Following last week's game against Northwestern, head coach Urban Meyer described Ohio State's pass defense as "alarming." That's not exactly a vote of confidence.
It's interesting, because the Buckeyes' secondary was not hit nearly as hard as Ohio State's front seven following the 2012 season, when seven of eleven defensive starters either graduated, or left for the NFL. The only question mark in the defensive backfield was created by the departure of cornerback Travis Howard. Safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett and cornerback Bradley Roby all returned to their starting positions.
The Buckeyes pass defense was not terrible through the first four games of the season, which, not coincidentally, was a pretty easy slate of games. In each of their first four games, they held opponents to fewer yards per game than each has averaged all season. Even the Cal Bears, who have a ridiculously prolific passing offense, threw for 371 yards against Ohio State, compared to the ludicrous 503.25 yards per game they are averaging over the course of this season.
The games against Wisconsin and Northwestern were different stories. Both the Badgers and the Wildcats threw for more yards against the Buckeyes than they are averaging so far this season. The Badgers have averaged 217.4 passing yards and 1.6 touchdowns per game, and exceeded both of those averages against Ohio State. Quarterback Joel Stave finished the day with 295 passing yards and two passing touchdowns.
Northwestern was even more lopsided in terms of their performance against Ohio State compared with their per-game averages. Quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter have combined to average 255.6 passing yards per game, and an average of 1.8 passing touchdowns per game. Against Ohio State, the duo put up 343 passing yards, and two passing touchdowns. The Northwestern game was also the first game that safety Christian Bryant was not on the field, after suffering a broken ankle in the final moments against Wisconsin, which certainly didn't help.
And, Ohio State's secondary has been susceptible to giving up the big play. Against the best offenses they have faced thus far in 2013, Cal, Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Buckeyes have given up a handful of completions of more than 40 yards, including a 61 yard catch against Cal, a 64 yard reception against Wisconsin, and a 67 yard catch against Northwestern.
The bad news for the Buckeyes, in light of their pass defense performances against Wisconsin and Northwestern, is that the passing offenses they will face from here on out are generally pretty good. Wisconsin is currently ranked sixth in the Big Ten for passing offense, and Northwestern is ranked fourth. Except for Iowa and Purdue, the remainder of Ohio State's 2013 slate is ranked first (Indiana), second (Illinois), third (Penn State), and fifth (Michigan) in the Big Ten for passing offense, respectively.
So, how do the Buckeyes correct their weakness against the pass? Well, even though the secondary is a huge factor, particularly in terms of giving up explosive plays, it all starts with the front seven and pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Buckeyes only sacked Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata once. They sacked San Diego State's quarterbacks three times, and held them to seven points. The Buckeyes sacked Cal quarterback Jared Goff, a true freshman, three times, but they weren't able to bring consistent pressure throughout the game. They sacked Florida A&M's Damien Fleming and backup Carson Royal once each.
Against Wisconsin, Ohio State's pressure was able to get to Joel Stave twice for sacks, but they were over-pursuing quite a bit, which limited their effectiveness. Against Northwestern, in the second quarter, Trevor Siemian was sacked by Jamal Marcus on third and goal from the Buckeyes' nine yard line, and the loss of three yards forced Northwestern to settle for a field goal. In the third quarter, a Noah Spence and Michael Bennett sack on Siemian on third and goal from the Buckeyes seven yard line lost eight yards for the Wildcats, forcing another field goal on fourth-and-15. Siemian was sacked a total of five times against the Buckeyes.
The front seven have to bring consistent pressure to disrupt opposing offenses, but maintain enough balance to continue their success against the run. Head coach Urban Meyer also says that the keys to improved pass defense are not playing soft coverage, and not missing tackles. Those are scheme and fundamentals issues, respectively, and can be corrected.
At this point, the pass defense looks like the biggest obstacle to the Buckeyes continuing their undefeated streak, but they have managed to win their last two games, against good opponents in the Badgers and the Wildcats, despite not looking great against the pass. Ohio State's schedule for the remainder of 2013 is not difficult in terms of the overall strength of the opponents, but for the most part, they will be facing teams who can be effective passing the ball. They'll need to bring pressure, play smart coverage, limit mistakes, and keep being lucky to continue this level of success.