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Question: Two people essentially asked the same question, so I put them together for today’s article.
How does a 4-2-5 hold up against a Wisconsin, Iowa or Michigan?— Ryan A. (@RAPlatt18) August 17, 2022
Will the 4-2-5 defense be strong enough against power run teams?— RealGoldenBear (@RealGoldenBear) August 17, 2022
So, to me, this is the biggest question for defense coming into the season. As I said in yesterday’s “Ask LGHL” column, stats never really tell the full story of what a team is. In 2021, the OSU defense ranked a rather respectable 28th nationally against the run, and a putrid 96th versus the pass.
However, both of those rankings were colored by the fact that the Ohio State offense was by far the most prolific in the country and therefore opposing offenses had to turn to the air in order to play catch up. So, while the Buckeyes were pretty bad against the pass, perhaps they weren’t as bad as the stats suggest; and conversely, in my opinion, they were not in the top 25% of rushing defenses in college football last year, no matter what the numbers tell you.
The biggest issue for the Buckeyes’ rush defense in 2021 wasn’t what they did against the majority of their opponents, instead, it was what they specifically did against the best rushing teams on the schedule, and even more importantly what how they stacked up on no-doubt, short-yardage rushing downs.
I’m not going to relitigate the performances against Oregon and TTUN’s rushing attack from last year, because at this point, it’s just throwing salt into wounds that have nearly been healed by the dawning of a new season. However, I can’t do this article without looking at some pretty telling statistics.
Last year, Ohio State allowed 77 conversions on 183 third-down plays (42.08&), 10 first downs on 21 fourth-down attempts (47.62%), and 36 scores (31 touchdowns and five field goals) in 42 red zone trips (85.71%). Those totals ranked 13th, 8th, and 12th in the Big Ten respectively last season.
Those aren’t bad numbers, they are horrifically revolting numbers for anyone who cares about Ohio State football, quality defensive execution, and the sanity of everyone within Buckeye Nation. In all of those situations last year, as a fan, it felt like a foregone conclusion that the OSU defense would not only bend, but it would break and shatter into a bazillion little parts that no one would know how to reassemble, because they really weren’t sure of how it was supposed to look in the first place.
But as I said yesterday, I trust new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles when he talks about how quickly the Bucks are picking up his scheme, how tough they are practicing, and how he is dedicated to playing the best players the bulk of the time.
So, without having seen the defense yet, or how the individual personnel have responded to the change in defensive leadership, perhaps the most instructive thing for how the Buckeye defense will do against running teams this year is looking at Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense last season.
Of course, the running prowess of Big 12 teams will differ significantly from those that the real OSU will face in the Big Ten, and there are innumerable variables that make a true apples-to-apples comparison impossible, but I do think that there is enough meat on the bones to be information.
For example, Baylor led the Big 12 in rushing last year averaging 219.71 yards per game, which was good for 10th nationally. Because the Cowboys and Bears met in the conference title game, the two teams met twice during the season. In the teams’ first meeting in early October, OSU won 24-14 and gave up to 205.1 yards on the ground. However, two months later, the Bears edged out the Pokes 21-16, but only rushed for 62 total yards.
Oklahoma State’s next game was in the Fiesta Bowl — coincidentally enough — against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. ND only ran for 144 yards per last season (83rd nationally), but in the bowl game only wracked up 42 yards on the ground. Knowles’ defense was definitely playing its best football, especially against the run, at the end of the season.
The Oklahoma State defense faced three other rushing offenses in the top 40 last season in Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma. The Cowboys’ held Texas’ 26th-ranked rushing offense to 138 yards, the No. 30 Horned Frogs to 133, and 40th-ranked Oklahoma to 189 rushing yards; all below their season averages.
In terms of the high-value situations that Ohio State failed in last year, Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in third-down conversations allowed at 28.64% (59 of 206) and fourth-down conversions at 29.63% (8 of 27). While the Cowboys were sixth in red zone conversions at 87.5%, they allowed the fewest trips in the league (32) and gave up the fewest TDs (18) in the Big 12 last year.
So, if the past is prologue and how Knowles’ 2021 Oklahoma State defense can serve as a blueprint for his 2022 Ohio State squad, then I feel pretty comfortable in saying that the Buckeyes will be better against the best rushing teams that they face this season.