Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Four Plays, Part III: the Play-Action | by Pat

We're halfway home in our Fiesta Bowl breakdown. After covering the Bomb and the Reverse, it's now time to look at the next Buckeye touchdown, on a play that gave the Irish defense trouble all year long: the play-action pass.

After Ginn's reverse put the Buckeyes up 14-7, the Irish got the ball back and promptly went three and out. The Bucks then mounted a steady drive that seems destined to put some more points on the board. But Troy Smith flipped away an option pitch on the Irish 14-yard line, and Ambrose Wooden pounced on it. ND's ensuing drive showed some promise, and the Irish fought their way from inside their own 10 out to mid-field, but the drive sputtered. Fitzpatrick boomed a beautiful punt and the Buckeyes were forced to start on their own two-yard line. That's where we pick up the action. Here's the drive thus far:

O 1-10 O02   OHIO STATE drive start at 04:37 (2nd).
O 1-10 O02 Smith, Troy rush for 1 yard to the OSU3 (HOYTE).
O 2-9 O03 Pittman, A rush for 3 yards to the OSU6 (RICHARDSON).
O 3-6 O06 Smith, Troy rush for 9 yards to the OSU15, 1ST DOWN OSU (LANDRI).
After two solid plays by the Irish defense, Smith manages to evade Irish pressure, sneak past the on-rushing defenders, and jet ahead for the first down. Yep, you guessed it: the Buckeyes convert yet another third-and-long. Now it's first and 10 on the Buckeye 15.

The Irish are in their base package: 3 LBs and 4 DBs.

OSU motions two men right, a tight end (Frost, 81) and an H-back (White, 89). Holmes (4) jogs in next to White, forming a 'bunch' on the right side of the line. Ginn (7) is split left. Pittman (25) is the running back.
Post-motion. The Buckeyes look to be in a run-oriented formation on first down.

Richardson (30) closes the cushion between himself and Ginn while Crum (40) slides over to the left.

From the way Wooden (22) is standing, it looks like he has deep zone responsibility.
Here's an endzone view of the alignments right before the snap. Ndukwe (18) is taking a few steps closer to the middle.

Crum is lined up over the Buckeye tight end.
On the replay, Gary Danielson shows the folks at home the route that Holmes is going to run, shooting straight for that gap between Wooden and Ndukwe.

Richardson is very tight on Ginn, and Wooden is playing way off the line.
Here's the snap. Smith begins the play-action fake. Both of the Buckeyes who were in motion stay to block, so Smith has 7 blockers in front of him. Mays and Hoyte do not blitz.

Pittman releases into the flat on the right side.

Here you can see Crum sliding out to cover Pittman in the flat and Wooden backpedaling, keeping both Smith and Holmes in his field of view.

Richardson is blitzing. Zbikowski slides over to mark Ginn one-on-one, leaving Ndukwe as the lone safety in the middle of the field.
After the play-action, Smith drops and sets. Ndukwe, who has taken a step forward, now realizes it's a fake and begins to turn to pick up Holmes, who is running past him.

Richardson's blitz from the left was picked up by the Buckeye left tackle (50) and the rest of the blockers provide a nice bubble.
With great protection, Smith throws long pass downfield. Holmes has about a 2-yard lead on Ndukwe now and is angling towards the middle of the field. Wooden is rushing over to provide support.

Up top, Zbikowski is sticking close to Ginn.
Holmes catches the ball at the 50, then veers away from Ndukwe and Wooden and cruises towards the end zone. Nduwke just isn't fast enough to make up the ground between them.

From the bottom of the screen, Zibby comes flying in.
At the two-yard line, Zibby catches up to the preening Holmes and tries to punch the ball out.
But Holmes manages to hold onto the ball as they both fall into the end zone. Touchdown, the Ohio State University.

Here's the video of the play, for those who just can't appreciate football without hearing Brent Musburger describe it. (Thanks yet again to Nevin.)

For the third straight time, the Buckeyes hit on a first-down touchdown immediately after converting a back-breaking third and long, thanks mostly to the mobility of Troy Smith. So frustrating.

Let's take a look at that Buckeye formation. Seeing both Stan White, Jr. and Marcel Frost in to block, it brought back something Weis had mentioned in his pre-Fiesta Bowl press conference.
At the fullback/tight end position, there is kind of a hybrid because they have three different guys that they use depending on what they are doing. They list (Stan) White as their fullback, but he is more of an h-back type of player. He will line up a little bit at tight end and fullback. (Marcel) Frost, he saw his first action, I think I saw his first action in the Iowa game. He came to Ohio State as a defensive lineman but he is more of a receiving tight end.
We asked Keith from Buckeye Commentary if he agreed with this assesement.
I think it's accurate to call Stan White, Jr. a H-Back. He does line up at TE on occasion but he more of a FB for us who is adept at catching balls out of the backfield. Last year, Ryan Hamby was, at least originally, our #1 TE then following him was Marcel Frost. Marcel is more of receiving TE at this point in his career.
So the Buckeyes brought in personnel that included a fullback moonlighting as a tight end and someone known more as a receiving tight end -- and then had them both block. Knowing that both White and Frost are adept at catching the ball, the defense couldn't just write them off and focus on the other receivers. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the linebackers didn't just rush in after Holmes.

Still, just like with the Ginn reverse, the Irish dialed up another first down blitz to throw at the Buckeyes. There has been some criticism of the Irish defense for being too conservative and predictable in the Fiesta Bowl, but here on first down you've got a blitzing corner while the rest of the secondary drops into a half-man, half-zone coverage. Not exactly vanilla, especially on first down and with three linebackers on the field.

But the blitz is to no avail -- it's picked up immediately -- and the play-action sucks in Ndukwe, the lone remaining safety after Zibby had to slide over to cover Ginn. Ndukwe hesitates just enough to let the Holmes get behind him and catch the ball with nothing but green grass ahead. On this play Ndukwe just doesn't have enough in the tank to catch Holmes, although Zibby makes a valiant effort at the end.

Keith offers up his two cents on why he thinks the play was so successful.
As far as this play is concerned, I focused on it quite a bit in my post game analysis. I think it's a great example of setting up a defense. Ohio State lined up in this 'diamond formation' twice before in the first half (here and here). But, we ran Pittman the first two times and when the Notre Dame defenders saw the formation for the third time in the same half, it's only natural to recall the previous two plays. Ndukwe seemed to be on his tiptoes anticipating the run, eager to crash the line of scrimmage which allowed Santonio Holmes to run by him. A nearly perfect pass let Holmes keep his separation and finish off the play.
Good points by Keith about setting up the play with the run. It's easy with hindsight to say that the Irish should have been ready for the play-action, but recognizing that during the flow of the game isn't quite the same thing. Still, it's interesting to note that Charlie also ran the play-action pass out of this exact same formation during the regular season (which resulted in a 9-yard pass to Samardzija.)

Getting back to the post-catch run, this touchdown play more than any other showcases the difference in speed between the Irish secondary and the Buckeye wide outs. Holmes was still fifty yards from pay dirt when he caught the ball. His natural acceleration kept Ndukwe off his back, and turned a 30-yard pass into an 85-yard touchdown.

Now, Holmes is fast, but if any play is palpable proof that a 230-plus pound free safety isn't a good idea, this is it. According to Nduwke himself, he has already dropped around 20 pounds this year and feels much faster coming out of his breaks. We'll be anxious to see if that lighter frame translates into more speed -- and if the team and coaching staff can improve on our handling of the play-action this year.