Matt Barnes Likely to Continue Calling Plays As Ohio State’s Defense Remains A Work in Progress

By Dan Hope on September 18, 2021 at 9:41 pm
Matt Barnes

After hinting at the possibility all week, Ryan Day confirmed Saturday that Kerry Coombs was no longer Ohio State’s defensive play caller – and probably won’t be for the rest of the season.

While Coombs remains Ohio State’s defensive coordinator in title, secondary coach Matt Barnes called the Buckeyes’ defensive plays in Saturday’s 41-20 win over Tulsa. Barnes took Coombs’ place coaching on the sideline, while Coombs assisted him from the press box. Day indicated that the Buckeyes are likely to stick with that coaching structure going forward, though he hasn’t made a final decision yet.

“We’re gonna watch the film and assess it and go back in there. That’s kind of the way I see it moving forward right now as I sit here,” Day said. “Larry Johnson’s obviously very, very involved and has a lot of input on the game plan as well. So it’s a team effort over there. But I think the way the things went today was pretty smooth, and hopefully we can build on it.”

Day said he believes that having Barnes call plays instead of Coombs “is kind of the rhythm and the structure that we feel like right now is best suited for the defense.” While Barnes is now in a similar position as he was in 2018, when he became Maryland’s lead defensive play caller even though Andy Buh held the title of defensive coordinator, Coombs has effectively been demoted.

Day was pleased with how Coombs handled the decision.

“He’s a professional,” Day said of Coombs. “He’s an Ohio guy, he’s from the state of Ohio, he’s got a lot of pride and he just wants to win. So he’s still very much a big part of this defense and a big part of Ohio State.”

Day was mostly upbeat about the defense’s performance following Saturday’s game, as he was pleased with how the Buckeyes stopped the run – after giving up more than 200 yards on the ground in each of their first two games, they allowed Tulsa to run for just 73 yards – and that they made two takeaways on interceptions by Ronnie Hickman and Cameron Martinez (and could have had a third by Denzel Burke had it not been overturned by the replay official).

“I thought they showed toughness today,” Day said. “I thought they showed some energy out there. I thought that they tackled better.”

Perhaps most importantly, Day felt the Buckeyes did a better job of making in-game adjustments on defense than they did in their season opener at Minnesota and their loss last weekend to Oregon.

“There were some in-game adjustments that were done much better and more efficient than the week before,” Day said.

Whether Ohio State’s defense actually played better against Tulsa than it did against Minnesota and Oregon can certainly be debated. While the Buckeyes gave up only two touchdowns, one of which came on a short field after a C.J. Stroud fumble, they allowed 428 passing yards – far more than they allowed in their first two games – to a team that averaged just 213 passing yards in its first two games. Although they made six consecutive stops between the second and third quarter, the defense still appeared to be on its heels all day against an offense that was far less talented than those of Ohio State’s first two opponents. Their pass-rush also continued to be underwhelming, finishing with just two sacks on a day where Brin attempted 54 passes.

“We’ve got to do a better job of making the quarterback uncomfortable,” Day said.

None of the defensive players who met with the media after the game had a ton to say about why they thought the pass defense struggled on Saturday, though Cameron Brown’s facial expression when told about how many passing yards Tulsa had was telling.

“We just have to go back and look at film, get a lot of stuff tightened up and go to work this week,” Brown said.

It wasn’t necessarily realistic to expect drastic improvement from Ohio State’s defense against Tulsa, considering that the defense was adjusting to a new play caller and implementing some new looks schematically. Even with all the talent Ohio State has, a defense full of flaws isn’t going to get magically fixed overnight.

That said, Ohio State’s defense has struggled mightily in one area or multiple in every game it’s played so far this season, and clearly still needs to get significantly better if the Buckeyes are going to achieve their goals of winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff again.

“We just had to block that out (the outside noise this week) and just get back to our roots, focus, practice hard and do the little things right,” Ronnie Hickman said. “I think it showed a little bit today. We just gotta get better.”

At least from the standpoint of how the coaching staff is structured, though, Day believes the Buckeyes are in a better place defensively than they were a week ago.

“Moving forward, I think we have a good plan on defense,” Day said. “But it’s gonna be something I’m gonna have to – I’m the head coach, so I have to make sure that it’s right and the way they want it and we all gotta be on the same page, because ultimately, I’m responsible for it.”


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