For most Buckeyes, the immediate postgame fervor had begun to die down.
Not for Kerry Coombs.
As the ESPN broadcast prepared to hand the Buckeyes their Rose Bowl trophy on stage, the man who started the season as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator was still visibly animated back down on the field. With a rose in his right hand, Coombs clutched onto Buckeye defensive analyst Paul Rhoads, patting his chest with the left.
“We got it done,” Coombs could be heard saying, as Rhoads responded with, “Hell yeah we did.”
Kerry Coombs was fired up after the Buckeyes Rose Bowl win. pic.twitter.com/INKSlBFCCH— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) January 2, 2022
Coombs was neither calling plays for the Buckeyes nor on the field during the game. Both of those privileges had been taken from him and given to secondary coach Matt Barnes following Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to Oregon in Week 2. But that didn’t lessen the pride Coombs had in his defense for tightening up and holding the Utes to just 10 points and 139 total yards in the second half.
The 35 points the unit gave up in the first half may have underscored the need for changes on the Buckeyes’ defensive coaching staff, but the game’s final result provided Coombs with a final rush of jubilation after a 2021 season that likely ranks atop the most challenging of his career.
“I’m ecstatic. It was a great win, it was a great test of character,” Coombs said after the game. “I thought the kids were awesome the way they fought and scratched and clawed and kept playing and playing, and I'm really proud of them. Guys getting hurt and other guys having to step in, and just really fun. College football’s supposed to be fun, and it was fun. Not pretty all the time, but fun.”
As for whether or not Coombs will remain on staff with the Buckeyes next season, the veteran secondary guru said he was “not going into any of that” after the game. So far, the only confirmed departure from the coaching staff is Matt Barnes, who is now the defensive coordinator at Memphis, while Jim Knowles took over that role for Ohio State on Sunday.
Instead of making any proclamations about his future, Coombs said “I expect to be having a good time tonight.” After the nature of the Rose Bowl win, no one could blame him.
Following one half of play, the defense helmed by Coombs and company appeared well on its way to being blamed for another Buckeye loss. The Buckeyes gave up 324 yards as Utah did pretty much whatever it pleased to Ohio State, which couldn’t keep pace on offense.
But things changed in the second half, both schematically and otherwise.
“There were changes in scheme, we made some adjustments at halftime,” Coombs said. “I think we got used to – you know, bowl games are hard when you haven’t done a lot of tackling. We did a lot of tackling in bowl practice, but it’s still not the same as full speed play, and it takes a little bit to get caught up to that. I think you see that in a lot of these games in first halves.
“I think our kids settled it down a little bit, and I think there was just some resolve. You know, we’re gonna make some plays. The fourth down stop (by Ronnie Hickman in the fourth quarter) was huge, and in the first half they made the fourth down play. Those kind of plays, our kids rose up to the challenge and did a really good job.”
Aside from any adjustments from the coaching staff, several Buckeyes cited the halftime leadership from veterans like Demario McCall for rallying the team to a second-half comeback. Coombs said Ryan Day had actually challenged the team with doing exactly that on Saturday morning, as he has seen it work in the past.
Day himself cited the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin as an example, when a speech from C.J. Saunders helped Ohio State pull itself back from down 14 at halftime – the same deficit it faced after two quarters in this year’s Rose Bowl.
Needless to say, it had the intended effect.
“I thought our kids responded really well to that tonight, I thought our leaders did, I thought our players did,” Coombs said. “It’s easy to come in there in bowl season in the second half of a game that hadn’t gone real well in the first half – it’s easy to lay down and die, it’s easy to come up with an injury, it’s easy to find a reason not to go out there and compete your butt off. And they didn’t. They found a way to play harder, and like I said, it was very gratifying.”
While some of Ohio State’s personnel tinkering was due to opt-outs, injuries and COVID-19 absences, much of it was in response to the Buckeyes’ poor defensive performance against Michigan’s run-heavy attack in a 42-27 Ohio State loss on Nov. 27.
Coombs said playing with more physicality was stressed throughout bowl preparations, and even if the Buckeye defense had its share of struggles, Coombs thought it showed improvement on that front.
“I think we made a real emphasis during bowl practice of playing physically. I think there were a lot of physical plays out there tonight,” Coombs said. “We didn’t play perfect, we didn’t play great, certainly in the first half we didn’t play well. But we played physically. Coach challenged them about that, and I thought they responded really well today.”
Coombs’ own challenges have been well-publicized this season, and they may not be over yet. But the final conclusion of the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl win was a high enough note for the entire staff to bask in, Coombs included.