For the first two-and-a-half games of Ohio State’s 2018 season, Nick Bosa was arguably the best player in college football.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, two-and-a-half games was all Bosa’s third and final season at Ohio State would last.
Ohio State announced Tuesday that Bosa, who has been sidelined since suffering a core muscle injury in the Buckeyes’ third game of the season against TCU, made the decision this week to withdraw from school “in order to devote more time to his rehabilitation and training efforts” as he recovers from the surgery he underwent in September and prepares for the 2019 NFL draft.
For Bosa, it’s a sensible and unsurprising decision. Even with his injury, he’s still projected to be one of the top picks in next year’s draft, and he didn’t need to play another snap to make that happen. Withdrawing from school will allow Bosa to focus entirely upon his recovery, without risking further injury as an amateur football player, and once he’s fully healthy, to begin preparing for his pre-draft workouts for NFL teams.
For Ohio State, however, it’s a huge hit to a defense that has already been struggling without him.
Going into the 2018 season, Ohio State’s defensive line was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, in the country. Bosa paired with Chase Young to form perhaps the nation’s most fearsome duo of defensive ends, while Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers gave the Buckeyes a formidable tandem of defensive tackles. Jonathon Cooper, Jashon Cornell, Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday were among those who added to the mix at defensive end, while Davon Hamilton, Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent were among those also in the mix at defensive tackle.
All of those other players are still on the team, and leave the Buckeyes with plenty of talent still on their defensive front. But there’s simply no replacing Bosa, a complete defensive end who was dominant as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper.
Young and Jones still give the Buckeyes two of college football’s most talented defensive linemen, and both of them have had their moments of dominance this year. Jones has recorded 21 total tackles this season, including 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks (as well as an interception returned for a touchdown), while Young has recorded 19 total tackles with eight tackles for loss and four sacks.
But with Cooper also out with an injury and Landers sidelined for most of the game this past weekend against Minnesota, the Buckeyes’ defensive line was clearly a shell of what it could have been. Their pass-rushing performance has dropped off in recent weeks, while they were particularly vulnerable to the inside run against the Gophers, allowing 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 33 attempts.
First things first, the Buckeyes need the rest of their defensive line to get healthy. Cooper is expected back this week, while Landers is probable to play on Saturday. But Jones has also played through a foot injury while Young has played through an ankle injury.
The reality is, though, that Ohio State needs its entire defense to play better to keep its undefeated record intact and have a chance to compete for a national championship, and it can no longer count on the huge spark that a late-season return by Bosa would have provided.
Ohio State’s defensive line is still capable of being one of college football’s best, but it needs Young to continue becoming a more complete player as he now becomes the Buckeyes’ top defensive end. It also forces younger players like Smith, Friday, Togiai and Vincent to accelerate their development and be able to make a bigger impact in the rotation.
That said, the permanent departure of Bosa makes it crucial for the Buckeyes’ linebackers to step up their play, as they have been inconsistent in filling their gaps all year long. Ohio State has had problems with allowing opponents to break through the second level and make big plays all season, and without Bosa, that’s likely to continue if the linebackers and secondary don’t step up in run support.
It’s imperative for the entire back seven to improve upon their play in pass coverage, because even with Young and other talented defensive linemen up front, the loss of Bosa is one that Ohio State’s pass-rush is unlikely to be able to ever entirely make up for this year. As a result, opposing quarterbacks will have more opportunities to allow plays to develop and throw the ball downfield, which makes it crucial for Ohio State’s cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers to be consistent in their coverage to avoid giving up big plays.
With as vulnerable as Ohio State’s defense has looked all season, the hope was that Bosa's return would shore up many of the issues without him over the next few weeks, then get him back to take the defense to another level in the stretch run. Without him, however, Ohio State’s defense simply must be better at all three levels to make up for his loss.