Upon further review, I was less impressed with the defense on the second viewing of Ohio State-California.
Impressed may not be the word, though, because I don’t think anyone was under the impression at any time that a game that saw the opposing team score more than 30 points and gain more than 500 yards was a good performance. However, I am now left with the feeling it was not as decent as I first thought.
Obviously the Cal offense is designed to gain yards and sustain drives. As I wrote Tuesday, the world is a little different now because there are things that have to be conceded against attacks like that one, and Cal has a very good offense that should continue to get better. The very talented quarterback is only a true freshman, and he has a couple of good running backs and a variety of nice players to throw the ball to. The scheme – probably by design – lessens the pressure on what is a young and probably not very good offensive line, too.
What I saw on second view was a defense that doesn’t play very aggressive, and I’m not talking about scheme, where I think a lot of the complaints are not valid because there is only so much you can do and remain sound against a spread offense. Could they press a few more buttons with blitzes and stunts? Yeah, but I think bringing along a young front seven slowly and keeping it simple is not a bad idea.
Luke Fickell has generally been a proponent of not overloading guys and hoping the result is they play fast, but it didn’t really look like that was happening at Cal. Perhaps it was a result of being on the field for 90 plays, but they substituted fairly often (with generally positive results). Did the big early start on offense let the defense get a little too comfortable? Maybe, but I doubt it.
So it will be interesting to see going forward how things evolve both in terms of scheme and personnel. In his Monday press conference, Urban Meyer did not sound thrilled with the overall play of the defense and the naming of only two champions on that side of the ball (Joey Bosa and Christian Bryant) probably says a lot about how the unit graded out when the professionals watched the film.
From a schematic standpoint, the Buckeyes spent most of the game in a 4-1-6 with Ryan Shazier as the lone linebacker flanked by hybrids Tyvis Powell at Star and Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown at dime back. They also unveiled what is essentially a seven-DB look that saw cornerback Armani Reeves replace one of the defensive linemen.
The latter set could be called a 3-3-5 depending on how you want to define some of the guys on the field – whether that is by their listed position or where they were lining up. In practice, this looked a lot like the 30-front defense Ohio State has used for years but with Reeves playing the Viper position. In the past under former coordinator Jim Heacock, they called this their “dime” defense even though it still only used five DBs. The six-DB look is new this year. The Viper was usually played by the rush end (Will Smith, Vernon Gholston, Thaddeus Gibson, Nathan Williams, etc., with linebacker Bobby Carpenter in the role in 2005) in the base and nickel defense (known until this year as the Leo but now listed as the Viper on the depth chart), so putting a guy who plays cornerback by trade there is a big departure.
Reeves generally dropped into coverage, leaving a three-man rush, but he blitzed a couple of times and had a hit on the Cal quarterback once. As you might expect, Cal had some success running against this look as well.
Brown had 10 tackles while Powell had only five and generally looked pretty passive to me. I am wondering if the staff would like more production out of those positions (zero tackles for loss in three games) because I don’t think making tackles downfield is enough for the defense to really become a great unit. I never really saw Powell attack screens or runs his direction the way guys who have played that position in the past (Donte Whitner, Jermale Hines, and Tyler Moeller before he got hurt to name three) have done.
As for the front, well, five I guess, it is safe to say overall talent is the reason the starters are the starters, but reserves Steve Miller, Jamal Marcus, Chris Carter and Chase Farris all did some good things when they got on the field. Miller has always been known as a speed rusher, but he made a couple of nice plays against the run, and on the flip side Carter picked up a sack cleaning up for Bosa, who flushed the quarterback. It was a quasi-open-field play I didn’t think Carter could make.
Bosa’s beastliness is well-documented, and Noah Spence, Joel Hale and Michael Bennett continued to show up on a consistent basis. Shazier’s aggression jumps off the screen, and he will attack both blockers and ball carriers. There’s a fine line between that and getting out of control, but I suspect the coaches grading his film hold him to a very high standard.
As for the offense, what you see is pretty much what you get.
Guiton cooled some after the nearly perfect start, the offensive line continued to play practically flawlessly, and the weapons around the quarterback continue to be sharpened.
Bosa didn’t waste any time trying to impress as he stuffed the pulling guard and made the tackle for loss on the first play of the game. High level stuff from a great athlete.
One of the plays where the defense seemed to be on its heels was Cal’s second touchdown. Chris Harper caught a screen pass, picked up a couple of nice blocks and race to the goal line. Brown and Reeves both got blocked while Bosa and Shazier appeared to react kind of slowly and failed to pursue with a lot of gusto. That was one of the first times they showed the “dime” with seven DBs, so it is fair to wonder if the new defense gave them too much to think about.
An overthrow by Guiton intended for Devin Smith in the first half might have been the result of one of the few times the line miscommunicated and failed to pick up a pass rusher. With Cal putting six men on the line of scrimmage (not everyone came), the protection shifted right but no one picked up the end coming from the left side and there was no back in the backfield to help.
Spence showed the ability to adjust quickly in the fourth quarter when he got trapped on a counter trey run that went for big yards then stuffed pretty much the same play later in the same drive. He got too deep and took himself out of the play the first time but was able to see it coming, stuff the pulling guard and make a nice tackle in some space at the line of scrimmage the second time.
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