Inside the Process Ohio State Took to Make Returning Interceptions for Touchdowns Such a Frequent Act

By Eric Seger on November 9, 2016 at 8:35 am
Outlining how Ohio State became the best team in the country at returning interceptions for touchdowns.

The thing that is perhaps more ridiculous than the statistic alone is the fact it could (and arguably should) be even better than it already is. Don't think Urban Meyer forgets that.

“I think if you study each one of those pick-sixes—and we actually had one called back—our guys are so well trained and they believe in our staff,” Meyer said Tuesday on the Big Ten Teleconference. “Every staff teaches go get a hat on hat and block for your teammate.

“Our guys take it to another level.”

The numbers certainly support that. Luke Fickell and Greg Schiano's defense has 14 interceptions through nine games this season. The unit returned six for touchdowns, but the one Meyer referred to came against Indiana when officials flagged Damon Arnette for an illegal block below the waist as Malik Hooker ran one back to the end zone.

It was a borderline penalty that took six points off the board. With it, the Buckeyes would have returned half their interceptions for touchdowns this season, an insane figure when you step back and think about it.

Six out of 14 isn't anything to gripe about, however. It does make you wonder what is different on this Ohio State defense as opposed to last year's, which had six players taken in the 2016 NFL Draft.

“I think it's emphasis. I don't know if it is necessarily new because we had some pick-sixes before,” Meyer said. “I remember back with Steve Miller [against Alabama], the effort everybody put. I just think every once in awhile you’ll see teams emphasize certain things and we certainly have been emphasizing it and it's paid off.”

The biggest adjustment is Greg Schiano leading the safeties and meshing with Fickell to play more man coverage and stress the importance of putting points on the board in those situations. That is not to say former safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash didn't put a priority on returning turnovers to the end zone. Schiano might just do it more.

“We work very hard at that. And one of the things we tell our defense is great defenses score touchdowns. Good defenses take the ball away, great defenses take it and score,” Schiano said Sept. 12. “We're not there yet but we're getting that feeling that if we get our hands on the ball, put it in the end zone.”

Schiano only met the media one time since the said that, doing so after Ohio State wrecked Rutgers 58-0 on Oct. 4. At the time of that quote, the Buckeyes had seven interceptions on the season (through two games) and returned three for scores. Two more picks came the following Saturday at Oklahoma and linebacker Jerome Baker took one back to the house.

Nearly a two-month hiatus of interceptions that yielded points followed until Saturday, when Damon Webb opened the scoring against Nebraska when he took in a pass tipped by Raekwon McMillan and weaved his way 36 yards to the end zone.

GIF: Webb takes it to the house

Three quarters later, Hooker nabbed an interception of his own and followed his blockers to make the score 55-3 before the third quarter even ended.

GIF: Malik Hooker's turn

“Guys turned like their hair was on fire to get blocks and escorted them in the end zone,” Meyer said. “I think No. 1 is athleticism. No. 2 is the intensity and drive they have to go get blocks on blocks, body on body, when there is an interception.”

The final pick-six on Saturday added insult to injury against the Cornhuskers. The first one shifted momentum to the Ohio State sideline. It never left. The Buckeyes won 62-3.

“This is a game of energy. This is a game of momentum. When you got the momentum you gotta find a way to keep it,” Fickell said on Monday. “If you don't have the momentum you gotta do something. Coach [Meyer] talks about it all the time, with a young team you gotta do something.”

Meyer's young team is growing up quickly, with Fickell's defense shutting down a top-10 team and outscoring it within the first 2 minutes of the game on Saturday. Hooker and the other defensive backs say Schiano stresses "sideline return" when the defense gets an interception—thus, the guy with the ball runs toward the nearest sideline and gets as many yards possible.

For a guy as athletic as Hooker, though, that isn't always the best move.

“Coach Schiano says sideline return works every time but in my opinion, I feel like you run to the open space,” Hooker said in September with a laugh. “But I'm going to listen to what he says because he's the coach.”

“Every staff teaches go get a hat on hat and block for your teammate. Our guys take it to another level.”– Urban Meyer

The ballhawk has taken Schiano's words about scoring off turnovers to heart this season. He now has returned two of his five picks for touchdowns. Marshon Lattimore, Rodjay Burns, Baker and Webb each all have one pick-six.

The unit's total is two more than any other defense in the country, a direct result of Schiano working with the other defensive minds to put guys in a position to make big plays whenever they get their hands on the ball.

“One of the things he said after he studied our team was we don’t get enough turnovers, generate enough turnovers,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said on Sept. 28. “We spent a lot of time in some turnover circuits and some other things in spring practice and in fall camp designed to do that and I think it’s paid some dividends.”

It paid dividends in the form of a new school record for interceptions returned for touchdowns, a mark set in only nine games. The Buckeyes are guaranteed four more outings—three more regular season contests and a bowl game—but if they keep winning that number could grow to six.

Shifting the focus of finding the end zone after an interception to another level could mean some ridiculous records that will be tough to break when it is all said and done. All a result of stressing the point of finding someone to block on a change of possession—blocking with "their hair on fire," as Meyer said.

“Those are the things that as a coach you sit back and say, 'OK, they're hearing us. They're getting it.' We just gotta keep driving it and driving it,” Schiano said. “Again, this group wants to be coached. That's the best part about it. They're very talented and I've been around groups that don't want to be coached that much. This group, they're like sponges. They want to be coached.”

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