Five Things: Data Points Behind Ohio State's 2021 Football Season

By Chris Lauderback on January 9, 2022 at 10:30 am
Emeka Egbuka

Ryan Day's third season at the helm finished with Ohio State failing to make the CFP or win the Big Ten title, thanks to losses against Oregon and Michigan, but his program finished on a high note with a 48-45 win over Utah in the Rose Bowl. 

The 11-2 Buckeyes couldn't overcome a suspect defense despite an offense ranked No. 1 in scoring (45.7 ppg), No. 3 in passing (380.9 ypg), No. 3 in rushing yards per carry (5.54) and No. 3 in third down conversion rate (52.6%). 

Day's attack cranked out a pair of 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in school history (Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson) behind a first-year starting quarterback in C.J. Stroud who good enough to earn a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. 

You know all about Stroud's records and the Nintendo season Smith-Njigba put up but beyond those often-discussed metrics, a host of other stats stood out. 

Five Things takes a look at some of those on a dank Sunday morning in Columbus. 


Like a lot of folks, I was certainly surprised we didn't hear more about possible staff changes on the defensive side of the ball before we heard Day had fired offensive line coach Greg Studrawa following six seasons at Ohio State. 

In my view, Studrawa's lines were typically pretty damn good although it could certainly be argued a handful of editions underachieved. He also didn't have much of a reputation as a recruiter and the whole starting four tackles thing irked half the fanbase though the production wasn't bad. 

That said, an issue this year was an inconsistent ability to run the ball against better defenses on the schedule. Ohio State averaged just 4.86 yards per carry against top-50 defenses in Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Utah. 

Against its other eight opponents, Ohio State ran for 5.94 yards per carry. 

The best rushing day from a yards per carry standpoint against a top-50 defense came in the season-opener as the Buckeyes churned out 201 yards on 7.73 per pop, aided big time by a Miyan Williams 71-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The low mark came against Michigan as the Buckeyes ran for a mere 64 yards on 30 carries, or 2.13 yards per try. 

I guess you can note Ohio State did average more yards per carry against all those teams, except Michigan, than they allowed per carry on the season but the fact is, Day couldn't definitively count on the running game against better defenses. 


First-year starting bullet Ronnie Hickman recorded just three tackles against Utah but it was enough to give him an even 100 for the season, meaning he was the first Buckeye since Raekwon McMillan in 2016 to reach the century mark. 

Hickman became the first non-traditional linebacker with 100 tackles in a single-season at Ohio State since cornerback Antoine Winfield racked up 100 stops in 1997. In fact, only Hickman and Winfield have recorded at least 100 tackles for an Ohio State defense outside of the linebacker position since at least 1970. 

Additionally, he was just the fourth non-traditional linebacker to lead the team in tackles since 2000 (Jordan Fuller 2018, CJ Barnett 2011, Mike Doss 2000, '01). 

Hickman's 7.54 tackles per game ranked No. 15 nationally among non-linebackers in 2021. 


Obviously Day's had enough of underperforming defense considering he demoted Kerry Coombs from his defensive coordinator role after two games and the interim playcaller is already en route to Memphis as its new DC, paving the way for Day to bring in Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles for a small fee of $1.9 million per year. 

After giving up 45 points and 463 yards to Utah in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State's season rankings include No. 38 in scoring defense (22.8 ppg) and No. 59 in total defense (372.6 ypg). Somehow, those metrics are an upgrade over last season when Ohio State ranked No. 43 in scoring defense giving up 25.8 points per contest and No. 59 in total defense, giving up 401.6 yards per game. 

With Day's offense breaking records year after year, he knows he needs someone to run the show on defense and if Knowles can bring it up to even top-20 status, the Buckeyes should be back in the CFP in 2022. 

A quick turnaround certainly isn't impossible. The 2019 defense orchestrated by Jeff Hafley finished No. 4 in scoring defense (13.7 ppg) and No. 1 in total defense (259.7 ypg) after the 2018 edition championed by Greg Schiano slotted No. 50 in scoring defense (25.5 ppg) and No. 71 in total defense (403.4). 


I know fans are most excited to see Marvin Harrison Jr. alongside Smith-Njigba next year - I am too - but I'm not sleeping on Emeka Egbuka for one second. I'll say it now, I expect him to be Ohio State's second-leading receiver next year. 

Another reason to be excited for Egbuka's sophomore season is his kickoff return skill. Egbuka averaged 29.0 yards per kickoff return in 2021, taking 20 returns a total of 580 yards.

By my count, that's the best kickoff return average by any Buckeye with at least 10 returns in a single-season over at least the last 10 years. Of the six Buckeyes to record at least 10 kickoff returns in a season over that span, only Parris Campbell's 27.8 average comes close to Egbuka. (Note: Campbell averaged a ridiculous 36.6 on nine returns in 2017.)

Egbuka ranked No. 2 in the country with eight kickoff returns of at least 30 yards and No. 7 with three going for at least 40 yards. He had a long of 67 and had a 75-yarder called back in the Rose Bowl. 

This kid is going to damage on offense and again on special teams in 2022. 


Though it felt like Ohio State had little use for a place kicker over much of the last decade, Noah Ruggles transferred in from North Carolina and put up some historical numbers in Columbus during the 2021 season. 

 Ruggles tallied 134 total points, good for sixth-most in the country, and the most ever by an Ohio State kicker in a single-season. His tally bettered the 128 points by Sean Nuernberger back in 2014. 

Ruggles was deadly accurate, making all 74 of his extra point tries and 20 of 21 field goal tries. His 95.2% field goal accuracy set the school's all-time record for kickers with at least 20 attempts and finished No. 2 in the country this season. 

His 10.3 points per game were good for No. 4 in the land this season. 

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