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Ohio State’s defense fell short when it mattered most, but there is good reason to be optimistic

Like Alexander, Jim Knowles and his OSU defense had a couple of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days with the Buckeyes’ season on the line. However, there should be plenty of brighter days ahead.

Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Jim Knowles’ defense could not stop a nosebleed on New Year’s Eve. Let’s just get that out of the way. There is no sugar-coating it. And the unit’s Peach Bowl performance was doubly concerning when combined with what we saw roughly six weeks ago.

On Nov. 26 – a day unfortunately burned into the memories of Ohio State fans – TTUN gashed Knowles’ Pewter Bullets for big play after big play, hitting on a number of what the defensive coordinator refers to as “explosives.” So it is entirely fair to say that the tail end of OSU’s season became a full-on fireworks display... in the worst way imaginable.

Full of explosions, with most taking place in the Buckeyes’ defensive secondary.

If not for a poor option read by Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, as well as a forced throw by the 25-year-old Heisman finalist, UGA could have scored 50 in Saturday night’s Peach Bowl. And made it look easy. Sure, Ohio State forced two punts, but those came on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter — after Knowles had time to make his “best” adjustments.

The Buckeyes also sacked Bennett for the first time since October, but their defensive front did little to affect his rhythm with the game hanging in the balance. The Bulldogs did what they wanted, when they wanted to do it.

And yet, OSU nearly pulled off the improbable: De-throning the defending national champions, in their own backyard, without major offensive contributors, and with a subpar defense. Calling Knowles’ defense subpar might sound like I am being generous, but at the end of the day, this actually could have been a title-winning unit! Massive warts and all.

Because in today’s world of college football, offense is king. With Ryan Day’s expertise guiding said offense, the Buckeyes are capable of winning most games with just a few stops.

Georgia will likely win it all with the fourth or fifth-ranked scoring defense (when all is said and done) in FBS, but they themselves gave up 41 on Saturday night. Meaning the Bulldogs had to light up the Mercedes-Benz Stadium scoreboard in order to win. The other CFP seminal, played between TCU and TTUN, turned into a track meet during the second half, resulting in 96 total points being scored.

All in all, the four best – or at least most deserving – teams in the country surrendered an average of 44.75 points in this year’s CFP, and any or all of them could have been crowned worthy champions while doing so. Oddly enough, Ohio State scored the least number of points in either of the two semifinals, despite entering the Peach Bowl with the No. 2 scoring offense.

C.J. Stroud played his best game in a Buckeye uniform, but his heroic effort was not enough to overcome a porous defense
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

However, this piece is not about OSU’s offense or Ryan Day’s play-calling. Instead, it is intended to acknowledge and perhaps even call out the program’s defensive shortcomings, while also providing hope for the future. Because I think there is plenty of optimism to go around, even if it does not feel that way today.

I will not pretend to be smart enough to point out exactly what went wrong during the Buckeyes’ last two football games. Nor do I have the patience or the stomach to re-live those contests. But I will tell you that I think recent defensive failures were more execution-based than they were coaching-induced.

After all, Knowles’ scheme was not to blame for Cam Brown missing a tackle against TTUN. His playcalling was not at fault when Lathan Ransom slipped and fell in Atlanta. And he most certainly did not handpick the secondary coaches working beneath him. So I still have faith in last offseason’s most highly-coveted coaching free agent. Call me a homer or call me naïve, but don’t call Knowles a failure at this whole DC thing. His track record of improvement speaks for itself.

Does he (Knowles) need to be better? Absolutely, unequivocally, without question... hell yes. There is no excuse for the last two performances from his defense. But even though he is an experienced coach, Knowles is/was not experienced in the pressure cooker known as Columbus. Coaching at Ohio State is a whole different animal, and now he has a full season+ under his belt. We as fans should give him the benefit of the doubt that he will make necessary adjustments.

Perhaps that begins near the top, with changes made to the Buckeyes’ defensive coaching staff. Again, I am not smart enough to tell you whether or not Tim Walton is the greatest coach on God’s green earth, but I am able to plainly point out that cornerbacks regressed under his tutelage. There is always a chance Perry Eliano caught lightning in a bottle with his guys at Cincinnati, and that he is not cut out for life in the Big Ten. And maybe, just maybe, Larry Johnson is slipping just a bit.

Quite frankly, I refuse to believe the latter, but it does not matter what I think. All that matters is Knowles’ opinion, and despite how this season ended, he should have earned enough of Day’s trust to make staff decisions. It is entirely possible that we see a coaching upgrade, and upgrades are always a good thing — unless they are being offered by Southwest Airlines. In which case, the offer is likely just an empty promise.

But beyond coaching, beyond the fact that CFB’s best teams can win a national title with just “ok” defense, the reason I choose to remain optimistic about this Ohio State group is talent. The Buckeyes have a ton of it, and 2023 (and 2024 and so on) should bring a fresh infusion of players. Players who are hungry to shake the team’s recent reputation and help turn this OSU defense around.

A hungry and even-more experienced J.T. Tuimoloau should lead the charge for Ohio State’s defense in 2023
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For me, it starts in the secondary. As porous as this unit looked throughout the 2022 season, I am still excited to see what they can do in future seasons — with fresh faces in the room.

I am intrigued by the potential of a healthy Jordan Hancock. Same thing goes for a more-experienced version of Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner. Out with the old, in with the new. It can’t be much worse (or more frustrating) than what we saw at times this year. There is also bounce-back potential for Denzel Burke, who was outstanding as a true freshman. If the corners go from a C- to even a B-, it will go a long way in solving some of the issues we saw this (last, technically) year.

The safety position could also be much better in future seasons. Ransom should be back to lead the group in 2023, and if he is allowed to roam – as opposed to covering mistakes – he is a dangerous, dangerous player. We got a preview of what Kye Stokes brings to the field, and if his spring game playmaking carries over, he could become Ohio State’s next version of Malik Hooker. Lastly, let’s not forget about Sonny Styles. Whether or not he sticks at safety or transitions to linebacker is TBD, but regardless of where he plays, I believe the Pickerington (OH) native will be a difference maker.

Tanner McCalister and Ronnie Hickman simply did not make enough plays this season, so with time, I think Stokes, Styles, and others will provide these Buckeyes a much-needed improvement in the back end.

Up front, the Buckeyes should be loaded for years to come. J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, and Mike Hall Jr. form an uber-talented DL trio from the 2021 recruiting class. All flashed in 2022, with Tuimoloau leading the way. He also appeared to take on a leadership role toward the end of the season, which is a huge positive moving forward. They should be joined on the line next year by some combination of Kenyatta Jackson, Omari Abor, Caden Curry, and/or Hero Kanu.

Few of those guys made an impact this season, but the talent is real. Jackson in particular has traits which you cannot teach. The long-limbed pass rusher could be an absolute nightmare if he adds the right amount of weight and develops his technique.

Behind a potentially fearsome group of pass rushers is an already much-improved linebacker unit. While OSU could lose the services of Tommy Eichenberg, he has not yet decided on his future. There is certainly a world in which he returns. And his running mate Steele Chambers has already announced his intent to return to Columbus in 2023.

Cody Simon should provide good depth, and behind him is a trio of top-100 LB from the 2021 and 2022 classes. C.J. Hicks has always received plenty of attention – for good reason – but do not sleep on Reid Carrico and/or Gabe Powers. Both were top-10 players at their position, and I would not be shocked to see them step into a starting role sooner than later.

Styles is also a viable option at LB, seeing as though he earned reps there during the Peach Bowl. So the ceiling for this position group is actually pretty scary (for future opponents), if most or all players fully develop. I even feel confident enough to say that I expect the Buckeyes to have one of the better LB cores in the Big Ten, if not the entire county in 2023 — regardless of who earns a starting role.

Of course, all of these future projections ignore the possibility of 2023 freshmen, future freshmen, and/or transfers contributing in Columbus right away. Though OSU has not been extremely active in the transfer portal (in recent years), they have previously found success bringing in the likes of Justin Fields, Jonah Jackson, and McCalister. And I believe that Day’s program will be much more active in the future. Frankly, they may be forced to do so, in order to supplement their roster.

So now you have all my reasons for optimism, at least when it comes to the future of Ohio State’s defense. Some of these reasons are projected or hypothesized, while others are based on real, factual evidence. Jim Knowles did coach up a much-better defense than the version we saw in 2020 or 2021. But it was never championship-worthy. And it fell flat in the biggest moments. It is unfortunate, but the Buckeyes will move on.

We as fans should have expected growing pains along the way, just like we should expect brighter days ahead. Rome was not built in a day, and neither was this OSU defense. But I would argue that Knowles’ unit actually moved ahead of schedule in 2022. Crazy, I know.

But consider where they were the year before he arrived: Tuimoloau and Sawyer saw very limited reps as true freshman, while Hall Jr. was a complete afterthought. Eichenberg was a good-not-great run-stopping specialist, and Chambers was just learning how to play linebacker. Corner depth was already depleted, Ransom broke his leg, and Bryson Shaw was running around the back end like a chicken with its head cut off.

But look at us now! At least we have an experienced DC (not a shot at his predecessor).

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The foundation of a great defense is in Columbus. I truly believe that. It might take Knowles a little bit longer to figure things out – longer than we’d like as fans – but he has shown the ability to do so in his past. With lesser talent. So let’s choose to remain optimistic for the future, and have faith that our Buckeyes will be back in title contention in 2023 and beyond. Perhaps even led by a game-changing defense...

Go Bucks!