What Has Happened to Ohio State’s Defense?

Last Saturday, Oregon walked into Columbus and beat Ohio State for the first time in program history. Prior to Saturday, Oregon was 0-9 against Ohio State including a loss in the 2014 National Championship, as well as a loss in the 2009 Rose Bowl.

While the final score of 35-28 might not seem like a bad loss from the Ohio State perspective, the problem was that Ohio State was trailing the whole game. It didn’t feel like a one-score game. Ohio State never led. After Oregon’s opening drive of the third quarter it was 21-7 Oregon. Then later it was 28-14 Oregon, then it was 35-21 Oregon. Ohio State was playing catch-up all game long.

Plus, Oregon ran for 269 yards in the game on 7.1 yards per carry. That does not happen to Ohio State, ever. Ohio State usually does that to people, not the other way around.

And on top of what happened in the game itself, there’s also the fact that Ohio State had some trouble with Minnesota in week 1, winning 45-31 but looking shaky on defense. Go back to last season, they got blown out by Alabama in the National Championship game 52-24. I know Alabama was an unstoppable juggernaut last season, and Ohio State was missing some key players, but Ohio State’s defense looked completely lost in that game. Alabama did whatever they wanted. Ohio State couldn’t do a thing against them. It felt like Bama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was running circles around the Ohio State defense.

So that’s the context here. It wasn’t just the loss to Oregon. It was allowing Minnesota to put up points and stay in the game. It was getting walloped by Alabama. Ohio State fans are now looking at three straight games where it didn’t quite feel like the Ohio State football they’re used to.

By any objective measure, Ohio State has more talent than Oregon. Talent is not the issue. Ohio State is ranked #3 in the nation in the composite rankings, Oregon is #9. Oregon has four 5-star recruits on their team, Ohio State has 15. There’s a reason Ohio State was favored by 14.5 points going into the game: they had the edge in talent, they’re historically a better program, and they were at home. This is why a lot of Ohio State fans are pointing the finger at the coaching staff: what other explanation could there be? If you have elite talent and the team doesn’t perform to that talent level, it has to be a coaching problem.

In my view, there were three key reasons Ohio State lost that game, but one looms large as the Achilles’ Heel of that football team. Let’s go over the three reasons.

1. Ohio State is breaking in a new quarterback, CJ Stroud. I know people are going to dump on him and say he’s not the real deal, but pump the brakes here: he’s following up Justin Fields. CJ Stroud isn’t Justin Fields. Nobody is. You don’t just find QBs like Justin Fields every couple of years. Justin Fields was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, and we shouldn’t hold it against Stroud that he’s not as good as Justin Fields.

And it’s not like Stroud was that bad, either. He was 35/54 for 484 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Of course that one INT was extremely costly, as it came late in the game as Ohio State was driving and trying to tie the game up. It was the back-breaker.

The worst part about that INT was that Stroud sailed the ball on his receiver, which is a bad habit he’s shown in his first couple of games this season. He sailed the ball on the first 4th down fail on the first drive of the game. It’s always worse when you can kind of see the disaster coming. Like, if Stroud got sacked from behind and lost a fumble, fine; it’s hard to blame a QB for that. But if you’ve been watching your QB sail the ball over his receivers heads on multiple occasions, and then he throws a game-ending INT after sailing the ball over his receiver’s head, you die a little inside.

Still, though: Stroud can play. He’s a good quarterback. It was his second game ever as a college QB and he was asked to throw it 54 times against a top-10 team. I know expectations at Ohio State are sky-high and fans expect him to be Heisman-candidate from day one, but there is a learning process here. Stroud is a capable QB and will keep getting better as the season progresses. It’s hard for me to place a lot of blame on him for losing that game.

2. Coming up short in critical moments: Ohio State outgained Oregon 612-505 in that game. Ohio State was moving the ball up and down the field, so how did they only manage to score 28 points? Well, they were 2-5 on 4th down plays. That tells you two things. The first is that going for it 5 times on 4th down is a lot. That’s not normal, and it indicates Ryan Day had no faith in his defense to get a stop. The second thing it tells us is that Ohio State isn’t good in short yardage situations. They turned it over on downs on their first possession of the game, a 4th & 7 from the Oregon 31. Then they turned it over on downs late in the 2nd quarter, this time a a 4th & 2 from the Oregon 39 that got stuffed for no gain. Finally they got stopped on a 4th & 2 at the Oregon 8 yard line on an incomplete pass.

So those were three drives that easily could’ve–and probably should’ve–ended with points for Ohio State, and they came away with nothing.

It wasn’t even just the failed 4th down conversions, either. It was failing to execute on third down as well. Somehow Ohio State had 612 yards of offense on only 6-15 third down conversions. Twice on big third downs in the first quarter, Ohio State receivers failed to hold on to the ball after contact when catching the ball would’ve been a first down.

As effective as the stat sheet says Ohio State’s offense was in the game, football games often boil down to a few critical moments, and Ohio State’s offense failed to get the job done in those moments against Oregon.

However, you can’t lay the blame for that loss on the offense. Even if you didn’t watch the game at all, you could take a look at the box score and figure out what the problem was pretty easily:

3. The defense. Sure, Ohio State was missing some players on defense, like top senior cornerback Sevyn Banks, and starting safety Josh Proctor, who didn’t start the game due to a shoulder injury then was knocked out of the game with a leg injury in the third quarter (which turned out to be a broken leg which will keep him out for the season). But as far as I know, they were healthy on the defensive line, and they still got gashed on the ground. They have very inexperienced linebackers after losing Pete Werner, Baron Browning and Tuf Borland to the NFL, and it really showed.

Again: 269 rushing yards allowed, 7.1 yards per carry, and for the second straight game, they allowed the opposing team’s primary back to rack up over 160 yards. Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim racked up 161, and CJ Verdell had 162. Verdell had a 77-yard TD run early in the third quarter.

The defense also allowed a 99 yard TD drive in the first quarter. You just cannot have that.

0 sacks in the game. Only 1 TFL. Just 5 QB hurries the whole game. The defensive line wasn’t getting pressure.

The thing about Ohio State is that Ryan Day is an offensive genius, but he really doesn’t have a ton of defensive experience, so he leans heavily on his defensive coordinators and gives them a lot of autonomy. Sometimes it works, like in 2019 when Ohio State had Jeff Hafley as defensive coordinator: they were elite on defense, ranking 4th nationally in total defense. Hafley is now the head coach at Boston College. (It’s also true that the 2019 Ohio State defense was absolutely loaded: Chase Young, Jordan Fuller, Damon Arnette, Jeff Okudah just to name a few guys.)

After Hafley left, Day promoted longtime secondary coach Kerry Coombs to defensive coordinator. Coombs has always been a beloved position coach, a tremendous recruiter and a great “culture guy” inside the program, but people are now starting to question whether he can really get the job done as defensive coordinator. The Ohio State defense wasn’t special last season (not only the Bama game, but also the Indiana game; they ranked 44th nationally in total defense), and it is clearly not good this season. They currently rank 110th nationally in defense, which is simply unacceptable when you have as much talent as Ohio State does.

They’re allowing 5.4 yards per carry this season. Last year they only allowed 3.4 ypc. 2019, 3.0 ypc. This is by far the worst run defense Ohio State has had, surpassing the much-maligned 2018 defense, which allowed 4.6 ypc for the season.

It was just a complete breakdown on defense and it lasted the whole game. The Ohio State defense looked not only soft, but lost the whole game. It was basic stuff, too. Joel Klatt, who called the game with Gus Johnson, was on Colin Cowherd yesterday and elaborated:

“The problem was the execution of their players. You talk about getting out of your gap as a linebacker; the corner not falling off on a crack-back and becoming the support player. These are like “101” type of deals, and the players didn’t do them at all. The safety took terrible angles and he was late reacting.

It was like the Ohio State defense simply had no idea what was going on, all game long. They couldn’t set the edge at all. It was clear something was wrong with the defense.

And there were no adjustments made, either. It was as if Ohio State simply figured they’d just be able to outscore Oregon and win with offense only.

The good news for Ohio State is that their offense is highly functional. While there may be some question marks about CJ Stroud, I saw him make some great passes in that game. We shouldn’t only focus on the bad passes he made, even if one did kinda decide the game. He threw for 484 yards, after all, and made lots of plays.

The Ohio State offense has studs all over the place. They have two good running backs in Miyan Williams and the 5-star freshman sensation Treyveon Henderson, who is going to be a problem for opposing defenses for the next few years–hell, he’s already a problem.

The Buckeye receivers might be the best group in the nation, with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming. They have a good group of tight ends headlined by Jeremy Ruckert as well. And the offensive line is great: sure, there were 2 sacks allowed, but one was on the last play of the game. Overall, the Buckeye offensive line only allowed 1 QB hurry. Klatt says they have a lot of NFL talent on the O-Line. Stroud generally had clean pockets, and it’s a big part of the reason he was able to pass for 484 yards.

So the offense is elite. There were definitely execution issues on those fourth downs, and a few dropped key passes on third down, but you’re never going to play a perfect game. CJ Stroud is going to keep getting better as he gets more games and snaps under his belt. And the offense probably wouldn’t have even been in those 4th down conversion situations if the defense was playing anywhere near reliably.

Plus, with the defense flailing, it takes Ryan Day’s attention, energy and brainpower away from the offense.

The defense is the problem. It is the root of the problems the 2021 Ohio State Buckeyes face.

It’s hard to even point to one unit on that defense that held up well, either. Generally if you have a unit that is highly productive–be it your linebackers, your defensive line, or your secondary–you can build around that unit and develop a defensive identity. But I didn’t see any unit on the Ohio State defense that looked special.

Fortunately, Ohio State has a lot of talent on defense, so it’s possible the problems can be fixed this season.

The question is, do they have guys on the coaching staff that can come up with a solution? It’s not all on Kerry Coombs’ shoulders, that loss. Ryan Day deserves some of the blame as well. After all, he’s the head coach. It’s on the coaching staff, and it’s also on the players as well for not executing and playing well.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, given the talent on the roster, it was a matter of poor scheme, preparation and playcalling, which ultimately traces back to the defensive coordinator.

Ohio State has in many ways been a victim of its own success over the past several years. They’re so successful that they can never hold on to their assistant coaches. For the first 5 years of Urban Meyer’s tenure as head coach, he had Luke Fickell as his defensive coordinator. But then Luke Fickell got offered the head coaching job at Cincinnati. Ohio State also had Chris Ash as the co-defensive coordinator with Fickell for the 2014 National Championship season as well as 2015, but then Chris Ash was hired away to be the head coach at Rutgers.

Jeff Hafley was only the defensive coordinator for one season, 2019, before he was offered a head coaching job. His co-defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, retired after that season because he’s in his 70s. After 2018, Ohio State lost Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch, who were the team’s co-defensive coordinators.

Ever since Fickell left, it has been a revolving door at defensive coordinator for Ohio State. The offense used to have the same problem after offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who was OC from 2012-2014, left following the National Championship season. Ohio State’s offense has been in the highly capable hands of Kevin Wilson (and obviously Day) for the past 4 years, and they’ve been tremendously successful. But there was a period of time (2016 comes to mind, 2017 a bit as well) where the offense was the weak link, and the revolving door at coordinator had a lot to do with it.

Clemson doesn’t seem to have this problem. Brent Venables has been Clemson’s defensive coordinator since 2012. Tony Elliott has been Clemson’s offensive coordinator since 2015. Clemson’s coaching staff is way more stable than Ohio State’s. For whatever reason, they’re better at holding on to their guys long term.

However, Bama has to deal with a ton of coaching staff turnover every year, probably even more than Ohio State does. They’ve got a revolving door at offensive coordinator: over the past 5 years, they’ve cycled through Lane Kiffin, Brian Daboll, Mike Locksley, Josh Gattis, Steve Sarkisian, although like Ohio State they’ve often run a co-coordinator system, so not all those guys were sole offensive coordinators. Bama has had a bit more stability at the defensive coordinator position lately after losing Kirby Smart in 2016 (had been Saban’s DC since 2008), but then again defense is Saban’s area of expertise so that doesn’t really matter as much.

Coaching turnover never really seems to affect Bama as long as they have ol’ Nick at the helm, but that’s the problem for Ohio State: there’s only one Nick Saban. He’s a unique situation. His teams are always the best in the nation no matter what. Not even Urban Meyer could overcome the constant coaching turnover.

Ohio State has to find “the guy” that can make the defense work. They have tons of talent on the roster, so it’s inexcusable for their defense to be performing this poorly. Whether they can do it in time to save their season is the real question.

A non-conference loss to a top-10 team early in the season is not a killer for Ohio State. They can still turn it around and win the Big Ten and make a run at the playoff.

But if they don’t get that defense fixed, they have no hope of winning the Big Ten. They have 5 games between now and their October 30 matchup with Penn State to tinker and tweak things. Those 5 games are against Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. Indiana gave them a lot of problems last season, so that game shouldn’t be viewed as a layup, either.

If they don’t make significant strides on defense, they’ll be hard pressed to even seriously contend for the Big Ten East division title.

Now, again, Ohio State is clearly the most talented team in the conference and shouldn’t just be written off. And for how much criticism Ohio State is getting in the wake of the loss to Oregon, they only lost by a touchdown and were driving late in the game to tie it up. As bad as the defense was, that was still a winnable game.

So maybe we shouldn’t overreact too much.

But I think where the “overreaction” stems from is, if you play that poorly on defense against Oregon, sure, you’ll probably lose a close one. But if you play that badly against Bama, you’re going to lose by 30 (again).

Ohio State is a program that has National Title hopes every season. They expect excellence at all times. And when the team falls short of excellence, all hell breaks loose.

This is the kind of pressure Nick Saban puts on every other program.

By the way, speaking of other programs, it’s hard out there for a top-25 program:

2007 all over again?

If the upsets continue at this rate, everybody’s going to have a loss. And then this Oregon loss won’t seem like as big a deal.

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