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That Team Up North: Key stats that show how Ohio State’s defense fell short, how they rebound this season

Ohio State’s has failed in three key areas against Michigan.

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 Ohio State’s rival. We are talking all things TTUN. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”That Team Up North” articles here.

There is no loved lost when the story is about “That Team Up North.” They are a truly despicable group of individuals and deserve to be failures. That being said, they are 2-0 in the last two matchups against Ohio State, and they have found the secret sauce as well as the confidence needed to finally get that Buckeye monkey off their back.

Last year, the Buckeyes controlled much of the game, but costly mistakes on the defensive side of the ball destroyed the momentum. To add to that mess, the Wolverines once again were able to lean on the Buckeye defense throughout the game until the Ohio State collapsed again, giving up two long daggers of touchdowns to close the game out. The offense began to sputter, and the defense failed to have its back. That is how Michigan separated.

For Michigan, they will once again keep diving into the key philosophies and strategies that worked to confuse and dismantle Ohio State’s defense. Jim Knowles will have an entire offseason to look at his errors from the matchup. If they can limit big plays, that is the first area to start, but they will need to improve in other spots as well to truly ensure a win against the Wolverines.

If the defense can’t improve, the clock will actually begin start ticking on Ryan Day’s tenure. The offense wasn’t perfect, but steps have been taken to make that right. That puts pressure on Knowles and the defensive staff to fix the crucial mistakes, and play sound, fundamental football.

Key stats Michigan won

Looking back, the Wolverines weren’t dominant, but made huge plays in key situations that separated the teams. These situations were really told in the statistical side of the matchup. Michigan’s numbers weren’t better than Ohio State’s overall, but how they scored their 45 points was incredibly efficient – and Ohio State sure helped them a lot with their mistakes.

Giving up big plays

Ohio State was leading 10-3. The next two possessions for the Buckeyes defensively turned the tides of the matchup incredibly quick. Michigan scored touchdowns of 69 and 75 yards to get to 17 points. The main issues with how those points were let up is how much Ohio State had to work for their points. For Michigan, this showed a different way to win games, even if a very out of character one.

The first of the two plays came after Ohio State held the Wolverines to 52 offensive yards. In a third-and-long situation to get off the field for a third consecutive series with a punt, Knowles called a zero-man max pressure look. A missed tackle on the outside turned a short gain into the first touchdown of the day. That 69-yard touchdown by Cornelius Johnson altered the momentum of the game, and took the wind out of the sails for the entire Ohio State team.

The second of the two big plays was after Ohio State had a long drive that resulted in a field goal. After kicking the ball off for a touchback, the very next moment the Buckeyes subbed in Cam Martinez at safety. He bit on the first of a double move route from Johnson, who ended up by himself behind the defense. 75-yards later Michigan took their first lead of the game, and changed the whole dynamic in the process.

Ohio State’s defense gave up six touchdowns on the day. Five of those plays were longer than 45 yards. Seeing the box score again and seeing 69, 75, 45, 75, and 70 yards next to the touchdowns is unacceptable. That was exactly what Knowles was brought into fix, and he was able to do that early in the game. If Knowles can harness that for the entirety of four quarters, those big plays won’t happen.

Giving up big plays was the Buckeyes’ kryptonite down the stretch, and once again was the difference at the end of the game. This is a problem that should be improved upon in year two with the players having more experience in the system. Limiting these types of plays would also take pressure off of the offense, allowing them to play more aggressive.

Zero forced turnovers

Shifting the momentum of the game can happen in multiple ways. For Michigan, they were able to find big plays against Ohio State’s defense. Since Ohio State was not finding those same explosive plays, forcing a turnover could have gotten the defense’s confidence back. The Buckeyes were not the best at forcing turnovers on a per game basis, ranking 68th in the category.

Against Michigan the previous year the Wolverines got off to a fast start, and they were on the verge of scoring again. Then former Ohio State safety Bryson Shaw came up with the biggest play of his Buckeye career picking off Cade McNamara. This past season, the mistake free football Michigan played was nauseating. Every time J.J. McCarthy would throw a dangerous pass, it would fall helplessly to the ground for an incompletion.

This is an area Ohio State needs to improve in holistically next year. How they do it is by capitalizing on mistakes. Thinking back to Ohio State’s recent wins, there were always crucial turnovers that decided things. Shea Patterson thew picks, Jake Rudock did as well, and Wilton Speight was just as reliable in that department.

Against Michigan these past two years they have only had one turnover in the matchup. The Buckeyes had two desperation turnovers at the end of the game, but if a team is making mistakes like giving up huge plays, there needs to be a way to take that momentum back. This year, finding more ways to create turnovers is a key part of the job Jim Knowles has to do if his defense is going to take another step forward.

3rd down defense

In Ohio State’s win in 2019, the third down conversion rate told the entire story of that matchup. The Buckeyes were 9-of-15 on third down, Michigan was 2-of-13 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down. This is simple math. The team that can stay on the field offensively and turn those first down conversions into points usually wins the game.

That has been Michigan these past two seasons. The first of the two wins for Michigan, the Wolverines were 5-of-8 on third down with one fourth down conversion that turned into a touchdown. Ohio State was 8-of-18 and did not convert the one fourth down they went for. Michigan’s defense was getting off the field, and Ohio State’s was not.

The defense has not been performing on key downs against Michigan. The offense has obviously failed on its side, but the fact Michigan only had eight third downs says everything that needs to be said. The Buckeyes were getting rolled over, and when the money downs came, they did not make the needed plays to get the offense back on the field.

This past season, Michigan was 7-of-16 on third down, which is not a great number. The issue was those seven conversions were all crucial plays, and Ohio State was unable to recover. The Buckeyes need to get better on third downs. This is where good defenses turn into great defenses. Winning in the red zone – which was not an issue for Michigan because they scored their one trip – and third down success rate are the two keys that show how much mettle a defense has.

Knowles was not going to get that in year one, but Ohio State was hopeful. This year these mistakes won’t be acceptable against anyone, let alone the biggest matchup of the season.

These statistical points are the indicators coaches use to evaluate the success the defense has in different areas. Against Michigan the Buckeyes failed in limiting big plays, forcing turnovers, and getting off the field in key situations. That is the holy trinity in defensive failure, and there is no wonder Ohio State lost the game so handedly this season. These stats define the failures of the Buckeyes in the two most recent matchups.

In 2023, Ohio State has the exact areas that can and will be the difference in The Game. The challenge will not be any easier, as Sherrone Moore has devised back-to-back game plans that have found the weaknesses in Ohio State’s scheme. For the Buckeyes, this battle between Knowles and Moore will not only define the game, but likely the next few years of the rivalry.

Lastly, Michigan has been better philosophically and that has shown in their belief in the on field execution. That is why when Johnson ran for 69 yards, the game completely changed. The Buckeyes were tight, and there is no stat that measures that. There are plays that show it, and decisions that do as well. If the Buckeyes buy in, maybe they don’t implode again this time around.

Improving in these areas would help any defense, but the Buckeyes need to go a step further. Having a similar result would be unacceptable, and it starts with not giving up big plays. If the Buckeyes can do that, the rest of what they did will likely be enough. If the improvement is not enough to get back in the win column, discussion for bigger changes will be imminent.