The Ohio State defense gave up 35 plays of 20 or more yards to opposing offenses in the first 11 games of the season. Only seven of those went for touchdowns.
Then Michigan gashed the Buckeyes on six different plays of 20-plus yards on Nov. 26. The Wolverines got in the end zone on five of them, and each score was well over 20 yards.
In an interview with ESPN following the Buckeyes’ fourth-seed selection in the College Football Playoff, Ryan Day spoke of his regret in the aftermath of Ohio State’s most demoralizing loss in recent memory. Perhaps the Buckeye coach felt no greater shame about how The Game transpired than those five explosive touchdowns, particularly Michigan’s 75- and 85-yard rushing scores in the fourth quarter.
|STAT||FIRST 11 GAMES||MICHIGAN|
|20+ Yard Gains||35||6|
|20+ Yard TDs||7||5|
|30+ Yard Gains||15||6|
|30+ Yard TDs||4||5|
|50+ Yard Gains||5||4|
|50+ Yard TDs||3||4|
|65+ Yard Gains||1||4|
|65+ Yard TDs||1||4|
Of the five gains of 65 or more yards Ohio State gave up in the regular season, four came against Michigan alone.
“I felt we came out swinging pretty hard. And then a couple of plays here and there, obviously with the explosive plays, and then getting ourselves out of rhythm there in the third quarter cost us the game. And certainly hated the way it ended with those couple long runs,” Day said in a Dec. 4 press conference in Columbus. “I mean, that just ruined the whole day, really. Because it's seven minutes to go, it's an eight-point game and if you just keep swinging and keep swinging – but it didn't happen.
"So, was obviously very disappointed with that. But there was still a lot of good things that happened. It wasn't like you watched the film and you're like, 'Geez, we just got completely outmatched.’ It was just the lack of execution and too many big plays.”
First-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles never pretended his defense would stop its foes from the occasional explosive gain entirely. That would be too tough an ask for any defense in the country, let alone a unit as aggressive as the one Knowles operates. In fact, Knowles said early in the season that five explosive plays in a given game – while not celebrated – is a number he can tolerate due to the nature of his scheme.
But Knowles readily admitted he might have to amend that philosophy following the Michigan game.
“The second half, obviously, there at the end, they hit a couple of big runs. That's just disheartening. Obviously, I have to take the blame for that, and I should,” Knowles said on Nov. 26. “Just got to do a better job. Story of explosive plays. I thought we matched well, and nothing well in a loss like that, but we matched through the course of the game. But too many explosives. And that's disheartening not just for the defense, but the team, the fans, and then I have to take responsibility for that.”
Big gains are one thing, but touchdown plays of 45 or more yards – of which Michigan had five against the Buckeyes – are another.
“You have to evaluate. The explosives, when they go for touchdowns, they become a different story,” Knowles said. “Typically, over the course of my career, you preach the explosive plays, and they have a chance to get the guy on the ground and then you recover. But when they go for touchdowns, certainly, that's something that falls on me. And you're right. I need to look at it.”
While 27 of the 35 big plays Ohio State gave up before the Michigan game came on eventual scoring drives (including field goals), 20 of those gains didn’t actually reach the end zone on the play itself. That means the Buckeyes kept opponents from scoring touchdowns on 80% of the explosive plays they gave up before the regular-season finale. Of course, the Wolverines scored touchdowns on 83.3% of their gains of 20 or more yards after that.
Ohio State hadn’t allowed more than five explosive plays in any game until it took on Penn State, which had seven 20-yard pickups and finished with 31 points against the Buckeyes – 10 more than any other opponent had managed to that point. The Buckeyes also gave up seven such plays to Maryland three weeks later and six to Michigan after that.
As a result, each team put up 30 or more points on the Buckeyes. They were the three top offenses Ohio State faced all regular season. Michigan ranks 27th in average yards per game (453.5), Penn State ranks 35th (432.4) and Maryland is slotted at No. 51 (406.1).
"Too many explosives. And that's disheartening not just For the defense, but the team, the fans, and then I have to take responsibility for that.”– Jim Knowles
The Buckeyes’ next opponent, defending national champion Georgia, averages nearly 40 more yards of offense than any of those teams. The Bulldogs’ 491.9 yards per game are seventh-best in the nation, and their 39.2 points per game are second only to Michigan in terms of Ohio State adversaries. Georgia is fresh off an SEC Championship Game performance in which it put up 50 points on then the No. 14 team in the country, and the Bulldogs had 35 points before halftime.
Day said the Michigan game was a “stark reminder” that Ohio State must play loose, aggressively and without a “fear of failure” moving forward. But perhaps that philosophy applies to the offensive side. On defense, Knowles’ gambles resulted in big plays for the Wolverine offense far too often, and perhaps his unit will focus on reining things in before a matchup with the No. 1 team in the country.
If not, Ohio State risks giving up a 40-plus-point performance in another big game. But that also may explain why Day said his team needs to score somewhere in the ballpark of 49-50 points to notch him a second CFP win.
Either way, there’s little doubt Ohio State will be focused on limiting game-changing breakdowns on defense in the weeks remaining weeks of preparation before Dec. 31, even if it’s turned the page from the Nov. 26 defeat.
“We still have a month of work. But I can tell you, coming off of The Game, it was the big plays. There was just a lot of good football that was played in that game, but when you give up big plays like that, it doesn't matter,” Day said. “And so there was a lot of work done in terms of the film room identifying the issues that were going on during the week. But one thing that we talked about was we spent last week focusing on the opportunity to play in the CFP. And if this opportunity was here, don't be surprised on Sunday afternoon if your name's up on that board.
"And so we did that. And we went in, we had two really good days of practice and then got after the film.”