From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about checking in on Ohio State’s opponents. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Behind Enemy Line” articles here.
Last season Ohio State’s defense was much improved under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Players who struggled under the previous regime developed into elite level defenders, and even with the new scheme there was a level of confidence we have not seen in recent years. This year, the jump is expected to be greater, with a collective group of fans that won’t accept anything less than the best in the country.
With the investment into Knowles, Ohio State improved in almost every key category, with most notable stats being in the top-10 prior to the last three games. They only finished in the top-10 in opponent third down conversion percentage at eighth. The rest of the stats fell off after giving up 30 points to Maryland, 45 to Michigan, and 42 to Georgia.
This dropped the Buckeyes 29th in yards per play allowed, 17th in points allowed per game, and 12th in yards per game. These stats improved from 35th, 31st, and 51st, respectively, which is only a significant improvement on paper in the yards per game department. Where Ohio State improved most was in their matchups with teams they were expected to shut down. In matchups against more equal talent, opponents were able to find areas to take advantage of some holes in the defense.
In year two of Knowles, there should be more experience with seven returning starters and many other contributors who have another fall camp to go in building confidence. With the defensive line having more defined roles this season, the secondary adding talented depth to a group already looking to prove something, and one of the most experienced pair of starting linebackers in the country, there will be high expectations.
With those expectations, the Buckeye schedule has some games that might expose any cracks in the shell of Ohio State’s defense. If the Buckeyes are able to improve on some of their mistakes from last year, the results can turn. Physicality, confidence, and finishing the job are what will get Ohio State past the finish line this season.
Knowles’ crew will have a chance to prove they are one of the best defenses in the country if they show it against these teams that will mean the group took definitive steps forward. But that is only if the Buckeyes answer the challenges come this fall.
Western Kentucky - Sept. 16
Starting out with a trick play on this one, not many people are looking at the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers on the schedule with any concern. The Buckeyes will not lose this game, but the Hilltoppers have been a burgeoning offensive power house over the last two seasons. Since Tyson Helton took over as head coach, his “pro-raid” – pro-style formations and air raid passing concepts — has ranked Western Kentucky as one of the most consistent passing offenses in the country.
Last season the Hilltoppers had to replace offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, who was part of Bailey Zappe’s record setting season. There was almost zero drop off in offensive output with first year starter at quarterback Austin Reed, who threw for 4,744 yards and 40 touchdowns. This group returns seven starters, including Malachi Corley who had 1,299 yards, added transfers at the receiver position, and bring back their leading rusher as well as four contributors on the offensive line.
In an offense that is based on feel, the experience of the quarterback and talent at receiver could make a defense that plays heavy man-principles pay for mistakes. This game will be an early test for an Ohio State back end that struggled down the stretch, and the Hilltoppers should not be taken lightly even if they only scored 30 and 17 points against Power-five competition.
Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... This is a direct challenge for a pass rush that needed a lot of help from blitzers and the secondary that was prone to getting beat downfield at times. The safeties will have to be organized, the corners will have to play mistake free, and the communication will have to be at a high level given the amount of crossers in air raid passing concepts. If they aren’t, Helton’s teams have been able to hurt opponents with big plays.
Maryland - Oct. 7
This was a challenge for the Buckeyes on the road in Maryland. The Terrapins had the Buckeyes needing a defensive stop to win scenario. The Terps starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa set the tone for the matchup, showing toughness and making some huge throws. Unfortunately, his 293 passing yards and two touchdowns were spoiled by a Zach Harrison strip sack that turned into a Steele Chambers touchdown.
Ohio State being at home this time could overwhelm the Terps early. That being said, this is an experienced bunch that will likely not let the environment get to them, so that should not be the expectation. Mike Locksley is still looking for a more recent marquee win after going 8-5 last year in a breakthrough season. If they can develop a rushing attack with Roman Hemby, that should allow for an even more dangerous passing attack this season.
With second team All-Big Ten quarterback Tagovailoa back for a third season as a starter, the comfort level is what concerns me. This game is late enough in the season that any early kinks should be worked out, but if they aren’t the Terrapin offense has been able to keep some talented teams close on the scoreboard.
Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Tagovailoa is an athletic quarterback who can make throws to all three levels. After back-to-back trips to Maryland were to close for comfort, year three for Tagovailoa in Locksley’s system will mean Ohio State will have to be at their best in limiting his feet and arm. They came into last year’s matchup with a plan. It came up short, but there would be no surprises if this game staggered the Buckeyes’ defense.
Penn State - Oct. 21
James Franklin has played the Buckeyes tight in every game since 2017, with the biggest losses for Penn State being by 13 points. Over those years, Franklin relied on Sean Clifford to get them over the hill against the Buckeyes. But even with help from some talented receivers, they just kept coming up short.
Over the years, Ohio State’s corners have been tested by elite Penn State receivers like Jahan Dotson (11 catches, 127 yards) and Parker Washington (11 catches, 179 yards and one touchdown). This year Penn State added All-Mac receiver Dante Cephus, who was one of the most explosive players in the country. They also added a transfer from Florida State with experience.
Built like Michigan in a way, they will be relying on two elite running backs in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. The two freshman led the Nittany Lions to a 4.5 yards per rush, and Allen had a physical 79 yards against the Buckeyes. They will need this group and the returnees on the offensive line to be elite if they will have any chance in challenging Ohio State’s defense.
With first year starter and former five star recruit Drew Allar taking the helm of the offense, that is a huge question mark. His sparing playing time did not leave to much to be excited about, but his raw tools could be special if harnessed. If the Buckeyes can’t make Penn State one dimensional, Mike Yurcich might be able to finally put up some points against his former employer.
None of this will matter if they can’t contain defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, as he single handedly wrecked their game plan in 2022. Before Tuimoloau truly took the game over, Penn State was moving the ball efficiently. If they can limit another takeover, they have the discipline to stick with what is working. That is a huge reason they have played the Buckeyes so close in recent years.
Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Penn State has two of the best young running backs in the Big Ten in Singleton and Allen. That two-headed monster at running back in combination with another talented offensive line group could really challenge Ohio State’s toughness. If Drew Allar is as good as his recruiting ranking says he should be, this could be a dangerous matchup for the Ohio State defense in Columbus.
The elite offensive line talent at left tackle could prevent some of the same destruction. Penn State could find success in similar ways. The fortunate thing for the Buckeyes though, Manny Diaz is on the other sideline responsible for slowing down Ohio State’s offense in the Horseshoe.
Michigan - Nov. 25
This one might be obvious, but they are the counter in philosophy to what Ohio State has built, creating a major challenge. For Michigan, it all starts on the offensive line and their approach to wearing down opponents over four quarters with physicality. They return Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan, who will be aided with some transfers Jim Harbaugh brought in for a third year in a row. With Sherrone Moore calling the plays and the game being in Ann Arbor, this team will be looking to make a statement in the rivalry going for a third straight.
The return of J.J. McCarthy opens up the interesting question on if the Michigan offense will finally open up, but despite struggling to create big plays last season they found plenty against Ohio State. After a long touchdown pass off of a miss tackle, the secondary made two more crucial mistakes. Those drives that took no time at all put a ton of pressure on the Ohio State offense to match.
The real conversation about the offense is Michigan’s elite running back room. They return Donovan Edwards who dominated the Buckeyes with one arm and Blake Corum who did not play much against Ohio State after hurting his knee the week prior. That knee is surgically repaired and he did not participate in Spring Practice, so there will be questions. Until someone proves otherwise, this is the best one-two punch returning in the Big Ten.
In the passing game, key target Colson Loveland is back. Outside of him, there are not a ton of reliable options, with Cornelius Johnson being the only real target who’s had any success returning. For the Buckeyes, being better in these matchups could be the difference in the upcoming matchup, but if they have to put additional bodies in the box to stop the run, the secondary will be put in one-on-one matchups. Limiting those mistakes will be the key in not falling into the same issues a third time.
Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Michigan has had Ohio State’s number in the trenches and in the big play department. The Wolverines scored touchdowns of 69, 75, 75, and 85 yards due to all of the previous defensive issues at Ohio State rearing their ugly head again. With McCarthy returning, Moore still coaching the offensive line, and a running back room continually looking to beat down the Buckeyes, there is no question after two years what the Wolverines’ philosophy will be to beat the Buckeyes.
Since the 2018 season, Ohio State has had one season in which they could be considered with the best groups in the country, which was 2019. That team had one of the best players in program history in Chase Young leading the way. Next to him were some savvy defensive linemen who were able to maximize opportunities the dominance of Young opened up. Behind him were veteran linebackers Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, and Malik Harrison. The secondary had two first round picks, and an NFL starter in Jordan Fuller.
All that to say, this is the most talented defense returning at Ohio State since that group that was going into the 2019 season. There are less questions, but there is also an anticipated jump from players that is not guaranteed. That is why these defensive tests will all be major checkpoints in the just how successful the Ohio State defense will be in 2023.
The defense last year struggled at times against Arkansas State, gave up big plays to Toledo, let Maryland dictate the terms, and had crucial mistakes in both losses to Michigan and Georgia. The four teams are different types of tests, but they will all tell the story on if the Buckeyes enter the elite ranks of defenses again or have another forgettable year.
There is a lot of pressure on Knowles to take this defensive group to another level, and none more than he is probably putting on himself. But the games his defense didn’t show up in last year were the defining points of the season. Since 2019, Ohio State’s defenses have been the unit leading to the team falling short of the ultimate goals.
The teams above are the tests that will make the difference in Ohio State going from great to truly elite. If Knowles’ group comes up short again, the clock will start ticking on another set of changes. The pressure is at an all-time high in 2023.