On a snowy November day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Ohio State Buckeyes were absorbing the effects of their first loss to the Michigan Wolverines in over a decade. The writing was on the wall way before being physically beaten down 42-27, with an already emphatic loss to the Oregon Ducks on the resume. The Buckeyes needed to bring in a new defensive coordinator.
In came Jim Knowles, a star at turning around putrid defensive units. His reputation was enough to sway Ohio State fans into thinking this year was going to be different. At the beginning, the expectations changed immediately. The Buckeyes won a ranked matchup in a defensive battle, 21-10 over Notre Dame. However, by the end of the season, those changes we saw disappeared, and costed Ohio State a chance at a national championship.
Through the first 10 games of the season, Ohio State was in the top-10 in every statistical defensive category that mattered except opponent red zone percentage. The Buckeyes ranked in the top-10 in yards per play allowed, points per game, yards per game, and third down conversion percentage. But that all changed down the stretch.
Ohio State’s defensive issues from last year arose once more, and the secondary got worse throughout the year. This culminated into a stretch of two losses to Georgia and Michigan, and a game that showed many of the remaining defensive holes against Maryland.
The final three-game stretch
Defining how the season ended for the Buckeyes starts with a sloppy matchup against Maryland. The Terrapins had Ohio State in a situation where a touchdown could have won them that game. Zach Harrison made a great individual play to end any thoughts of an upset, but the cracks were there.
Knowles did a phenomenal job in turning the defense around, but the lasting impressions will be disappointment. All the problems he was brought in to improve reappeared when it mattered most. The defense gave up big plays in the passing game, could not end drives defensively, and could not get the job done in the end. Even with these stats, the improvement was immense under Jim Knowles in year one.
More should be expected, but there is still a long way to go — as we will see below.
Opponents scored on 100 percent of their red zone trips
This area was a problem for the entirety of the season, but the difference between the first 10 games and the final three games was the amount of trips teams were taking to the red zone against the Buckeye defense. On the 12 trips inside the 20-yard line that Ohio State allowed, the final three opponents scored all 12 times, breaking down to eight touchdowns and four field goals.
From a defensive improvement standpoint, the red zone might be the one area Ohio State went backwards defensively this year. Opponents took less trips, but when they got down to the short end of the field, the Buckeyes were giving up points. The final stretch took the Buckeyes all the way down to 127th in the country, with a final season total of teams scoring 91.1 percent of the time. For comparison’s sake, the offense was third in the country in the red zone, converting 95.2 percent of the time.
This area of situational football was a struggle this season, and if the Buckeyes take another leap defensively next year, the red zone would be the place to start. Limiting trips, and more importantly limiting the touchdowns, could change the final outcome in these games.
Ohio State gave up 7.6 YPP down the stretch
Last season, Ohio State finished 31st in yards per play allowed. For much of this season, Ohio State hung out in the five to 10 range in the rankings. At the end of the year, they finished 29th overall in opponent’s yard per play, according to teamrankings.com.
This stat does not tell the whole story, because the two best teams Ohio State played all year were the last two games. Against Maryland they allowed 5.9 yards per play, which would rank 104th in the country if that were a final season total. But it was not over. The Buckeyes gave up 8.8 yards per play and 8.9 yards per play against Michigan and Georgia, respectively.
To put that into perspective, the Buckeyes gave up 6.9 yards per play in last year’s loss to Oregon, and 8.0 to Michigan in the final regular season game last year. Ohio State’s defense was more consistent throughout the season, but in games that mattered the final stats were much of the same. This is the biggest question mark on the next step for Jim Knowles and what Ohio State’s defense will look like moving forward.
We’ve seen improvement on per game basis, but next season all eyes will be on how Knowles’ defense looks in the big games. The yards per play weren’t the only problem, as there were some backbreaking explosive plays that did more damage.
Ohio State allowed five touchdowns over 50 yards
Big plays defined the last two losses for Ohio State. This is not the total number of explosive plays allowed, which Jim Knowles classifies as runs over 10 yards and passes over 15 yards, but this says everything about the last main issue issue facing the defense down the stretch.
Ohio State had the ball against Georgia up 11-points with just under nine minutes to go in the game. A drive that took any time off the clock would limit the amount Georgia had to get a second needed score. Instead, they gave up a 76 yard touchdown pass in which Lathan Ransom was left falling down in man-coverage with no help over the top.
This was not the only back breaking play down the stretch. Against Michigan there were four of them. The Wolverines completed two passes over 65 yards where a missed tackle and bad coverage led to two touchdowns. The Buckeyes also gave up a 45-yard touchdown pass where the coverage broke down. Then they allowed two long TD runs to Donovan Edwards. The final two games of the season really came down to a few plays, and this raises questions.
Against Georgia, Ohio State was doing a great job of keeping everything in front of them. Then the play-calls changed and Georgia took advantage of a defense that had shown their weaknesses down the stretch. They attacked downfield and found the results they were looking for. This is where the game was lost in the end.
Ohio State gives up 1,465 yards (488.3 YPG)
My lasting impression starts here. Ohio State gave up over 400 apiece yards in the final three games of the season. Once again, over a whole season the 488.3 yards per game allowed were a far cry from the other games. Compared to the rest of the season, Ohio State gave up 2,413 yards, which was good for No. 1 overall in the country at 241.3 yards per game. Down the stretch, giving up 488.3 yards per game felt like a different season altogether.
The Buckeyes gave up big plays and could not defend the pass, giving up 994 (331.3 YPG) passing yards during the same stretch. All of the secondary improvements that came from Knowles’ take over and the new defensive back coaches were no longer apparent. When the Buckeyes played the three most talented quarterbacks on their schedule, the defense was exposed at the most inopportune time.
In the secondary, the collapse was the most discernible from the rest of the defense. This position group will be the most significant question mark heading into the offseason, and if this doesn’t improve, the results next year will be much of the same.
What’s next for the Buckeyes?
As a self-proclaimed Jim Knowles truther, the defense looked different this year. At times there were no questions about the success of Knowles and the Ohio State defense. Injuries led to cracks in the secondary, and teams found success in attacking the Buckeye defense downfield.
That doesn’t change the fact the defense was much improved throughout most of the season with a rotating door of players playing cornerback. There was a noticeable difference in the physicality, aggressiveness, and speed the defense played with. The improvement in the front-7 was the most significant. If the secondary could match next year, maybe Cornelius Johnson and Arian Smith don’t happen.
As my fellow LGHL’er Josh Dooley wrote about, there was still a lot to be excited about, and another year in the scheme for all the players involved will be the first step to even more success next season. Returning players have not fully been decided, but the players who have to returned form a strong core that Knowles can continue building on. The likes of Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, Steele Chambers, and a few more notable names waiting to make a decision will impact the floor of the defense. The improvement of these players will be the key to raising the ceiling to another level.
This year should be seen as a foundational piece, but not looking at the collapse down the stretch would take us into a disingenuous evaluations of how the year really went. Ohio State is a long way away from the defense that was putrid on a week-to-week basis the last two seasons, but there is still a long way to go for Knowles and company. For the Buckeyes to reach their national title aspirations, improvement is still needed in a multitude of areas — as we all found out down the stretch.
For the Buckeyes, improvement will never be good enough. The results need to come with it, and Ohio State came up short of their three goals — beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten, and winning a national title. Next year, the proof will be in the results, and despite the collapse, Jim Knowles is still the man for the job.