October 24, 2008
X-in' and O-in' with actual coach Tyler Sellhorn.
Fortunately for the Big Ten's postseason hopes, Penn State came out in the second half and eliminated any hope of Michigan continuing its first quarter heroics. Unfortunately for Nittany Lion backers, the PSU defense will not be able to ignore the quarterback in the running game against OSU and its power-packed backfield combo, Pryor and Wells. These things you already know.
The question you may be asking: whatever happened to quarterbacks handing the ball off and throwing? The short answer is that running with your quarterback allows you to stay in a spread formation and still run power running plays. Many "modern" offenses use three and four receiver-type players to execute their passing offense. The flip side of that coin is a poor power running game. If you are a solid, upstanding Midwesterner fully committed to sweatervests, scowls and your "three yards and a cloud of snow" offense, this is a problem. Both Penn State and Ohio State have solutions, but we're going to focus on The Answer for the Buckeyes: Terrelle Pryor.
Let's Talk Game Plan
Many times in Happy Valley last Saturday, Michigan was stuffed by the Penn State defense when the Lions mostly ignored the very pedestrian quarterback running "threat." When Steven Threet did keep the ball early, PSU was a little surprised, a step slow and out of position enough to yield a couple first down runs, including a 14-yarder (second play below) that set up a touchdown. Threet's plays were essentially a "power spread," where he plays the role of tailback with a running back leading through the hole -- in this case, into seven-man fronts with both safeties in pass-first position. Pay particular attention to middle linebacker Chris Colasanti Josh Hull (No. 43), replacing injured All-American Sean Lee, who's not having such a great game here in space:
But Steven Threet running the ball does not constitute an offense, as Michigan found out quickly: the Wolverines gained 207 yards and scored 17 points on their first three drives, and were shut out while gaining 21 yards on their last nine. Michigan is struggling on the offensive line and has no functional passing game at the moment, and Threet is hardly a threat as a runner when the defense isn't caught off guard. The Wolverines' personnel limitations left them without answers after Penn State's initial round of adjustments.
Let's Watch Film
Terrelle Pryor on the other hand, can allow OSU to continue to stretch the field by formation (spread) and personnel (three or more receivers) on first-and-ten and second-and-medium while still running Jim Tressel's bread and butter between the tackles.
Tressel is a latecomer to the whole "spread" concept, but he's no fool. By employing his quarterback in the running game, power running from either the shotgun or the "Pistol" formation and counters off of the base running plays are pretty simple, especially with an asset on the order of Beanie Wells in the same backfield. When you establish that you're still going to ride your workhorse regardless of the formation --
-- stopping Beanie remains defenses' first priority. On a pair of Pryor's biggest runs against Michigan State, for example, the Spartans lose contain by crashing down on Wells on the inside dive, allowing Pryor a free run to the outside, one-on-one with a tackler in the open field. It's not a bad scheme by MSU on a blackboard, except that in real life, Pryor in the open field against almost anyone is a mismatch in Ohio State's favor:
Penn State's traditional answer to the "spread option" has been to blitz the outside linebacker away from the play and have the backside end chase down the line of scrimmage to cut off the cutback lane. Power running with two-back (Pryor and Wells) and occasionally three-back (Pryor, Wells and another RB/FB) sets really puts Penn State under pressure to add the extra safety in the box (Wisconsin and Michigan State, you'll notice, each line up with only seven men in run-stopping position in these clips), and when that happens, the play-action passing game is definitely where defenses become most vulnerable -- Pryor is already a more dangerous passer than, say, Stephen Threet:
The only other offense the Lions have faced that offers anything like a dual threat in Pryor's mold is Illinois' Juice Williams, who led by far the best offensive effort of the season against PSU in terms of balance (189 rushing, 183 passing), yards (392) and points (24). Williams accounted for 247 yards, 64 on the ground, and threw for two touchdowns. The Illini were mostly undone by their defense's inability to hold up to Penn State's physical running game, which should be less of a problem for Ohio State.
Let's Make a Prediction With Terrelle Pryor taking snaps from the shotgun and Pistol and a fully healthy Beanie Wells carrying the mail, Tresselball has made a significant comeback and can certainly hope to match Illinois' production against the Lions at home. Look for OSU to bleed the clock and play superior defense and special teams Saturday night and hold on to win by less than seven.
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Tyler Sellhorn is a former small college player and single-wing high school coach in Fort Wayne, Ind. Big thanks to Holly Anderson full pulling and editing clips of Penn State-Michigan and Ohio State-Michigan State games.