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Film Study: A look at Jim Knowles’ defense vs. Notre Dame’s offense

Jim Knowles wasn’t coordinating, but his defense did play against Notre Dame, giving us a good look at what to expect in Ohio State’s Week 1 matchup.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State’s first opponent in the Notre Dame is not known for being an offensive juggernaut. Over the last couple of seasons, they have used a relatively simple passing game and a simple, yet effective run game to challenge their opponents. With Tommy Rees remaining on staff as the offensive coordinator after Marcus Freeman’s promotion, there is a lot of film to look at to see what the Fighting Irish do.

What is even crazier is Notre Dame played new Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Knowles was not coaching in that game, but everything else remained the same. The structure and aggressive philosophies of Knowles were present in the matchup, even if he was not the one calling the defense that day. This gives us a look at exactly what Rees tried to do offensively, giving us an idea of how Knowles might approach defending against Notre Dame.

Notre Dame starting quarterback Tyler Buchner has a much different skill set than his predecessor in Jack Coan, so there will be additional aspects to prepare for. His running ability adds another dynamic, but he is a much more raw passer of the football. If Knowles can maximize what made the Oklahoma State defense successful in the second half, the Buckeyes will have a lot to be excited about to start the season.

Today, we’re going to take a look at what exactly worked for Oklahoma State, and how that might translate to the Buckeyes come the matchup against Notre Dame.

Basic Alignment against Notre Dame

In the first picture, Notre Dame is in 11-personnel trips to the boundary side of the field. Oklahoma State aligns straight up against them, which is highlighted with the “Will” linebacker being circled to the short side and the “Nickel” safety circled to the field side. Jim Knowles’ safeties are important tells in his defense, and the “Bandit” safety to the boundary side is staying over there even with the three receivers. The personnel to that side is flexible enough to match up against the three receivers, and this gives Knowles a lot of leeway in how his defense approaches formations.

Building on the initial aspect of alignment, the three receivers to the field side don’t change the run game responsibilities that much. Against 11-personnel, the field and boundary sides have an emphasis on the alignment, which takes priority over the classic strength calls that have to do with numbers. A big reason for that is the versatility of the safeties on the field. The last thing to mention is the “Leo” also staying true to the weak side alignment designation even with additional numbers to the boundary.

In the next play, Notre Dame is in 12-personnel, leading to a change in responsibilities across the board. Notre Dame used motion to identify which responsibilities each players were playing, and this worked well in the first half of the game for the Irish. In this case starting right-to-left, the receiver motion brings the corner into playing from depth. Oklahoma State’s “Nickel” (No. 2) is waiting on the other side and has a responsibility of either the tight end or receiver depending on who comes outside.

The “Adjuster” safety is playing to the same side as the “Nickel” and has the tight end and will help with the inside run. The linebackers shift with the motion and the “Bandit” shifts into the box more as well due to corner help on the outside with the tight end. This is a natural transition for the defense, and all possible outcomes from a player matchup stand point are accounted for in this example.

Against the run game

Notre Dame is similar to Ohio State in the simplistic idea of running the football and sticking to their zone schemes. The Irish will utilize both inside and outside zone run schemes, but the major differentiator is the pin-and-pull concept. In 2021 this type of concept would have given Ohio State fits, but Knowles’ scheme was able to limit the effectiveness of this play type even without him calling the shots. There will be a higher volume of designed quarterback runs, but from the looks of Oklahoma State’s defense there were some answers for that as well.

Inside Zone

In the first run game example, Notre Dame is in an obvious run situation. Similarly to Ohio State, for Notre Dame this meant inside zone. Oklahoma State wins this play and it starts with the initial get off from the interior defensive linemen. They get into the double teams and clog the middle run lane. This allows the linebackers to flow into their gaps and Will linebacker scrapes making a play at the line of scrimmage.

The discipline of each player doesn’t allow Notre Dame to get a push off the line of scrimmage. This season, the quarterback run threat will add an additional variable to prepare for, but the corner in this case has the quarterback to the outside.

Pin and Pull

Defending the pin-and-pull starts with reading keys and identifying the pullers across the formation. In this example, the strong side defensive end takes on the pulling guard, the Will linebacker takes the tight end who kicks out, and the rest of the defenders begin to flow with the pullers. The running back plays off the backs of the kick outs and this creates an upfield running lane.

Notre Dame blocks this play pretty well, but because the tight end puller wraps around instead of leading through the hole, this allows the linebackers to make a play on the running back when he cuts back. Notre Dame was close to springing a big play, but Oklahoma State’s responsible football limited this play to a short gain that turned into a turnover.

Against the passing game

Notre Dame is not known for an elite downfield passing attack, but they do like to attack the field with multiple levels. Their best downfield weapon is Michael Mayer the tight end, and they utilize their quick game to get the ball in his hands more. If Ohio State can slow down Mayer, the Buckeyes will be in a solid place against Notre Dame’s air attack. And if the Buckeyes can create consistent pressure, Notre Dame’s inexperienced signal caller could be forced into some mistakes.

Quick Game

The first look is the quick game. When Notre Dame was patient this moved them down the field effectively. Mayer runs a stick route and finds open grass. This is an effective play and is an easy throw for the quarterback to make against both man and zone coverages. A big issue for Notre Dame was going away from plays like this in the second half, which played into Oklahoma State’s strength. Ohio State struggled against this type of passing game all 2021, so this will be a place fans will notice immediate defensive improvement.


As the game progressed and the score tightened, Notre Dame went away from what was working all game. In unnecessary situations, the Irish would drop back and run long developing passing concepts. With Oklahoma State having seven players in coverage to Notre Dame’s four receivers running routes, there were not a lot of open windows for Jack Coan to throw.

This past week, Knowles emphasized the synergy of the pass defense and pass rush. In this case we get a look at how both can effect a pass play. Notre Dame is running curl routes to the sticks with heavier personnel, and this takes more time. Oklahoma State brings five and gets quick pressure up front, forcing a rushed throw when there was nowhere to go with the football.

Wide View

In this last play, the world wide leader gave us a wide angle replay, which gives a great look at Oklahoma State’s Cover-4 Match against field side trips. The goal of this coverage is to limit the vertical routes and take away easy inside breaking throws. The field corner is isolated and has one-on-one responsibility with the outside receiver. Next in line of the secondary is the Nickel. He can not give up the outside because he has safety help inside. Once the route breaks in he trails and waits to attack the throw. The “Mike” linebacker has the tight end if he comes inside and he has safety help up the seam.

On the single receiver side with the corner and safety, the single receiver runs an over route across the formation, which plays right into the safety being able to disrupt the pass. Every player is covered in multiple ways. This is why Cover-4 looks and 2-high looks are so effective when organized.

The Buckeyes breaking in a new defense will definitely bring some additional nerves to the Week 1 matchup against Notre Dame. Having Knowles being able to look at Notre Dame’s offense over the past 8 months should be beneficial for the Buckeyes, but there is also the flip side to this where Notre Dame can scheme up against Knowles.

For the Buckeyes to be successful, playing mistake free football is the key. In the first half, Oklahoma State made some crucial mistakes, and the success in the second half came from cleaning those mistakes up.

To stop Notre Dame, forcing them into obvious passing situations will put the Irish into an uncomfortable position. This is why stopping the run game will be a major point of emphasis, and if they can win on early downs this can play into Knowles’ defensive play calling strengths on third down. In the passing game, the Buckeyes will need to limit big plays. If they can create pressure, Notre Dame’s passing attack was prone to mistakes as we saw.

The Buckeyes’ secondary will be playing a receiver group with a lot inexperience and injuries combined with a first-year starter at quarterback. With all that being said, discipline will be the key to the success of the Buckeyes in their opening match up.