Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were far from a perfect team, and the issues were not limited to one area. If you have read through my offseason film studies, there has been a mixture of what to expect in the future as well as a look back at all the problems the Buckeyes had last season.
On offense, the Buckeyes led the country in yards per play, total offense, and points per game. This was not without its challenges, though. The Buckeyes struggled to establish the run game, and this was amplified in short yardage situations. There are not a lot more frustrating aspects in the game of football than watching a a team come up short with one yard to go, and this is why Justin Frye is now on the staff.
Defensively there were three staff changes due to the struggles last season, with the most notable being the $2 million defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles. Ohio State’s biggest issues were defending the run – especially in short yardage – and getting off the field on third down. A big reason this occurred was the lack of organization and understanding of responsibilities. This combination was really challenging to watch last season, and today we’re going to exorcise all these demons one last time.
Ohio State was a good football team last year, but the expectations are much higher this year compared to how they finished last off in 2021. Today, we’re taking one last look back which will allow a final opportunity to suffer together before heading into fall camp.
Disorganization in passing defense
To get started in our look back to the 2021 season, the first issue that comes to mind when thinking of Ohio State’s defensive struggles is a lack of organization. This issue arose a few times throughout the season and against a variety of teams. Tulsa’s Davis Brin Jr., Penn State’s Sean Clifford, and Cade McNamara all found success against the simple passing defense of Ohio State.
In the play below, we’re looking at Aidan O’Connell and Purdue’s passing attack against the Buckeyes. Purdue is in quads to the short side of the field where the Buckeyes only have three defenders lined up over the four receiving options. There is no check here, and this leaves Ronnie Hickman Jr. in a bind as the safety over top of the four. The nickel corner and corner bite on the bubble screen, which has three vertical routes attacking the two safeties. The level of disorganization and players not having the defensive responsibilities led to a big play.
This example highlights the impact of not having responsibilities in order, and the multiple mistakes led to a long touchdown pass.
Setting the edge
The Buckeyes struggled against the run last season, especially against teams with the talent to take advantage of a simple Ohio State scheme. Oregon’s Joe Moorhead set the tone for the Ducks running the same play in the same situation over and over again, forcing the Buckeyes to stop it. The Buckeyes did not, and later in the season this happened again against Michigan.
Taking a look at the issue itself, there was not one lone aspect that was wrong. Zach Harrison does his job, which is to play the zone read and make the quarterback make a decision. This means the corner is responsible for setting the edge, but he fails because he follows the crack block inside. Anthony Brown, the quarterback for Oregon, recognizes this. He hands the ball off, leading to the Ducks having a free puller to block anybody in the way. For the running back this is a free walk to the end zone, which was just the beginning of the problems for the Buckeyes defensively that day.
Jim Knowles has a lot of pressure, but if he can fix the first two plays we’ve looked on a regular basis, he’s earned a good portion of that pay check. Organization and physicality will go a long way in achieving the Top-10 defense Ryan Day expects.
Lack of Physicality
Of all the plays from last season that speak on the failures of the 2021 defense, no play exemplifies those failures more than this play against Utah. Ohio State had trouble tackling at times against running backs, and really struggled to gang tackle players who were running the football.
This play stands out because Utah’s quarterback Cam Rising makes the Ohio State defense look nonexistent. Rising almost slips in the backfield after the miscommunication, and Utah doesn’t even run the correct play in this situation that ends up in a touchdown. The main issue here is there is not even an attempt to fill in the hole Rising ends up running through. After Rising breaks through, a group of Buckeyes surround him. Teradja Mitchell, who hits Rising, doesn’t wrap up, pushing him outside to wide open grass. A pile forms and everyone falls over each other in one of the worst displays by an Ohio State defense ever.
Exorcising these demons is what fall camp is for, and the Buckeyes will need to get back to setting the tone physically against their opponents.
Short Yardage Run-Game
The physicality issue was not exclusive to the defense, and at times the offensive line was unable to get the much needed push to get first downs. In this section, there are two plays that highlight reasons this occurred.
In the first play, we see the Buckeyes in a 3rd-and-3 situation agains Nebraska. Ohio State lines up in a pistol look, with the the running back Treveyon Henderson standing directly behind C.J. Stroud. Ohio State only ran two plays out of this look last year: stretch and split zone. This allowed defenses to be comfortable attacking in these situations because they had a general idea of what is coming in front of them.
Nebraska’s defensive line gets players in the backfield immediately, and they are able to tackle Henderson for a loss, forcing a punt.
To build on the play above, when teams know what’s coming, the importance of being physical up front raises. In the offseason during Justin Frye’s first press conference, he talked about how his daughter should know that inside zone is coming and his line should still be able to help the running back get the first no matter what.
As we can see in the clip, once again the Buckeyes’ offensive line gives up immediate penetration into the backfield. Before Stroud is even able to hand the ball off, a Penn State defender is in Henderson’s way, and this leads to the Buckeyes coming up short in this scenario again.
The lack of physicality truly set the Buckeyes back, and when the physicality is there, the emphasis on creative play-calling is not as important. On offense, this arguably the one place of necessary improvement for the Buckeyes. If they can get rid of this frustrating aspect, the offense will be as complete as ever.
The Buckeyes had a lot of issues last season, and at various points throughout the season people convinced themselves that Ohio State was fixed. As the season concluded, the realization of that not being the case set in during the trip to Ann Arbor, leading to one of the most disappointing regular seasons in a while for the Buckeyes. At a program where discipline and physicality were Ohio State’s back bone, last season’s performance in those categories was a disappointment that fans did not take lightly.
Ryan Day did not either, leading to four new coaches on the Ohio State staff. This shows that Day knows this team has a higher ceiling than what was reached in 2021. If Ohio State is going to compete for a national championship, fixing these issues is the first place to start. For the defense, being organized, disciplined, and physical will right a lot of the wrongs of the unit over the past two seasons. Offensively, getting the tough yards when needed will help sustain drives and keep momentum going on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes have the talent, which is why the general lack of execution was so frustrating last season.
Regardless of all the issues in 2021, it is time to move on to 2022, with Ohio State’s fall camp on the horizon. This one last look will serve as a totem of the failures this new and fresh season will be built on.