When an offense struggles in College Football, fingers immediately point to the signal-caller and his “ineptitude.” What isn’t talked about enough is both coverage and that coverage’s ability to singlehandedly alter the course of a game.
Ohio State was able to put together a masterclass of a performance against Missouri’s wideouts, holding star wide receivers Luther Burden III and Theo Wease Jr. to an abysmal 20 yards on five catches across three quarters.
“I think it was mostly due to their safeties over the top,” Burden said post-game. “The pressure they got on Brady also had something to do with it.”
The catalysts to that conundrum were none other than Denzel Burke and Davison Igbinosun, with Burke tasked to contain Burden and Igbinosun interlocked with Wease.
Burke’s ability to contain wide receivers and pursuit in the run game was a key factor throughout the game, and you’d expect nothing less from a future NFL starter. Burke’s coverage ability has been described as one that contains “excellent ball-tracking” and “fluid hip movement.”
Going into the game, Burke had only allowed one touchdown all season; that was in the Buckeyes’ final game against Michigan. He finished the season with just 23 receptions on 45 targets for 266 yards on his account. Igbinosun allowed 36 receptions on 70 targets for 353 yards coming in.
“We were ballin’ man,” Burke said. “At the end of the day though it didn’t matter because we didn’t get the win.”
However, the battle didn’t just stop with the corners. Ohio State’s ability over the top was an emphasis for Missouri prior to the game, and the secondary’s capacity to work as a group to stop one of the best offenses in the country at generating big plays from doing exactly that has to be recognized.
Josh Proctor, Ohio State’s free safety, came into the game with not a single touchdown allowed all season and just 14 receptions allowed on 29 targets, his longest reception incurred on the season being a measly 34 yards. If Burden or Wease managed to get past their assignments one-on-one, they still had Proctor to deal with up top. By the time they got free, the Buckeye line had already gotten to Cook.
As if one safety with no touchdowns allowed was enough, Sonny Styles also came into the game with none to his account with his longest reception allowed all season being 26 yards.
While Ohio State’s pressure had a lot to do with the ineptitude from Missouri’s offense in the first three quarters, there were a great deal of sacks and pressures that could be attributed to the blanket that was the Buckeye secondary.
A shift in the tide occurred on a 50-yard bomb from Brady Cook to Marquis Johnson with 1:23 left in the third quarter, effectively ripping the bandaid off and paving the way for the Tiger offense to wake up. The 50-yard play was only the second 40+ yard play the Ohio State defense had allowed all season, and it came from a freshman.
“Marquis got us going with that big shot,” Burden said. “It’s pretty hard for a freshman to do that, just a regular freshman in the Cotton Bowl, so I’m super excited for the future.”
In the fourth quarter, Wease and Burden were finally awoken. Wease picked up a massive 31-yard reception on a free play 2nd-and-17, and Burden capped off the game-killing drive with a seven-yard touchdown grab.
The 58 combined yards from Burden and Wease were the lowest accumulated total for the dynamic duo all season. But at the end of the day, the message for this team heading into this game was that you can’t win the game in the first three quarters only the last.
128 yards in the air from the passing game was the second lowest of the season for the Tigers, the lowest coming in an Arkansas game that was over a lot earlier than this one. While 128 might seem like a low number, Ohio State only allowed one QB all season to throw for over 200 yards against them, and it was Western Kentucky’s (an Air Raid team) Austin Reed, who threw for 207. The Buckeyes are, without a doubt, one of the cleanest and most clinical defensive groups in all of college football. The breakout and resiliency shown from the Tigers in the fourth quarter is an encapsulation of how this season has gone as a whole.
While the battle was a hotly contested one and one could argue that the Buckeyes secondary won it for the majority of the game, the Missouri wideout group’s cream rose to the top at the end and helped secure a program-elevating victory to close out a historic season.