After just one game, the Ohio State defense under Jim Knowles has now pitched as many second-half shutouts against Power 5 opponents as they did all of last season.
The Buckeyes unveiled their new defense under Knowles, who came to OSU after being at Oklahoma State the previous four seasons, and it was everything that Ohio State head coach Ryan Day could have hoped for.
After giving up 10 points in the first half to Notre Dame, the Buckeyes held the Irish to just 72 yards of total offense and zero points in the second half.
Interestingly, the 253 yards of total offense allowed for the game was almost exactly half of the 505 yards of total offense they allowed in their home-opening loss to Oregon a year ago.
After the game, Knowles spoke with reporters about the performance of his defense, and he was obviously pleased with how things turned out.
“I’m really happy for the players,” he said. “They had a play here or there that we gave up, but what I’m most pleased with is the fact that they never flinched. They bought into everything that I’ve been asking them to do and one or two bad plays or missed plays, it didn’t affect them at all. I saw a great focus, and that’s a big deal. And I think you saw guys playing fast. The fits were really good. Notre Dame does a lot of things with pulling tight ends and things that create different gaps, and I thought we saw our guys fitting things, for the most part, all night really well.”
Those “one or two” bad plays led to all 10 of Notre Dame’s points. The first play came on the first snap from scrimmage and was a missed tackle by safety Josh Proctor that led to a 54-yard gain and eventual field goal. The second big play came on a diving, bobbling 31-yard catch by receiver Matt Salerno for 31 yards on third-and-2 that got the ball well inside Ohio State territory. That drive eventually ended up in a touchdown.
Once Notre Dame stopped catching breaks, however, they started catching hands.
For the game, the Irish rushed for 76 yards on 30 attempts, and had just two carries of more than 10 yards. In games against ranked opponents last year, the Buckeyes allowed nearly seven rushes per game of at least 10 yards.
Of Notre Dame’s 27 rushes against the Buckeyes, 16 of them resulted in three yards or less. And of the 11 rushes of more than three yards, four of them were by the quarterback. The Irish running backs carried the ball 19 combined times and only four of those carries went further than five yards.
Those are winning numbers every single week, and Jim Knowles knows it.
“I think our run defense was stout. Really controlled the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Our guys up front, we thought that was going to be a strength. Really pleased, like I said, with all the pull plays, shifting the formations, motions that our linebackers and safeties were able to see it all. Coming into our first game, they saw a lot in terms of the run game fits. And that just gives everybody confidence, right? It gives the fans confidence, it gives the team confidence, no matter how the offense is doing or whatever’s going on. When you see guys just showing up in the right places, everybody’s like, ‘Okay.’ It may not look exceptional, but it wins games, and I was really pleased with that.”
Knowles’ defense helped win 12 games last year at Oklahoma State, and strong second halves like Buckeye fans saw on Saturday is just one reason why.
The Cowboys allowed an average of 7.6 points in the second half of games last year. And that number dropped to 7.1 points in conference games. Over the previous two years, the Ohio State defense gave up double figures in the second half in 13 of the 21 games they’ve played. That includes 28 points to Michigan.
It remains to be seen if those days are over in Columbus, of course. This is certainly looking like a new dawn, but Knowles is going to make sure his players don’t lose focus on continuing to do the things that got them here in the first place.
“You go through the process. I know that’s a thing that coaches say, but you go through the process. You celebrate the win, at least the players do,” he said. “I don’t think I will, really. Move onto the next. But that’s our job as coaches, give them time to celebrate it. And when they come back, we break it down in detail. And it’s the process, right?
“But it’s a matter of confidence and leadership. It’s a matter of, they expected this. Our players expected this, I expected this. So when they come in tomorrow, we’re able to show them why it worked, how it worked. You just gotta give them that added motivation and confidence. But we expected this on defense. So I’m pleased and happy for them. But I’m not surprised. We expected it.”