The Ohio State defense continued its upward rise in shutting out Purdue.
The Boilermakers' offense may be poor, but it does not diminish the increasingly sound schemes and execution from the Buckeye defense. The Buckeyes continued their strategic framework from Penn State, namely utilizing a simpler, more aggressive strategy. In so doing, the Buckeyes greatly limited the passing game breakdowns that were previously arising by consistently pressuring the quarterback.
Ohio State has also received improved play from several important contributions, namely Noah Spence and CJ Barnett. Inexperienced players such as Josh Perry are also more fundamentally sound, cutting down lapses that had previously bedeviled the Buckeye defense.
The upshot is that while Ohio State will assuredly face better offenses, there is nonetheless a noticeable increase in the defense's effectiveness.
Below I address the Buckeye defensive plan, the suddenly vibrant pass rush and the impact of Spence and Barnett.
Stick to the Plan
Against Purdue the Ohio State coaching staff stuck to the same formula that was successful against Penn State. As before, the Buckeyes operate from either a 4-3 under or 4-2-5 over defense aligned to the field. But the Buckeyes have made several subtle adjustments. Two are particularly notable.
First, Luke Fickell and Everett Withers have consistently placed Barnett as the boundary safety. Barnett aligns within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. From there, he can be applied as an additional run defender in single high safety coverage schemes (cover 1 or cover 3), can play the deep half in quarter-quarter-half, or can defend the number 2 receiver to the boundary in man coverage.
Second, the Buckeye coaching staff have put Spence as an outside shade defensive end and left him there, rather than aligning at times as a stand up outside linebacker. This has allowed Spence to play faster with less pass coverage responsibilities.
These seemingly minor adjustments have paid significant dividends. Barnett's positioning allows the Buckeyes to limit the numeric advantage offenses were gaining by putting tight ends to the boundary against Ohio State's field alignment. Now, Barnett is able to quickly apply himself against the boundary run game, using his aggressiveness to effectively function as an eighth run defender.
But Barnett's alignment also assists the Buckeye pass defense, as he is well positioned to cover tight ends in the flat or seam.
Wherever you came from, Welcome
Allowed to play to his strengths, Spence is transforming the play of the entire Buckeye defense. Able to consistently beat offensive tackles outside, the disruptive pressure he is providing is creating negative plays and forcing opposing quarterbacks out of rhythm.
But beyond that, Spence's play is creating positive externalities for the entire defense. By getting into the offense's backfield he is forcing quarterbacks to move in the pocket. This in turn creates opportunities for others to apply pressure.
Going forward, Spence's play will likely have a bigger multiplier effect. Opponents will be forced to game plan to chip or double team him. This will create openings for someone like Jamal Marcus, a strong pass rusher in his own right, or a blitzing Ryan Shazier.
Perhaps less noticeable but no less important, Ohio State is getting more fundamentally sound play from inexperienced defenders. One such example is Joshua Perry. Perry was lost in pass coverage earlier in the year. For instance, against Iowa he repeatedly bit on play action away from him, leaving the wide underneath flats where he had coverage responsibilities undefended.
This problem was non-existent against the Boilermakers. Purdue tried several similar plays but Perry stayed home every time, making plays in space.
Perhaps more obvious, Doran Grant is becoming an increasingly impactful field corner. The Buckeye coaching staff can combine him with Bradley Roby to provide the defense two strong corners, always a good place to start as a coach if you want to employ a more aggressive strategy.
The Chicken and the Egg go Both Ways
The scheme alteration and improved execution are having a mutually reinforcing effect. The Buckeyes are undoubtedly blitzing more. Two players Fickell repeatedly blitzed Saturday were Shazier and Roby. Roby was utilized multiple times on boundary corner blitzes while Shazier was blitzed in one of two ways. The Buckeyes would bring fix or six man pressures with both inside linebackers, or Shazier was given an automatic blitz check if the running back he was responsible for in man coverage stayed in to block.
Shazier and Roby were both impactful blitzing against Purdue, which is not surprising given that both have long been effective in these roles.
But the Buckeye coaching staff was reluctant to blitz either, presumably because they did not trust the remaining players in pass coverage.
Now, however, Fickell and Everett Withers are implementing such plays with positive results, and their trust is being reinforced with sound execution from others.
Turning up the Heat
However it is coming about, the biggest difference for the Buckeye defense has been consistent pressure, whether it be from a four man rush or blitzing. The Ohio State defense had largely been stout against the run all year, but were giving up yards in the passing game, often through coverage breakdowns by their underneath defenders. But with six sacks Saturday and 25 for the season, the Buckeyes are eliminating those lapses through pressure.
The Buckeyes are rendering opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable and forcing them to deliver the football before they are ready. In turn, the defense is creating negative yardage plays, which have an outsized impact on defensive effectiveness. Offenses are put behind schedule and into must pass situations. This renders opponents one dimensional and allows the Buckeyes to be even more aggressive rushing the quarterback.
Purdue is without question a bad offense. But that does not diminish the obvious improvements the Buckeye defense is making, both in terms of fine tuning their strategy and in fundamental soundness. Ohio State needs to translate it going forward, specifically by proving they can create this consistent pressure against better competition. But they are at least now in a position to do so.