September 14, 2009
Post-facto Xs and Os from Saturday's Ohio State-USC showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
There's no sugar-coating this: Jim Tressel and his staff were outcoached against Southern Cal and Pete Carroll, . Again. Particularly on offense, Ohio State's gameplan against the Trojans was utter rubbish, and it failed to meet the number one requirement of every gameplan: put your players in position to succeed.
When I watched the game live, I was struck by what I considered poor playcalling and mediocre execution. But after watching the game again in detail, going over replays and studying all the players, I'm convinced the situation in Columbus is nearly hopeless. For all the talk of Tressel's buttoned-down, conservative approach, and how his teams don't make mistakes, the most basic and fundamental errors permeated throughout Ohio State's offensive plan like cancer in its late stages, and the only conclusion I could draw from this game is that Tressel -- whatever he may be as a motivator, a recruiter, a teacher of technique or as a disciplinarian -- is not up to the challenge of leading his team past others that equal his in talent. He is not good enough of a tactician to win against the national elite who, unlike practically everyone he schemes against in his conference, have the talent to match Ohio State's, and those are the only games where coaching really matters. With his facilities, talent, and resources, winning the Big Ten is not the test.
Look at the numbers. Ohio State's failure to beat a quality opponent since defeating Michigan to punch a ticket to the national championship game in 2006, Tressel's teams have been outclassed, outsmarted, outplayed and outprepared in every big game they've played.
Yet the saddest part about the Buckeyes' 18-15 loss to the Trojans is that, for the first time in the last few tries against similar opponents, the Buckeyes were not outplayed. That's what made Saturday night's performance almost disgusting: OSU's players played a hard, fast and determined game; the crowd in Columbus seemed nothing short of unreal; and the pomp and majesty of playing there more than drowned out USC's exotic traveling road show, known to transform opposing stadiums into home venues. No, this loss falls squarely on the coaching staff. And the fissures run deep.
Note that I had no stake in this game. I don't really follow either team that closely, and to be honest I can have a kind of sterilized, academic approach to football that focuses (maybe too much) on schemes, coaches, and the overall structure and flow of a game. Sometimes this leads to my undervaluing the importance of a gutsy or amazing performances by players that change how a game turns out, but my view also lays bare the raw injustice when players and fans commit everything to their team, only to have their efforts undermined and them made to look foolish simply because the plan of attack lacked any insight or creativity or was just generally too insipid to be overcome by any individual effort. Against USC, although the final score was close, the Buckeyes never really had a chance; 15 points will never get you a victory against Southern Cal. (Imagine if Mark Sanchez had started for the Trojans?) Football might merely be a game, but seeing the talent gone to waste through the insipience of their superiors will always be too much to bear.
Tragicomic. As I said, when I watched the game live I simply thought OSU could have deployed Terrelle Pryor better than it had. But re-watching the game exposed a lot of tactical mistakes by the Buckeyes, almost all of which made it exceptionally difficult for them to move the ball.
First and most obviously, OSU never once called the zone-read play. Never mind that last year it was the Buckeyes' only effective play against USC, averaging more than 6.8 yards per attempt; Saturday, the Buckeyes averaged a gangrenous 2.7 yards per carry, a number that infected the rest of the the simple-minded affair that the Buckeyes called a playbook, especially considering that the number is inflated by Pryor's third-and-long runs against umbrella coverage. Ohio State tailback Boom Herron averaged a mere 2.4 yards, and his longest gain was eight yards.
When I previewed this game, I said that mobile quarterbacks presented Pete Carroll with a math problem: How do you cover all of a team's receivers, guard the box for the run game, and account for the mobile quarterback? Fortunately for Carroll, he didn't have to solve this tricky arithmetic problem because Jim Tressel can't count.
Indeed, the overrated Senator Sweatervest essentially gave away one of his most important tactical advantages by not understanding the concept of constraint plays. Routinely, the Buckeyes lined up with two or three receivers. USC managed to play their preferred two-deep defense much of the game, which should have meant that OSU had a favorable box to run in. Except OSU forgot to make USC care whether it had its receivers split out.
USC literally lined no one up over the slot receivers, and yet not once did Tressel instruct Pryor to immediately take the snap and throw the bubble screen. For most teams this is an automatic check or sight-adjustment, and it is by no means difficult (every high school runs it). Unless you force the defense to care that you are spreading the field, then all you're doing is hurting yourself; Tressel would have been better keeping an extra fullback in the game. Thus the rushing results were obvious. In the diagram above, USC has only one safety back and eight guys in the box, compared to seven blockers for OSU, not counting Pryor. Tressel called an inside handoff that was stuffed -- USC had more guys than OSU could block.
But when OSU wanted to go to the bubble screen, boy did you know it. OSU used the most idiotic formation, where they split one running back/slot out wide but kept him back at six yards deep in the backfield, where he was a threat to do nothing but run a bubble screen.
Were the intended receiver lined up near the line he would be a threat to run a normal route or get vertical, but instead OSU preferred to announce its intentions ahead of time. Pryor never threw the bubble because it was always resoundingly covered. And, even worse, this let the defense completely eliminate one receiver for one offensive player; a bad tradeoff for the offense, when the Trojans still have a defensive counterpart for the quarterback.
Booted. One of the most perplexing things to me when I rewatched the game is why Southern Cal's backside pursuit was always making the tackle on Ohio State's running backs on their straight-ahead power plays from traditional, I-formation sets. I thought, shouldn't they be worried about the bootleg threat from Terrelle Pryor? But as I watched closer, I realized, "No, not at all." The reason is because Pryor was not coached to make a bootleg fake at all. Instead, he would hand the ball off to the running back and, as if he was Dan Marino, stand there and watch the play. How insane is that? You take your most talented runner, and ask him to hand it off and then stand there to ensure that the defense knows it need not worry about him? And not worry about him they did; OSU's power plays were overwhelmed with Trojan defenders. The bootleg fake is one of the keys to making the power stuff go; that's why the zone-read stuff was invented, to better control that backside defender. Quarterbacks from Fran Tarkenton to Joe Montana -- guys with sensible coaching -- paved the way for this for years.
Indeed, compare Tressel's use of Pryor with Rich Rodriguez's use of freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. Against Notre Dame, Michigan had some issues with Notre Dame trying to gum up its zone reads by crashing the defensive end to always take the running back while a linebacker would "scrape" to take the quarterback -- a common defensive adjustment to the zone read. To counteract this, Rodriguez would line up with an H-back who would run counter to the direction the play was to go and simply block that defensive end, thus opening the hole for the running back. See the image below, which is from Michigan's game against Western Michigan, but the alignment is the same the Wolverines used Saturday against the Irish.
This was a good adjustment, but there's more. When Notre Dame reacted by using the linebackers to attack the quarterback, Rodriguez then called the adjustment off the play: the bootleg pass to the H-back, who faked blocking the end and then released into the flat. On the play the quarterback, Forcier, had a run-pass option, where he could throw it to the H-back or cut upfield for yards himself. Several times in the game the H-back was wide open in the flat. But Forcier could also take off and run; this was the playcall on his 31-yard scamper for a touchdown on fourth and one. The linebackers overplayed the H-back, and he cut upfield.
The point is not that Pryor should be in the spread, necessarily. But Forcier is nowhere the talent Pryor is, and has succeeded wildly because he isn't stuck in an offense that refuses to play to his strengths. Against Southern Cal, the bootleg and roll-out passes Tressel called for Pryor were not the well-designed counters to looks they had shown previously, but brand new designed-just-for-this-play formations that gave away the whole game to USC. In the post-game press conference, linebacker Chris Galippo began his description of the first quarter interception that set up the Trojans' first touchdown by saying, "We talked about it all week. I saw them get into their roll-out formation ..."
And yet, OSU's offense was poorly organized even when going to their base looks, the stuff they should be decent at. Ohio State's abysmal two-minute drill (if it can even be called that) aside, Tressel and Pryor played right into Carroll's hands on defense. When Southern Cal kept two safeties deep Pryor often audibled to a run play, yet either the defense still had extra guys in the box because they ignored Ohio State's receivers, as shown above, or Carroll would rotate a secondary player down at the last minute to serve as another run stuffer. On one particularly savvy call, Carroll called a cornerback blitz from the weakside and stunted his defensive front away from the blitz, and completely cut off a Buckeye run play.
But the upshot is that Tressel got outschemed, outplanned, and outmaneuvered. He has a lot of talent on his roster, and used barely any of it. And while much credit must go to the Buckeye defense for holding the USC offense in check, OSU was lucky to even have 15 points. The Buckeyes' first 10 points were set up by good throws by Pryor that were only possible because of egregious errors by USC's safeties. On the first, safety Taylor Mays made a bonheaded play trying to get in position for a killshot on a slot receiver and completely overran him; on the second, Pryor threw a nice post route while the safety turned his back and got out of position.
This was a giveaway game, one the Buckeyes absolutely should have won. But it wasn't the kind where the quarterback makes a boneheaded play at the end of the game, or where the runningback fumbled, or the cornerback slipped and fell, or the kickoff coverage broke down. It was a game where the coaching staff let everyone down by asking its team to execute a rubbish gameplan. Many of the mistakes were subtle and maybe not evident to most fans. Indeed, one of the problems with a plan that relies on fitting square pegs into round holes is that it makes the players look really bad -- the line doesn't look like it can block, the quarterback is always running for his life, and the running backs never have a hole.
And make no mistake, this was the game for OSU to win. This USC team is very vulnerable. For three and a half quarters, freshman quarterback Matt Barkley played exactly like a freshman; as of this moment, I do not see this USC team winning at Cal. But the problems for the Buckeyes run much deeper. They go to the past and future of the program.
It would be one thing if these problems were limited to just one game, but Tressel has shown a systematic failure to adapt. "Tresselball" might have been enough in 2002, but football has evolved, and I don't just mean the "spread" offense. Tressel is apparently convinced that "conservative" playcalling is synonymous with not understanding the percentages, and consistently playing suboptimally -- he has clearly never read his David Romer. And, even more fundamentally, his brand of football is a relic, for good reason. As the great Bill Walsh explained in the L.A. Times after Pete Carroll's Trojans demolished the Oklahoma Sooners to win the 2004 BCS title:
We're witnessing the evolution of offensive football. Anyone who says you have to establish the run before you can do anything is fooling themselves. They’re living in the deep dark past. It’s just not the way the game’s played now. ...
We're never going to see that Woody Hayes-, Bo Schembechler- style of football again, that run-first mentality. The game has totally changed in a matter of eight to 10 years, and especially in the last three or four.
Walsh wrote that in 2005. And he's right. Jim Tressel is the closest thing we have to that Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler style. This is not to say power running is gone, but the absolutely ridiculous idea that you can beat Southern Cal by running the same power play -- what Tressel calls "dave," with a pulling guard and a fullback who kicks out the defensive end -- over and over again, is to "live in the deep dark past." Jim Tressel is a dinosaur, and like all dinosaurs, not like for this world. And if I was the multi-talented Terrelle Pryor, stuck in the straitjacket of the OSU offense, I'd be thinking long and hard about where I might transfer to.