Second-half struggles continue for Buckeyes defense


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Ohio State found itself in a familiar position on Saturday as it headed to the halftime locker room trailing Michigan 14-10.

For the third consecutive season, the Buckeyes had played Michigan relatively evenly, putting themselves in a position where one strong half of football would push them to the Big Ten Championship Game. But just as the first half felt all too familiar, so did Ohio State’s inability to get stops when it mattered most.

After receiving the second half’s opening kickoff, Michigan tacked on a field goal to give itself a 17-10 lead. Ohio State drew even on the ensuing drive, scoring a touchdown to tie the score for the first time since the game was scoreless in the first quarter. Finally, Ohio State had seized momentum after seemingly fighting an uphill battle all afternoon following Kyle McCord’s first-quarter interception that set up Michigan’s first touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The Ohio State defense responded by promptly giving the lead right back to Michigan as the Wolverines marched 75 yards on seven plays to regain a 24-17 lead. Michigan went on to add a field goal late in the third quarter to put Ohio State in a 10-point hole it was never able to escape.

McCord’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison Jr. cut the Michigan lead to 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter, and Ohio State once again found itself in position to potentially take its first lead if its defense could muster just one stop.

Instead, Michigan proceeded to string together a staggering seven-minute drive that all but crippled Ohio State’s chances of winning and, in many ways, represented the slow death of its championship hopes. Michigan converted three first downs on the drive while forcing Ohio State head coach Ryan Day to burn all of his timeouts.

The Ohio State defense did manage to achieve the bare minimum of forcing Michigan to kick a field goal, but the damage had already been done as the 30-24 deficit forced McCord and the offense to get a touchdown with just a minute of the clock with which to work.

For all the improvement it showed over the course of the season in year two under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, the Ohio State defense finished the regular season by allowing points on all four of Michigan’s possessions in the second half. Earlier in the season, Knowles spoke of the stop rate statistic being one of the few statistics in which he puts any stock when evaluating his defense given that the statistic measures the one goal —preventing points — every defense holds above all else.

In that regard, Ohio State’s second half defensively was a categorical failure. Even more troubling, the inability to get stops on Saturday added to a stretch that has now seen Ohio State allow points on 12 of the 13 possessions Michigan has had in the second halves on the last three meetings dating back to 2021.

“We just didn’t get the stops when we had to,” Knowles said after the game. “We had some guys in position but didn’t make the plays. You always wish you just made those plays in the critical moments. I thought the guys played hard, but it’s just disappointing.”

Knowles said the improvements his defense showed this season after a disastrous close to the 2022 season were “not enough” given its shortcomings in the biggest game of the season.

“Ultimately, you gotta win this game. I certainly feel like we were a play short, and that’s something I gotta keep working on,” Knowles said.

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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