An Ohio State Dagger into Oregon: The Counter Play

Featured Photo

It is recognized that Ohio State beat Oregon in the National Championship game due to its superior run game, and last week we covered the first of the two major running plays that hurt Oregon, the Wham/Trap play. This week we will cover the one primary play that the Buckeyes destroyed the Ducks with, the Counter play, of which had great execution and great strategy utilized in its implementation.

It is hard as a devout Oregon fan to write all the superlatives for the opponent…but they are deserved, and this review will help us learn what to look for in the coming year, and how the Oregon fan will have an informed perspective about what occurred in the NC game. As the coaches would say, this is “a learning experience,” and it is for Duck fans!

Gaps and Techniques

Gaps and Techniques

My friends — don’t let your eyes glaze over! To understand the play and how it works…you have to concentrate for just 30 seconds on how the Oregon defense works…and you will need the chart above to refer to.

Note how the DEs line up head-on, or a "5" technique in a typical 3-4 defensive alignment.

From Video

Note how the DEs line up head-on, or a “5” technique in a typical 3-4 defensive alignment.

In a typical 3-4 defensive alignment–you see our defensive ends (green arrows above) head-on the offensive tackles, thus a “5” technique that you see above in the green chart of  gaps and techniques. In this defense the defensive ends are responsible for the “C” gap while the linebackers are responsible for defending the “B” gaps. (See aforementioned green chart again.) This is how we began to defend our opponents, but made a change in late 2013.

In the Bear defense-note how the defensive ends are on the outside shoulder of the offensive GUARDS, by comparison.

Coach Alex Kirby

In the Bear defense-note how the defensive ends are on the outside shoulder of the offensive GUARDS, by comparison.

Above is a “Bear” defense that is designed to take away the inside running plays of the opponent. These defensive ends are playing the “3” technique and are responsible for the “B” gap (above). Stanford employed this against us in the past as did other teams — but we simply brought in extra TEs or H-Backs and blocked to the inside from the outside and “pinned” the defense inside with our Outside Zone Read or Sweep Read plays.

The intent is clear with the Bear defense; stop the Inside Zone Read with defensive ends on the outside shoulder of the offensive guards, instead of head-on the offensive tackles with the 3-4 alignment.

The "Hidden Bear" 4-0-4 Defense

From Video

The “Hidden Bear” 4-0-4 Defense

Note the alignment of the Ducks above as the nose tackle (Balducci) is lined up directly in front of the Buckeye center; this is called a “0” or zero technique. DeForest Buckner (green arrow above) is lined on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle and is thus a “4” technique. On the other side is Arik Armstead playing the same “4” technique, thus it is a 4-0-4, or a 404 defense.

Armstead defends the "B" gap.

From Video

Armstead defends the “B” gap.

As the play above begins…the “Hidden Bear” defense emerges as Armstead (Yellow arrow above) is defending the “B” gap…as in a Bear defense, although it appears we are in a 3-4 defense where he would normally take the “C” gap. Armstead is plugging the “B” gap, while the linebacker on that side (Malone) will slide over to the “C” gap if needed.

The 404 Defense....

The 404 Defense….

The 404 defense operates perfectly (above) as Armstead plugs the B gap, while Malone and Coleman fill the C gap nicely. This looks like a 3-4 defense, but Oregon is actually playing it as a “Bear” defense with the nose tackle “two-gapping,” or defending both A gaps, while the defensive ends are plugging the B gaps, and the linebackers taking the C gaps. It has really shut down the inside running game of many opponents since late last season when we went to it almost exclusively.

The perfect "Counter" to the Hidden Bear defense.

From Video

The perfect “Counter” to the Hidden Bear defense.

As Ohio State is beginning to run the dreaded dagger they stuck into Oregon….the Counter play, we note above how Buckner is in his “4” technique (yellow arrow above), ready to defend the B gap. The offensive tackle for OSU (red arrow above) plans to block him inside — which is an easy block since Buckner wants to go there.

Blocking "down" or inside is easy for Ohio State.

From Video

Blocking “down” or inside is easy for Ohio State.

This is performing right on plan for Ohio State as the offensive tackle blocks “down” on Buckner — into that B gap, which is the intent of the Oregon defense.

Complete "hat-on-hat" blocking--that makes me ill.

From Video

Complete “hat-on-hat” blocking–that makes me ill.

My friends — that screenshot above is a thing of beauty for Buckeye fans; after Buckner is out of the picture you see tremendous “hat-on-hat” blocking the way Oregon likes to do it! You see a perfect running lane for ‘Zeke (red arrows above), with every Duck defender at the LOS and the next level being accounted for by a corresponding Buckeye blocker.  It is perfect, it is sickening, and it is really well done.

A surprise to start the second half....

From Video

A surprise to start the second half….

This play is the perfect “Counter” to the Hidden Bear defense, but it requires great one-on-one blocking, which OSU carried out.

They are killing us with this play...

From Video

They are killing us with this play…

Above is a touchdown play where the Counter play by the Buckeyes is blocked and executed extremely well. Note how Buckner (yellow arrow above) is doing a great job defending the B gap as he is supposed in the Hidden Bear defense, but No. 68 for Ohio State has an easy block down to keep DeForest out of the play.

Still painful from this angle...

From Video

Still painful from this angle…

As an old offensive lineman who savors great blocking, especially in the open field….this play is one that I really admire. As an Oregon fan it makes my stomach turn, and gets me to pondering how often we will see this play used against us next year.

You have to also consider the tactics in the use of the Counter play; Urban knew it would work, and would really hurt the Ducks, yet he did not use it until the second half. Why? Oregon had done well with halftime adjustments in the past and Meyer made sure that Oregon had no adaption time (Such as halftime) to regroup.

He could not wait to use it though, as he sprung it on the Ducks in the first play of the second half! My friends…that is great coaching between finding the weakness and then exploiting it with a total package of surprise, Xs and Os, and timing. It was a tremendous combination of coaching and talent implementing it…the kind you will find in the National Championship game. I offer my congratulations and a salute to Ohio State.

Now…why aren’t we running that play!

I am dead serious; it is a play that is built for our offensive line as they too are superb at blocking in space and on the run. We have not run a Counter play since against USC in 2008, and I’ve often wondered why?

Great defensive coaching...

From Video

Great defensive coaching…

Why didn’t Pellum adjust? Sometimes when you make on-the-fly changes it can backfire by creating mistakes which lead to explosion plays against you. He might have thought that our offense would score more (a safe assumption) and that as time went on the Ducks could defeat those blocks. That is the chess match and guessing game that makes you the hero or the goat as a defensive coordinator. Oregon did end up second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, which is pretty darn good for Pellum in his first year. He and this defense will be better.

We will see that play often next year, and I believe our players will become skilled at recognizing it up front and beating those blocks. While we at will go back to our usual coverage of superb Oregon plays next week–please note that due to the Grizzled Ol’ Coach, Mike Morris,…..we have learned why the Counter play worked with an explanation unlike anywhere else in the media. It was painful, but worth the learning opportunity for us all.

“Oh how we love to learn about our beloved Ducks!”

Charles Fischer  (FishDuck)
Oregon Football Analyst for CFF Network/
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo from Video

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Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer has been an intense fan of the Ducks for thirty years and has written reports on football boards for over a dozen years. Known as “FishDuck” on those boards, he is acknowledged for providing intense detail in his scrimmage reports and in his Xs and Os play analyses. He and his wife Lois, a daughter, Christine, and their dog (Abbie) reside in Eugene, Oregon, where he has been a financial advisor for 30 years serving clients in seven different states. He does not profess to be a coach or analyst, but simply a “hack” that enjoys sharing what he has learned and invites others to correct or add to this body of Oregon Football! See More...

  • tristanh314

    It was difficult, even for me, not to notice the Buckeyes gouging the Ducks again and again with the same play in the second half. At the time I remember wishing the safety would ignore the motion man (#17 in the final gif) and charge straight at the C gap Elliot was continuing to exploit. Had that happened more than once though, I am sure Ohio State’s coaches would have noticed and hit a big play either on a fly sweep or play action.

    As for Oregon not running a counter, is it possible opponents generally don’t defend the Ducks with gap assignments that would make for an easy “down” block by the tackles the way the Buckeyes had when facing the “404?”

    • Hortance

      I was trying to figure out how that play gets stopped, too, given the positioning of the D. Either an interior disruptor, not reading anything (takes too long) or the safety you mentioned….maybe alternating with a corner blitz.
      Either way, stunting or OL execution failure is required.
      Mr Fischer, great analysis, well-presented. Enjoyed that as a football fan as much as as a Buckeye.

  • Bucki2280

    As an tOSU fan, I would say thanks for sharing this and Good Luck Next year.

  • buckbeard

    Buckeye fan here, not to gloat but to help explain another point as to how this play ran so effectively.

    Simply by its name, the counter play is designed to be misleading; to pull the defense one direction and sting them from the backside. The main misdirection is the threat not just from the quick jab-step the RB makes, but also to the sprinting H-Back/WR in motion. For the past two years, Ohio State’s offense featured that quick pop-pass or a QB run option from that same package. Oregon’s defense would be foolish not to keep a safety or LB in motion to keep honest against the sweep. But that fake isn’t what made this play so effective.

    If you go back and watch the Film Room presentation of the game, you can get a great insight on what is actually happening in the game with a much smarter breakdown of each play and how it worked. One thing these coaches focused on was this counter play. There was a drive mid-way through the third where Ohio State ran the same counter play (albeit to different directions) about 5 or times in the same drive to go up 28-20. All the coaches kept pointing out the positioning of the linemen, the motioning WR, and was able to call out the counter play before the ball snapped. There is no doubt the DC from Oregon noticed this as well.

    The following drive, first play, Ohio State lined up in the same formation with the same motion. Oregon defenders took notice and bunched to the weak side to stop the counter. Ohio State ran the sweep. Few plays later, same formation, same defensive reaction, Ohio State ran a modified wham to the strong side. A few plays later, same thing, Ohio State ran a pass play. (I may have this order a bit mixed up and I do apologize but all three did happen that drive).

    TL;DR Ohio State ran the counter play from the same formation many times in a row, then mixed it up when Oregon tried to stop that play specifically.

    • Well,…I guess I must yield to a “smarter” analysis. Covering the fake fly sweep and other variations was not covered because 1) it was obvious…I don’t have to cover the fly or jet sweep fake as we have discussed that in the past as we have that in our playbook too. Remember–this was written for Oregon fans who have been here for the Tuesday analyses before.

      Second? Look at the length of the article already; you cannot go longer than that and technically violated the rules of the site by going 1,400 words….400 more than we target. The additional stuff you mention is fun and easy if you’re a Buckeye fan–but again I am explaining the basics to Duck fans, and as it is–I have not seen anything like this out there specifically for Oregon fans.

      Thanks for coming by.


      • Shawn Hiller

        FishDuck, that wasn’t phrased correctly but I also recommend ESPN’s film room coverage: Between Mike Reilly, Mason (Standford/ Vandy), Narducci and Mullens, you have 4 brilliant minds, and Chris Spielman moderating who is no slouch when taking apart formation and scheme. I admit as the game wore on it definitely had a Buckeye lean, but early on the group was really looking to watch Oregon’s offense exploit OSU’s Defense. I am interested in your perspective on OSU’s defense. I thought 43 Darren Lee played his best game and was a difference maker. if you would permit me a couple ?’s, Why did Oregon keep running plays to the boundary, short side? I thought they could have exploited us to the field if they could get the edge. Why did Oregon abandon the run? You were killing us up the gut early & then you went away from it. Why not more bubble screens? Your analysis is awesome & thanks for inviting our thoughts..

      • SorryFishDuckIKnowItHurts

        Wow Fishduck… You could have just acknowledged BuckBeards post and moved on. Instead you’re coming off super butt hurt about it. Yet you have this little disclaimer about Buckeye fans being rude…

  • buckbeard

    Sidebar: I would like to congratulate Oregon on a great season, their Heisman trophy winning QB, and a thank them for a fantastic championship game. Best of luck to you guys next season!


    Sorry Fish but it’s March and the only people that should be reading and watching this our the DC and Ron Aiken because it was their inability to fix this issue! I believe Aliotti would of made 2nd half fixes like he always seemed to do except the Stanford Game 2 seasons ago he just wasn’t the same DC after that game. To Pellums credit it was just his 1st season as DC and like Helfrich and Frostee in their 1st years as HC and OC they both did 100% better in their 2nd seasons. Pellum should also be better and there’s just to much talent on that side to also be better than last year. With that said this shouldn’t ever be allowed again to be gashed like this in the BIGGEST Game of Oregon’s History! Oregon needs to right the ship and if they happen to get into that 4 team playoff which I’ll say it now they will with Adams and they happen to play OS again then they need to stuff the run and I’m believing with all the talent on board they will continue their growth and do this because 0-9 is really unexceptable!

  • Marc Lacuesta

    As a Buckeye I enjoy your youtube breakdowns of the Oregon offense. I watched most of them before the game. Thanks for the article and good luck next season.

    • Headlock

      I upvote this great post and I downvote boots lacuesta

  • clifford maze

    Outstanding breakdown. Thanks

  • Jason

    Awesome break-down. One of the OSU sites did something similar on how OSU changed their defense. This was a good read.

  • Rick W

    Great article. I love watching games from the end zones and seeing the plays develope. Details like this article are hard to see live in a game but great to teach kids. Oregon is well coached and they used formations to gash OSU too. Virginia Tech stopped us with Bear Front. So others tried all year we became better at recognition and execution. Oregon will see counter lots next year and will getter better at recognizing and stopping it too. They are too good not to!

  • Northwoods1

    Thanks for the breakdown. I’ll have to watch your site this year for more of these. I’ve watched football for 30 years now, and these breakdowns have helped me to really understand the game.

    As for Oregon not running this play, is it less effective against a 4-3 defensive front? Looking at the replay, OSU always gets solid blocks from a lineman/TE on the LB. Would a 4-3 make that more difficult?

  • PDunc

    The reason I started reading your X&O breakdowns as a Buckeye fan a few years ago was it seemed like OSU and Oregon had similar offenses, both based around the inside-zone-read. Virginia Tech’s defense slowed us down early in the season by using this “bear” alignment. What really killed the Buckeye offense in that game though was the 0-coverage the Tech played behind that “bear” front. In the last video in your post, you can see that the safety follows the jet motion to the right before dropping deep to the middle of the field. Virginia Tech was keeping that safety near the line of scrimmage where he could fill the outside gap that Zeke kept running through on that counter play. This of course, left their corners 1-on-1 with our receivers which we unfortunately couldn’t take advantage of early in the season.

    The spread offense of both OSU and Oregon is great because it forces the defense to win a 1-on-1 situation somewhere in order to stop the offense. Oregon left their safeties deep to defend the pass (the Buckeye passing game was much better at the end of the year than in week 2) and Ohio State’s o-line was able to win their 1-on-1 match-ups with Oregon’s front-7.

    Great stuff on here Fish. I’m excited to watch both Ohio State’s and Oregon’s offenses next season.

  • MudBloodVeer is a coach who posts on a number of sites (including here) and is someone I know and enjoy learning from. Below is his commentary he wrote on a pay site, and while negative–it is also uplifting for Duck fans to see how it CAN be defeated. FishDuck
    It’s just another play.
    When I watch those GIFs I see players doing stuff that’s fundamentally unsound, stuff that they are coached up on daily and just didn’t do in that game. The OLB should squeeze the air out of the hole on that down block and usually he blows up that puller and makes a pile. The backside LB should follow the pulling Guard but instead he just doesn’t react very fast and because of it the playside Guard has an easy angle at him.

    Malone should have probably taken that blocker on with his inside shoulder or blown up the blocker
    too. If Balducci gets push on the C, the pulling Guard has to take a deeper track and it takes him longer to get to the intended hole. I mean, it’s a sound play that’s worked for decades but if guys do their jobs, it can be stopped. The only exception is when the opposing players up front are just better, but it is kind of difficult to make an adjustment in talent during the season.

    • PDunc

      From this article:

      “Meyer runs the jet sweep action away from the base
      inside zone or gap blocking. This false keys the linebackers and ideally
      makes them a step slower when they see the base run action. And if they
      do not honor the jet sweep action then Meyer can give the football to a
      speedy player in space.”

    • PDunc

      Is there something in OSUs play design here that is leading to these mistakes by the Oregon defense? Specifically the “OLB should squeeze the air out of the hole on that down block” part? Or are these just simply mistakes by the defense, or maybe both?

      The part about the “OLB … usually he blows up that puller and makes a pile” and “If Balducci gets push on the C, the pulling Guard has to take a deeper
      track and it takes him longer to get to the intended hole.” sounds to me like the OSU blockers winning their battles.

      The backside LB definitely should have followed the pulling guard but his hesitation is probably caused by the jet-sweep fake This is a big reason that Meyer uses the sweep, and the sweep fake, to slow down the reactions of the second level of the defense.

  • themostbrian

    This is a stellar breakdown.

  • Tyler Festa

    Actually, the way they ran this play with the backside guard and tackle pulling, and trapping. It is an adaptation of the trap play created by nebraska in the 80s. Before that, this play was ran with two guards pulling, and allowed the D to read the guards and take them to the play. By pulling both the backside guard and tackle. It freezes the D and allows extra time for the play to develop

  • Briarrabbit2

    Oregon was reeling at Wr during the destruction of FSU down to two WR’s. The day prior to Ohio ST. Oregon lost Carrington who came thru for us in the Rose Bowl and then announced Wide out and athlete Devon Allen. So Oregon had zero of seven receivers at the NC. I told my friends the day of that Oregon just left 40 points that didn’t even get on the bus. Mariota went 3 for 12 on third downs v OSU. Oregon could not have beaten 3/4 of the PAC with the team we had on the field playing OSU. Other wise Oregon would have worn down OSU and beat them just like everyone else. by at least 30 pts. Making a big deal of the counter play is just east coast bias trying to pull a justifying rabbit out of its azz.

    • CE94BUCK

      Whatever makes you sleep better but I doubt it. Oregon’s defense never came close to stopping OSU. And Oregon’s Oline was getting abused by OSU’s Dline late. No way Oregon was outscoring OSU that night.

  • Doug Huber

    Another Buckeye Fan/Alum here.
    1) Thanks for pasting Florida State.
    2) I love watching Oregon play. You guys had a great season.
    3) Great analysis, Charles.