Ohio State's oft-maligned defense pitched a shutout in the second half of a 30-14 win over Minnesota last Saturday afternoon but that did little to quell the concerns felt by many as the group again gave up a ton of chunk plays.
Ranked 58th nationally in total defense giving up nearly 370 yards per game, the Buckeyes surrendered another 10 chunk plays to the Gophers (rushes of 10+ yards and passes of 15+ yards) including six plays of 20+ yards allowed.
On the bright side, the Buckeye defense has tightened up in the second half of most games and has allowed just 13 fourth quarter points so far this season.
Urban Meyer met with the media on Monday and as you'd expect, the defense was a hot topic.
Q: And defensively, I think you’re 24th in the country in points given up. You only gave up 14 against Minnesota, you got some key turnovers. Is there part of you that thinks you can rely on turnovers, that maybe you’ll give up yardage, but if you had big play defenders, We’ll get turnovers when you need them, or can you not rely on turnovers?
MEYER: I think I understand your question. To say you rely on it, that’s part of the game. And we’re very aggressive on defense. And once again, do we have the right personnel to run our scheme. And then when you start — we’ve dealt with a safety suspended for a half because of the targeting. We’ve dealt with multiple injuries. And it’s at times you’re in survival mode. So say you rely on it, that’s the game of football.
Q. Isaiah Pryor, how did he play Saturday? And did you see progress in that safety spot? What was the take on the safety spot halfway through the season?
MEYER: I did see progress. I know at times it didn’t look great. But he actually played okay. Once again that position is for the whole world to see, it’s right out there for you. Shaun Wade came in and did some good things.
That position is not finalized, we’re constantly evaluating that, as well. But injuries kind of limit you.
Q. Is Wade going to see more time there, the way you’re looking at it?
MEYER: We will have that conversation today and tomorrow.
As Meyer noted, the Buckeye defense is faring well at creating turnovers, standing 21st in the land with 13 turnovers gained while the offense has seen just six possessions end in a turnover, good for 16th nationally.
Throw those numbers in a stew and you'll find that the Buckeyes are ranked 13th in turnover margin per game at +1.00 which is the second-best mark for the program since Meyer's arrival.
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Those forced turnovers and a little bit of luck have helped a defense hemorrhaging yards stay within the top-25 nationally in scoring defense. While the Buckeye defense does rank 24th giving up 19.1 points per game, that mark, year-to-date, is the worst since the 2014 season and if it holds would serve as the fourth-straight year the scoring defense slipped, even if ever-so-slightly compared to 2017.
The first half versus Minnesota saw Kendall Sheffield record an impressive interception on a deep ball down the left sideline that he tracked all the way into his mitts at the Buckeye 13 yard line.
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Later in the opening half, Shaun Wade forced a Tyler Johnson fumble after a catch which Jeffrey Okudah picked up for Ohio State's second forced turnover.
The forced fumble led directly to points as the Buckeye offense marched 76 yards in two minutes capped by a spectacular 36-yard, one-handed snag from K.J. Hill that you've probably watched a few dozen times since.
The second half shutout pitched by the defense featured another interception though a Buckeye defender didn't have to work quite as hard to snag it.
With 1st-and-10 and the Buckeye 30, Gopher freshman walk-on quarterback Alex Annexstad made little effort to look off Isaiah Pryor before making a poor throw that was a tad underthrown and misdirected to the inside of the field. To his credit, Pryor did a nice job tracking the ball from the opposite hash and running underneath the 28-yard pass. At the same time, it was a decidedly bad throw from a quarterback boasting nine interceptions in his last 88 attempts. Nice play, no doubt, but aided by some luck. That's football.
The second half also saw the Gophers miss a pair of field goals, one a realistic 32-yard try after a 61-yard drive that chewed up six minutes of clock and another a 49-yarder. Missed field goals are obviously a part of the college football experience but it does feel a bit lucky that Buckeye opponents have converted just 6-of-12 field goal tries on the season, good for the 15th nationally.
As Meyer noted, turnovers happen but getting the chunk plays under control so it won't be so important to create turnovers is a formula they're pursuing. That starts with better linebacker and safety play as Ohio State heads to West Lafayette to take on a high-powered Purdue attack that loves to get its slot guy opportunities in the middle of the field – right where the Buckeye linebackers and safeties will get a chance to show if they're up to the task.