COLUMBUS — Ohio State head coach Ryan Day stood before the media contingent at Big Ten Media Days in August and didn’t mince words about the lofty expectations for his revamped defense under coordinator Jim Knowles. Six weeks into the season, the Silver Bullets are right where they need to be as Ohio State enters its bye week.
Following a 49-20 win over Michigan State on Saturday, Ohio State now ranks seventh nationally in total defense and is giving up an average of just 254 yards per game. Against the run, which was the doom of Ohio State’s season a year ago in losses to Oregon and Michigan, the Buckeyes are allowing just 93 rushing yards per game.
Although it would be fair to question the level of offenses Ohio State has faced through half the season — none rank in the top 60 in total offense — it must also be noted the struggles of the defense a year ago were hardly a result of its inability to withstand the attacks of prolific offenses.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at in the run game,” Knowles said on Tuesday. “We can be better, but I’m just pleased with the way we’re fitting things and the way that we’re playing fast. Guys seem to know the scheme and where they fit and where the ball is going to come out. You feel good about not getting creased because guys are in the right place, which is always important, particularly with a new scheme.”
Knowles added that he is pleased with how his defense has been able to get off the field on third down.
“We’re just starting to approach the level that we want to be at, but there is more that we can do in those two areas,” he said.
As his players get increasingly comfortable in the scheme, and as the scouting report necessitates it in the weeks to come, Knowles said there is more the Ohio State defense can show that should make for an even more dynamic attack as the stakes ramp up.
“There are things that we have installed that we have not shown yet,” Knowles said. “I do that as I kind of think weeks in advance … We’ve put things in now that you’ll see in the coming weeks.”
Of course, as is the case with any unit in football, the defense as a whole has been the beneficiary of several spectacular individual efforts to begin the season. Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg is playing at an All-American level, and fellow linebacker Steele Chambers is playing the best football of his career in his first full season at linebacker.
Add in the steady growth of J.T. Tuimoloau up front, the resurgence of Lathan Ransom following last year’s gruesome leg injury, and the steadiness Tanner McCalister has brought to the secondary as a veteran of Knowles’ defense, it’s not difficult to understand why Ohio State is playing well defensively.
But of all the variables that would heavily impact the success or failure of Ohio State’s defensive turnaround this season, few outside the program could have envisioned the play of defensive tackle Mike Hall Jr. being among the most important.
Sure, Hall’s name was a popular one in the weeks leading up to the start of the season as the sophomore continued to flash in practice and demand the attention of his peers. But through six weeks of play, Hall has emerged as, perhaps, the alpha dog on a line that is playing well across the board.
Hall played just seven snaps last week, as was the intention of his coaches given Hall’s struggles with injury, yet he still managed to make a large impact on the game with 2.5 sacks. On the season, Hall leads Ohio State with 4.5 sacks despite missing one game and playing sparingly in others.
Asked on Tuesday if Hall is, in fact, emerging as the alpha of the group, defensive line coach Larry Johnson was non-commital, instead saying there are multiple players who can make a case for that title.
“We’ve still got some dogs left,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can say right now, six weeks in. We’re really pleased with where we’re at as a unit and as a defense. The next six weeks will determine who that guy’s going to be. There are some frontrunners, but there are always a couple more dogs who can run in the pack. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Not every aspect of the defense has excelled through the first half of the season, however. Ohio State has yet to face a truly dangerous passing attack to date, yet the play of cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cam Brown has been a cause for concern as the Buckeyes enter the meat of their schedule.
Both Burke and Brown have been pulled from the game at various points this season, being replaced by redshirt freshman J.K. Johnson. Neither Day nor Knowles expressed much concern on Tuesday regarding the play of the corners, however, instead pointing out they simply have to be better at finishing plays in which they’re already in a good position.
“We have to be better at those 50-50 balls,” Knowles said. “That’s just the reality of playing defense. You can play great all game and they can just toss a couple (passes) up in the air, and if you don’t win them, you give up a couple touchdowns. That’s the game we play, but we want to get better in that area.”
Day said it will be important to put Burke and Brown in as many game-like situations during practice this week to get them more comfortable finding the football and finishing off plays strongly.
“I don’t think it’s any mystery that one of the things we have to do is finish some plays out at corner,” Day said. “We’re right there, but we just haven’t quite finished some of them. We have to learn to finish, especially in one-on-one situations because we know that’s going to keep coming our way until we prove that we can (stop it). That’ll be a huge emphasis this week.”