Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past six weeks, you’ve probably already heard that Ohio State’s defense isn’t performing up to expectations.
The Buckeyes currently rank just 56th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, having allowed 365.2 yards per game, and 29th in scoring defense with 20 points given up per game. The Buckeyes have been statistically mediocre in both passing defense and rushing defense, allowing just under seven yards per pass attempt (6.97, ranking them 59th in the FBS) and just over four yards per rushing attempt (4.03, 60th in the FBS).
Since giving up 31 points on 392 yards to Oregon State in the season opener, including seven plays of 20-plus yards, the Buckeyes defense hasn’t had marked improvement. Big plays have continued to be a problem through the team’s first six games, and they allowed 26 points on 406 yards against Indiana on Saturday.
That said, there have been some positives. After giving up a 45-yard run on their opening series Saturday, the Buckeyes’ rushing defense was strong for the rest of the game, holding the Hoosiers to just 84 yards on 21 carries with no rushing touchdowns. While the passing defense struggled mightily in the first half, it was better too in the second half, when the Hoosiers only scored once and gained 89 total yards of offense.
Ohio State ranks second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 22 sacks and in the top 20 nationally in percentages of both third-down conversions allowed (30.3) and fourth-down conversions allowed (28.6). They have forced 10 turnovers, including three that have become defensive touchdowns, through six games.
Most importantly, the defense has at least done enough for the Buckeyes to win every game, as they enter this week’s game against Minnesota with a 6-0 record.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knows his team’s defense needs to get better. But he remains confident that those positives form a strong foundation off which the defense can improve.
“You look at the last half of the game, they held them (under) 100 yards, against Indiana, in the second half and also created a couple of turnovers, stopped them on fourth down,” Meyer said. “So there's a lot of positives.
“What happens on the negative are interference calls or jump balls, type things. And we look at everything, overanalyze everything. So it's not as simple as this (just fixing one thing), it's a variety of things,” Meyer continued. “But we try to build on positives, and the positives are that the second half, they played outstanding. Against Penn State, we gave up some yards, but it was 14-13 going into the fourth quarter. So there are some positive things.”
Ohio State’s pass rush wasn’t as effective against Indiana as it has been most of the season – the Buckeyes recorded only three sacks, tying their season-low – but it was their third straight game without Nick Bosa, who continues to recover from core muscle surgery. Bosa is still set to miss at least the next two games and potentially more, so the Buckeyes must continue to find ways to overcome their star defensive end’s absence, but Meyer considers it another positive that they’ve been able to do so thus far.
“We've overcome some significant injuries, most notable is Nick Bosa, and we're still finding ways to win games,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he has seen some common themes that have led to the big plays the Buckeyes have allowed. He didn’t want to get into too much detail about that on Monday, but he did say there have been “a variety of things” that have gone wrong, including failing to bring players down to the ground at the second level of the defense, and coverage issues.
As a head coach with an offensive background, Meyer has typically spent of his time working with that side of the ball as well as with special teams. He’s allowed associate head coach and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to call the shots on defense, with assistance from position coaches Alex Grinch, Larry Johnson, Bill Davis and Taver Johnson.
In the past, Meyer has said that he would get more involved on defense when the Buckeyes have struggled on that side of the ball. When asked if he had reached that point on Monday, however, Meyer said that while he has had discussions with Schiano and the defensive staff on things to work on, his confidence in them remains unwavering.
“I have conversations,” Meyer said. “I have so much confidence in the people doing it, that we're going to get that fixed.”