There’s no way to sugar coat what we witnessed today; Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to Oregon was an absolute, top-to-bottom failure of the highest order. For all of the 2020 season, and now for the first two games of the 2021 campaign, the Buckeye defense has looked slow, out of position, nowhere near fundamentally sound, and at every turn out-coached.
The difference between 2020 and 2021 so far has been that last season, OSU had the best quarterback in Ohio State history in Justin Fields to cover up many of the defense’s mistakes. This year, they are relying on an inexperienced, redshirt freshman in C.J. Stroud.
Now, Stroud has been nowhere near perfect and he absolutely missed opportunities against the Ducks that could have changed the outcome of the game, but he was 35-for-54 for a near-record 484 yards and three touchdowns. It would be hard to imagine Ohio State being in the game in the final seconds without. So, if you are calling for Kyle McCord to replace Stroud, I think you’ve got some ulterior motivations there, and if you are actively saying that Quinn Ewers should be on the field, then, friend, you’ve gotta have some sort of financial stake in his career.
The Buck Stops at the Top
So, what the hell happened? Well, it all starts at the top, in my opinion. This one falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. For years, Coombs was a beloved Ohio State assistant, known for his excitement, recruiting prowess, and ability to coach up future first-round draft picks.
After the departure of Jeff Hafley to Boston College following the 2019 season, nearly all Buckeye fans were ecstatic about Coombs’ return to Columbus to become the defensive coordinator. But here’s the thing, in his 37-year coaching career, Coombs had never been a defensive coordinator — not once; not at the high school level, not in college, and not in the NFL.
In 2020, Coombs was paired with veteran DC Greg Mattison, but Coombs was given both the senior title and the responsibility of calling plays. Mattison retired after 2020, and instead of bringing in a young, innovative, up-and-coming defensive mind to collaborate with Coombs, Day decided to maintain the status quo and hire from within and to let Coombs assume the DC job all on his own. This was literally one of the major issues that led to the decline during the Urban Meyer era, and it is very disconcerting that Day did learn from his predecessor’s errors.
That seems to have been a monumental mistake.
As it stands now, the only actual coach on Ohio State’s team that has defensive coordinating experience is Coombs, and he’s only been at it for about a year and a half. This off-season, Day did hire former Pitt/Auburn/Arkansas/Arizona defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads as an analyst, but he is not technically able to coach in his current position.
So, for all the venom that Coombs has rightly gotten on the internet, you’ve got to look at how he got into this position in the first place, and that’s because Day thought that hiring a career position coach to become a first-time coordinator as he approached the age of 60 (Coombs turned 60 on Thursday. Happy birthday, Kerry!) at one of the preeminent football factories in the country was a good idea.
He then thought that, given all of those factors, it was unnecessary to support him with experience or even assistants on the cutting-edge of defensive philosophy.
Therefore, we got what we saw on Saturday (and what we saw all of 2020), a defense that appears designed for a group of players that haven’t been at Ohio State in five to six years and is ill-equipped to make even the most basic of schematic adjustments. They are routinely out of position, they are slow, they refuse to play aggressively, and it appears that Coombs has an allergy to just putting his best athletes on the field and letting them make plays.
I don’t have to tell you this, but the defense is really, really stinking bad, and I don’t know that there is much that can be done in-season to change that. Despite what Twitter and the message boards are already calling for, Coombs isn’t going to get fired this weekend. There very well might be some reshuffling of responsibilities, but I don’t know who on the staff is going to ride in on a white horse and save the day.
We all love Larry Johnson, and he is the associate head coach, but in his 47-year coaching career, he’s never been a coordinator either; Al Washington seems to have enough on his plate trying to get his porous linebacking corps figured out; do you move some coaches around to make Rhoads the co-DC and maybe make current secondary coach Matt Barnes an analyst? I don’t know, but something has to be done.
So, here’s what you do:
Whatever those coaching personnel changes are (if there are any), they need to be done swiftly and decisively. Then, the OSU coaching staff needs to spend the next four weeks completely re-evaluating and rebuilding their defensive scheme and philosophy. I know that I said earlier that you can’t completely change your defensive identity in-season, and you can’t; you need time to install things and for players to get familiar with all of their responsibilities.
But here’s the thing, you don’t need to come up with a completely new defensive plan, you just need to jettison off all of the garbage that has clearly not worked since Coombs got into town. Stop relying on press-man in every situation, stop expecting the front four to beat six-man offensive lines and to sack the quarterback, drill run fits, and figure out how to maintain the edge. Get back to basics.
The Buckeyes have Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, and Maryland over the next four weeks. While with this defense OSU can absolutely not afford to take anyone for granted, they should use this time before the much tougher second half of the season to get stuff figured out.
The defensive staff needs to keep it simple and start trusting their athletes to make plays. Right now, it looks like the Buckeyes are so afraid of giving up big, explosive plays that they have their defenders playing everything so safe that they aren’t able to be the athletic freaks that they are.
At a place like Ohio State, that is unacceptable. The very first point on each and every offensive and defensive game plan for the Buckeyes should be, “Be aggressive.” In nearly every game they play, they will have the best athlete, so let that talent advantage take over. In games when they don’t have a talent advantage, it will be close, and putting pressure on opponents might be enough to make a difference.
The Ohio State Buckeyes should never play passively — period. Yet, that is what we’ve seen from the OSU defense in recent years. In fairness, this predates Coombs. The one year under Hafley, 2019, was an exception to the recent rule that began under Greg Shiano. And if the obviously faulty defensive philosophy is being dictated by Day, then he needs to admit that and make the change.
So, over the next four weeks, the Ohio State coaching staff needs to retrain their athletes (on both sides of the ball), to pin back their proverbial ears and just get after it. The offense was far from great against Oregon, but those felt far more like issues of having a young QB and being up against a talented D, i.e. things you can work through; not the structural and institutional problems that the defensive side of the ball are dealing with.
Specifically on defense, they need to give their best players as many snaps as possible. In the postgame press conference, when asked about why the defense continued to rotate scads and scads of players, Coombs said that they did that because they think they have a lot of talent on the team. Well, Kerry, even if that is the case, when you are in a dog fight to win an absolutely vital game, maybe only play the best you’ve got.
I know that seems like a crazy concept, but when you’re playing a bunch of guys who aren’t good enough to start, and they are getting routinely burned, perhaps focus on just putting the top guys on the field. At least that way if they do get burned, it might only be first or second degree and not the full-body, third-degree burns they’re getting now.
Losing Josh Proctor is going to make things really difficult on the defensive side. I know that the coaching staff loves Bryson Shaw, but “Safety Tuf Borland” can absolutely not be your starting free safety the rest of the season. If Proctor’s injury does keep him out for an extended period of time, just move Ronnie Hickman from the cover safety/bullet and put him at the back of the defense. He hasn’t been perfect this season, but he is the better athlete and already a starter.
Then we need to have a discussion about the linebacking position. Again, I understand that the coaches are high on “Tuf Borland 2.0” Tommy Eichenberg, but he is just not ready to be on the field, let alone to be the starter. Cody Simon needs to be on the field nearly at all times; pair him with Teradja Mitchell and let them get as many reps together as possible.
If it were me, I would then abandon the bullet experiment and have Craig Young play the third LB position. I’m open to keeping the bullet in play, but if you move Hickman to the back of the defense, I’m not sure who you go with other than Young, since it appears that Kourt Williams is injured.
On the defensive line, I’ve been alright with the DT rotation, but on the end positions, I’ve been really surprised how little we’ve seen of Jack Sawyer. Unless there is some reason that he is not an appropriate option at this point, I’d just let him and J.T. Tuimoloau get as many game reps as possible. It’s clear that none of the more veteran ends have the ability to be game-changers, so let the young guys eat and gain experience for the future.
tl;dr: Keep it simple, stupid and play your young talent.
Is Ohio State’s season over? Of course not. Not only is a fifth straight Big Ten title on the line, but there are a lot of eerie similarities between the first two games of this season and those of 2014.
However, the issues we saw today aren’t going to fix themselves. They require a plan and courage that we haven’t seen from the Ohio State coaching staff in a number of years. I like Kerry Coombs. I think that we all owe him a lot for everything that he’s done for the Buckeyes over the years, but he’s in over his head, and that’s more Ryan Day’s fault than it is Coombs’.
So, it is incumbent on Day to fix it and that process absolutely must start now.