When Jim Knowles arrived at Ohio State prior to the 2022 season, head coach Ryan Day had one thing in mind when he made the hire: Find a way to stop Michigan.
Knowles and the Buckeyes didn’t achieve their goal last season of beating the Wolverines, winning the Big Ten Championship and earning a berth in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
In fact, a stunning 45-23 home loss that saw Michigan score five touchdowns of 45 yards or more led to the Wolverines winning their second-straight game over Ohio State. Knowles said he still feels the sting from the loss.
“I think when you when you live through it and you feel the disappointment, and you take that personally, not personally like you get angry, but personally like you don’t want to let anybody down,” Knowles said. “You don’t want to let the fans down. Most importantly, you don’t want to let our players down so you see how they feel, and you just want to do better.”
Ohio State has made big strides in the department of doing better on defense. This season, the Buckeyes own the No. 3 total defense allowing an average of 252.9 yards per game.
Their rivalry will renew on Saturday when the No. 2 Buckeyes will travel to the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play the No. 3 Wolverines with a spot in the Big Ten Championship on the line.
Knowles said he sees the differences in Ohio State’s defense from last season to this one, and he said a range of factors have went into his adjustments made since last year.
“It’s a long, arduous, grinding process to get here but it’s extremely rewarding,” Knowles said. “I think that’s the job of a leader is to have a vision, to learn from your mistakes, not have an ego which a lot of us coaches do so, you know, maybe not have an ego. What’s best? What happened? How do I fix it? Have a vision of OK, now you have to communicate that, like, you got to get people to buy in. Then you’re selling it for 365 days and you’re growing it and you’re watering it and you’re feeding it and you’re nurturing it and you’re bringing it, you’re showing this is good, this is not good.”
According to CFBStats.com, the Buckeyes have allowed one play from scrimmage to go for 40 yards or more. That’s the fewest in the Big Ten this season, as every other team has allowed at least four.
“It was just a testament to all the hard work we put in all the offseason,” cornerback Denzel Burke said. “Every single day ever since the last game, after Georgia, we had a plan, and every day starting this spring and (we) started being more competitive in the fall, it was just taking care of the situations. And I feel like we’re doing that on the field, and we go against the best every day so it helps a lot.”
Michigan boasts the No. 11 scoring offense in college football averaging 38.3 points per game.
The Wolverines run the ball for 171 yards per game, third-best in the Big Ten. Running back Blake Corum leads the NCAA with 20 rushing touchdowns.
Michigan’s offensive line is also a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award given to the best offensive line in college football, something the Wolverines have won two years in a row, so a combination of offensive prowess is set to test the Buckeyes, Knowles said.
“Their running backs are talented and their offensive line is talented, and so there really is an exactness and a preciseness that our players need to understand, and that’s my job,” Knowles said. “My job is to get them to understand by Saturday and be able to do it fast.”
While Knowles hasn’t narrowed it down to a specific aspect of Michigan’s offense that provides concern, he said “the real balancing act” will be preventing explosive plays in the secondary with not overcommitting and leaving exposed holes in the defense.
Knowles said the Buckeye secondary “better be on high alert” because of the unpredictability of explosive plays, noting it must be “a priority.”
Eliminating explosive plays and playing better defense has been an important topic for Ohio State since the end of last season, and it could go beyond then.
Knowles said the Buckeyes “can’t just turn it on for this game” and must play to their strengths in order to keep their success going. With a reinvigorated defense this season, Ohio State will present a different challenge to Michigan than its last.
“We have to go out and do this, how?” Knowles said. “OK, here are the things that we’re going to do. Here are the specifics of how we’re going to do this, and you sell it to them and you motivate them and they see it. But it’s a long process, but extremely rewarding, and we have to make it pay off for us this Saturday.”