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Why the 2013 Michigan game was the breaking point for Ohio State's leaky pass defense

The Buckeyes' failure to stop the Wolverines through the air brought season-long issues to light and marked the beginning of a three-game horror show for Ohio State's beleaguered pass defense.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, a flawed Ohio State outfit entered a massive game against a team from Michigan sporting a long winning streak.

Sound familiar?

Fresh off a stunning, offense-challenged loss to Michigan State that snapped its 23-game winning streak, Ohio State is spending this week regrouping and attempting to locate answers as it managed just 132 yards of offense Saturday.

On the flip side, leading up to the Michigan game in 2013, Ohio State -- then riding a 23-game win streak to begin the Urban Meyer era -- was surrendering an average of 238 passing yards per game, a mark that would've ranked 76th out of 125 teams. That's not good, but it's not terrible either. Opposing quarterbacks were logging an average rating of 119.9, which would've ranked 36th in the country. More mediocre than good, but not terrible either.

Things turned for the worst in the Michigan game, a contest that kickstarted a three-game catastrophe that forced the first major scheme change of Meyer's tenure in Columbus.

There were signs that the Buckeyes were unraveling in the back half of their defense leading up to the Michigan game. The Buckeyes gave up 371 passing yards to Jared Goff -- then a true freshman -- in a road matchup at California. Against a Sonny Dykes/air raid offense, one is going to yield some yardage, though.

Giving up 295 yards to Wisconsin and Joel Stave was semi-defensible, as Jared Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, one touchdown) enjoyed a monster game vs. future first-round pick Bradley Roby. (Senior safety Christian Bryant fractured his ankle on the penultimate defensive play of the game, ending his season. Bryant's injury forced Pitt Brown into major playing time and cost the Buckeyes one of their lone sure tacklers on defense.)

What's not defensible? Surrendering 343 pass yards and a QB rating of 188.44 (not a misprint) to Northwestern's combination of Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter. That duo averaged over 11 yards per attempt, the highest YPA total for the Wildcats since a win over Rice on Nov. 12, 2011. In the days after this game, Meyer referred to the pass defense's play as "very alarming."

Ohio State would go on to allow 245, 237, 89, 288, and 320 pass yards over its next five games before disaster struck at Michigan against Devin Gardner. Gardner, who regressed badly in 2014 as a senior but actually put up pretty good numbers in 2013, absolutely shredded the Buckeyes through the air, accumulated 451 yards and completed 32 of his 45 pass attempts (71.1 percent). Gardner posted a QB rating of 176.79, so in terms of passing efficiency, Ohio State's pass defense morphed Gardner -- who was really a wide receiver playing quarterback -- into a maize and blue version of Marcus Mariota.

The Buckeyes began the Michigan game by permitting three consecutive scoring drives, with each one featuring a pass play of at least 25 yards. For the game, Gardner and the Wolverines averaged nearly 10 yards per pass. Ohio State's pass defense contributed to Michigan scoring on six of its seven red zone opportunities (all touchdowns) and converting 8-of-14 third downs. The defense wilted in the fourth quarter, as the Wolverines scored three touchdowns and gained 134 of their 167 yards through the air.

Yardage-wise, Michigan was as bad as it got for Ohio State's pass defense in 2013. But the unit continued its slide in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State, capitulating 304 yards, three touchdowns, and a QB rating of 143.59 to Connor Cook.

The pass defense completed its three-game run of decadence against Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, giving up 378 yards and five touchdowns. Boyd connected on 78 percent (!) of his 40 throws and logged a QB rating of 188.13. (It should be noted that Roby missed this game.)

At the end of the season, the final statistics weren't pretty.


Ohio State 2013 Total

National Rank

Opposing QB rating

133.99

84th

Completion %

61.8

T-90th

Passing TDs

31

T-117th

Passing yards/game

268.0

112th

20-yard pass plays

41

T-63rd

40-yard pass plays

11

T-83rd

Passing S&P+

101.2

61st


Note: National ranking out of 125 FBS teams.

The Michigan State game cost Ohio State a national title shot and the Clemson defeat was simply embarrassing, but the pass defense's performance against Michigan dismissed any notion that the unit's performance to that point was a fluke or had somehow improved in the games leading up to the Buckeyes' rivalry game.

Of course, Meyer rectified the problem. Chris Ash was hired away from Arkansas to install his Cover 4 scheme, which stressed press coverage on the boundaries, a natural fit for Ohio State's physically gifted defensive backs. The Buckeyes also re-taught/reemphasized fundamentals across the board, and the improvement by the pass defense as well as the defense as a whole over the past two seasons has pushed both units into elite territory.

Now, it's time to see if the 2015 Buckeyes can sort out their offensive issues or if additional subpar performances to usher in change in the offseason.