It’s little secret where Ohio State’s problems reside. For two seasons, the Buckeyes have allowed opponents to pile up yards, mostly through the air. In the final two games of 2013, Michigan and Michigan State totaled 1,041 yards of offense and scored a combined 75 points. Now Ohio State must game plan for one of the most potent offenses in the country.
The faltering secondary is where the microscope is most intense. The Buckeyes rank 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense, ahead of just lowly Purdue. The Wolverines and Spartans managed to throw for 755 yards and seven passing touchdowns in back-to-back games.
“Tweaks might be an appropriate word,” head coach Urban Meyer said of Orange Bowl game planning. “We’re still working through that. We’re working on the changes.”
One of the biggest alterations could be added playing time for true freshman safety Vonn Bell – and the reported departure of co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers. Bell, a five-star recruit, came to Columbus with immense hype but has spent most of his first season on special teams, even after repeated instances where Meyer said he should be playing more.
“He will play more in this game,” Meyer said. “We have to get him in. He’s doing a really good job. He has earned it, he has earned it on special teams. He’s a guy whose future we’re really excited about.”
Senior safety C.J. Barnett commented on the addition of Bell, saying he’s an instinctive player with a nose for the football that brings playmaking ability to the secondary.
But the fix isn’t as simple as inserting Bell into the line up. One player – a freshman no less – won’t change the fortunes of the defense. It will take a collective effort from all moving parts. Michael Bennett doesn’t believe the issues are schematic. He said it’s as simple as improving fundamentals and performing better.
“We’re not going in there to give up a lot of passing yards,” Bennett said. “We just can’t have breakdowns. We can’t have our guys having good coverage and a defensive lineman not winning one-on-one. We can’t have guys winning one-on-one and then have a breakdown in coverage.
“We just have to have 11 guys doing their job on every play. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. We have plays where we have 10 guys doing their job or nine guys doing their job and it just doesn’t work out.”
The pass defense’s decline has been precipitous. In 2009, the unit ranked 13th nationally in passing yards allowed per game before rising to eighth the following season. Even in 2011, which tied for the most losses in program history, featured a pass defense in the top 15 of the country. But it dipped to 78th last season and then bottomed out in 2013 at 259.5 passing yards per game.
Defensive breakdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game contributed to Ohio State facing a 17-point first-half deficit. Most glaring was the route safety Pitt Brown took on a pass play that resulted in a 72-yard Michigan State touchdown.
The problems Meyer sees are plentiful.
“There are too many things to say it’s one thing,” he said. “It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage. It’s all of the above – the pass rush, when to call the blitzes, whether the blitzes match the coverage. We just have to play better.”
Senior safety C.J. Barnett carries a dissenting opinion. He may be aware of the defense’s shortcomings, but recognizing any glitches publicly remains in the background.
“There are critics for everything,” Barnett said. “I think LeBron James is criticized a lot, too.”
Staring down Tajh Boyd is an instant reality check. He’s the best quarterback the Buckeyes will face all season and wide receiver Sammy Watkins is even more impressive. Boyd has 3,473 passing yards and 29 touchdown passes, with Watkins securing more than 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris is one of the brightest minds in the game and specializes in overwhelming defensive backfields.
When Meyer was asked if the Tigers’ passing game concerned him, he replied simply, “Oh, yeah. You think?”
The two teams that slowed Clemson’s offensive attack – Florida State and South Carolina – possessed elite defensive lines. The Seminoles use a group effort, while the Gamecocks rely on Jadeveon Clowney, who could be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Both teams rank in the 20 nationally in pass defense – Florida State first, South Carolina 19th. Ohio State is a wee bit further down on the list at 102nd.
“It is what it is,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said following the Michigan State loss. “Guys have got to make plays, and we’ve got to put them in positions where they can make plays. There’s no finger pointing. The biggest thing is we’ve got to get better as a group.”
Singling players out isn’t the style of any coaching staff. But the blame can be passed all around. The secondary, linebackers and coaches have all shared the criticism. Even during a school-record 24-game win streak that spanned two seasons, pass defense became the topic du jour after countless shaky performances.
There’s one final chance to right the ship and steer it toward calmer waters.
“I feel like guys are being put in the right place to make plays, it’s just some of the guys weren’t making plays we need to make,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’ve just got to break on the ball a little better and be more sound in our gaps and responsibilities. We’ve just got to communicate a little better. It’s little things we’ve got to fix.”
For too long, the little things have added up to one big deficiency.