The Ohio State Buckeyes brought in a new defensive coordinator in Jim Knowles this offseason, putting tremendous expectations on an improved defense. Coming from Oklahoma State, Knowles’ reputation was that of miracle worker who took dismal defenses and turned them into productive units.
Ryan Day did not mince words as to what he was looking for this year.
“In terms of expectations, we expect a top-10 defense. That’s what we want,” Day said in the lead to the season, adding, “When we’ve played our best football, it’s because we played really good defense, and we’ve been balanced and played complementary football.”
After two disappointing seasons on the defensive side of the ball, the criteria for a turnaround was set. Defining a top-10 defense starts statistically, and ends with how the defense has looked on the field. Through one half of the Buckeyes’ regular season schedule, Knowles has lived up to expectations.
Effectiveness starts in totality, and the Buckeyes have been slowing down every team they have played regardless of style. Looking into the stats, the Buckeyes are steady throughout, and dominating on a per-play basis as well. Ohio State has not played an offensive juggernaut so far, but all that means is they are taking care of business.
Opp. Yards/Play - 4.3 (No. 7)
Yards per play is a pace adjusted stat that takes pace of play out of the equation. On a per-play basis, Ohio State is giving up 4.3 yards, which is good for seventh in the country. The reason pace adjusted stats are important is because this takes out of account how slow teams like Wisconsin hold the ball, and how fast playing teams like Toledo put up yards in a hurry with them not amounting to much in total.
This season, the best statistical performances from the Buckeyes were against Arkansas State and Rutgers. This is not the best barometer, but the Buckeyes haven’t given up more than 5.5 yards per play in a single game all season, showing the level of consistency.
Opp. Yards/Game - 253.5 (No. 4)
Now in a non-pace adjusted format, the Buckeyes are even better defensively. For a team who ranked poorly in this area last season, the improvement has been noticeable. Knowles has set a goal of no more than five big plays per game – plays over 20 yards – which has limited the total yards gain. Teams have had trouble getting up and down the field consistently with the Buckeyes limiting long drives.
Outside of a few big plays, the defense has held their own for all four quarters of each game, which shows the new level of commitment to being a great defense.
Opp. Points/Game - 15.7 (No. 8)
The Buckeyes are limiting scoring at a top 10 level as well. They are giving up 15.7 points per game, which ranks 8th in the country. A big key to the success has been getting off the field and winning third downs. Once teams have gotten into the red zone, they have found some success, which raises some questions moving forward as the schedule toughens. That being said, through six games the defense has given up less than 21 points per game. With the No. 1 offense in the country averaging 48.8 points per game, this is the pairing Day was looking for in hiring Knowles.
Opp 3D Conv % - 27.16% (No. 5)
The reason the Buckeyes have been so successful is their ability to stop opponents on third down. Getting off the field was a major problem in 2021, as the Buckeyes ranked 91st in the country last season. The improvement in this area has been the biggest, and this has been vital to the success of the defense in its entirety.
Getting off the field on third down has limited points and yards allowed. They held Notre Dame to 3-of-13 on third down, Wisconsin to 6-of-13, and Michigan State to 3-of-11. In their biggest matchups, Ohio State has dominated on important downs, which has led the transformation into a top ten defense.
The emergence of Ohio State’s dominant defensive line and linebackers is a surprise, but they have been limiting opposing run games better than most. In stopping the run, the most effective run games against Ohio State were De’Quan Finn’s scrambling ability and Braelon Allen’s long run against the second-team defense. When the first team is in the game, there has not been a better unit in the Power-5 at stopping the run.
Opp Yards/Rush - 3.0 (No. 7)
On a per-play basis, Ohio State is giving up the seventh most yards per rush in the country. Teams have been unable to successfully run the ball, which has put Ohio State’s opponents into awkward down-and-distances. The success against the run has allowed Ohio State to win on early downs, which has led to success in the third down department. This also shows how Ohio State has been able remain solid in the red zone and limiting the touchdowns scored. It all starts with stopping the run, and the Buckeyes have been exceptional in that department.
Opp Rush Yards/Game - 93.2 (No. 5)
The Buckeyes have shut down opposing run games, with their best performance coming in their last game against Michigan State, where they only allowed seven total rushing yards. They have given up less than 100-yards on the ground three times so far, and the most they have given up is the 192 against Wisconsin. If you take out Allen’s 85-yard run, this total comes down to 79.03 yards per game, which would be good for No. 2 in the country.
Ryan Day wanted a tough defense against the run, especially after the embarrassing losses of last season — most notably the Michigan game — and so far, he has just that.
The Buckeyes have not broken into the top-10 in most passing categories, but the overall performance of the group has been commendable. Ohio State hasn’t played any vaunted downfield passing attack, but the old adage goes you have to play who is in front of you. Even with the suspect corner play being on everybody’s minds, the secondary and the defense as a whole has held teams to the sixth-fewest yards per game through the air in the country.
Opp Pass Yards/Game - 160.3 (#6)
Opponents have been forced to pass against the Buckeyes, which makes this stat all that more impressive. On a per-play basis, the Buckeyes give up quite a few chunk plays, raising their yards per pass totals. Even with the occasional big plays, throughout the entirety of games Ohio State is limiting opposing passing attacks. With only one significant passing outfit remaining on the schedule in Maryland — who could be without QB Taulia Tagovailoa after an apparent serious knee injury in his last game against Indiana — the Buckeyes might never get fully tested in this area until the CFP, which is not problem.
With who they have played, they have taken care of business in the air traffic control department, even if it hasn’t always looked pretty.
The FEI is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, which measures unit effectiveness on an opponent adjusted basis. From Football Outsiders, “[The] Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent.”
This takes into account a wide range of advanced stats to churn out a number on how teams would perform in an environment with no external variables. The Buckeyes are No. 1 on Offensive FEI, and right on the cusp of their goals on defense.
The defensive FEI for the Buckeyes according to Football Outsiders is 0.81, which is good for 12th in the country. FEI does not account for late-game substitutions, so the whole story is not being told for the Buckeyes’ starters. Still, Ohio State improved from 41st in the country last season and 46th in the country two years ago, all the way up to No. 12 this year.
Most people believed Ohio State could win a national championship with a top-25 defense, and that is where they stand. They are behind a few top teams, including Alabama and Georgia, but the 12th-rated defense still gives the Buckeyes the highest total efficiency ranking in the country. That says the Buckeyes are statistically good enough to win a national championship with their combination of offense and defense.
Evaluating defenses is mostly done with the eyes and how the defenses make you feel. Through six games, the Buckeyes have an identity that is easily defined, and they are playing productively in important moments. Ryan Day is getting his money’s worth in the hiring of Jim Knowles through six games this season, and the Buckeyes have met expectations so far.
Being a top-10 defense statistically sounded outrageous to some at the time, but through the midway point of the year the Buckeyes have met that lofty goal head on. Behind the emergence of Tommy Eichenberg, the defensive line and incredible safety play, Ohio State has been able to limit anything offenses have wanted to do. Outside of a few mishaps along the way, there aren’t many defensive units in the country playing at Ohio State’s level.
If the Buckeyes can continue at this pace, the team should continue to improve as they build on Jim Knowles’ already effective defense. Knowles was brought in for one thing and he knew he would have a short time to get there. With half a season to go, the Buckeyes are in a prime position to build on the top-10 foundation that has already been laid. If Ohio State can build on that foundation, they just might have a defense capable of winning a national championship.