The final score of Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium wasn’t indicative of how Ohio State’s defense played.
While the Buckeyes only gave up two touchdowns, which ultimately led to a 30-14 win over Minnesota, they gave up 396 yards to the Gophers’ offense – including 238 in the first half – for an average of 7.1 yards per play, and continued to look vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball throughout Saturday’s game.
As such, the Buckeyes’ defensive coaches and players left Saturday’s game unsatisfied despite coming away with a 16-point victory.
“We understand the standards at Ohio State, and when you don’t meet those standards, you’re disappointed,” said Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Alex Grinch. “I think if you polled the defensive coaches and the defensive players, there’s some level of disappointment.”
Most of Minnesota’s offense in Saturday’s game came from just two players. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver Tyler Johnson caught eight passes for 119 yards.
In total, the Golden Gophers rushed for 178 yards – their second-highest total in any of their six games this season, and well over Ohio State’s goal of holding opposing offenses under 100 rushing yards.
“I was disappointed in the run (defense),” said Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. “Their back had 160 yards rushing against us, and that's not acceptable.”
Ibrahim had four runs of 15 yards or more in Saturday’s game, and Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said he thought those long runs resulted from players missing their gaps.
“Those little mistakes will give up big plays,” Werner said. “I got to watch the film on that. But I just know we got to stay in our gaps.”
Johnson, meanwhile, consistently found openings in Ohio State’s defense on slant routes, which the Buckeyes will now have to work on figuring out how to defend more effectively going forward.
“We're a team that challenges every throw, and when you get beat, that's a problem,” Meyer said. “So that's something that is not a strength right now.”
Werner said he thought the Gophers brought a good game plan to Ohio Stadium on Saturday, and acknowledged that he and his teammates had a difficult time dealing with the slant routes.
“They had a good game plan, and they used it pretty well,” Werner said. “They had a RPO concept that brought me in as a linebacker, and then used the one-on-one slant concept and kind of dialed back there. It’s a hard route to defend from my standpoint. I got to try to get my hand on the ball for that. But yeah, that’s a tough one to defend, especially with our defense.”
“We understand the standards at Ohio State, and when you don’t meet those standards, you’re disappointed.” – Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch
Although Minnesota only reached the end zone twice, it had other opportunities to score. Emmit Carpenter missed a pair of field goals. After its back-to-back touchdown drives in the first and second quarters, Minnesota was back in Ohio State territory and threatening to score again when Tyler Johnson lost a fumble – though it was very close to being an incomplete pass – that was forced by Shaun Wade and recovered by Jeffrey Okudah.
The Gophers’ 396 total yards were also their second-highest offensive total of the year, and the fifth time in seven games that Ohio State gave up at least 390 yards on defense. That wasn’t lost on the Buckeyes.
“Although they did score zero points in the second half, we did miss a lot of things, missed our keys on a few plays where things in practice where we did well,” Werner said. “We got to learn from that.”
As Meyer noted after the game, the Buckeyes were without five of their regular defensive starters for most of Saturday’s contest.
Defensive end Nick Bosa missed his fourth straight game while recovering from core muscle surgery, while defensive end Jonathon Cooper and linebacker Malik Harrison both missed the game after spending time this week in concussion protocol. Cornerback Damon Arnette and defensive tackle Robert Landers also left Saturday’s game early with undisclosed injuries.
That thrust some of the Buckeyes’ backups into much more significant playing time; Jashon Cornell, Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday all had to play regularly in the defensive end rotation, Davon Hamilton played more snaps than usual at defensive tackle, Justin Hilliard started in place of Harrison at linebacker and Kendall Sheffield and Jeffrey Okudah each played nearly all the snaps at outside cornerback.
As Grinch said after the game, though, the Buckeyes can’t use that as an excuse. More than halfway through the regular season, their backups need to be ready to play if called upon, and the other starters need to be able to step up to account for those who are injured.
“We’re running out of time in terms of being young,” Grinch said. “Is it a work in progress? I think it always is, but it’s time now for us to get our feet underneath us and perform better.”
The Buckeyes did shut the Gophers in the second half of Saturday’s game, and that was a positive they could hang their hat on. After going to the locker room and making adjustments, the defense was more successful in the third and fourth quarters than it was in the first half – much like the Buckeyes’ previous game against Indiana, when they allowed 20 points before halftime but only six points after halftime in their 49-26 win.
“The strength is that they came out and shut them out in the second half, a lot like the game last week where we held a team to 92 yards in the second half,” Meyer said. “And the best thing is we created some turnovers, and that was the difference in the game.”
Two Ohio State defensive backs had interceptions in Saturday’s game: Sheffield picked off a deep pass on Minnesota’s opening possession, and Isaiah Pryor – who was benched at times in Saturday’s game in favor of Shaun Wade after making some mistakes early – intercepted a deep ball in the fourth quarter.
Additionally, the Buckeyes came up with some big plays in the second half to hold the Gophers to their missed field goal attempts instead of allowing them to extend drives that could have gone for touchdowns; Hilliard broke up a pass on 3rd-and-6 in the red zone to force the field goal attempt in the third quarter, while Wade and Okudah had back-to-back pass breakups on slant routes in Ohio State territory to force the fourth-quarter field goal attempt.
“What you don’t want to discount again is shutting the team out in the second half, which is difficult to do, and three takeaways, which was exciting,” Grinch said. “And some guys that may have missed a play earlier in the game, or at some point over the course of the season, make a play today. So some obvious positives.”
That said, slow starts have been a recurring problem for Ohio State’s defense – the Buckeyes have trailed in the second quarter or later in four of their last five games – and while that does speak to their ability to make halftime adjustments, it also means they need to come out of the gates stronger to avoid forcing their offense to climb out of deficits.
Grinch said the Buckeyes’ early defensive struggles in games have happened in part because opposing offenses have brought different looks into games against Ohio State than they have in their previous games.
“We’re going to see teams’ best, and we’re going to see maybe a little bit of different flavor some weeks,” Grinch said. “A week ago, our opponent (Indiana) I think went empty (formation with no running backs) seven times the entire season (before playing Ohio State), and then in our game alone, they ran it 18 times. And so there’s a little bit of that adjustment.”
Again, though, the Buckeyes can’t use that as an excuse.
“We prepare all week for teams, and sometimes they don’t give us what exactly we prepare for,” Hilliard said. “But as far as defense, we got to be able to just go down to our base rules and be able to do anything, play anything.”
The next test for Ohio State’s defense will come next Saturday against Purdue, which is averaging 510.2 yards of offense per game and 33.5 points per game this season after a 46-7 win over Illinois on Saturday, so the Buckeyes will need to improve quickly this upcoming week ahead of their trip to West Lafayette.