The Downward Spiral

By Michael Citro on December 12, 2013 at 4:15p
Ohio State's defense went from yielding 12 points per game in 2009 to 20+ the past two years.

It’s not a secret that the 2013 Ohio State defense has not been up to the standard that fans and coaches expect from the Silver Bullets. And it wasn’t last year either.

Defenders in the Scarlet & Gray have been more like the Silver Blanks than the Silver Bullets the last few seasons (amirite?).

Tresselball was a cavalcade of tough defense, setting up favorable field position through outstanding special teams, and running the football to control the game and set up explosion plays by the skill players. But the last five years have seen a disturbing trend for a defense that had been the team’s calling card under Jim Tressel.

Points allowed have climbed alarmingly in recent years. While the Buckeyes have developed an offense to keep up with what the defense has yielded, for the most part, points against have nearly doubled from 2009 to the present.

We’ll take a look at the rise in scoring against Ohio State’s defense. To reflect the defense as accurately as possible, the numbers exclude the special teams and defensive scores (safeties and touchdowns) the Buckeyes have allowed over this span.

Half a decade ago, the Buckeyes boasted a solid defensive line of Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward, Doug Worthington and Todd Denlinger. Brian Rolle led a solid, if unspectacular linebacking corps that also included Ross Homan and Austin Spitler. Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines were at safety, while Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence worked the corners. That defense held opponents to just 12 points per game.

Led by defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, the 2009 defense posted three shutouts on the season, including back-to-back blankings of Toledo (38-0) and Illinois (30-0). Those Buckeyes held Minnesota and Penn State to one measly touchdown each. And they finished the season by holding Chip Kelly's high-flying Oregon offense to just 17 points in the Rose Bowl.

In 2010 — which would turn out to be Tressel’s last year at the helm — the defense again yielded just 12 points per game over 13 contests. Heyward returned as a starter and was joined on the line by Dexter Larimore, Nathan Williams and John Simon. Andrew Sweat replaced Spitler at linebacker and Ohrian Johnson replaced Coleman in the back four.

The only shutout was a 49-0 blasting of Purdue, a too-late payback for the Purdue Harbor game, but Ohio State held five other opponents to 10 or fewer points and locked down Bobby Petrino’s prolific Arkansas offense for the majority of the 2011 Sugar Bowl, in a memorable 31-26 win.

Jim Heacock, mentor of Luke Fickell.Heacock's defense slid from 2010 to 2011 and got worse
after he left.

Tressel was replaced by Luke Fickell on an interim basis for the 2011 season and Heacock stayed on as defensive coordinator. Fickell had been co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach under Heacock the previous five seasons.

The starters on defense included Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy on the line; Sweat and Storm Klein at linebacker; Tyler Moeller at star; and a defensive backfield of Bradley Roby, Travis Howard, Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett.

Ohio State opened that 2011 year with a 42-0 shutout win over a dreadful Akron team. Then the cracks started to show. Toledo scored 22 the next week in a close win and the Miami Hurricanes put up 24 in a Buckeye road loss. Seven of the last 10 opponents scored at least 20 points and the Buckeye defense finished the season allowing 19.8 points per game in a 6-7 season.

Ohio State lost the last four games after getting into position to control their own destiny in the Leaders Division. Those final four opponents scored a combined 110 points, whereas the entire 2009 schedule had only posted 163. Clearly something was wrong.

Urban Meyer took over the program after 2011 and kept Fickell on as a co-defensive coordinator with Everett Withers. The 2012 defensive line saw Williams return from injury, joining Simon, Goebel and Hankins as starters. Ryan Shazier started with Klein and Etienne Sabino, although Klein was eventually replaced by Zach Boren. The entire starting back four returned.

But things got even worse.

Ohio State failed to record a shutout all year and every team scored at least 10 points. Seven of the 12 opponents scored 20 or more points, with two dropping 30+, including an unheard-of 49 by Indiana. The Buckeyes finished the season allowing an average of 20.8 points per game. When the offense is forced to average three touchdowns just to have a shot at a victory, things are not going well. As a comparison, no Tressel-led Ohio State team ever allowed more than 20.3 (2001 — the most points allowed in that era).

Tackling and poor angles were an issue much of the season. Boren settled things down a little, but every team except Wisconsin scored at least 21 points the rest of the way. The Badgers were held to 14 at home, which was promising, but the promise often went unfulfilled, despite moments of brilliance – such as a second half against Michigan, in which the Wolverines couldn’t cross midfield.

Entering this season, there were a lot of question marks. The Buckeyes had to replace the entire starting defensive line, Boren and Sabino at linebacker, and Howard at corner. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, true frosh Joey Bosa, and veteran backup Michael Bennett became the starters on the line. Shazier was joined by Curtis Grant and Josh Perry in the middle of the defense, with Tyvus Powell subbing at star in the nickel. Cornerback Doran Grant joined Roby, Barnett and Bryant in the backfield.

The defense was better at times in 2013 than 2012, but still allowed 20.2 points per game. Breakdowns, missed tackles and bad angles continued to be a problem. The Buckeyes did manage to post two shutouts, but they were against dreadful Purdue and FCS opponent Florida A&M. They also came within 1:41 of shutting out a San Diego State team that had yet to figure out an offensive identity.

Seven teams scored 20 or more points against Ohio State this season. So the defense has improved only by the slightest degree since last year’s low water mark in points again. I suppose the good news is that offense and special teams allowed 16 fewer points than in 2012.

What is to blame for this slide may be one factor or several. Draw your own conclusions or accept the theories of others. Heacock was still the team's defensive chief when the downward spiral started in 2011, but his protoge Fickell was head coach instead of co-DC. Then it got even worse when Fickell moved back to co-defensive coordinator in the post-Heacock era. To point solely at Fickell is to ignore the possibility that a Fickell/Withers partnership might not work, or to dismiss the fact that Heacock was still around for the bad 2011 defense.

You could also point to a host of attrition, by injury and/or transfer, depleting the defensive depth. How different might this defense look with Jonathan Newsome, Conner Crowell or Jordan Whiting competing for a spot at linebacker with Perry and Grant? What if current All-ACC safety Jeremy Cash had still been around to replace the injured Bryant? How much more competition would there be at cornerback if Dominic Clarke, Najee Murray or Pee Wee Gambrell were still around?

Whatever the problem (or problems), points allowed is a major cause of concern for Urban Meyer if he wants to accomplish all of his goals for his tenure at Ohio State. And it won't truly seem like an Ohio State football team until it's fixed.


Comments Show All Comments


I have to hold onto the hope that Meyer will get it fixed. He has to. After digesting the Sparty loss what sucks the most is after everything that went down this season we still did not win the B1G and it was largely due to the D. That will be eating at Meyer until the 2014 season kicks off. It will be eating at him the rest of his life probably.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Tanner's picture

The back 7 this year was the worst I've ever seen play for the Buckeyes, and the truly alarming thing, I don't really see how it's going to be better next year.

JoshAlum's picture

I think we'll see a lot better back seven next year. 
Even assuming Shazier is gone, We're probably looking at Trey Johnson, Mike Mitchell, Curtis Grant/Josh Perry/Cam Williams linebackers.
Secondary we'll have Doran Grant and Eli Apple as cornerbacks. 
Safeties Vonn Bell Cam Burrow.
Tyvis Powell at Star. 
Even looking at just what is already at the roster, it looks really promising. 

dwcbuckeye's picture

not so fast my friend
Seriously, most of those players you mention are unproven commodities.  We don't know if they will be any better than the guys they will replace.  More significantly, if the coaches and/or scheme remains the same on the defense, it may not matter who is actually playing.

jaxbuckeye's picture

Cam Williams REALLY troubled me.  On WAY too many occasions when I replayed a long run from an opposing rb, it was Cam Williams in the hole with a chance to make the tackle for no gain or a loss and he completely blew it.  Probably happened like five times. I know he is young so I am hopeful but that was not a good sign.

penguinpower's picture

I have seen this before.

penguinpower's picture

I have seen this before and here is my take on this. Really it is simple. The DL is not good enough to get consistent pressure with 4 down linemen. The DL is not able to disrupt plays as in the past. They are young too, we need to give it time. What they are doing is playing the LB's up to help with stopping the run. We even bring the safety up to stop the run. Roby is a true SS and plays well with run support. Every good DC knows that the key to football is still "run the ball,stop the run". We are hell bent on stopping the run at all costs but we don't want to give up the big play (which inevitibly happens anyway) so we put the secondary in coverage and the LB's disappear into the DL. Corner blitzes work the same way, send the corner in and bring the S down. We still don't get enough pressure but we do hold teams down in rushing yards. However, we give up every thing in the middle and we get burned on screens and draws. A huge zone is created in the middle of the field between the secondary and the line. Everyone plays run and we force the DB's into plays that last a long time because we don't get pressure.

Back in 2002 we got pressure with 3 down linemen against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl(ranked #1 at the time). Remember that? I recall the broadcasters disbelief in what they were seeing because Miami was supposed to be so good that we couldn't do that to them. When the DL can get that kind of pressure it makes everyone else look like superstars behind them. When the secondary doesn't have to cover long, or a QB is throwing under duress, the chances for a turnover are much greater. Completion rates are way down.

I think the theory being employed by the our DC's is since we can't get pressure with the DL, then sell out on the run and create and umbrella in the secindary. That way you give up every intermediate pass play but don't give up the TD. Once in the red zone it will be more difficult to throw those passes becuase the space is limited.

I personally don't like it. I would rather see us play man coverage. We should have the better athletes. But coaches are very conservative.

buckeyedude's picture

You make really good points, but when I watched the OSU/MSU game(totally sober until the 2nd half), I saw Joey Bosa getting pressure on almost every single play. The D-line is not the problem.
I think the problem is our D secondary and the scheme they run. Whenever they play that soft zone defense, I saw numerous OSU defenders just standing around watching, while the opposing WRs were wide open, making it look easy.  And the other problem is the OSU LBs. They're not very good at defending the pass either.



Joe Beale's picture

PENGUINPOWER, you nailed it. They were unable to pressure the passer in the first half against Iowa, and so in the second half they started bringing the blitz with regularity. That worked for several games, until UM countered it with lots of screens, and then we were screwed. MSU started the game with 3-4 screens on their first drive, sending us a message not to blitz. Then we spent the game at their mercy because we're not able to get pressure with only four players. 

Balkestud's picture

Is anyone else getting REAL excited about Dante Booker yet? I am pumped because much like Bosa he has the size already to come in and be a force. Lets face facts our linebackers were awful, which is why it still bothers me that we stayed in a 4-3 on the deciding drive that msu took the lead. If we can get McMillan as well then the real linebacker U is back baby

It gets kind of rough in the back of my limousine,



Thunderbrow's picture

So.........bring back Heacock?

I mean everyone heals people, comforts people, learns from you, learns from me, whatever.

jkrk's picture

Can we all finally just admit that Heacock left the cupboard bare? 

Seattle Linga's picture

And it's all Meyer's fault 

BuckeyeCash22's picture

I think what this illustrates, is the monumental importance of the line backing core. The LB's make the D lineman better, and those 7, in turn, make the back 4 better. Remember the days of Hawk, Schlegel, and Carpenter? Those guys solidified the whole defense and made everyone better.
Our DB's are not bad. It was the LB's as a whole that made it tougher. Plays lasted longer, meaning they had to cover longer, and eventually a guy got open. 

Zimmy07's picture

I wonder if this doesn't have as much to do with Ohio State's defensive personel (I actually think the current group has equal or more talent than any of the others named) than it does with the number of teams effectively running spread offenses.
In 2000 how many teams ran the spread.
Is the Andy Reid solution what you have to do to shut it down?  Play man, bottle up the run game and attack?

Todd-Not Boeckmann's picture

The one common denominator that coincides with the slippage of the silver bullets, is the safety position. They may have been great leaders, but they couldn't cover a bed with a blanket and were Horrendous tacklers when it came to taking angles. New Safeties alone should improve that defense. Highly rated youngsters at linebacker should make that unit stronger as well and I am optimistic about the future because of that.
i think two major decisions cost tOSU the BTCG:
first, was the refusal to run Carlos Hyde on third and two when he was getting at least 2 yards on every carry. Particularly when you knew we were in four down territory.
secondly, The refusal to replace Pittsburgh Brown with Von Bell or Cam Burroughs was another major mistake. Brown was clueless and lost that whole game and single-handedly kept Spartan drives going on third down.

On the wall guarding the North Coast from all Weasel invasions.


Many are starting to consider Heacock to provide us the Sliver Bullet defense, but remember that even he admitted to not knowing which dimension to plan against when playing UFM's spread attack at Florida before the title game, since they had so many weapons.  So I am not sold on his defensive philosophy being the long-term solution (maybe the short-term one, but definitely not long-term).  I give him and Fickell credit for being disciplined with their schemes and coaching talent to shut down the run, but those pass defenses were only serviceable at best.  
Ans as much as I respect MD and PN at MSU, and as much as I would trade our defense for theirs, I don't think they have the dynamic upside at each position as say, an FSU - granted, you just need the D to play as a solid unit.  I know that what they accomplished with their staff was more impressive since they don't have as much talent as an FSU, but they haven't been tested by an offense like FSU either.
All-in-all, I would like UFM to find a secondary/safties coach who has a Tom Herman-like young mind and ability to coach, and get Fickell to train with SEC teams who have good D-schemes that are used effectively.

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

KevinJ's picture

There are only 2 teams in the SEC playing defense Bama and FL the rest no thanks. It would be nice if Urban could steal DJ Durkin from FL. The bonus is more butt hurt for Gator Nation.

biggy84's picture

So I am not sold on his defensive philosophy being the long-term solution (maybe the short-term one, but definitely not long-term)
Heacock's defense did work in the long term. The article also mentions how his defenses shut down Oregon. His track record shows that he certainly knew how to put a strong defense on the field.
The article mentions how the defense started to slip in '11 with Heacock at the helm. I think that statement doesn't take into account how that season truly was. The defense was getting zero help from the offense. Baus was dreadful, and Brax was thrust into a situation he wasn't ready for. Hard to keep your defense fresh when your qb completes one pass in a game.


Fair points Biggy, and I agree that any coach/scheme is useless when the defense has to be on the field for extended periods.   But in all my years watching Buckeye defenses, it has always been odd to me that though we have had great defenses at OSU, no secondary unit was collectively feared.  Yes, we have had dependable shutdown corners who can operate on an island (S. Springs, A. Winfield, C. Gamble), but not like MSU with their 2 shutdown corners.  I know that some of it is on the players and some of it on the schemes, but I have yet to recollect a year where we had a secondary that anyone was afraid of.
Perhaps this is more of a talent issue than a scheme issue, so I don't want to point a finger at Heacock necessarily for it, but back in the 90s and early 2000s, anytime a Florida school was mentioned, the fear was that we would get thrown on all over the field (due to our *alleged lack of speed vs the south)... I can't help but to feel that this has not changed... Our formula has been simple every year - stop the run, force the pass, and be opportunistic.  Unfortunately, 'forcing the pass' has exposed us this year, as we were not consistent with the pass rush or the coverage... but I digress.  Long story short - if Heacock could bring us a feared defense, then ok... I may warm up to him, but chances are that there are better D-coordinators we can find, and who would make us proud.

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

buckeyepastor's picture

Looking at this and the previous defensive breakdown, whether it's a problem of scheme or a problem of execution I think coaches have to be held to account.  When it happens a few times, you can blame poor execution on the field.  When it happens repeatedly, over consecutive weeks, something isn't being addressed.   
Fickell's "well we won, didn't we?" reactions to criticism does not make me more inclined to keep him around.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Seattle Linga's picture

Time is definitely on our side going forward - we have a lot of work to do!

Greenbriar's picture

Is there a simpler explanation for what happened this year--Christian Bryant's injury?

TheSpiteHouse's picture

Verily, Christian Bryant's injury did not help. But there seem to be deeper trends at work here. On a different note, the last two years have seen the best D-lines I can recall at Ohio St. (other than the '02 edition).

Jack Fu's picture

On a different note, the last two years have seen the best D-lines I can recall at Ohio St. (other than the '02 edition).

I quite literally could not possibly disagree with this sentence any more strongly.

GV9's picture

Is there any chance of getting C. Bryant back for the Orange Bowl?  

SPreston2001's picture

I doubt it. Last I saw he was still limping pretty heavily and after being out this long asking him to completely heal up and get back in game shape in less than a month is pretty unrealistic...

buckskin's picture

The point we are all missing here is all these guys need coached up, even 4-5 stars have to learn the collegiate game.  Look at MSU's defense and those of Tressel's era.  Not the highest ranked high school guys that received excellent coaching.  Even our young guys like Bell, Apple, and Burrows won't fulfill their potential if they are coached by the current staff intact.  How much will Mitchell, Johnson, and Booker develop in the future?  I'm happy with our seasons, but really upset at this defensive performance.  Makes me wonder if Meyer didn't have full control to hire exactly who he wanted. 

SPreston2001's picture

Meyer hired exactly who he wanted. He hand picked those guys... Vrabel and Fickell were already here but he decided to keep them on after interviewing and talking with others.

gravey's picture

...and we're kicking the ball off A LOT more nowadays.   
a more interesting breakdown would perhaps be points per possession...or even point differential.

Dillon G's picture

The players are not good enough either. And while some don't want to hear it, that is how it is. The corners not named Roby can not cover, and neither can the linebackers. Of course linebackers and pass coverage are usually secondary. Thanks for jarring the memory. Justin Boren moving in to linebacker had immediate results. Coombs is way over rated and not funny talking trash to kickers. His position players, in general, don't know what they are doing. So it is a combination of the players just aren't that good, and they are poorly coached in pass coverage.

Buckabroad's picture

First of all, thanks for a great write-up and analysis MC. What frustrated me about the BTCG was that we put 24 pts. in against the no. 1 D. Normally, that should be enough to win against a team with a decent and improving, but not spectacular O. The Silver Bullets of old would have closed out for the win behind 24 pts. No disrespect is intended to Sparty, who played well and won fair & square. But if we give up over thirty points in a game, we are going to risk losing to many teams. I am not sure what the answer is, but we have to do whatever it takes to fix the problem as soon as possible.
That said, we still should all be proud of OSU's two fantastic consecutive seasons and Ws over TTUN.

"The minute we stop expecting greatness, we become Wisconsin."

wolfman's picture

Interesting points...kudos...I forgot all about Jeremy Cash.

Barnsey69's picture

Is there any chance of getting C. Bryant back for the Orange Bowl?  -GV9
Curious about this myself...and if he doesn't play, is he eligible to red-shirt and return next year?

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

ChazBuckeye's picture

Sad to say, but I bet Bryant won't be awarded my newly coined Devin Gardner 5th or 6th year of eligibility.  Please don't jump on my comment in defense, you 4-8 TTUN fans that have come to 11W for great "conversations?"  It's a shame, but Bryant probably won't be back or in the Orange Bowl.  

Some people think we’re the hunted.I don’t feel that way at all.We’re the hunter.Everybody wants an angry football team.Everybody wants a team on edge and a hungry team.If you’re a hunter,that usually equates to being hungry.

Barnsey69's picture

And why do you think he will not be awarded the eligibility extension? 

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!


Bryant played almost half the season before that injury. I think he would have definitely gotten an extra year if he had gotten hurt in the first few weeks.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

D-Day0043's picture

Fickell was co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach for 5 years before he took over for Tressel. And during those five years the line backing corps began to atrophy to where we are today, which is we can barely scrape together 3 starters. Fickell took over a veteran defensive line last year a they were supposed to be the strength of the defense, yet they could hardly generate any pressure. Vrable took a fullback and turned him in to a starting MLB and this year he to a young, inexperienced D-line to leading the nation is sacks. The writing is on the wall.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.