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Column: Rose Bowl should make Ohio State fans confident about 2022 improvement

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We also look at what a new coaching staff could do for the defense.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One Venture X - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Holy shit! I still have not yet fully processed what we watched on Saturday evening in the Rose Bowl. To go from a demoralizing defensive effort in the first half coupled with a solid offensive output to a mind-bogglingly historic passing/receiving performance and a shockingly rock solid second half defensive showing was the best kind of rollercoaster ride that I’ve ever experienced.

But in the moments following the final whistle, as we started to see the postgame interviews with players and coaches, my excitement over the absolutely silly nature of the game that we had just witnessed began to transition into an optimism for the 2022 season that I hadn’t had for most of the season.

I have written multiple times over the past few months about my apprehension around some of the on and off-field decisions that Ryan Day has made in the first three years of his Ohio State head coaching tenure. While I still believe that he is absolutely the right guy to lead the program for the foreseeable future, I put a lot of the blame for the underwhelming elements of the last two seasons squarely on his shoulders as the man responsible for assembling the staff that has underperformed for far too long.

But what I saw in the second half of the Rose Bowl — especially on defense — gave me an unexpected lift of confidence in the potential of next season. Obviously no one is surprised that Jaxon Smith-Njigba would be able to fully assume the WR1 role, and seeing guys like Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming having success with increased targets is encouraging as well.

And I hope that at this point that it goes without saying (even though I’m going to say it anyway), but C.J. Stroud is the real deal, and anyone who doesn’t see that simply doesn’t want to see it. Dude is every bit as legit as Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields.

But what was the most exciting for me was what we saw from the defense after halftime, and not simply because they went from giving up 35 points and 324 yards in the first 30 minutes to only 10 and 139 after the break. It was that they were able to make the change seemingly because of sheer want-to.

In his postgame comments, Day said that the defense “made up their mind that they were going to play different,” and then he simply got out of their way so that they could do it. Multiple players said that it was Demario McCall who spoke to the team at halftime and inspired the turnaround.

In my not so humble opinion (and what I’ve been arguing for all season), this is what the coaches should have been doing from the beginning; clearly the schemes, rotations, and personnel decisions weren’t working, but when the coaches just let the players go out and play, they had success. I mean, it certainly wasn’t perfect, and the tackling left a shit load to be desired, but the players did what they needed to do.

These defensive players are athletic, passionate, and capable if allowed to do what they do best. We already know that as of Sunday, Ohio State will have a new defensive coordinator in former Oklahoma State DC Jim Knowles; what we don’t know is who will make up the rest of the 2022 defensive staff — we’ll get more into that shortly.

From all reports out of Stillwater, Knowles is an enigmatic guy who revels in the mad schematic scientist image that he works hard to cultivate. He apparently spends the first two days of every game week locked in his office devising a game plan to put his players in the best possible position to succeed that week, and let’s be honest, it has been a long time since the Ohio State defenders have been within shouting distance of the best possible position to do anything.

So when reflecting on the second half of the Rose Bowl, I realized that if the defensive players were able to give that type of effort and get those second half type of results with bad coaching, they could maybe, possibly be potentially above average next season with a DC and staff that actually knows what they’re doing.

Of course, that brings us to the question of whether or not the 2022 defensive coaching staff will, in fact, know what they are doing.

It was reported postgame that co-defensive coordinator Matt Barnes is leaving the OSU staff to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis. So that means that with the addition of Knowles, Day is currently back to having the maximum 10 assistant coaches allowed by NCAA rule. But, friends, Barnes simply cannot be the only coach to be putting his home in Columbus up for sale.

I am generally uncomfortable calling for anyone to lose their job for anything short of moral or ethical failings, but with the season over and a new defensive coordinator coming in, I think it’s time for dramatic changes on that side of the ball for the Buckeyes.

I know that this is going to be controversial, and I’m prepared for that, but I believe that Knowles should completely clean house and build an entirely knew staff in his image and likeness. I could make arguments that certain guys should be retained (first and foremost Larry Johnson), but this defense — and Ryan Day’s program — need a complete reset in order to establish an identity all their own.

Most importantly, Knowles will be implementing a completely new defensive system and I think that it will be important for him to bring in a guy or two that he has worked with before so that someone else on the staff has experience teaching this new system.

I also find it hard to identify a defensive position group that has lived up to anything close to expectations over the last two years. Whether that is because the coaches’ voices just aren’t resonating anymore or they are ill-suited for their current assignments, I don’t know, but I do believe that it’s time to bring in a new batch of coaches with a fresh perspective.

Starting at the top, Knowles served as the Cowboys’ DC and linebackers coach, and I would be comfortable him doing the same for the Buckeyes. That of course would mean allowing Al Washington to find a gig somewhere else. Washington seems like a great guy and players seem to like him, but the linebacking play has been substandard since his arrival in Columbus, so I’m more than comfortable turning that room over to someone else, be it Knowles or someone else.

Now, I am a gigantic fan of Larry Johnson and everything that he’s done and what he stands for, so if any defensive coach stays, I would clearly want it to be him. But despite some incredibly highly rated recruits in recent years, the defensive line has been frankly disappointing post-Chase Young. So while I can’t see Day giving LJ his walking papers, if the literal living legend decided that now was the time to call it a career, I would wish him well, but welcome a new voice to lead the defensive line room.

I could also get behind retaining Kerry Coombs if he was willing to focus solely on the secondary, recruiting, and perhaps even special teams. While the silver fox clearly was not a success as DC, there is no denying the impact that he’s had on the trail and with defensive backs during his times in Columbus.

The problem is, I don’t know if Coombs would be willing to stick around following an outright demotion. Perhaps he loves Ohio State enough to swallow his pride, and maybe Day gives him the ceremonial “co-DC” title, but to me, it’s probably time for a clean break.

Another factor that I think is important is that Day has now been the Ohio State head coach for exactly three years — he assumed the mantle following the 2019 Rose Bowl win over Washington. In my opinion, it is time for him to put his stamp on the program and distance himself from the Urban Meyer era.

While we can have differing opinions on Meyer as a coach and a human being, there is no arguing that the end of his tenure was marred not only by controversy, but also by poor hiring decisions. But it’s not even really about Meyer specifically, it’s about Day building his own program and not feeling beholden to retaining guys whom he was an assistant with under his predecessor. Day deserves to have a staff of his own choosing and now is the time to cut any underperforming ties to the past.

Currently, seven of Days’ 10 assistants were originally hired by Meyer, and while I’m certainly not suggesting that Day let Brian Hartline, Tony Alford, or even Meyer’s son-in-law Corey Dennis go simply because of who initially brought them into the program, there are others who I think have seen their efficacy in Columbus wane to the point that they are no longer having the impact that a program like Ohio State requires of its incredibly highly paid coaches.

I don’t believe that Day is going to completely clean house to the point that I think he should, but he simply cannot stand pat. If he asked me — which he should, Ryan, DM me — I would keep Hartline, Alford, Dennis, and — with the slightest bit of arm-twisting — Johnson; everyone else can move on.

The players deserve to have a staff that is capable of putting them in the best position to win. They proved in Pasadena that they have the skill, fight, and desire to do great things, now they just need a group of coaches who can maximize their sky-high potential.