Defensive Changes Continue to Result in Tangible Improvement For Ohio State: “There's A Different Look in Our Eye”

By Griffin Strom on October 11, 2021 at 8:35 am
Jack Sawyer
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Day still isn’t sure if the decisions he made after the Buckeyes’ Week 2 loss to Oregon will turn out to be the right ones.

Some things, the Ohio State head coach said after Saturday’s win, can only be accurately assessed with the benefit of hindsight, and likely after the season has come to an end. What was clear after the early-season defeat, though, was that changes needed to be made on defense.

“You’re not always right, but you do the best job that you think at that moment to make a strong decision, because that’s what leadership is,” Day said. “And so, we’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out, we’ve still got a lot of football left.”

It may be a small sample size, but the only coherent interpretation of the past three Ohio State defensive performances is that those changes have paid off in spades thus far. With secondary coach Matt Barnes calling plays, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs seeing things from the box and coverages varying, the Buckeyes’ defensive metrics have improved across the board.

After giving up 86 points combined to Minnesota, Oregon and Tulsa through the first three weeks, Ohio State has allowed just 37 to Akron, Rutgers and Maryland. No team has scored more than 20 points against the Buckeyes since the Oregon game, and Ohio State’s is now 33rd in the country in scoring defense with just 20.5 points allowed per game.

“I see confidence, I see a defensive staff that’s working together. Kerry Coombs got the game ball today,” Day said. “It’s because of everything that he’s been through the last couple weeks, and he’s just continued to show up everyday, and he’s a huge part of the defense. But at the same time, we’ve reconstructed a few things and we’ve got a little rhythm going.”

When Ohio State surrendered 472 yards and six touchdowns on the ground alone in the first two games of the year, it appeared the Buckeyes’ run defense might be just as big an issue as the pass defense that received so much criticism in 2020.

But in the past four games, Ohio State has allowed just 316 total rushing yards and no rushing touchdowns, with teams averaging a combined 2.34 yards per carry against the Buckeyes. Maryland mustered just 56 yards on the ground Saturday with an average of 1.6 yards per attempt.

“Matt’s doing a great job of calling it, I think Larry’s doing a great job with his guys up front, Al Washington’s starting to build some stability at linebacker,” Day said. “Those guys all working together, they’re starting to see it through one lens, and you can see it out there. The confidence is there, it’s strong. We still have a lot of football to play and some really good opponents here in the second half of the season, so we haven’t done anything just yet, but we’re building on it.”

Surprisingly, given the program’s track record, pass rush had been an issue for Ohio State through the first quarter of the season. In the first three games, the Buckeyes recorded just four sacks. Since then, Johnson’s defensive line has tallied 15 sacks, including nine against Akron and five against a Maryland offensive line that had only given up six all season entering Saturday.

True freshmen Tyleik Williams, Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau have accounted for seven of those sacks, and Day said it has simply taken time for young players on defense to settle into their roles.

“I think there was a lot of guys who just didn’t have a lot of experience,” Day said. “Maybe there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the fact that they could do it themselves, but also that the guy next to them could do it. Being with the fans and going through Skull Session and the walk, all those things were new for everybody. It took a while to get some guys some reps under their belt, build some confidence.” 

Steele Chambers, who has quickly emerged as a key piece at linebacker in his first year playing the position, did not dispel that notion after Saturday’s game.

“I just think you guys can tell we’re playing with a lot more energy, we’re definitely getting more comfortable with the system that we put in,” said Chambers, who was tied for the team lead with seven total tackles against Maryland. “I think we just have more trust in each other that we’ll get our jobs done and that we’ll do the right thing.”

Among the most impressive defensive improvements of all is the frequency with which Ohio State has turned over opposing offenses as of late. The Buckeyes didn’t have an interception in the first two games, but have picked off at least two passes in every game since the Oregon matchup.

If nine interceptions in the past four games wasn’t stellar enough, Ohio State has returned one of them for a touchdown in each of those contests. On Saturday it was third-year safety Craig Young who extended the pick-six streak, returning a fourth-quarter interception 70 yards to the end zone.

“It’s just a testament to our preparation, because we work that stuff, we do it every single day in practice, so we’re not all that surprised by it," Chambers said. "But it’s great to see guys like Craig out there doing that, all of our guys flying around having fun.”

Day said there isn’t just one thing to point to when assigning attribution for the defensive upturn. Experience gained, growing confidence and a more aggressive play calling approach have all contributed, but Chambers said the intestinal fortitude of the group has to be taken into consideration as well.

“I think it just speaks to our resolve,” Chambers said. “Being able to come back from that Week 2 loss, it takes heart to do that, and I think we definitely have that heart.

Day is not ready to declare the Buckeye defense fixed entirely. One looking to take wind out of Ohio State’s sails might point out that Akron, Rutgers and Maryland are not exactly elite competition and that the Buckeyes have yet to show their supposed improvement against a ranked team.

Ohio State will get that chance soon enough, but the signs are certainly positive heading into the bye week.

“We’re still nowhere near, and we got a long way to go,” Day said. “But you can see it’s a different team right now. There’s a different walk, there’s a different look in our eye.”

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