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Scouting Report: Stopping Ohio State's Zone Read

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Ohio State wants to create a numbers advantage by sending the H-back to the weak side and reading the defensive ends, while Michigan State will rely on 1-on-1 cornerback play to counteract with its safeties. Photo illustration by Ron Anzevino.
Ohio State wants to create a numbers advantage by sending the H-back to the weak side and reading the defensive ends, while Michigan State will rely on 1-on-1 cornerback play to counteract with its safeties. Photo illustration by Ron Anzevino.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of breakdowns based on video analysis by Ron Anzevino, a former NFL practice squad fullback and a high school and college football coach with decades of experience.

Saturday's Big Ten championship game will feature two heavyweights, the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans. 

The Spartans defense, led by senior linebacker Max Bullough and senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard, will attempt to stop the high-powered Buckeyes offense led by junior quarterback Braxton Miller and senior running back Carlos Hyde.

Ohio State's offense averages 530-plus yards per game, 300 coming via the ground. Michigan State's defense allows a nation-best 237.7 total yards per game, 64.8 of that on the ground.

Strength vs. strength. Physicality vs. physicality. A good, old-fashioned ground-and-pound. But it won't be three yards and a cloud of dust. This will be a 21st-century version, played by elite athletes that run like Olympic speedsters, soar like the downhill skiers and create high-speed collisions.

To the winner awaits a berth in the 2014 Rose Bowl and a possible opportunity at the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.

Scouting Report: Michigan State Defense

The strength of the Spartans defense, engineered by coordinator Pat Narduzzi, is its simplicity on first and second down. Coach Narduzzi, in his seventh year coordinating the unit, runs a fundamentally-based front seven, playing a conventional four down lineman and three linebackers for most first and second-down situations regardless of offensive personnel.

The Michigan State front seven is stacked with veterans, including two behemoth senior interior defensive linemen, defensive tackle Tyler Hoover (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and nose guard Micajah Reynolds (6-foot-5, 307 pounds). The two space eaters are tasked with controlling B-gap to B-gap (the interior of Ohio State's offensive line), which gives Narduzzi flexibility in his use of Bullough at middle linebacker.      

Ohio State's Split Zone Read Design

Ohio State will attempt to attack the weak side of the Spartans defense with its highly-effective split zone read.

The split zone read concept calls for the Ohio State offensive line to incorporate inside zone blocking to the strong side of the Spartans defense, staying primarily at the first level. At the same time, the H-back blocks on an opposite track, inside-out, attacking the Spartans' weak-side defensive end. 

As Miller and Hyde meet (the "mesh point"), the play calls for the running back to aim downhill and attack the defense's weak-side A-gap. (See photo.)  Michigan State's defensive ends, Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, will either squeeze the mesh point or slow-play it, anticipating a pull by Miller.

Defending The Zone Read

The Buckeyes will create a numbers advantage bringing the H-back over to block the weak-side defensive end as an extra hat for the offense. The Spartans must have an answer.

That answer will include locking their corner to the weak side of the formation in 1-on-1 coverage on the No.1 wide receiver. This will free up the weak-side safety to become a free hitter. The Spartans will have the advantage here due to the play of cornerbacks Dennard and sophomore Tre Williams. Dennard will be a Sunday player and both he and Williams are physical, nasty and athletic enough to neutralize the Buckeyes' vertical threat.

The Spartans now can match numbers with Ohio State and create opportunities for safeties senior Isaiah Lewis and junior Kurtis Drummond, dropping them into the box for run support in the alley or folding for a cutback. Michigan State's pass responsibility will now focus in the flat, where Ohio State will either send a crosser from the strong side or a running back.

Matching numbers also will allow Narduzzi to create pressure packages with his MLB and WLB to further attack the split zone concept .      

How Does Michigan State Stack Up?

The Buckeyes will have difficulty exploiting the weak side of the Spartans defense with their split zone read concept. Ohio State has enjoyed being ahead of the sticks most of the year due in part to Miller and Hyde gaining huge chunks of yards running the split zone read on first and second down.

The Spartans will count on their aggressive nature and look to dictate Miller's decision, removing hesitation and allowing them to play fast and physical.

Winning first down will be vital Saturday. The split zone read concept is a staple of an Urban Meyer-led offense. I look forward to the X's and O's adjustments each team surely will make. Both teams are among the best at what they do, so do not expect either team to reinvent the wheel. They will do what they do best and let the chips fall where they may.

I look forward to a classic hard-hitting football game Saturday night in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium.