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Column: Despite offensive success, Buckeye defense deserves credit too

Sizing up the resurgent Ohio State defensive line.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Ohio State at Indiana Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we approach the Saturday night matchup with Penn State, all we want to talk about is the Buckeye offense. The Bucks are leading the nation in most offensive categories of points and yards. Long-standing offensive records are likely to be broken: Chris Olave is zeroing in on career touchdown receptions, and TreVeyon Henderson has his sights on the freshman rushing and touchdown records.

Sure, Henderson and C.J. Stroud have turned out to be better – much better – than we even hoped for. But we expected the offense to be good. The line was a sure thing, as were the receivers. Just get them the ball and watch them score.

The opener at Minnesota, though, made us worry about the defense. And the Oregon and Tulsa games added befuddlement, frustration, even disgust, to the worry about the defense. But lately, it’s turned around. They were good against Rutgers and Maryland and approaching great against Indiana. So, let’s talk defense.

It all starts with the defensive line. As the season began, the linebackers were all new starters, and I found myself asking about the cornerbacks and safeties, “who was that?” But the line was expected to be solid. Surprisingly, Haskell Garrett was back, and this was to be Zach Harrison’s big year. They would stuff the run, and their pass rush would help out the DBs. Line play in those first three games was surprisingly (maybe unbelievably) bad.

Look at the stats. Minnesota scored 31 points. The Gophers collected 24 first downs, 203 yards rushing, another 205 in the air for 408 total yards. Oregon’s productivity, of course, was even better: 35 points, 27 first downs, 269 yards rushing, 236 yards passing, 505 total yards. Even Tulsa (Tulsa!) scored 20 points and gained over 500 yards on the Buckeye defense. Interestingly, The Golden Hurricane rushed for only 73 yards, the other 428 coming via the pass. Obviously, the OSU line was now stopping the run but still wasn’t applying enough pressure to disrupt Tulsa’s passing attack. The sack number was pathetic, the defense ready for a change.

Coaching changes, scheme changes, personnel changes all went into effect. It seems to have worked. The Indiana stats? 7 points, 10 first downs, 48 rushing yards (1.3 average), 80 yards passing. 128 total yards. As I said, it all starts with the defensive line, and they’re now really clicking.

Associate head coach and defensive line coach Larry Johnson came to Ohio State from rival Penn State in January 2014. He helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship in his first year and has continued to produce star after star. Known, of course, as an excellent recruiter, Johnson is probably even better at developing the talent that he brings in. We know all about Joey and Nick Bosa and Chase Young. They were all Johnson’s players. But so were Michael Bennett (All American, 2014), Adolphus Washington (All American, 2015), Tyquan Lewis (Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, 2016), Sam Hubbard (All American, 2018), and Haskell Garrett (second team All American, 2020).

As the 2021 season began, OSU was committed to playing the veterans. Junior Zach Harrison, senior Tyreke Smith, Jr., junior Javontae Jean-Baptiste, junior Taron Vincent, Jr., grad student Antwuan Jackson, and grad student Garrett were getting most of the snaps. As the season has progressed, two things have happened on the defensive line. 1.) We’ve seen the young players playing a larger role and 2.) the experienced players have gotten better, no doubt pushed for playing time.

Of the three defensive linemen in the 2020 class, Ty Hamilton, a three-star recruit from Pickerington, Ohio, has made a much bigger impact than the two four-star linemen, Darrion Henry-Young and Jacolbe Cowan. Designated as a “Champion” for his efforts, Hamilton had a particularly strong game against the Hoosiers and was especially quick on his pass rush.

In the 2021 class, Johnson brought in four defensive linemen, two tackles and two edge players. Four-star DT Mike Hall, Jr., from Streetsboro, Ohio, was ranked nationally at #53 or 54 and was in the top ten at his defensive line position. Although playing a couple of series against Indiana, he’s seen limited action so far this season, losing his black stripe in late September and accounting for two tackles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Ohio State at Rutgers
Tyleik Williams, ready to launch
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Also joining the Bucks at defensive tackle this season is four-star Tyleik Williams. If you’ve followed my Buckeye Stock Market Reports on LGHL, you’ll know how highly I think of Williams. He’s huge – 6-3 and 330 (at least) – and cat-like quick. He’s second on the team in sacks with four, only a half sack behind team-leader Garrett. His thirteen total tackles rank him fourth among defensive linemen. The least known of these recruits, Williams has been quite a happy surprise. And I’m ready to give him a lot of credit for pushing the junior and senior interior linemen with his spirit and skill.

Two of the stars of the 2021 class were five-star defensive ends/edge rushers J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer. Ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the nation at any position, they were jewels in Ryan Day’s recruiting crown. And they’ve been good.

Seeing more playing time than Sawyer, Tuimoloau has nine tackles, including 2.5 for losses and 1.5 sacks. During the last couple of games, though, he’s been more successful in getting to the opponents’ quarterback; if not an actual sack, his speed and menace create hurries or desperate scrambles. Tuimoloau also is adept at closing in on interior rushing plays. Like all younger players, he needs to be careful about getting sucked in and having the play go wide.

And Sawyer? You’ve got to love Jack Sawyer. He’s a bit smaller than Tuimoloau and probably not as quick. But, man, the motor he’s got. He’s off at the snap and goes full throttle until the whistle. Sawyer’s stats are similar to his classmate’s: 10 total tackles, two sacks.

Three true freshmen making an impact on that defensive front. (Hall will see his day, too.) They’ve all developed quickly, especially Williams, and have all seen considerable playing time. While the coaching and strategy adjustments have no doubt contributed to the defense’s turnaround, I’d like to credit the defensive line play, particularly that of the younger guys. They’re making the plays in their own right and pushing older players into making theirs. Come Saturday night, they’ll all be ready.