Ohio State is 4-0 and ranked fourth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, which were released on Tuesday evening, but all is not well in Columbus.
Not after the Buckeyes nearly blew a 28-point lead to Indiana last week, thanks in large part to the 491 passing yards the Ohio State secondary yielded to Indiana quarterback Michael Penix and company.
The torching of the Buckeye pass defense and the resulting near-defeat sent panic throughout the fanbase and raised the alarms of national college football analysts everywhere. While there will be no panic found within the walls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the coaching staff knows there is tremendous growth left to be done if the pass defense is to become an asset rather than a hindrance to Ohio State’s national title hopes.
On Tuesday, during his weekly meeting with the media, head coach Ryan Day stated the obvious in pointing out the biggest issue plaguing the Buckeyes last week was the number of big plays they relented. Perhaps most worrisome or encouraging, depending on how Buckeye fans choose to digest it, is what Day said following that statement.
“This issue was the big plays, and one of the things about this defense is that it’s designed to avoid big plays,” Day said. “If we can get back to that then that’s really the idea of this defense, is to make you work your way down the field.”
For a defense that is designed to force long drives in order for a team to score, that simply hasn’t been the case over the first half of the regular season. The warning signs were there when Ohio State allowed seven passing plays of at least 20 yards at Penn State last month, and three more chunk plays allowed against a lesser-talented Rutgers team earlier this month suggested the issues in the back end were still very real.
Indiana, with the best passing attack Ohio State has seen to date, turned those issues into a full-on disaster on Saturday.
Asked on Tuesday if the issues plaguing the secondary are an issue of scheme, personnel, or something else, Day said he felt they were a combination of all three things. However, he feels strongly the coaching staff and the players will make improvements, saying the lapses dragging them down are correctable.
“In all three of those areas, we can improve, and we will,” Day said. “We talked about, and we have a plan for that. It starts with practice today. We have to go out there and get some of those things fixed and make sure we’re not giving up big plays, that we’re forcing teams to go down the field.”
Day said it starts with that, but he added that they are also looking into “other combinations” of players in the secondary that “work better.” He added, “I know we can correct (the issues), I know we have the right scheme. Now we just have to go do it.”
The struggle of the secondary has been most personified in safety Marcus Hooker, who simply hasn’t found his footing in his first year as a starter. Given his struggles, Hooker figures to have competition for the position this week based on Day’s comments as he attempts to patch the holes in the secondary.
“That position for us is somebody that is very, very important,” Day said. “He’s the one that has to keep it all in front of him, and he’s in charge back there. Marcus has had some good moments, he’s also been a little inconsistent. Coach (Kerry) Coombs and he are going to work on that this week, address some of the things that he needs to get better at, and we’ll look at a bunch of different combinations this week to see what’s best in getting this thing fixed.”
Coombs said he agrees with Day in that most of the defensive woes boil down to execution, but he is also always evaluating the scheme he’s deploying in the secondary to ensure it is the best for everybody on the field.
Coombs also took much of the shortcomings of the pass defense on himself, saying he has to do better as a coach in every area to get it turned around.
“Whatever you see on the field is a reflection of what you’ve taught and how you’ve taught,” Coombs said. “So when any player at any position makes a mistake, as his coach, you should take that personally. And I do.”
Time is running thin for Ohio State to figure out those issues prior to the postseason. The Buckeyes will likely be able to overcome any shortcomings en route to a Big Ten title, but what might await them in a national semifinal could be nightmare fuel for a secondary prone to conceding big plays. With just three weeks remaining in the regular season, Day and the coaching staff’s commitment to fixing those holes might want to start producing results sooner rather than later.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.