Contrary to popular belief, the Ohio State defense was actually an improved product from the year before.
Points allowed went from 22.8 per game in 2021 to 21.0 last year. Yards per game allowed dropped by 51.1 yards. Last year’s defense finished 14th nationally in that category, allowing 321.5 yards per game. The yards per play also dropped from 5.33 the year before to 5.18 in 2022.
Those improvements were understandably — and justifiably — missed by most because of what happened in the final two games of the season.
After all, it doesn’t matter if your transatlantic flight only makes it 90% of the way. That’s no way to qualify for a successful flight.
Still, when looking for silver linings, they can be found. Over one quarter of the total yards allowed by the Buckeye defense last year occurred in the two losses at the end of the season to Michigan and Georgia. Prior to that, they were allowing just 283.4 yards of total offense per game. That number would have been good for fourth nationally last year.
And before the Wolverines and Bulldogs put 87 points on the Buckeyes, they were giving up 16.9 points per game, which would have been eighth nationally. And the 4.53 yards per play over those first 11 games would have been good for third-lowest in the country.
But again, you have to stick the landing, and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles believes this year’s defense is primed to do just that.
“There’s the opportunity to be the best, in my mind,” Knowles said. “There’s the opportunity to be the best. To make across-the-board improvements from what was already an improved defense, but the expectation to be a top-five defense that everyone can count on all the time. And that’s there. I’ve seen enough, been around these guys, Coach Day, Coach Mick, the way they run the program. I saw our secondary in the spring make excellent improvements.”
The key to getting there is having all 11 players on the field comfortable with the defense and understanding the purpose of every call and every situation. Knowles believes they made it about 70-75% of the way there last year, and it was seen on many occasions last season — including against both Michigan and Georgia at times.
Returning as many starters as they do, and with this being the second year in the scheme, there is more that this defense can now do. Though according to Knowles, it’s not necessarily about adding more, it’s about doing what’s already there.
“I think it is less about me implementing more, although that’s always there, right? It’s just a little bit of an injection here or there as they can handle it,” he said. “But it’s more about how the players understand. You want everyone on the defense to know what everyone else does. You want everyone to know where the ball is gonna end up. When I make a call based on the play the offense runs, ‘the ball is gonna go here.’ I mean, that’s as simple as it gets. It looks more complicated, but if you know, because every defense has a hole or an escape hatch or some part of it in it. So that’s how they get better.”
Knowles cites middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg as an example of somebody who understood the defense quickly. He picked up on the purpose of the defense and where the ball would eventually end up, which is why he was able to make so many plays last year.
“I use the word ‘Gretzky’ all the time,” Knowles explained. “You probably heard me say it. But I’m going to keep saying that, because it’s true. ‘Hey Wayne Gretzky, why are you such a great goal scorer?’ ‘It’s because I didn’t go where the puck was. I went where it was going to be.’ So Tommy figured it out a little more quickly maybe than some other guys. That if I made this call, and they ran this play, the ball was going to end up over here. So that’s how you play fast. So when you get 11 guys who can do that, that’s how you get better.”
Knowles believes they can get there, because he saw it happen when he was the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State the prior four seasons.
“Absolutely. That’s the goal. That’s why I do it,” he said. “I think you saw that at the end at Oklahoma State. I mean, there wasn’t a single four-star or five-star guy on that defense, and we were arguably the best in the country if you put all the categories together, maybe within the top three. But everybody understood and everybody was able to play fast.”
Knowles saw signs all throughout spring ball that his defense was playing faster — which meant they had a better understanding of the concepts and why certain plays were being called against certain offenses. The secondary made more plays on passes, windows were closed quickly, and gaps didn’t stay open for long.
All of this has given Knowles confidence things will be better this season, but he readily admits that practice is not how a defense is ultimately measured.
“Nothing counts until you get to the game, right? But when you see guys just get your hands on more balls, just challenge routes. I went through this at Oklahoma State. I do believe it’s real,” he said. “When you play and practice against a high-powered offense with great receivers and quarterback, first-round picks, you get beat in practice. But that can’t be okay. Doesn’t matter who you’re going against, that can’t be okay. And that’s how our own iron on the offense has to sharpen our defensive iron.”