Ohio State fans have very high standards when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. There is a benchmark for excellence in Columbus that spectators demand and when those expectations aren’t met, people tend to get antsy. And when folks get antsy with the defense, they rail against it.
For the past two seasons, the Silver Bullets have not lived up to what fans expect. The defense has come under fire for that. Fans don’t seem to trust the defense as much these days. That is probably to be expected when a fullback has to turn into a linebacker to shore up some of the leaks.
However, in 2013 the defense has improved in a key area that is being generally overlooked — third down efficiency.
The benefits to stopping third down plays are obvious. Holding the other team on third down limits their scoring opportunities, assists with field position, gives the offense more chances to put points on the board, and keeps the defense fresh for later in the game.
In 2011, Ohio State allowed opponents to convert 74 of 184 (40%) third down attempts into first downs. This was reflected in extended drives, a tired defense in the second half, and points allowed. It certainly had an impact in the win/loss column, with Ohio State finishing 6-7. It also exacerbated the severe offensive deficiencies of that 2011 team.
Last year, even though the defense improved on third down and the team didn’t lose at all, opponents still converted a third (63/191) of their third down opportunities into a fresh set of downs. At the very least it affected field position. Since Tom Herman was reluctant to call passing plays, it cut the playbook down and limited what Braxton Miller and the offense could do.
This season, the Buckeye defense is getting off the field quicker under Luke Fickell and Everett Withers.
Through the first five games this year, Ohio State’s foes have moved the chains on third down only 23% of the time (16/69). The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten in opposition third down conversion rate, trailing only Michigan State (21%).
You have to consider the competition, of course, but the high water mark came against Florida A&M. The Rattlers converted just one of 11 third down plays. Buffalo was 3/14, San Diego State was 3/16 and Wisconsin was 3/12. California was the most successful opponent on third down to date, turning 6/16 (37.5%) third downs into first downs.
Because the defense usually gets off the field quickly, Ohio State's offense has spent more time on the field. The Buckeyes rank third in the conference in time of possession this season, at just over 33 minutes per game.
To no one's surprise, Ryan Shazier has led the charge for the 2013 OSU defense. The junior linebacker is currently ninth in the B1G in tackles, with 37, and leads the league in tackles for loss (six solo, two assists). His success is reflective of the overall efficacy of the defensive line, which has swallowed up blockers so the linebackers and secondary can make plays.
Christian Bryant’s season-ending injury may affect future conversion rates (it's never a good thing to lose a starting safety, after all). But if Bryant's replacement steps up and Ohio State can continue to strangle opponents on third down, it will greatly impact the chances of an undefeated 2013 season.