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Behind Enemy Lines: The defenses that will challenge Brian Hartline, Ohio State’s offense in his first year as play-caller

Ohio State’s offense has some questions, and these teams will challenge the Buckeyes and make them find the answers.

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

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.

Ohio State is entering their first real offensive transition since Ryan Day took over as the play-caller in 2017. Since then, there has been no question on who was making the decisions of what the Buckeye offense was doing on the field. Now entering his fifth season as the head coach at Ohio State and his seventh in the program as a whole, someone else will be calling the plays on Saturdays.

This change comes after a few too many games where the offense seemed underprepared at times and failed to adjust on other occasions. Even with those issues, the Buckeyes have only lost six games. The issue is those six games were all direly important matchups. Those games also don’t get into the occasional underwhelming performance against an Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, or even when trying to close out games against Penn State.

With this transition comes an opportunity. Elite recruiter and wide receiver coach Brian Hartline brings the Buckeyes a fresh face calling plays. Hartline will be responsible for a lot more in this role, but after serving as the passing game coordinator, Day chose him to take over the vacant offensive coordinator role for a reason.

This season will be interesting on the offensive side of the ball, especially for a first time offensive coordinator and play-caller. There will be a new starting quarterback in Kyle McCord or Devin Brown, which presents its own challenges. On the offensive line, there will be three new starters, which puts pressure on offensive line coach Justin Frye. With all the skill position talent, if Ohio State gets the offensive line and quarterback right, the sky is the limit.

In previous years Ohio State’s offense has answered any questions emphatically under Day. This year the schedule has a few teams that will provide a different set of challenges for a Buckeye offense with questions. If the offense does not get it right, these teams can make the games closer putting pressure on the defense, and maybe even leading to the first real surprise loss in the Day era.

IndianaSept. 2

The Indiana Hoosiers are far from a good football team. They have not been good since the year they only played six regular season games. They only return three starters on defense, but last year the defense was so bad there is only one direction they can go. Against the Buckeyes, the Hoosiers gave up 56 points in an effortless blowout in Columbus.

For Tom Allen, this game is a chance to earn the respect of the conference and country again. In his time in charge of the program, Indiana’s highest finish in yards per play was 21st in the country in 2018. Since then the Hoosiers defense has not finished a year higher than 40th, so you may be wondering what makes this Indiana team a defense that can provide a test?

Their red zone defense has been reliable under Allen. Last season they finished 25th in the country in red zone scoring percentage. That is a number that can make a young quarterback have trouble. Now, this could also be an easy game one for an overmatched opponent, but going on the road to start the season could create an unexpected challenge.

Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Indiana has not been a good football team since their upstart season in the pandemic shortened year. The Hoosiers caused more problems for the Buckeyes in the Kevin Wilson years due to their ability to put points on the board. The last two matchups Indiana has lost due to the inability to keep Ohio State’s offense off the field. I wouldn’t even call this a real test, more of a pop quiz to make sure the Buckeyes were taking fall camp seriously.

Now that the roast of Indiana is over, the Hoosiers play a diverse set of coverages and bring a lot of pressure from the second level. If the Ohio State offensive line can not settle in and the young quarterback is not making quick decisions, that could be a recipe for some big plays defensively by the Hoosiers. This game is also on the road, a dynamic that can’t be overlooked – even if the game is against Indiana.

Notre Dame — Sept. 23

Look back at Ohio State’s schedule, and you’ll see that the Buckeyes scored less than 30 points three times. One was the loss to Michigan, another was the winter monsoon in Evanston against Northwestern, and the last — which was actually the first — against Notre Dame when the Buckeyes only mustered 21 points.

Marcus Freeman does not run a complex defensive scheme, but he coaches his players to maintain a high level of discipline in all areas. Reading up on this before last season’s matchup, the goal Al Golden and Freeman want is to have their players in position to utilize their instincts to make plays. This worked against Ohio State the first time, forcing the Buckeyes into multiple three-and-outs while also limiting the explosive plays the Buckeyes’ offense is known for.

You add experience to that with eight defensive starters returning for the Irish and some experienced portal additions to boot, this will be the first real test for Ohio State. The defensive line has to replace Isaiah Foskey, who broke a school record for sacks. They brought in former Buckeye Javontae Jean-Baptiste to fill that role. In the middle they are huge with a 302 pound nose and 286 pound 3-tech defensive tackle. They also return major contributors at linebacker in J.D. Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Marist Liufau.

All this to say there is a ton of experience returning in a unit that held the Buckeyes to 21 points with an offense that had the second overall pick at quarterback and three draft picks on the offensive line. Ohio State is going on the road to South Bend for his game, and the common theme is once again will they have the questions answered by this week four matchup.

Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Notre Dame has grown old and the games at the famous Notre Dame stadium has not been an elite home field advantage for years. That being said, outside of USC, Michigan, and whenever they get Clemson on the schedule, the biggish names coming through to play Notre Dame are not Ohio State. This could get the best of the Fighting Irish fanbase out, and create a hostile environment for a young offense.

On top of the road environment, Notre Dame’s only secondary replacement is Brandon Joseph, and the two players on the defensive line being replaced have talented fill ins. This returning experience will be hungry to right the wrongs, and if they improve on last year’s performance the Buckeye offense could be in trouble.

Wisconsin — Oct. 28

This game could go one of two ways: similar to last year because Wisconsin basically has the same team minus Nick Herbig and John Torchio, meaning a similar result. Or, Wisconsin improving, controlling the ball, and not giving up easy points in the red zone — a staple of Luke Fickell’s philosophy, which is eerily similar to one of his mentors.

Similar to Notre Dame, they lost some talented players to the draft and are trying to fill that void with transfers. I don’t know if that will be enough to not have the Buckeyes hang 52 on them again, but maybe Fickell has been building a plan since Ryan Day beat him 42-0 back in 2019. There are a lot of storylines here, but the one thing that can’t be overlooked is the regression that has taken place over the past few seasons under Paul Chryst.

Their defense was by no means bad only giving up 20.2 points per game, but with an offense that scored 26.2 points per game with inflated stats from their Illinois State and New Mexico State games, there defense will need to be perfect against an Ohio State team that will have a strong defense of their own. For Wisconsin, winning with Braelon Allen and keeping the defense off the field is the best bet.

Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... Getting into this, Ohio State had seemed to have figured out the Wisconsin defense that could challenge them at times. In the last three matchups between the two schools, Ohio State has won by an average margin of 25 points per game.

There are three reasons this game will be challenging. The first is the familiarity of Fickell with Ohio State, something that Ryan Day and the staff will not over look. Two, this is a trap game after a huge home matchup against Penn State. The last is going on the road to Madison in late October. If Ohio State can’t throw the ball, that is always a worry.

Michigan - Nov. 25

Obviously the Wolverines end up in both articles about the teams that will present challenges to Ohio State. Getting into the defense of the Wolverines led by Jesse Minter, this defensive philosophy has been a real challenge to the Buckeyes these past two seasons. For the Wolverines, it starts with limiting the big plays and forcing third-and-long situations so they can sit on the sticks.

With all the match concepts they play, and on top of that the comfortability their defensive backs have in man coverage, Ohio State has struggled to find offensive rhythms. These back-to-back underwhelming offensive performances are a significant reason Ryan Day has passed the play-calling sticks.

What doesn’t help on why this game will be a challenge is the returnees Michigan is bringing back. Mike Sainristill is back inside at the Nickel and Will Johnson returns at corner to solidify the talent on the back end. They return starting linebacker Junior Colson, but they have to replace three defensive linemen to go with Braiden McGregor.

On top of the experience and scheme, this game is in Ann Arbor at the Big House. Harbaugh’s team has began playing the way he envisioned from the start of his tenure, and that has created a team who challenges the Buckeyes in points of discomfort. They do not allow big plays, and they make teams earn every point.

Why this match up could present a challenge for the Buckeyes... There is nothing bigger than this game, and that pressure has gotten to Ohio State in the last two matchups. Defensively, Michigan has built their defensive strategy on foiling Ohio State’s greatest strengths. This game being on the road adds another element to an already challenging and high pressure matchup.

Can Ohio State finish drives and can they limit the third-and-long situations? Add in all the variables Ohio State has to figure out to the last two years, and it is very obvious why this game is a challenge like no other.

The one common denominator of all these games is they are all on the road, a challenge that can catch any team off guard. With a new quarterback this season and an offensive line that has to find three new starters, there are a lot of questions that can be their own challenges.

You add to the mix a group of defenses that return a ton of experience, that could lead to some battles this season. Teams with experienced fronts are dangerous against a new offensive line, and if they can make whoever ends up starting at quarterback uncomfortable, the talented receivers could be rendered useless. This is obviously worst case scenario, but at the end of the day that can be possible.

There is also the question of how smooth the play-calling transition occurs. If Brian Hartline isn’t up to the task that could lead to even greater challenges. Given Ohio State’s offensive success since Day has got on to campus, that probably won’t be the case. The talent is great, but finding success against all these teams will be a challenge.