Florida has its work cut out for it in trying to score against Michigan’s stingy defense. Luckily for the Gators, Dan Mullen’s former mentor put on a clinic for how to attack the Wolverines during Thanksgiving week. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes rolled up 567 yards and scored 55 offensive points in a 62-39 demolition of the UM up north.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from that game, though it’s important not to go too far with them. For one thing, this was something of a Murphy’s Law game for Michigan. A lot of things that don’t tend to go wrong for them did in that game.
Plus, OSU’s Dwayne Haskins is a much better passer than Feleipe Franks has been to date, and no one in UF’s skill position group has been up to Parris Campbell’s level. Campbell had six catches for 192 yards and two scores against the Wolverines, though 78 of those came on the pop pass play that basically is a jet sweep with a one-foot toss instead of a handoff.
With that said, here are the major things that stuck out to me in reviewing the Buckeye offense’s big day.
The Shallow Cross
No play worked as well consistently for the Ohio State offense than shallow crossing routes. Here is a montage of six plays where the Buckeyes got some big plays using them.
Michigan started to respect the shallow crosses in the second half. The last of the six clips came early after the break, and you can see that UM has the shallowest cross covered. However in doing so, it left Campbell open in the next level of the defense. Whoops. The fifth one happened later than the sixth in real time, and Haskins uses a swing pass pump fake to open up the middle for the shallow cross again. Ohio State found ways to make those routes useful even after Michigan tried to adjust.
A good number of the shallow crosses came on the mesh concept, which is not something that Florida uses. If you don’t care to hit that link to read more about it, mesh basically is when the offense runs crosses, usually shallow ones, going in opposite directions. It’s a staple of Air Raid schemes, and the fact that Meyer uses it but Mullen does not shows one way the two have diverged over their years apart.
I’m not sure that Mullen will suddenly start running a bunch of meshes in this bowl, but it’s easy to see what in general OSU was trying to do. Campbell was the largest beneficiary of them, and he’s a very fast receiver. As long as the protection could hold up, and it did, he could outrun the defenders trying to cover him on these patterns and get ahead of them. On the second clip, RB Demario McCall motions out wide then comes across to get a linebacker in pass coverage. I’ll have more on that and others of these clips later.
During the broadcast, one of the announcers mentioned that Indiana had success against Michigan with shallow crosses the prior week; I’ll take his word for it. I assume that Michigan’s defensive coordinator Don Brown has been doing some self-scouting in the time since the Ohio State game and has come up with something to address the issue.
Given that shallow crosses worked two weeks in a row though, they’re something worth trying. Antonio Callaway used to make big plays off of them in the old offense; I could see Kadarius Toney making hay with them now.
Pass to Set Up the Run
Ohio State ran the ball fairly well, but not outstandingly. The box score is a little misleading since RB Mike Weber had three carries for 39 yards on OSU’s final drive when it was just killing clock. Weber had 5.7 yards per carry on ten rushes otherwise, while fellow primary back J.K. Dobbins managed 3.8 yards per carry on a dozen rushes. The Buckeyes only had three carries of at least ten yards, an explosiveness rate of 9.7%, versus eight passes of 20+ yards, an explosiveness rate of 26.7%.
The Buckeyes ended up with 36 rushes against 31 passes, but they ran it a lot down the stretch after building up a big lead. The pass is what really killed Michigan, while the run was merely fine. Many of the passes were short, and again, Campbell’s 78-yard “reception” was basically a run. In any event, there were some evident weaknesses in Michigan’s pass coverage that OSU was able to exploit.
But Don’t Forget the Run
That said, Haskins keeping the ball on a couple of early option runs got the Wolverine defense off guard. He only carried the ball about four times a game on average excluding sacks, so UM wasn’t terribly worried about him running. Much to the defense’s surprise, Haskins ran for nine yards on an option keeper on the first play of the game and had four carries before halftime.
Franks has run it seven times a game in 2018, so Michigan will be expecting him to keep it more than it did Haskins. Still, there is value to staying on schedule with the run regardless of how exactly UF does it.
Ohio State only punted three times against UM, and all three times came from 3rd & long scenarios. The first two were 3rd & 16 situations following penalties, while the last punt came after 3rd & 11 set up by a run for a loss of one and an incompletion. The Gators have been excellent at getting to 3rd & short and avoiding 3rd & long, which is good considering they’re in the bottom half of the country at converting 3rd & long. Running with Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, and Franks and whoever else will be crucial to keeping the sticks moving.
Use the RBs in the Pass Game
On the first play of OSU’s fourth drive, the Buckeyes gave the Wolverines something new to worry about. Weber went out of the backfield on a wheel route down the sideline, and LB Devin Gil was late to the coverage. Haskins overthrew Weber for an incompletion, but this was something the defense now had to worry about.
Four plays later Ohio State used Weber running another wheel to clear Gil out of the short left area. That cleared out space for WR Terry McLaurin to do a short in-and-out route with enough yards after the catch to convert a 2nd & 11.
Later on Haskins would find McCall on a long wheel completion, while the in-and-out plus wheel combination worked again late in the third quarter. Here are these plays for your viewing pleasure.
You will remember McCall caught a shallow cross as well, while Weber had four targets and RB J.K. Dobbins caught a short screen. The wheel routes were the most successful, but making sure the defense has to account for everyone including the running backs on passes was one of the keys to success. Perine, as the best receiving target out of the backfield, might have a monster day.
Pick on 28 and the Linebackers
Another thing you may have noticed from the shallow crosses section is that No. 28 got beat more than once on those plays. He’s corner Brandon Watson, a fifth-year senior. UM has a couple of possibly NFL-bound corners in juniors Lavert Hill and David Long, but Watson held his own with them this year. You can find stories about how maybe he should be getting some NFL buzz too.
The Ohio State game maybe showed why he hasn’t been as high on draft boards. Given the choice of who to go after, Haskins often chose Watson. It worked. I have notes about Haskins picking on Watson in three different first half drives, and the blowout-crowning touchdown came with Campbell beating Watson on a red zone corner route.
I’m not saying that Franks will be able to pick on Watson to the degree that Haskins did, and Watson did have some good plays in Columbus. However with Hill and Long playing in the bowl and deciding on the NFL after, that’s the corner Franks will want to test most often.
The Michigan linebackers also can be had in pass coverage. Gil and even the likely first round pick Devin Bush, who is out with injury, were the guys getting beat on those wheel routes and some of the shallow crosses. They’re not inept in covering the pass as Florida’s linebackers have been at times — hello, South Carolina game — but finding ways to target them with throws is as good a strategy as any against this tough defense.
Florida will not make it look as easy as Ohio State did. Dan Mullen may have one of the best offensive minds in the game, but he just didn’t inherit talent on the level of what Ohio State has right now. Even so, Mullen’s former boss and his successor Ryan Day put plenty on the tape for the Gators to study, copy, and make headway on one of the best defenses of 2018.