Ohio State's Defensive Renaissance Allowing Buckeyes to Dominate Because of Defense Rather Than In Spite of It

By Colin Hass-Hill on September 29, 2019 at 1:31 am
Tommy Togiai
Bruce Thorson – USA TODAY Sports

LINCOLN, Neb. – Four days before Saturday’s primetime showdown in Memorial Stadium, Ryan Day called Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez “by far” the best quarterback Ohio State will have faced this season.

By far.

He had no reason to say otherwise. Florida Atlantic’s Chris Robison, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey and Miami (Ohio)’s Brett Gabbert weren’t exactly world-beaters. Martinez, conversely, was a trendy Heisman Trophy pick before the season as he led the Cornhuskers into Year 2 of the Scott Frost era. 

In the first four games of the season, Martinez completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,052 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback added 234 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 61 carries. 

“We knew we had to shut down the quarterback,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said on Saturday night.

As arguably the best quarterback the Buckeyes face in the regular season, the thinking was that Martinez would challenge them in a way no other team had.

To be blunt, that didn’t happen.

“I think the sky's the limit. I'm just really excited.”– Jordan Fuller on Ohio State's defense

By the end of the first half, Martinez had more completions to Buckeyes than Cornhuskers. Three interceptions compared to two completed passes. Martinez threw interceptions on three of the Cornhuskers' first four drives, and on the other drive, Nebraska gained only two yards in three plays before punting the ball away.

Martinez ended the game with just eight completions on 17 passes for 47 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. No Nebraska player had more than 10 receiving yards. The Cornhuskers averaged 4.7 yards per carry, with 56 of their 184 yards coming on a third-quarter run from Martinez. Nebraska either punted or turned the ball over on its first eight drives, which included four three-and-outs.

“I always say Saturday's our pay day, and we definitely collected a check,” Jordan Fuller said.

That, the Buckeyes did.

Fuller made some future NFL money with his interception. Jeff Okudah’s NFL stock increased with a pair of interceptions. Chase Young, Baron Browning, Pete Werner and Malik Harrison shined.

The beatdown that ensued at Memorial Stadium on Saturday didn’t always seem like a foregone conclusion to co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.

“As we got closer to it, maybe even starting a little bit last week, this one, I started thinking about a lot,” Hafley said. “They just present a lot of issues. The backs are good. The receivers are good. I mean, all we did was hear about they have really good wideouts. To me, the quarterback's a really dangerous player. Schematically, that creates issues. So, yeah, I didn't sleep very good this week.”

At least, for Ohio State’s sake, Hafley didn’t get much sleep during the week before the game.

Imagine Greg Schiano last year. What could he have been thinking after his team allowed 51 points to Maryland? What was going through Billy Davis’s mind the day after the Buckeyes got ethered by Purdue? What were Taver Johnson and Alex Grinch doing the in the 24 hours after the Buckeyes allowed an Oregon State team completely overmatched in talent to score 31 points and rack up nearly 400 yards.

They probably weren't sleeping quite as well as Hafley will after his team’s 48-7 road victory versus the Cornhuskers on Saturday. 

In 2018, Ohio State went 13-1, won the Big Ten title and came out victorious in the Rose Bowl in spite of its defense. It became a College Football Playoff contender despite a defense that allowed more than 400 yards and 25.5 points per game.

Through five games, the Buckeyes haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game, and they’ve only allowed more than 10 points once. The Cornhuskers reached 42 points and 673 yards a week ago, and they managed just seven points and 231 yards on Saturday in front of their most raucous, ready-to-see-an-ass-kicking crowd in years.

The butt-kicking came, but it certainly didn’t come from Nebraska.

“I would say the country saw what we were echoing in the locker room before the game,” Okudah said. “We are who we think we are because we put in the work and then we also put it on film. So I know everyone was kind of doubting the schedule, but I think we were able to show what we're capable of doing.”

Remarkably, this defensive renaissance has come with a shockingly similar cast of players who held key positions on last season’s shaky defense. The Buckeyes have largely trotted a replica of last year’s personnel onto the field, yet the results have been drastically different.

Every starter – or contributor – on the defensive line played significant snaps a year ago. The same three linebackers – Harrison, Werner and Tuf Borland – that started the majority of last season have started the first five games of 2019. All four starters in this season’s secondary – Damon Arnette, Shaun Wade, Okudah and Fuller – had important roles in 2018.

“We appreciate that they're so bought in because they didn't have to be,” Hafley said. “But they are, and they're working, and they're hungry, and they have a chip on their shoulder, and they're not done. And I don't think they're satisfied, which to me is so exciting, and I can't wait to go back to work tomorrow.”

Here’s the secret: if Ohio State’s defense had been played as abysmally as it did a year ago, this offense would likely still have propelled this team to a 5-0 record. But the Buckeyes shouldn’t – and don’t – compare themselves to last year’s team that ended outside the College Football Playoff field. 

Last year, the defense felt like an obstacle that the offense had to overcome, and it instead seems to be the tool the revamped Silver Bullets should be this season.

“I think the sky's the limit. I'm just really excited,” Okudah said. “The secondary's finally clicking. The D-line, Chase has been having an amazing year. And what's also good is the linebackers are playing like a tight-knit unit. You saw Pete Werner over there almost decapitated someone. It’s just kind of special to see everyone playing at all three levels.”

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