The Ohio State defense came out of the gate quickly against Illinois. The Buckeyes forced two turnovers, including Bradley Roby's interception return for a touchdown, in helping the Buckeyes to a 28-0 lead. Just when it looked like the Buckeye defense officially turned a corner, however, Ohio State suffered repeated lapses in allowing Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to gain yards through the air and on read plays in allowing 28 points.
The Buckeyes created pressure against the Illini, but when Ohio State defenders did not get home Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was able to move in the pocket and make plays against the Buckeye second level defenders.
The Buckeyes' inconsistent defensive performance can squarely be put on the linebacker play. A unit that was already thin and underwhelming to begin with was decimated with the absence of Josh Perry and Curtis Grant. Ohio State also missed Joey Bosa once he left the game.
Entering this season, the Buckeye defense was the unit with inexperienced players and question marks. Yet the defense is the group that has been beset with critical injuries, reducing its effectiveness. Below I examine the Buckeye coaching staff efforts to cover up linebacker deficiencies, the inability to do so, and the trade-offs the Buckeye coaching staff must consider going forward.
It is fair to say that the Ohio State linebacker corps against Illinois was a mess. Ohio State has six non-redshirt linebackers – Ryan Shazier, Perry, Grant, Cam Williams, walk-on sophmore Joe Burger, and freshman Trey Johnson (who has been injured). With Perry, Grant and Johson out against Illinois, the Buckeyes were down to three. The defensive coaching staff was forced to play Williams, who has played Sam linebacker this year, as Mike linebacker in the nickel.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell sought ways to cover for this glaring deficiency. Ohio State played ample amounts of their odd-30 front, using Noah Spence as another linebacker. This took Spence away from defensive end where he has been so effective, but provided another defender in force support.
In passing downs the Buckeyes minimized the linebackers on the field by using a dime package with Shazier as a hand-down defensive end.
Only Works so Well
Staff attempts to cover for the linebacker deficiency could only extend so far, however. The Buckeyes created pressure upon Scheelhaase, but when they were unable to get to the quarterback the Buckeye defense was left vulnerable in two areas – the underneath passing game and against the zone read.
This problem became more acute when Bosa, who already had 2.5 sacks, left the game.
Bosa was particularly missed against the Illini read game. Illinois was able to gain easy yards in the second half running inside zone read slice against Ohio State's backside scrape exchange featuring Adolphus Washington and Williams. Washington over pursued inside zone. He needed to instead squeeze down on the offensive tackle down block and force the H-back to re-direct. Williams, by contrast, took too much of an outside path, creating an easy kick-out block and allowing Scheelhaase to exploit the resulting hole for several explosive plays.
This was but one example of Illinois was able to exploit Ohio State's depth issues. Washington has been hobbled by injuries and does not have the same explosiveness. As noted, Williams was playing out of position and repeatedly took poor angles or failed to make tackles. The result was basic mistakes that yielded yards.
The lack of linebackers is also adversely affecting the Buckeye special teams. Backup linebackers and defensive backs are the players most likely to fill coverage teams. As Meyer noted, with so many injuries the Buckeyes are playing numerous offensive players on special teams. This came to haunt Ohio State, as running back Warren Ball missed a relatively easy tackle, allowing Illinois to return a punt for a touchdown and providing the Illini some momentum.
Rock and a Hard Place
This is not to make excuses but to put some context to the choices facing the Buckeye coaching staff. In recent weeks Fickell has utilized more blitzing, in particular with Shazier and Roby, who are Ohio State's two most effective blitzers. But they are also two of the defense's most consistent pass defenders and Illinois demonstrated the trade-off in blitzing them. Both made plays, but the Buckeye secondary was left extremely vulnerable without them in coverage.
When the blitz did not get home Scheelhaase was able to exploit the Buckeye secondary. For instance, on Illinois' first touchdown pass Ohio State brought a seven man safety blitz. But the Buckeyes did not get pressure, and Scheelhaase threw an easy corner route on a smash combo over Tyvis Powell for a touchdown.
The Buckeye blitz package is thus somewhat feast of famine against an experienced quarterback. Ohio State made plays, but when they did not the Buckeyes do not have enough adequate cover guys at linebacker and safety, particularly with the injuries, to hold up in the back end.
Perry, Grant and Bosa's return will be a welcome tonic. Perry's return is particularly important. It was a setback for him to miss a game, as he was improving every week with increased reps, especially in space where he has the athleticism to succeed. He had largely replaced Grant as the nickel Mike linebacker, making him a critical component of the Buckeye defense and one who is hard to replace.
Scheelhaase deserves credit. He is an experienced quarterback and leads the Big Ten in passing. Even when Ohio State pressured him he was able to scramble and keep his eyes down field. It was unrealistic to expect Ohio State to completely shut out an Illini offense that has scored points throughout the season.
But the Buckeyes simply do not have the depth to absorb two starting linebackers being out with injury. The Ohio State defense lacks enough defenders to consistently maintain coverage to begin with, and that problem is only made worse with starters being out.
That does not mean that Fickell should greatly alter strategy, however. The Buckeye defense has been more effective when they are creating pressure and forcing negative plays. Furthermore, they have often been unable to shut down passing games playing base defense. Most quarterbacks do not handle pressure as well as Scheelhaase did, and the Buckeyes defense has a better chance with their injured linebackers and Bosa returning.