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Column: How Ohio State’s defense can stop Alabama’s offense

A potentially depleted defensive line needs to find ways to pressure Mac Jones.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into the College Football Playoff semifinal against the Clemson Tigers, I wrote a column about how I thought that the Ohio State offense could pull the upset in the Sugar Bowl. I said that Ryan Day would need to call a balanced game, both in regards to run vs. pass, but also in Trey Sermon runs vs. Justin Fields runs, and short passes vs. deep passes.

And while that wasn’t exactly a revolutionary thought, for the most part it played out almost exactly that way; at least until Fields had his rib cage dislodged from the rest of his body. Nonetheless, the perfectly balanced game plan led to the Buckeyes absolutely obliterating Dabo’s boys in a 49-28 beat down to advance to CFP National Championship game on Monday, Jan. 11.

For the title game against the Alabama Crimson Tide, I think OSU’s best chance to win is going to hinge on the other side of the ball. Both teams’ offenses have been prolific, and can likely score regularly on any defense in the country. So, it is not about stopping the Alabama offense, because that’s just not going to happen; it’s about finding small ways to slow them down and either turn touchdowns into field goals, quick scores into longer drives, or (heaven forbid) even points into punts.

Now, how is OSU going to do that? Honestly, your bet is as good as mine, but I think that it is fairly well established and accepted that the weakest part of the Buckeye team is their defensive secondary. Against Clemson, not a single Ohio State player graded above 68.4 in coverage, which is not ideal as the defensive backs will now be matching up with the Heisman Trophy winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith and potentially a returning Jalen Waddle, plus a whole host of other explosive offensive weapons who have combined to make ‘Bama the second most prolific Power 5 passing offense this season.

Here’s the thing; I think that defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs can scheme things up a bit in order to create some more favorable matchups, and I have liked how he has been willing to change his personnel; moving Josh Proctor to deep safety and Marcus Williamson to the slot safety where Proctor had played earlier in the season.

However, there is only so much maneuvering that you can do to cover up the issues that this unit has. They are still going to have the same difficulties in coverage and, especially, in tackling that they’ve had all year; those aren’t going away with a single brilliant game plan. But, there is one thing that the OSU defense can do to make things easier on the secondary, and that’s to get pressure on ‘Bama quarterback Mac Jones.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ohio State has had the best pass rush this season across all of college football in terms of applying pressure, however, they are only 34th nationally in sacks per game. The Buckeyes only sacked Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence twice in the Sugar Bowl, but were able to hurry him 15 times and hit him four times. Conversely, in the (Yellow) Rose (of Texas) Bowl, Jones was not sacked and was hurried just 10 times and only hit twice.

It is a surprise to no one that quarterbacks don’t fare as well when they are being pressured as they do with a clean pocket, but this is demonstrably true with Jones. While he has statistically had one of the best seasons for any quarterback in college football history, his numbers do significantly decrease when under pressure.

Against no rush, Jones is completing 79.9% of his passes, however, against pressure he is only at 58.1%. That is obviously a major dip, but for perspective, Fields goes from 81.1% with no pressure to 37.8% under pressure, so Jones is by no means an outlier or extreme in this category. But, when you are looking to slow down an offense as prolific as this one, you have to find advantages in the margins.

Now, Ohio State’s ability to get pressure on Jones is expected to be hampered because of the rumored absence of multiple defensive linemen due to COVID-19 protocols. Of course, we aren’t going to get into the specifics of these rumors until individual players are confirmed to be unavailable — either by the team or their individual social media accounts — but, we also aren’t going to completely ignore what seems to be the growing smoke around these rumors either.

So, if we assume that multiple defensive line starters are out for the game, that means that the remaining linemen will need to continue to get into the backfield without the full complement of options for the Buckeyes. The silver lining of this potential setback is that d-line coach Larry Johnson liberally rotates his linemen throughout the season. So, while his bench might be shorter than normal, at least OSU fans should feel comfortable knowing that the vast majority of players that will be called upon will be experienced.

Keep in mind, against Clemson, the Buckeye defensive line was missing key contributors Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday and yet their remaining linemates were able to have an impact. Depending on who is actually out on the line against Alabama, I could see a situation in which Baron Browning or even Justin Hilliard moves up to act as an edge rusher in certain situations, and I think we could potentially see an end move inside, if need be as well.

Fortunately for Buckeye fans, while the defensive line does not have a star like they have gotten used to in the Bosas and Chase Young, they remain a talented, experienced unit. Despite missing the Sugar Bowl, Harrison and Friday have confirmed on social media that they are in South Florida, so I would assume that they are going to play. One or both of them will need to have a big game if one of the starting ends is out. Harrison is the second-highest graded defensive Buckeye on the season according to PFF (behind Haskell Garrett) and Friday is sixth.

On the inside, I would look for Jerron Cage to step up if one of the regular defensive tackles is unavailable. He graded out as the seventh-best Buckeye in terms of pressure in the Sugar Bowl, while only accounting for 13 snaps. On the season, he ranks as OSU’s 15th best defender, but only has 79 plays under his belt. It would be great to see if he could capitalize on increased playing time in the biggest game of the season.

The bottom line is that Ohio State is up against one of the best teams (if not the best team) that Nick Saban has had in his 14 seasons at Alabama. The Buckeyes absolutely have a roster that is capable of pulling the upset and winning the national title, but they will need to play a game that is even better than what they come up with against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

Making Mac Jones’ day more difficult would absolutely go a long way to achieving their goals, so if the Buckeyes want to play around in some more confetti this year, it just might come down to getting considerable and constant pressure on the Alabama quarterback.