Ohio State's Pass Defense is Officially a Problem

By Dan Hope on November 21, 2020 at 8:04 pm
Ty Fryfogle beats Marcus Hooker on a long touchdown.

Statistically, Ohio State had one of its worst games ever defending the pass against Indiana.

Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards against the Buckeyes on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, the most the Buckeyes have allowed in any game in the last 35 years and the fourth-most Ohio State has ever surrendered in a game.

For context: Ohio State’s much-lampooned 2018 defense never allowed more than 378 passing yards in a game, and the Buckeyes hadn’t allowed more than 400 passing yards in any game since their season opener against Indiana in 2017.

Most Passing Yards Allowed by Ohio State in a Single Game
Year Opponent Yards
1980 ILLINOIS 621
1981 PURDUE 526
1985 PURDUE 497
2020 INDIANA 491
2000 PURDUE 455

Despite those struggles defending the pass, Ohio State earned a 42-35 win against Indiana to improve to 4-0 on the season and win its biggest game of the year to date. But the Buckeyes’ inability to prevent big plays in the passing game was the biggest reason why a game they led 35-7 after their opening possession of the second half turned into a game that Indiana still had a chance to win in the final minute of play.

One reason why Indiana’s passing yardage was so high was because the Hoosiers attempted 51 passes, which they had to do because they were trailing and the Buckeyes’ run defense was dominant, holding them to a net loss of 1 yard on 16 rushing plays. But that’s still more than 9.6 yards per passing attempt, which is more than the Hoosiers had in any of their first four games. Most troublingly, the Hoosiers hit big play after big play through the air, including four passing plays of 50-plus yards and 10 passing plays of 15-plus yards.

“If we don’t give up those big plays, we probably run away with this game, but we didn’t,” Day said. “491 yards passing, that’s way too much.”

All five of Indiana’s touchdowns came on passing plays, and all five of the Hoosiers’ touchdown drives including at least one passing play of 25-plus yards. Outside receiver Ty Fryfogle did a lot of the damage, catching seven passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns, and he made several big plays in one-on-one matchups against Shaun Wade and Ohio State’s other cornerbacks. But there were also times where the Buckeyes simply left a player uncovered, like a 51-yard catch by David Ellis and a 16-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Ellis on a 4th-and-10 in the fourth quarter.

Just minutes after the game, Day couldn’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong for the passing defense, saying he’d need to watch the film on Sunday to evaluate that. But he said the Buckeyes need to evaluate everything – personnel, scheme and coaching – to figure out how to fix it.

“Any time you have a problem like that, it’s one of three things,” Day said. “You say to yourself, do you have the right personnel there? So you look at who’s doing it. Then the second thing is, what is the scheme? Does the scheme give our guys the right opportunity to be successful? And then if both of those boxes get checked, then it goes to coaching. Are we coaching it correctly? So I think that’s, when you’re trying to fix something, you have to identify one of these three things that needs to get addressed, or maybe a little bit of each.

“Usually, when you assess something like that, it’s not like, OK, it’s only this. It’s usually a little bit of this, a lot of this, maybe a little bit here or there. And if you tighten up all three of those areas, usually you see improvement.”

Asked about the possibility of making changes to the defensive lineup, Day indicated that he didn’t expect to replace any starters, but said that would also be evaluated during film study.

“At the end of the day, you have to put the best players on the field to make plays,” Day said. “We believe in our guys, we have confidence in our guys, so I’ll be very surprised if we have to make any changes. But maybe we will. We have to watch the film and see, because almost 500 yards of offense in terms of passing is too much, and that’s just not acceptable.”

The passing defense certainly wasn’t the only reason a four-score game became a one-score game, as Ohio State’s offense didn’t score on any of its final six possessions. The Buckeyes have been outscored in the second half in each of their last three games, and that’s on the offense for failing to finish games out strong, too.

“It’s not even just the secondary, it’s the whole defense and the whole offense,” Wade said. “I feel like in the second half, I don’t know what it is, but we have to figure it out. Especially in big games with competition just like we’re playing right now, we can’t be giving up points like that in the second half and not scoring in the second half.”

Giving up big plays through the air has been an issue in all three of those games, though, and the passing defense’s woes against Indiana started before halftime, as the Hoosiers hit two of their 50-plus-yard plays in the second quarter. The passing defense was already Ohio State’s biggest area of concern before Saturday’s game, but it became a glaring liability against the Hoosiers, and one that could ultimately derail the Buckeyes’ title hopes if they can’t get it fixed quickly.

“Almost 500 yards of offense in terms of passing is too much, and that’s just not acceptable.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State's passing defense

As Wade said, that shouldn’t be pinned solely on the secondary. Ohio State’s pass-rush was also mediocre on Saturday, recording just two sacks, though it did step up on Indiana’s final two possessions to prevent a potential game-tying or game-winning score. Linebackers like Baron Browning, Teradja Mitchell and Pete Werner got beat in coverage, too. And Wade made a crucial play that the Buckeyes needed to win the game by intercepting a Penix pass and returning it for a 36-yard touchdown.

But if Ohio State’s going to achieve its goals for this season, it can’t continue to give up big plays in the passing game as repeatedly as it did on Saturday. If and how much the Buckeyes can improve in that area could ultimately make or break the Buckeyes’ chances of winning a championship this year.

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