Changes in Defensive Staff and New Scheme Focused on Helping Largely the Same Roster Stop the Run

By Chris Lauderback on May 16, 2019 at 11:05 am
Ohio State's rush defense gave up 4.52 yards per carry in 2018, good for 79th nationally.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

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Besides arguably quarterback play, no factor is more important to winning college football games than owning the lines of scrimmage. 

Last year, Ohio State enjoyed dominant quarterback play on the way to winning 12 of 13 games which often bailed out a suspect ability to consistently dominate the line of scrimmage by rushing the football consistently and stopping the run just as effectively.

Ohio State's storied defensive history is littered with elite groups that could stop the run. Last year, however, the Buckeyes struggled mightily giving up the most rushing touchdowns (26), highest yards per carry (4.52) and most total points in school annals.

2018 OPPONENT LONG RUSHING PLAYS
LENGTH NUMBER NATL RANK
20+ YARDS 23 98
30+ YARDS 15 114
40+ YARDS 12 124
50+ YARDS 8 124
60+ YARDS 6 126
70+ YARDS 6 129

With the rush defense often out of position combined with numerous technique issues, particularly at linebacker, the unit gave up 15 carries of 30 or more yards (114th nationally), 12 runs of 40+ yards (124th) and six totes of 70+ yards, good for 129th out of 130 FBS teams. If you're curious, Alabama gave up five runs of 40+ yards and zero over 50 yards. 

In total, Ohio State allowed 158 rushing yards per game (57th) and held just four of 14 opponents to 100 or fewer rushing yards. 

The lowlights included Oregon State's Artavis Pierce going off for 11 carries and 168 yards with touchdown jaunts of 80 and 78 yards in the season opener. 

A few weeks later in Dallas, TCU's Darius Anderson turned in a 12-for-154 night with a 93-yard touchdown run, the longest ever play from scrimmage against the Buckeyes. 

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley also had a field day against Ohio State posting a career-high 175 rushing yards including a 51-yard burst. 

Finally, Maryland's Anthony McFarland blitzed the Buckeyes for 298 yards on 21 carries including touchdown runs of 81 and 78 yards respectively. 

OSU RUSH DEFENSE DURING URBAN MEYER ERA
YEAR RUSHING YPG NATL RANK YARDS PER CARRY NATL RANK
2018 158.21 57 4.52 79
2017 105.07 6 2.94 4
2016 123.85 19 3.35 12
2015 126.85 22 3.38 14
2014 141.33 34 3.95 43
2013 109.03 9 3.29 12
2012 116.08 14 3.55 21

The run defense's collapse came out of nowhere as the Buckeyes entered the 2018 season having improved in rushing yards per game allowed and yards per carry allowed in each of the three previous seasons capped by a stellar 2017 campaign that saw them rank 6th nationally giving up just 105.07 rushing yards per game on only 2.94 yards per carry, good for 4th-best in the country. 

Greg Schiano's complicated scheme often had guys thinking too much and still missing gap/exchange assignments which our own Kyle Jones masterfully outlined last month. It wasn't just schematic breakdowns however as missed tackles and horrific pursuit angles plagued the linebackers and safeties in particular. 

Ryan Day's first order of business after officially taking over for Urban Meyer was to clean house on the defensive staff. Schiano, linebackers coach Bill Davis, co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and secondary coach Taver Johnson were all canned or encouraged to explore other options. 

Greg Mattison was hired away from Michigan as co-defensive coordinator, Jeff Hafley arrived via the San Francisco 49ers as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach, Al Washington also left Michigan to take the linebackers gig and Matt Barnes joined as assistant secondary coach and special teams coordinator. The venerable Larry Johnson was retained as defensive line coach and associate head coach. 

The players have already voiced excitement about a new scheme that will allow them to play fast and not overthink on the field. Day has also left no doubt he expected the 2019 defense to show major improvement over last season's group as evidenced by recent comments to Yahoo's Pete Thamel

The linebackers were the glaring weakness of the Buckeyes defense last season, which Day expects to change under first-year coach Al Washington.

“I think the one thing about the defense is that the linebackers should show up more,” he said. “They were a little bit more match oriented in the coverages, where I think in this defense they have a little more opportunity to have a vision and break.”

Day summed up the defense this way: “I’d be disappointed if we’re not really good on defense this year.”

Day's defense loses Nick Bosa and Dre'Mont Jones up front but just about everyone else returns. That said, a lot of those returnees couldn't be counted on to consistently shut down the run, particularly in the back seven where the linebackers not named Malik Harrison were plagued with inconsistency and the safety spot opposite Jordan Fuller was a disaster until Brenden White solidified the position in week nine. 

Up front, the defensive line should again be a strength even with the loss of Bosa and Jones. Defensive end Chase Young is on the verge of stardom with only bum ankles keeping him from getting much more hype during last year's 10.5 sacks season. 

Jonathon Cooper is still around at the other end spot though he should be pushed by Tyreke Smith while the rotation looks stacked behind those three with Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison among others. 

Interior linemen and seniors Robert Landers and Davon Hamilton give Ohio State a ton of experience up the gut with veteran Jashon Cornell joined by younger guys in Taron Vincent, Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett providing all kinds of depth. 

The top four linebackers from last year – Harrison, Tuf Borland, Pete Werner and Baron Browning – all return while sophomores Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant in particular are pushing to get on the field. The room is crowded, no doubt, and Washington feels great about the talent level. It will be up to him and Mattison to determine which guys fit best alongside Harrison after last year's corps was one of the weakest in recent memory. 

Safety Jordan Fuller suffered a bit of a drop off from his strong sophomore season in which he was the surest tackler on the team and is poised for a rebound performance after passing on the NFL Draft. There's no reason he can't be a first or second-team all-conference performer this fall. 

Alongside Fuller, it looks like White could be a bit of a swiss army knife playing in traditional two safety sets but also seeing time as a hybrid defender sliding down into the box in certain sets. 

Credit Day for forgoing the status quo after last year's defensive trainwreck but there's still a ton of pressure of the new head coach, his new defensive staff and the host of returning players that scheme or otherwise, simply didn't look as talented as many of their former teammates now playing on Sundays when it came to stopping the run. 

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