Coming into Ohio State’s game against Western Kentucky on Saturday, the expectations outside the program were that the Buckeyes were likely going to give up some points and yards to the Hilltoppers’ fast-paced passing attack.
After all, this was going to be the first real passing attack they had seen. Starting the season against run-based attacks like Indiana and Youngstown State didn’t really give anybody a good look at how the Buckeyes would handle the complete opposite from WKU.
There wasn’t necessarily a concern that Ohio State would be in any kind of danger, but just that yards were a given because you can’t play against that kind of hectic attack without making some mistakes.
And given some missed tackles and bad angles the week prior against Youngstown State, a few more mistakes in this game would not have been unusual.
But none of that happened, which means that maybe it’s the Buckeye defense that’s unusual.
Ohio State’s defense held a Western Kentucky passing offense that led the nation in yards the last two years to just 204 yards on Saturday. They also held them to just 10 points, which is the lowest total for the Hilltoppers since the 2020 season.
The Buckeyes weren’t perfect in this game, but perfection was never going to happen. Defenders were going to be put on islands all game long, but those defenders built huts, made some coconut drinks, and enjoyed a nice day at the beach.
Cornerback Denzel Burke broke up a pair of passes as teams continue to throw at him for some reason. You may as well call him “Double Yellow Lines” because there is no passing allowed when he’s around. Burke has broken up four passes and intercepted another. And let’s not forget his forced fumble on Saturday that led to a touchdown recovery for defensive tackle Tyleik Williams.
Ohio State’s secondary came into this game with questions. Free safety Josh Proctor has always been known as a big hitter, but it was his coverage on Saturday that made the biggest impact. He also had a pair of pass breakups, including coverage on a deep shot to the ultra-productive Malachi Corley.
Corley had 101 catches for 1,293 yards in 2022, so the Buckeyes were well aware of what was coming to town on Saturday. Western Kentucky moved Corley all around and tried to get him the ball in every way they could. He matched up with just about every member of the Ohio State secondary, but posted an unmemorable eight catches for 88 yards, including WKU’s lone touchdown.
There were also questions coming into this game about how Sonny Styles would match up with this offense. Against Youngstown State, the game plan defensively had Styles being replaced by Jordan Hancock at nickel on passing downs. Given that every down is essentially a passing down against Western Kentucky, it wasn’t exactly known how much Styles would play. But he did play, and he was matched up a number of times against Corley. He handled his own, just like everybody else.
Styles’ ability to defend a dangerous receiver like Corley was definitely a question coming into this game, but he answered in the affirmative repeatedly.
But he also had help from another question mark — the Ohio State defensive line’s ability to pressure the quarterback.
The Buckeyes only sacked the Western Kentucky quarterbacks twice in this game, but that was two more times than they’d been sacked this season. It was also the first time in five games that the Hilltoppers had allowed any sacks at all.
While the Ohio State defense may not have tackled WKU quarterback Austin Reed in the backfield much, they certainly harassed him to the point that he will be leaving a poor review about the service on Ohio Stadium’s Yelp page.
“Staff was extremely rude. Just trying to have a nice Saturday afternoon with my buddies. Would not recommend.”
You may look at the box score and not see much from defensive ends JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, but Austin Reed saw them both plenty.
As the pocket kept collapsing, he had to do more ducking than Michigan during COVID.
The Buckeyes also tackled well on the day. And the home run shots that were almost part of the game plan last year have been eschewed in favor of a bit more security.
To this point it has led to a defense that is No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (6.7 ppg), No. 3 in number of plays of 10+ yards allowed (21), No. 5 in number of plays of 20+ yards allowed (5), No. 8 in pass efficiency defense (93.79), No. 3 in total defense (223.7 ypg), and No. 2 in yards per play allowed (3.63).
But now comes the biggest test yet.
The Buckeyes will be in South Bend on Saturday for the biggest matchup of the weekend.
The Irish are ninth nationally in scoring at 46 points per game. They will test Ohio State in all of the ways they’ve already been tested — but with harder questions, and will also add a play-action game that will require even more discipline from this Buckeye secondary.
Will Ohio State be up to the challenge?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Buckeye defense so far this year it’s that they’re pretty good test takers.
And they started studying for this one long before the Western Kentucky game.