Watching the Ohio State defense this season, it became apparent that some offenses suited the Buckeyes better than others.
Offenses that spread OSU’s defense out (Purdue), or ran some unbalanced motions (Maryland), or took advantage of a quarterback’s legs (Penn State), have given them plenty of issues this season.
Those that are more straightforward have been easier to defend, though it hasn’t always been a foolproof plan.
One of the more basic offenses the Buckeyes faced this year was Michigan’s, which still put up 39 points, but never really found the big-play successes that other teams had.
Next week in the Rose Bowl, the Ohio State defense will face a Washington offense that has some similarities to the Wolverine offense, which the Buckeyes held in check relatively well.
“Very talented,” Buckeye middle linebacker Tuf Borland said. “They have got a lot of experience at the quarterback position, running back position. So yeah, three good backs. Some talented receivers. I mean, they have a lot of talent. We’ll have our work cut out for us.
“As far as comparing them, you know, personnel-wise, similar to what the team up north does in terms of multiple tight end packages and using the running backs.”
The running backs are mostly senior Myles Gaskin (1,147 yds rushing) and sophomore Salvon Ahmed (604 yds rushing), and when they are running well, they allow quarterback Jake Browning to take advantage with the play-action.
Washington’s running attack is similar to Michigan’s attack with senior Karan Higdon (1,178 yds) and junior Chris Evans, who has rushed for over 1,700 yards in his career. Against the Buckeyes, those two were held in check, combining for 105 yards rushing.
Like Michigan, Washington is going to try to control the game by running the ball, and then leave things in the hands of the Pac 12’s best defense (15.5 ppg).
“Their identity, their M.O., lies behind their running backs and O-Line,” Borland said. “I think they want to run the ball and then kind of play into their defense.”
What is the best way to handle an offense like this?
“I think you just need to be a little more patient,” he said. “Not burying yourself in a block. Staying free and then being gap-disciplined. At the end of the day, you take away all the running lanes, there’s not going to be anywhere to go.”
For defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, the best way to handle this Washington offense may be stopping the guy who gets them going.
“I see a team that really relies on their running backs to get them going,” he said. “I see [Gaskin], he’s really I guess the kick starter for their team, seems like, my point of view, and he’s really talented. The rest of the backs, I think [Ahmed], too, they’re also really good. And especially the quarterback. Their O-line, they seem to work really good together.”
If the running game is handled well by the Buckeye defense, that will put more strain on quarterback Jake Browning.
Browning is a 4-year starter for the Huskies who has thrown for nearly 12,000 yards and 94 touchdowns, so he has seen some stressful situations. His 10 interceptions thrown this season, however, are the most for him since he threw 10 as a freshman.
“He’s got a lot of experience,” Borland said. “He’s a good player. He’s had a lot of success in the past. I think limiting their success on first and second downs, and letting us rush the passer like we do, that will help a lot.”
Like Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, Browning has put up huge numbers at times (43 touchdowns in 2016) and can take off and run with the ball. As it was with Patterson, this will be on the minds of the Buckeye defenders.
“We’re looking to close the pocket,” said sophomore defensive end Chase Young. “He definitely will take the ball down and run. So we’re just really looking to close the pocket and just contain him.”
While everything begins up front for Washington, there are also three talented receivers who are used plenty, as well as multiple tight ends.
The Huskies have three receivers with over 400 yards receiving, paced by junior Aaron Fuller with 51 receptions for 794 yards. Junior Andre Baccellia has 43 receptions for 475 yards and sophomore Ty Jones has caught 28 passes for 469 yards. Jones leads the team with six touchdown receptions.
“You know, they’re really good in several different position groups,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “I think the running back group is probably as good as we’ve seen. Their tight end ground is really strong. Wideouts really compete for the ball. Offensive line, really sound, getting their one real good tackle back. They got him back there at the end of the year. And then the quarterback, certainly, has production over his career that you respect. So it’s a complete offense. There’s not a position group that you look at and say, ah, that’s a weakness. There really isn’t.”
So much of what the Buckeyes and Schiano have said about Washington could have been said about Michigan as well.
They have good running backs, a solid offensive line, an experienced quarterback who has had his ups and downs, but it’s also a fairly straightforward offense, minus the occasional trick play.
In other words, this is the kind of offense that fits the Ohio State defense well.
Does that give them confidence?
“Still a different team,” Borland said. “We’ve still got to go find a way and we’ve still got to play well.”
Those are simple words, but each one is filled with truth.
Washington’s offense plays into what Ohio State’s defense has done well this season, but it will still be up to the Buckeyes to manage the task at hand.