By the Numbers: MSU defense

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 10/04/2012 4:18 PM
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By the Numbers- Defense vs. MSU
By Jeff Amey

Going into the game with Michigan State most Buckeye fans were having nightmares of Spartan halfback Le'Veon Bell running rough-shod through the Buckeye defense all game with defenders strewn in his wake. They had a hard time believing the coaching staff when they said the Spartan offense fit better with what the Buckeyes are.

Turns out they were right.

The Buckeyes totally shut down Bell and the Michigan State running attack. The Spartans were forced to turn to their highly suspect passing game to be able to move the ball.  To their credit, they managed to put up over 250 yards passing on the defense, but they weren't really able to sustain things for long drives.

The gameplan was a good one - and the obvious one - against the Spartan offense.  Those who felt Luke Fickel suddenly forgot how to coach should be less concerned.  This defense has some pervasive and fundamental flaws that the coaches are having to gameplan around.  The coaching staff has a pretty good handle on what this defense is and isn't. 

Let's take a look at the game stats.

Run/Pass Breakdown

64 Total Defensive Plays--304 yards--4.8 ypp

                41 pass (64%)--21/41 for 255 yards  1 TD

                23 rush (36%) for 49 yards--2.1 ypc

12 Defensive Possessions

                Ave. of 5.3 plays--25.3 yards

                Ave. start--MSU 26

First Down--26 plays (41%) for 109 yards

                13 pass (50%)--7/13 for 66 yards  1 TD

                13 rush (50%) for 43 yards--3.3 ypc

                Ave. gain of 4.2 yards

Second Down--23 plays (36%) for 133 yards

                15 pass (65%)--8/15 for 118 yards

                8 rush (35%) for 15 yards--1.9 ypc
                Ave. of 8.0 yards to go

                Ave. gain of 5.8 yards

Third Down--15 plays (23%) for 62 yards

                13 pass (87%)--6/13 for 71 yards

                2 rush (13%) for -9 yards--(-4.5) ypc

                Ave. of 7.3 yards to go

                Ave. gain of 4.1 yards

                Conversions--4/15 (27%)

First Downs Allowed--15 Total

                12 by pass

                1 by rush

                2 by penalty

Defensive Formation/Type Breakdown

MSU Offense vs. 4-3--30 plays (47%) for 127 yards

                15 pass (50%)-7/15 for 97 yards  1 TD

                15 rush (50%) for 30 yards--2.0 ypc

                Blitz Percentage--4/30  (13%)

                No Gain/loss on blitz--1/4 (25%)

MSU Offense vs. 4-2-5--29 plays (45%) for 135 yards

                21 pass (72%)--11/21 for 116 yards

                8 rush (28%) for 19 yards--2.4 ypc

                Blitz Percentage--5/29 (17%)

                No Gain/loss on blitz--4/5 (80%)

MSU Offense vs. 3-3-5--5 plays (8%) for 42 yards

                5 pass (100%)--3/5 for 42 yards

                Blitz Percentage--3/5 (60%)

                No Gain/loss on blitz--2/3 (67%)

MSU Offense vs. Base (no blitz) Defenses--52 plays (81%) for 282 yards

                32 pass (62%)--18/32 for 229 yards  1 TD

                20 rush (38%) for 53 yards--2.7 ypc

MSU Offense vs. Blitz Defenses--12 plays (19%) for 22 yards

                9 pass (75%)--3/9 for 26 yards

                3 rush (25%) for -4 yards--(-1.3) ypc

MSU Offense vs. Man to Man (Combo) defenses--37 plays (58%) for 161 yards

                22 pass (59%)--10/22 for 137 yards  1 TD

                15 rush (41%) for 24 yards--1.6 ypc

MSU Offense vs. Zone Defenses--27 plays (42%) for 143 yards

                19 pass (70%)--11/19 for 118 yards

                8 rush (30%) for 25 yards--3.1 ypc

Other Stats of Note

* 3 Defensive Penalties for 40 yards

* Michigan State did not start on the Ohio State side of the 50

* 1/1 in the Red Zone--(FG)

* 2 Sacks and 0 turnovers

* 25/64 plays went for no gain/loss--(39%)

* 12/64 plays went for 10+ yards--(19%)

* 19/64 plays took place on the OSU side of the 50--(30%)

* 1/12 drives went 3 and out--(8%)

* Missed Tackles--12 (4 on one know which one)

* Number of drives ending in OSU territory--6/12 (50%)

* Number of drives of 7+ plays--4/12 (33%)

While this was far from a great game by the Ohio State defense, it was impressive in a lot of ways.  After four weeks (and a full season) of coming under fire for continual breakdowns and poor play, the defense stepped up and did their part in a big Buckeye win.  Michigan State has an offensive philosophy that tests the manhood of a defense, and the Buckeyes answered the bell and shut down what the Spartans like to do best, and they did it without a lot of blitzing (only 12 of 64 plays).

Second, and almost as important, was they seemed to play with some pride and emotion for the first time this season and since the 2010 season.  They swarmed the ball.  They didn't miss a whole lot of tackles other than one horrendous play.  What they may lack in ability at some points of the field they made up for with effort, and it made the difference.

One of the biggest differences for the Buckeyes in this game was that they were able to get themselves off the field on third downs.  The Spartans only converted 4/15 chances and only gained 62 yards on 15 third down plays for the game.  That's a huge difference from what they've been doing so far this season.  Another difference was when the Buckeyes blitzed, they actually got there and disrupted some plays.  Seven of the twelve blitz plays ended up with no gain or loss, including one sack and several stuffed run plays.  Only one of those plays went for more than 5 yards.

One of the big questions going into this game was how well the Buckeyes would play if they went a lot more man to man, and the answer we got was...meh.  In man to man defenses, the Buckeyes gave up 4.4 yards per play compared to 5.3 per play when they were in zone.  A difference, but not a huge one.  There was a much better mix of coverages that caused the Spartan QB to have to think a little more, and it's possible that the move to slightly more aggressive play calling had something to do with the palpable change in attitude on the field.

Let's see what else we learned from the position groups.

Defensive Line

There isn't really anything new here, but at least this game allowed the defensive line to show a little bit more of what they could do.  The defensive line, especially Johathan Hankins, John Simon, and Nathan Williams dominated the line of scrimmage and made it nearly impossible for the Spartans to move the ball.  I have the Spartans rushing for 49 yards, but 13 of those came from a lateral on an outside screen pass and there were 2 sacks in the game.  On called run plays, the Buckeyes only gave up 45 yards on 19 carries.

If there is a concern, it would be that there wasn't a whole lot of pressure on the quarterback on pass plays where the Buckeyes didn't blitz.  To be fair, the Spartans did max protect a lot, but a truly dominant line still gets there at least some of the time against that.  Nate Williams is a force on the outside pass rush, but John Simon is looking like his injury is really limiting his effectiveness.

Grade--(A-)  The line kept the linebackers clean against the run and dominated the line of scrimmage.  Only the somewhat weak pass rush brings the grade down a little.


When the Buckeyes go up against a team that likes to run the ball the linebackers are going to be put under a lot of pressure, both to stuff the run and get back to cover the inevitable playaction passes that come off of it.  While this wasn't a great game for the linebackers, especially against the pass, they did do a pretty good job against the run, filling the gaps and stuffing Bell for a long run of just 8 yards.

Etienne Sabino still looks lost in coverage at times, and Ryan Shazier drives me crazy with his poor tackling technique, but they both did a good enough job to getting a passing grade in my book.  The middle linebacker spot was again largely a no-show for this game.  That's one of the things I think is really holding the defense back.  If the Buckeyes had a solid tackling middle linebacker with a nose for the football this defense could be dominant, at least against the run.

As it is, they are lucky to have such a good defensive line in front of them.

Grade--(B)  This is about as good of a grade as they can possibly get out of me with one position being basically a warm body on the field.  Sabino and Shazier had their maddeningly good, but inconsistant, game again this week.  At least they didn't miss many tackles.

Defensive Backs

I really want to like this group, but they are even more maddeningly inconsistant than the linebackers.  A great play can be followed by a completely bone-headed one the next play, and we don't know which one we'll get from play to play.  I was glad to see Bradley Roby get back on the field for the Buckeyes, but he gave up a few easy completions and ended up with 25 yards in penalties.  Travis Howard seemed to thrive a little bit in man coverage, and actually didn't have a horrible game tackling, but still struggles in zones as he give a huge cushion every play.

I also really want to like Christian Bryant, but his poor tackling technique makes it impossible for me to get behind this kid.  He has a nose for the football, and will hit you when he gets there, but missing tackles when he just throws his shoulder into a player is something you just can't have in your safeties...ever.  He's slowly getting better in coverage, but still lacks a little bit there too.  It has been suggested that he'd be a better fit for the star position, and I tend to agree, but I wonder if he would've done any better than Corey Brown against those corner routes Michigan State was trying to throw.

Special mention has to go to Ohrian Johnson.  I've been down on this kid in the past as well, mainly for his tackling technique but he did a good job of playing centerfield safety when the Buckeyes were in man-free (man underneath with one free safety) coverage, breaking up three passes that should've been completions.  He also did a better job than I've ever seen him do in run support.

Getting back to Corey Brown, I'm torn on him at the star spot.  He's not too bad in run support, though hardly a great tackler, but struggles in coverage, especially man to man.  Considering the star goes up against dangerous slot receivers a lot of times, it concerns me.  I'm not sure Christian Bryant or anyone else the Buckeyes have on the roster would do any better.

Grade--(B)  This might be grading them too high, but I'm adding in Bradley Roby's blocked punt here and better tackling (except for one horrible, horrible play).

Defensive Coaching/Gameplan

I have to hand it to the coaches.  I didn't think this would be the outcome of the game against the Spartans.  I think they have a much better idea of what they have on defense than we gave them credit for.  The gameplan to stop, or at least slow down, the Spartans was the perfect one, I just didn't think the Buckeyes would be able to execute it.  I didn't think they would be able to take away what the Spartans like to do best and force them to throw to move it.

This game should force Buckeye fans to take a step back from all the criticism of the defensive coaching staff and realize they're doing the best they can with a flawed group.  I don't think this excuses the fundamental flaws, especially poor tackling technique on the back end of the defense.  I also don't think it excuses them from the times some of the defensive back-seven looks lost in pass coverage, but I do think the staff is trying to work with what they have the best they can.

My real concern about the staff is why they would build a defense to stuff traditional running attacks when the vast majority of teams the Buckeyes face spread defenses out and attack the perimeters.  On the schedule this season, really only Michigan State and Wisconsin run offenses like that.  I think the defense is going to go right back to struggling against Nebraska this week and we'll be right back to wondering if the staff should be let go again after the season.

Grade--(A)  For this game they looked brilliant. 

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