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Column: Keep Calm and Accept the Frustratingly Porous Defense

Gone are the days of “bend but don’t break” defenses. We are now living in the era of “boom or bust” D.

Make no mistake about it, the Ohio State coaching staff is made up of some of, if not the, best in the business at their individual specialties (except for Bill Davis). So Buckeyes fans should absolutely expect that Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch, and the rest of the defensive coaching staff will find ways to coach ‘em up the rest of this year and address the defense’s penchant for giving up big plays; the defense will undoubtedly get better in the second half of the season.

The only problem is that they probably won’t get a lot better. Now, we can quibble over what “a lot” means in this context, but we are halfway through the regular season now, and— for the most part— what you see is what you are ultimately going to get from this Buckeye football team.

For a lot of reasons, it would be foolish to expect a team that has given up 20 plays of 30 yards or more (121st best in the country) through six games to all of a sudden turn into a reincarnation of the best Silver Bullet units in program history. Will they get incrementally better each week? Absolutely, the players and coaches are too good not to.

However, will they ever be completely rid of the danger of giving up a 95-yard touchdown every time Drue Chrisman pins an opponent in the shadow of their own goal line? Probably not. So, as fans, we need to keep calm and accept this frustratingly porous defense.

Not only is it logical to understand that this is probably the lot that we are stuck with for this season— and to a lesser degree, moving forward— but it will also make enjoying the fact that Dwayne Haskins is arguably the greatest passing quarterback in Ohio State history a heck of a lot much easier to enjoy.

It was bound to happen

Over the past three NFL drafts, 15 Ohio State defenders have been selected. At some point, no matter how good the recruiting is, when a college football program loses that much talent (not to mention those that have signed as undrafted free agents) eventually you are going to stumble across a crop of replacements that doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by the previous groups.

Now, there will certainly be more than a fair share of Buckeyes drafted off of this season’s defensive unit, but outside of the defensive line, there aren’t many that you would want to put money on succeeding at the next level. For the most part, they are just too young to really know how good that can be at either the college or professional level.

There are currently 20 underclassman listed on Ohio State’s defensive two-deep depth chart, including four starters; the other eight (including one set of co-starters) are all juniors, so they all certainly have time to develop. But to any casual observer, I think that it is fair to say that the back-seven of this Buckeye defense isn’t of the same caliber that many of their predecessors have been; and that is what is primarily leading to the recent rash of chunk-playitis.

And while I certainly expect that, via technique improvements and scheme adjustments, the coaches will be able to fix some of the problems plaguing the defense, they simply won’t have the practice time to fix them all. With injuries on the defensive side of the ball mounting up, players will continue to be held out of more and more practices as a precaution moving forward.

Then, factor in that as the season goes on, traditionally the practices become less and less about full-pad, full-speed drills, and more about assignment walk-throughs and technique drills, and it becomes difficult to make major adjustments when the practice time allotted.

So, we will most certainly see improvements on the defensive side of the ball between now and The Game on Nov. 24, but don’t expect a 180 degree turnaround this season.

(I am saying this knowing full well that I also authored this tweet earlier in the week)

It’s a whole new era

Ten seasons ago, in 2009, Jim Tressel’s Ohio State defense led the then-11 team Big Ten by allowing only 262.3 yards per game; a finish that they repeated in 2010 with 261.9 ypg. Since then, the Buckeyes have allowed under 300 yards per contest in only one season, when they finished second in the B1G in 2016 with 296.1 yards allowed. Thus far in 2018, the Buckeyes are giving up 365.17 yards per game; more than 100 more than they did 10 seasons ago.

As you can see in the table below, in the first three years following the departure of Tressel from the program, Luke Fickell (2011) and Urban Meyer’s (2012-13) squads saw an increase in the plays and yards per play allowed, but after Meyer was able to get his own players in, those numbers normalized a bit, even though they have never again approached what they were in 2009-10.

Ohio State Defense 2009-2018

Season Games Plays Allowed Plays Allowed/Game Yards Allowed Yards Allowed/Game YPG B1G Rank
Season Games Plays Allowed Plays Allowed/Game Yards Allowed Yards Allowed/Game YPG B1G Rank
2009 13 826 63.54 3,410 262.31 1
2010 13 789 60.69 3,405 261.92 1
2011 13 831 63.92 4,206 323.54 5
2012 12 849 70.75 4,315 359.58 6
2013 14 1,000 71.43 5,284 377.43 7
2014 15 1,032 68.80 5,136 342.40 5
2015 13 899 69.15 4,047 311.31 3
2016 13 882 67.85 3,849 296.08 2
2017 14 948 67.71 4,213 300.93 4
2018 6 404 67.33 2,191 365.17 8

However, that is obviously not because Meyer’s defensive staff has never been as good as Tressel’s. The increase in the number of plays— and in turn, yards— allowed by the OSU defense is actually by design. With the implementation of Meyer’s spread philosophy, often using tempo and no-huddle, the Buckeye offense has seen an unbelievable rise in plays and yards in recent years; meaning that the opposing offenses have had more opportunities as well.

In 2011— Tressel’s final year in Columbus— with a team that featured Braxton Miller, Daniel “Boom” Herron, Carlos Hyde, DeVier Posey, Devin Smith, Corey “Philly” Brown, and Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State finished 11th in the Big Ten with only 317.92 yards of total offense per game. Through six games seven seasons later, the Buckeyes are besting that by nearly 250 yards per game this year.

But, like the increase in the number of yards and plays that OSU has allowed, the increased offensive productivity is just another byproduct of one final, all-important stat. In 2011, Ohio State averaged just 62.08 offensive snaps per game. This year, halfway through the regular season, they are on pace to best that by more than 12.5 plays per game; and considering that the Buckeyes are scoring a touchdown every 12.74 offensive plays, that equates to an extra touchdown per game generated solely by how quickly the offense is playing; and that’s not even factoring out garbage time when the play-calling purposely slows down the juggernaut offense.

Ohio State Offense 2009-2018

Season Games Plays Plays/Game Yards Yards/Game YPG B1G Rank
Season Games Plays Plays/Game Yards Yards/Game YPG B1G Rank
2009 13 879 67.62 4,797 369.00 8
2010 13 896 68.92 5,832 448.62 2
2011 13 807 62.08 4,133 317.92 11
2012 12 837 69.75 5,085 423.75 3
2013 14 1,003 71.64 7,167 511.93 1
2014 15 1,009 67.27 7,674 511.60 1
2015 13 892 68.62 5,643 434.08 3
2016 13 992 76.31 5,969 459.15 1
2017 14 1,029 73.50 7,084 506.00 1
2018 6 484 80.67 3,394 565.67 1

This is the strategy now, not only in Columbus, but across college football. The days of holding competent, middle-of-the-road opponents to less that 250 yards of offense and flirting with shutouts into the fourth quarter are mostly a thing of the past. And thank goodness for that. At least from a fan’s perspective, sure, it’s awesome for Ohio State to pitch a shutout, but across college football in general, give me all of those sweet, sweet points, baby.

So, my suggestion to fans (myself included) who routinely get angry by OSU’s inability to not give up massively avoidable chunk plays is that rather than clinging to the way that college football used to be played, it might be time for us to reassess what we expect from our defenses. Thanks to the law of large numbers, gone are the days of “bend but don’t break” defenses. We are now living in the era of “boom or bust” D.

In closing, I will leave you with this meme that I will likely have to remind myself of multiple times today, as Minnesota has another dozen or so plays of more than 30 yards.