all-time potency in Alabama when your own roster is somewhat depleted. You can go to the media afterwards and say “we wanted to stay true to who we are, despite the COVID issues” if you feel better about that answer but it’s a coward’s way out. Ohio State media should be all over Ryan Day and his staff for this pathetic display.

Texas fans rejoiced watching their head coach-to-be torching Ohio State for a National Championship and putting up big stats. Everyone is enticed by the narrative of Nick Saban’s offensive transformation and throwing for 464 yards and five scores while the star receiver drops 12 catches for 215 yards and three of those passing touchdowns.

To me the real story was this, Ohio State didn’t get it. They were made to look ridiculous, which was really a fitting capstone on the 2020 season for the Big 10 conference.
I made a point in the game thread that compared this game to the 2006/2007 beat downs vs LSU and Florida where "good" Ohio State teams suddenly looked like they were moving in sand against what was then cutting edge offense.

Good to see they're still a few years behind the tactics, even if they've figured out the recruiting.
 
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kevinbelt

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Ohio State media should be all over Ryan Day and his staff for this pathetic display
It's still early for traditional media, but message boards are overflowing with anger at Kerry Coombs, our DC. Ryan Day has a lot of goodwill at Ohio State (he's never lost a regular season game), so there's a little more patience, but yes, calls for a staff revamp are definitely there.

Before coming here, I was watching JT O'Sullivan's Youtube channel where he'd posted his film study of the game, and the entire video is just him pointing out "not sure what that safety is doing there", "why's he going that way when the play is going the other way?", etc.

I posted on Facebook during the game that the defensive gameplan was questionable. One of my friends commented that I was assuming there was a defensive gameplan. I mean, there obviously was one. You don't just end up with four linebackers on the field by accident. But any scenario where you're asking a middle linebacker (who is generally regarded as the slowest guy on our team, having never fully recovered from an Achilles tear) to cover a Heisman-winning receiver is one where the plan wasn't properly thought through.

That said, though, there's the old saying about putting your best 11 players on the field, and we were basically 80% there. There's a bigger problem that it's pretty hard for a gameplan to cover up, which is that we only have two guys capable of playing DB at a Power 5 level at the moment, and one of them is playing out of position. I don't hate the idea of four LBs in theory. Pete Werner is more like a robber safety who's also happens to be a run stuffer; comparing a guy to Kam Chancellor is a lot but same basic type of player. And Justin Hilliard has more coverage skills than you'd expect.

The right move would have been to play a 3-4 with Browning at edge rusher to give more of a 4-3 look. Browning is terrible in pursuit, which limits his value away from the line of scrimmage. Play Garrett at nose and Jonathan Cooper as the Browning-side end. Cooper is big enough and strong enough to play inside when Browning lines up as a rusher. The question then becomes which extra DB to insert, and that's a question with no answer. The obvious answer is to move Shaun Wade back where he's actually good, as a safety, but then we'd be playing the guys we had as our 4th and 5th best CBs going into the season against Smith, Waddle, and Metchie, and... that probably wouldn't work. There's really no defensive scheme that works when you've only got 2.5 good DBs that you can put on the field.

This is why I'm not terribly upset. It wasn't a good gameplan by any means, but the staff was aware of our limitations, and I think they made the calculation that they'd rather let a senior captain LB get beat rather than ruin the confidence of young DBs who'll be expected to contribute next year.

And also, Alabama's offense is really good, and with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to imagine how anything we did schematically could have changed that much. We actually played pretty well - we won the turnover battle, sacked Jones more times than they sacked Fields, committed only a couple of defensive penalties, and held the best RB in football to under 4 ypc. Even when our coverage was good, Jones was accurate and Smith made some highlight-reel catches. The scheme maybe made them look better than they actually are, but they're pretty incredible no matter what. We weren't ever going to win that game.

But hey, at least we got to play. We played eight more games than I expected, so I'll take what I can get.
 

kevinbelt

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Much more similar to LSU 2007 in my opinion. That LSU team was the best team in football, and would've rolled anyone in that game, much like Alabama last night. I will go to my grave, however, arguing that we were better than Florida in 06. You know how every year there's a team that just doesn't bother showing up for its bowl game? That just happened to be us, and in the national championship game. There was a lot of NFL talent on that OSU team and they just weren't motivated at all for some reason. That was also one of the first Space Force games, at least for me.
 

Ian Boyd

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Much more similar to LSU 2007 in my opinion. That LSU team was the best team in football, and would've rolled anyone in that game, much like Alabama last night. I will go to my grave, however, arguing that we were better than Florida in 06. You know how every year there's a team that just doesn't bother showing up for its bowl game? That just happened to be us, and in the national championship game. There was a lot of NFL talent on that OSU team and they just weren't motivated at all for some reason. That was also one of the first Space Force games, at least for me.
2006 Ohio state had a crappy nickel package that couldn’t handle Florida’s perimeter screen game...similar to last night really.
 
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funky123

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It's still early for traditional media, but message boards are overflowing with anger at Kerry Coombs, our DC. Ryan Day has a lot of goodwill at Ohio State (he's never lost a regular season game), so there's a little more patience, but yes, calls for a staff revamp are definitely there.

Before coming here, I was watching JT O'Sullivan's Youtube channel where he'd posted his film study of the game, and the entire video is just him pointing out "not sure what that safety is doing there", "why's he going that way when the play is going the other way?", etc.

I posted on Facebook during the game that the defensive gameplan was questionable. One of my friends commented that I was assuming there was a defensive gameplan. I mean, there obviously was one. You don't just end up with four linebackers on the field by accident. But any scenario where you're asking a middle linebacker (who is generally regarded as the slowest guy on our team, having never fully recovered from an Achilles tear) to cover a Heisman-winning receiver is one where the plan wasn't properly thought through.

That said, though, there's the old saying about putting your best 11 players on the field, and we were basically 80% there. There's a bigger problem that it's pretty hard for a gameplan to cover up, which is that we only have two guys capable of playing DB at a Power 5 level at the moment, and one of them is playing out of position. I don't hate the idea of four LBs in theory. Pete Werner is more like a robber safety who's also happens to be a run stuffer; comparing a guy to Kam Chancellor is a lot but same basic type of player. And Justin Hilliard has more coverage skills than you'd expect.

The right move would have been to play a 3-4 with Browning at edge rusher to give more of a 4-3 look. Browning is terrible in pursuit, which limits his value away from the line of scrimmage. Play Garrett at nose and Jonathan Cooper as the Browning-side end. Cooper is big enough and strong enough to play inside when Browning lines up as a rusher. The question then becomes which extra DB to insert, and that's a question with no answer. The obvious answer is to move Shaun Wade back where he's actually good, as a safety, but then we'd be playing the guys we had as our 4th and 5th best CBs going into the season against Smith, Waddle, and Metchie, and... that probably wouldn't work. There's really no defensive scheme that works when you've only got 2.5 good DBs that you can put on the field.

This is why I'm not terribly upset. It wasn't a good gameplan by any means, but the staff was aware of our limitations, and I think they made the calculation that they'd rather let a senior captain LB get beat rather than ruin the confidence of young DBs who'll be expected to contribute next year.

And also, Alabama's offense is really good, and with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to imagine how anything we did schematically could have changed that much. We actually played pretty well - we won the turnover battle, sacked Jones more times than they sacked Fields, committed only a couple of defensive penalties, and held the best RB in football to under 4 ypc. Even when our coverage was good, Jones was accurate and Smith made some highlight-reel catches. The scheme maybe made them look better than they actually are, but they're pretty incredible no matter what. We weren't ever going to win that game.

But hey, at least we got to play. We played eight more games than I expected, so I'll take what I can get.
Might be the first Buckeye I have respect for after reading your comments. Knowledgeable fans are far and few between which is why I love this site. Can’t find any at a bar with friends lol
 

sherf1

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A little over a year ago I wrote this piece while trying to summarize college football''s evolutions from a big picture perspective:


One of the key points I tried to make was how modern offense aims to attack the structure of the defense with vertical passing from HUNH spread systems. The comparison I made was infiltration tactics that were developed toward the end of World War I as a solution to the horrific stalemate of trench warfare.

What I’ve found looking back at college football history is that the solution has always been more or less the same. The best offenses infiltrate opposing defenses with some sort of vertical passing dimension, ideally a deep threat, and then clean up with the run game after compromising the structure of the defense. The HUNH spread is a favored way to accomplish that goal these days and it’s really hard to beat if you have either a field general at quarterback who can handle checks at the line of scrimmage (Joe Burrow) or else a master play-caller who can anticipate and signal in precision strikes quickly (Lincoln Riley, Steve Sarkisian). Looking back though, the dive-heavy offense of Bo Schembechler's initial Michigan team who spoiled an Ohio State title run relied on play-action shots in the seam to tight end Jim Mandich. That same year (1969) the Texas Longhorns' famous wishbone offense really made hay by creating open alleys with the threat of split receiver Cotton Speyrer, who took the top off against Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout when the Sooners tried to outnumber the triple-option.

The RPO spread/play-action offense which was really pioneered by Art Briles at the turn of the decade and can be a HUNH spread approach is built purely around infiltration strategy. Compromise the defense down the field with wide splits, perimeter screens, and regular deep shots, then clean up with the power run game on the diminished fronts left behind by the defense after they scramble to stop quick-strike scores deep or wide.

Alabama’s offense, which I’ve referred to as “pro-style Briles” is similar in nature. Steve Sarkisian was basing on the RPO game and then had a number of complements designed to punish teams for overplaying the run or trying to match up in man coverage. All of if was ultimately designed to break down the defensive structure and allow the infantry (power run game) to clean up what was left behind and take ground and touchdowns.

Heading into the game I really thought both teams understood the dimensions of this game and what it was going to take to win. In my preview over at Football Outsiders I projected both teams would emphasize taking away the explosive passing dimensions, theorized Ohio State would and should play more nickel, and it could come down to which power run game was more efficient.

After all, Ohio State had just presented Clemson with a gameplan in which the Buckeyes maintained their base defensive approach but widened out the linebacker splits in order to encourage the Tigers to run the ball at their defensive tackles behind an iffy interior offensive line. The Tigers couldn't keep up or handle Ohio State's defensive tackles and the Buckeyes rolled.

Ryan Day’s Maginot line

The Germans’ upgrade of infiltration tactics with mechanized divisions (creating the “blitzkrieg” strategy) was really made stark in WWII against France when the French came into the war expecting a repeat of WWI and built a series of impregnable fortifications and firepower across the border named the "Maginot line." The Germans famously went around it, compromised the structure of the French defenses, and within six weeks Paris had surrendered.

It took about one quarter for that to happen to Ohio State in this game.

This was an all-time bed-wetting by Ohio State from a gameplanning perspective. A complete and total thrashing. Their plan on defense was wildly overfocused on matching up with Alabama in the trenches when the obvious answer was staring them in the face. The Tide’s slot receiver, DeVonta Smith, came into this game with over 1600 receiving yards, 20 touchdowns, and the Heisman trophy. Alabama’s RPO and play-pass game regularly targeted him and it was clearly the dimension to their offense with the most destructive potential.

Instead they sat at the border behind the Maginot line.

With about 11:30 left in the second quarter and the game ostensibly evenly matched at 14-apiece, Sark made his maneuver. He’d worked out Ohio State’s response to 12 personnel in this game was to present the following personnel package:


There’s more to playing good football than having lots of blue chips on the field. Especially if they’re all 230+ and no one is a 5-star at covering slot receivers (or else have been moved outside due to NFL defections and indictments to other defensive backs).

This is the personnel to run the 4-4 stack defense, which Ohio State utilized this season at times when facing teams not deploying spread personnel. You may vaguely recall the 4-4 stack defense as the preferred base defense for the T.C. Williams Titans in the Disney classic “Remember the Titans.” The Titans have to abandon the 4-4 stack and move over offensive players to get more speed on the field when their opponent runs a shotgun spread in the Championship game.

Well, the Buckeyes must have missed that part of the movie. They stuck with the 4-4 stack and Alabama scored touchdowns on five of their next seven possessions. The other two possessions were a field goal and a punt just before the half. Ohio State proved predictably vulnerable to getting exposed down the field by Devonta Smith or with misdirection that forced their big linebackers to diagnose and change directions in space. It was an absolute catastrophe and one of the all-time worst defensive performances against the spread I’ve seen, even as someone who’s chronicled some epic beatdowns in the Big 12 over the last 10 years.

The right answer

Brandon Staley of the L.A. Rams had this money quote in an Athletic feature on his defensive philosophy earlier this season.

“...just from a schematic standpoint, my big belief system is 1-on-1s in the run game and 2-on-1s in the passing game.”

This change in philosophy is going to be hard for many people to accept, but put another way I think it becomes more clear. Ohio State should have made it their emphasis to double team DeVonta Smith, who’d just won the Heisman trophy. Stuffing Najee Harris was a completely worthless exercise, and if your roster is filled with blue chip defensive lineman and linebackers you want to leverage while protecting your secondary, the right answer is to play fewer of the former.

It’s simple game theory. If you want the game to be settled in the box you need to flood the backfield. Make sure you have 2-on-1s against the dangerous receivers and all of your vulnerable defensive backs have the help they need. Then what happens? Alabama determines their best path is to try and hammer you in the box with runs to Najee Harris and now your best players can determine the outcome of the game. What’s more, they aren’t isolated in space.

If you want to beat Alabama by virtue of having 5-star linebackers and big, physical defensive linemen then you need to play less of them, not more. Especially when your opponent's base strategy on offense is to throw the ball to speed in space when teams attack the box with numbers. This is well established, there's no excuse.

You can’t just “run your stuff” and win a playoff game, particularly not against a team with all-time potency in Alabama when your own roster is somewhat depleted. You can go to the media afterwards and say “we wanted to stay true to who we are, despite the COVID issues” if you feel better about that answer but it’s a coward’s way out. Ohio State media should be all over Ryan Day and his staff for this pathetic display.

Texas fans rejoiced watching their head coach-to-be torching Ohio State for a National Championship and putting up big stats. Everyone is enticed by the narrative of Nick Saban’s offensive transformation and throwing for 464 yards and five scores while the star receiver drops 12 catches for 215 yards and three of those passing touchdowns.

To me the real story was this, Ohio State didn’t get it. They were made to look ridiculous, which was really a fitting capstone on the 2020 season for the Big 10 conference.
Hadn't read the article linked before. Some really poignant lines in the intro there, very nicely done.
 

stilesbbq

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Why was OSU able to prepare for Clemson so well but Bama so poorly? My guess is Venables wasnt able to steal signs and the absence of Elliott meant that Clemson found the wrong solutions to the problems OSU presented them on offense
 
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Ian Boyd

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Why was OSU able to prepare for Clemson so well but Bama so poorly? My guess is Venables wasnt able to steal signs and the absence of Elliott meant that Clemson found the wrong solutions to the problems OSU presented them on offense
Probably something to that. Also seems like Ohio State was all-in on beating Clemson and notsomuch on beating Alabama.
 

kevinbelt

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Why was OSU able to prepare for Clemson so well but Bama so poorly? My guess is Venables wasnt able to steal signs and the absence of Elliott meant that Clemson found the wrong solutions to the problems OSU presented them on offense
Couple reasons. One is that Clemson just isn't as good. In particular, their WR group is not as deep as it has been in previous years, and while they're good, they don't have the top end talent of either previous Clemson teams or this year's Alabama receivers. Clemson wasn't as able to take advantage of the weaknesses of our secondary the way that Alabama could.

Second, we were able to get pressure on Lawrence that we weren't able to get on Mac Jones. Our pass rush was able to disrupt Lawrence a bit and thereby take some of the pressure off our DBs. That was part of our gameplan for Alabama, and their O-line just... didn't play along.

Third, I generally hate it when pundits talk about emotional stuff rather than Xs and Os, but with OSU-Clemson specifically, it was maybe the most emotional game we've played since, I don't know, Michigan 2001? Everybody, from Ryan Day down to walk-ons, was 100% committed all season to getting another shot at Clemson and paying them back for ending the season last year. Without any real evidence, it's my opinion that part of OSU's regular season struggles was due to the fact that OSU wasn't preparing for any particular week's opponent. Especially once cancellations started and Clemson lost to ND (making it likely that we would play them in a playoff), I think most practices, film sessions, etc. were dedicated to Clemson prep because, well, you don't need to prep all that much to beat Michigan State.

I think the Venables sign stealing stuff is overstated. There's enough going on there that it's probably true, and it's probably a marginal advantage, but I don't think it's what makes them good. If you outlawed sign stealing for next season, they'd still be a talented defense that makes plays. I'm not sure how much Elliott being out hurt them. Lawrence still threw for 400 yards; it's not like we shut down their offense. We just got some stops, and our offense was clicking to the point where a couple of stops is all we really needed.
 

kevinbelt

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As far as offensive preparation against Bama, I don't think it was that bad. We had some drops that hurt us, losing Trey Sermon made a big difference in the running game, and I think Field's injury kept them from calling plays where he'd run. When he did run, he was successful (he was our leading rusher on only six carries). I read a message board post during the game calling Master Teague a fullback, which is shockingly true. He's outstanding running between the tackles for 2 or 3 yards, but pretty limited beyond that. In particular, he has almost no ability to run side to side, meaning that any outside zone plays, sweeps, swing passes, etc. we had in the game plan were either off the table or ended up TFL.

But overall, not much I'd do different. I thought Fields had one of his better games. His biggest weakness is holding the ball too long, but he only took one sack despite a lot of pressure, and a number of his incompletions were throwaways, which is exactly what we've been wanting to see from him all year. He checked down when he needed to, and spread the ball around well - seven guys had catches despite only 17 total completions. Garrett WIlson was a little quiet, but that was to be expected with Patrick Surtain covering him, and Olave made up for it. No complaints about our offense.
 

stilesbbq

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Couple reasons. One is that Clemson just isn't as good. In particular, their WR group is not as deep as it has been in previous years, and while they're good, they don't have the top end talent of either previous Clemson teams or this year's Alabama receivers. Clemson wasn't as able to take advantage of the weaknesses of our secondary the way that Alabama could.

Second, we were able to get pressure on Lawrence that we weren't able to get on Mac Jones. Our pass rush was able to disrupt Lawrence a bit and thereby take some of the pressure off our DBs. That was part of our gameplan for Alabama, and their O-line just... didn't play along.

Third, I generally hate it when pundits talk about emotional stuff rather than Xs and Os, but with OSU-Clemson specifically, it was maybe the most emotional game we've played since, I don't know, Michigan 2001? Everybody, from Ryan Day down to walk-ons, was 100% committed all season to getting another shot at Clemson and paying them back for ending the season last year. Without any real evidence, it's my opinion that part of OSU's regular season struggles was due to the fact that OSU wasn't preparing for any particular week's opponent. Especially once cancellations started and Clemson lost to ND (making it likely that we would play them in a playoff), I think most practices, film sessions, etc. were dedicated to Clemson prep because, well, you don't need to prep all that much to beat Michigan State.

I think the Venables sign stealing stuff is overstated. There's enough going on there that it's probably true, and it's probably a marginal advantage, but I don't think it's what makes them good. If you outlawed sign stealing for next season, they'd still be a talented defense that makes plays. I'm not sure how much Elliott being out hurt them. Lawrence still threw for 400 yards; it's not like we shut down their offense. We just got some stops, and our offense was clicking to the point where a couple of stops is all we really needed.
Is next years team supposed to be better than this one? I heard rumbling from OSU fans that this years team was going to be one of the best OSU teams of all time

Is there anyone in the Big Ten who could credibly threaten the title?
 

stilesbbq

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How does Ohio State recruit at an elite level year after year but only have one runningback (who is a transfer) on their roster
 

kevinbelt

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Is next years team supposed to be better than this one? I heard rumbling from OSU fans that this years team was going to be one of the best OSU teams of all time

Is there anyone in the Big Ten who could credibly threaten the title?
HA! This is why OSU fans have a reputation for being delusional. Everyone knew this team had a chance to be really good, especially on offense, but this wasn't going to be the best team of the Ryan Day era, and he's only been coach two years. That's actually why the Clemson prep was such a thing. 2019 might have been the best OSU team ever, and Clemson ended their season in a controversial way. (We still would have lost to LSU, though.)

Next year is still very much up in the air because of underclassmen and the draft. Fields is almost certainly leaving (not a great decision but understandable), so there'll be a new QB who has never thrown a pass in college. But there's a lot of uncertainty about others. Most people expect Chris Olave to go, for example, but if he came back, life would be significantly easier for the new QB. Likewise Josh Myers at center.

None of it really matters, though, because the rest of the Big Ten sucks. Indiana brings a lot of guys back, so they'll probably be the preseason #2 in the East. But it would be a shocking upset for OSU to lose a Big Ten game next year. We do play Oregon non-conference, though, which could be tricky.

As far as RB depth: Master Teague was a highly regarded recruit who got into a bunch of games last year, so there was hope he could take a step forward this year. Our 3rd string was out with Covid, leaving Marcus Crowley as the backup, who hadn't gotten a single carry all year coming off a knee injury. Oh, and Bijan Robinson picked some lousy school in the middle of nowhere over OSU. ;)

But that's been a pattern at OSU since before Urban Meyer, and arguably since before even Jim Tressel. Two or three years of superstar backs (JK Dobbins, Zeke Elliott) followed by a year or two of replacement-level guys (Teague, Mike Weber, Dan Herron). The transition from Carlos Hyde to Zeke is the only time since Eddie George where we've had one NFL back replace another.
 

stilesbbq

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HA! This is why OSU fans have a reputation for being delusional. Everyone knew this team had a chance to be really good, especially on offense, but this wasn't going to be the best team of the Ryan Day era, and he's only been coach two years. That's actually why the Clemson prep was such a thing. 2019 might have been the best OSU team ever, and Clemson ended their season in a controversial way. (We still would have lost to LSU, though.)

Next year is still very much up in the air because of underclassmen and the draft. Fields is almost certainly leaving (not a great decision but understandable), so there'll be a new QB who has never thrown a pass in college. But there's a lot of uncertainty about others. Most people expect Chris Olave to go, for example, but if he came back, life would be significantly easier for the new QB. Likewise Josh Myers at center.

None of it really matters, though, because the rest of the Big Ten sucks. Indiana brings a lot of guys back, so they'll probably be the preseason #2 in the East. But it would be a shocking upset for OSU to lose a Big Ten game next year. We do play Oregon non-conference, though, which could be tricky.

As far as RB depth: Master Teague was a highly regarded recruit who got into a bunch of games last year, so there was hope he could take a step forward this year. Our 3rd string was out with Covid, leaving Marcus Crowley as the backup, who hadn't gotten a single carry all year coming off a knee injury. Oh, and Bijan Robinson picked some lousy school in the middle of nowhere over OSU. ;)

But that's been a pattern at OSU since before Urban Meyer, and arguably since before even Jim Tressel. Two or three years of superstar backs (JK Dobbins, Zeke Elliott) followed by a year or two of replacement-level guys (Teague, Mike Weber, Dan Herron). The transition from Carlos Hyde to Zeke is the only time since Eddie George where we've had one NFL back replace another.
Really good stuff here. One final question.

What do you think the odds are that Urban takes the Jacksonville job and do you think he brings his son in law with him?
 

kevinbelt

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I really don't know. I would have bet a fair amount of money he would have taken the Texas job. I can't see how Jacksonville is more attractive than UT.
 
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_b ez_

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I really don't know. I would have bet a fair amount of money he would have taken the Texas job. I can't see how Jacksonville is more attractive than UT.
I've thought about this since the reports and it makes some sense on paper. Unless I'm just bending the variable to justify the means.

Urban seems like a man not ready to give up coaching. His biggest issue obviously being the headaches that by all accounts are primarily brought on by stress. He'd still have the stress of expectations in J'Ville, but they're not the same as college. Especially not the same as places like Florida, Ohio St, Texas, etc. He won't have to manage recruiting and all the staff that comes along with it. He won't have to keep 18-22 year olds out of trouble or keep them in class. He'll have a bigger staff to manage things around him. He'll have actual downtime in the offseason where recruiting fans like myself aren't killing him for losing Joe Blow 5* to Alabama. So on, so forth.

If he truly isn't ready to give up coaching, why not give it a shot in a spot were expectations are relatively low, in a league that requires less personal time, and in an area that you are already relatively loved and respected?
 

Ian Boyd

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I think the Venables sign stealing stuff is overstated. There's enough going on there that it's probably true, and it's probably a marginal advantage, but I don't think it's what makes them good. If you outlawed sign stealing for next season, they'd still be a talented defense that makes plays. I'm not sure how much Elliott being out hurt them. Lawrence still threw for 400 yards; it's not like we shut down their offense. We just got some stops, and our offense was clicking to the point where a couple of stops is all we really needed.
I think the sign stealing thing really was a big deal. The Tigers were repeatedly struggling to even line up, much less dial up the perfect play, and Ohio State was beating them the way Ohio State likes to beat people. Throwing over the top outside against 1-on-1 matchups. Those shouldn't have been so easy to find or hit if Clemson's defensive gameplan was at all on point.
But overall, not much I'd do different. I thought Fields had one of his better games. His biggest weakness is holding the ball too long, but he only took one sack despite a lot of pressure, and a number of his incompletions were throwaways, which is exactly what we've been wanting to see from him all year. He checked down when he needed to, and spread the ball around well - seven guys had catches despite only 17 total completions. Garrett WIlson was a little quiet, but that was to be expected with Patrick Surtain covering him, and Olave made up for it. No complaints about our offense.
Alabama had a good defensive gameplan. Disguised their pressures well and played a lot of cover 2 brackets over Ohio State's receivers (unlike Clemson). The way to make them pay was tons of zone-option with Trey Sermon and Justin Fields, which wasn't an available path. I wasn't impressed by the offense at all, still maintain Fields is pretty overrated because of his unreal physical ability, but I do think a major issue was simply poor injury luck.
 
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kevinbelt

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Those shouldn't have been so easy to find or hit if Clemson's defensive gameplan was at all on point
That's a good point, and kind of fits with what I was trying to say. They don't *need* to steal signs. If they'd gameplanned expecting that they'd not be able to steal signs, they probably would have had more success. (And they should have, because the national media was all over the sign stealing story for a couple weeks.) Instead, the entire gameplan seems to have been "don't even line up until Venables knows the offensive play", which is just bad.

You know I agree with you about Fields, although this game wasn't brutally bad like a couple others this season have been. I increasingly believe, though, that our offense is not a systematic advantage but rather merely a function of superior talent. We've succeeded because Justin Fields has a big arm and Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are outstanding receivers. (And before that, Dwayne Haskins/Terry McLaurin/Parris Campbell.) Watching the first half of the B1G Championship Game, when Olave was out and Teague was still in at RB over Sermon, not only did Fields look bad, but the playcalling did too. It was like we didn't know what to do without an overwhelming talent advantage (not just an advantage, an overwhelming one) at multiple positions. With Olave out, Northwestern's defense made it a priority to take away Wilson, and... they did. And at least in the passing game, we weren't able to find another option. Some of that is Fields not progressing through his reads, but some of it is play design and play calling, and that makes me a little apprehensive going into next year.
 

Ian Boyd

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That's a good point, and kind of fits with what I was trying to say. They don't *need* to steal signs. If they'd gameplanned expecting that they'd not be able to steal signs, they probably would have had more success. (And they should have, because the national media was all over the sign stealing story for a couple weeks.) Instead, the entire gameplan seems to have been "don't even line up until Venables knows the offensive play", which is just bad.

You know I agree with you about Fields, although this game wasn't brutally bad like a couple others this season have been. I increasingly believe, though, that our offense is not a systematic advantage but rather merely a function of superior talent. We've succeeded because Justin Fields has a big arm and Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are outstanding receivers. (And before that, Dwayne Haskins/Terry McLaurin/Parris Campbell.) Watching the first half of the B1G Championship Game, when Olave was out and Teague was still in at RB over Sermon, not only did Fields look bad, but the playcalling did too. It was like we didn't know what to do without an overwhelming talent advantage (not just an advantage, an overwhelming one) at multiple positions. With Olave out, Northwestern's defense made it a priority to take away Wilson, and... they did. And at least in the passing game, we weren't able to find another option. Some of that is Fields not progressing through his reads, but some of it is play design and play calling, and that makes me a little apprehensive going into next year.
Personally I'm hoping Day just leaves for the NFL, opening the door for Ewers to walk out and back onto the 40 Acres.
 
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kevinbelt

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I think it’s even money that happens even if Day stays.

Actually, thinking about it, I’ll be surprised to see him in Columbus unless we schedule a nonconference game against you.
 

DuvalHorn

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How big was the loss of Jeff Hafley? Seems like he was pretty damn good.
 

kevinbelt

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I'm rewatching the game, and one thing that stands out to me is that Alabama lined up with two tight ends (often on the same side of the formation) for a lot of snaps. I'm still trying to figure out why, but it makes OSU's 4-LB plan make a little more sense (still wrong though). My guess is that Sark expected OSU to try to fire hard against the run (more or less true), and the two TEs were to give a run look so as to keep OSU from subbing in a DB for one of the LBs in order to bracket Smith. They didn't help much in the run game, and they only caught two passes (both Billingsley), so other than that, I'm not sure what they were doing unless they were dictating defensive formations. @Ian Boyd what do you think?
 
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Ian Boyd

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I'm rewatching the game, and one thing that stands out to me is that Alabama lined up with two tight ends (often on the same side of the formation) for a lot of snaps. I'm still trying to figure out why, but it makes OSU's 4-LB plan make a little more sense (still wrong though). My guess is that Sark expected OSU to try to fire hard against the run (more or less true), and the two TEs were to give a run look so as to keep OSU from subbing in a DB for one of the LBs in order to bracket Smith. They didn't help much in the run game, and they only caught two passes (both Billingsley), so other than that, I'm not sure what they were doing unless they were dictating defensive formations. @Ian Boyd what do you think?
I think once Sark realized that playing with two tight ends meant Ohio State would play the 4-4 his face lit up in a grin like the Grinch.
 

sherf1

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I'm rewatching the game, and one thing that stands out to me is that Alabama lined up with two tight ends (often on the same side of the formation) for a lot of snaps. I'm still trying to figure out why, but it makes OSU's 4-LB plan make a little more sense (still wrong though). My guess is that Sark expected OSU to try to fire hard against the run (more or less true), and the two TEs were to give a run look so as to keep OSU from subbing in a DB for one of the LBs in order to bracket Smith. They didn't help much in the run game, and they only caught two passes (both Billingsley), so other than that, I'm not sure what they were doing unless they were dictating defensive formations. @Ian Boyd what do you think?
Also didn't really have Waddle and lost Smith halfway through, so fast TE on a 4th LB is probably a better matchup than 4th WR on 2nd DB
 

kevinbelt

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So I think I answered my own question. Q2, 3:25 remaining. 1st and goal from the 5, ball on the left hash. This is the play where Devonta Smith scores his third TD to the flat. Bama has two TEs and Smith wide on the left side of the formation, and their fifth-best WR, Xavier Williams, wide to the right. (Shaun Wade is 1-on-1 with Williams for some inexplicable reason, but that's not terribly important.) People will remember Smith's pre-snap motion here because it was weird, but I don't think it mattered all that much, either, because of how OSU lined up.

With the two TEs to the left and Najee Harris to the right of Mac Jones (indicating a run to the left), OSU's defense shifts left. Two linebackers line up over the two tight ends, and Tuf Borland lines up on the left hash four yards off the ball. Jonathan Cooper, the defensive end on the offense's right side of the field, lines up inside of the right tackle. And this is key: Pete Werner, the other inside linebacker, lines up over the right guard. Sevyn Banks is Smith's man, and he actually does a good job of tracking him despite all the changes of direction, but because there are four linebackers in between where Smith lines up and where he is at the snap, Banks is seven yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap.

Draw that up on a piece of paper, and you'll see that there's no defender in the right C gap/alley. I am pretty sure that Werner has the contain responsibility there (Cooper doesn't really try to get outside of the RT), but he has cheated inside because the formation indicates a run to the left. He's flat-footed at the snap and, while he sniffs out the play pretty well, he takes a terrible angle and Smith gets to the flat easily. Meanwhile, Wade (the only other defender on that side of the field) turns his back to Jones and ends up riding Xavier Williams (again, Bama's fifth-best receiver) all the way to the back of the end zone and nearly inside of the hash marks before he looks for the ball, at which point Smith is already across the goal line.

So yeah, they put the two TDs in to give heavy run looks and OSU, which had prioritized stopping the run, bit on them, leaving the backside open. Good job Sark.
 

wbwbwb71

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So I think I answered my own question. Q2, 3:25 remaining. 1st and goal from the 5, ball on the left hash. This is the play where Devonta Smith scores his third TD to the flat. Bama has two TEs and Smith wide on the left side of the formation, and their fifth-best WR, Xavier Williams, wide to the right. (Shaun Wade is 1-on-1 with Williams for some inexplicable reason, but that's not terribly important.) People will remember Smith's pre-snap motion here because it was weird, but I don't think it mattered all that much, either, because of how OSU lined up.

With the two TEs to the left and Najee Harris to the right of Mac Jones (indicating a run to the left), OSU's defense shifts left. Two linebackers line up over the two tight ends, and Tuf Borland lines up on the left hash four yards off the ball. Jonathan Cooper, the defensive end on the offense's right side of the field, lines up inside of the right tackle. And this is key: Pete Werner, the other inside linebacker, lines up over the right guard. Sevyn Banks is Smith's man, and he actually does a good job of tracking him despite all the changes of direction, but because there are four linebackers in between where Smith lines up and where he is at the snap, Banks is seven yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap.

Draw that up on a piece of paper, and you'll see that there's no defender in the right C gap/alley. I am pretty sure that Werner has the contain responsibility there (Cooper doesn't really try to get outside of the RT), but he has cheated inside because the formation indicates a run to the left. He's flat-footed at the snap and, while he sniffs out the play pretty well, he takes a terrible angle and Smith gets to the flat easily. Meanwhile, Wade (the only other defender on that side of the field) turns his back to Jones and ends up riding Xavier Williams (again, Bama's fifth-best receiver) all the way to the back of the end zone and nearly inside of the hash marks before he looks for the ball, at which point Smith is already across the goal line.

So yeah, they put the two TDs in to give heavy run looks and OSU, which had prioritized stopping the run, bit on them, leaving the backside open. Good job Sark.
Kevinbelt- Thanks for all your insightful comments. Interesting reading about OSU from a knowledgeable fan