WANTED: America's Okayest Defense

By Ramzy Nasrallah on April 20, 2022 at 1:15 pm

Ohio State fans aren't asking for much in 2022.

The Buckeyes should be favored in every game on the schedule, but no one is demanding a 15-0 record. It's like asking Santa for everything. That never works. See, we're strategic.

We would just like an okay defense this season. Maybe slightly more. The okayest defense.

C.J. Stroud, the wide receiver room, the running back room, the tight end room, basically all the rooms that contribute to the offense - there's no mystery or wishing there. We accept what they'll bring, sight unseen.

Ryan Day has been a Columbus resident for six years now. He makes offensive wishes redundant - we know what to expect on that side of the ball and we're thankful in advance.

It's the defense which has been unsightly. Unfortunately, that wart has kept coming back since long before Day's arrival. In Urban Meyer's second season the Buckeye defense allowed at least 30 points in six games.

untouched for 13 yards
Michigan's first offensive play of the 2nd half in the 2021 game. Blake Corum mostly untouched for 13 yards.

That's why it won just enough to not win anything. By the end of 2013 it couldn't stop anything or anyone. Al Borges (!) schemed circles around it in Ann Arbor. A year later Chris Ash revamped the defensive schemes, and bam - national title.

Four seasons and three DCs after that, the defense was so problematic it spawned the question is this the worst Ohio State defense of my lifetime and it didn't matter how old you were, the answer was yes. Meyer was doubled over in pain on the sideline watching it along with the rest of us.

Then Day took the reigns, brought in Jeff Hafley and disinfected the defensive staff of nepotism and unproductive coaching. That unit did a 180, going from 71st nationally in total defense to number one. That's a lot better than okay.

Unfortunately Hafley was too good, which led to his departure for head coaching paychecks. The 2020 defense without him was a significant downgrade, though it dealt with an abbreviated COVID season and cautionary protocols which handicapped the depth chart nearly every week.

That defense had an excuse. The 2021 edition did not. Let's cut right to the Michigan game.

And that brings us back to our humble wish for 2022: The okayest defense in America should be able to prevent Michigan from scoring every time it touches the ball from the 2nd quarter on.

An okay defense paired with the nation's best offense wins no less than 99% of the time, which is why you don't have to ask Santa for everything. You might believe asking for just okay is weak or sandbagging - and that's fine, you're allowed to be wrong.

You are probably just failing to grasp how not-okay Ohio State's defense was last season, and how massive of an upgrade okay would be for 2022. Let's stick with the 2021 Michigan game - the season's most important event, the rivalry, de facto East Division title game, gateway to Indianapolis and stepping stone back to the CFP.

Below are two performances against Ohio State defenses, nine drives in succession. Michigan's effort against the Buckeyes from November is on the left. Which one of these would you prefer?

75 yards, touchdown 42 YARDS, INT
24 yards, interception 29 YARDS, INT
30 yards, punt 49 YARDS, TOUCHDOWN
3 yards, punt 8 YARDS, PUNT
82 yards, touchdown 20 YARDS, INT
81 yards, touchdown 65 YARDS, TOUCHDOWN
78 yards, touchdown 3 YARDS, PUNT
66 yards, touchdown 54 YARDS, TOUCHDOWN
63 yards, touchdown 31 YARDS, PUNT

The one on the right, easily. Three picks, three forced punts, three touchdowns. In a heartbeat.

Congratulations, you have chosen Michigan's 1995 performance against Ohio State, when Tim Biakabutuka trampled the Buckeyes for 313 yards, wrecked an undefeated season and possible national championship. The column on the right captures the Wolverines' final nine possessions of that game, from the 2nd quarter up until their fans charged the field.

You just said yes, gimme that instead - and you were right. Time Squad isn't touching this one.

Prior to last November, Ann Arbor 1995 was the benchmark for what an Ohio State defensive catastrophe looked like - it could not get worse than what happened that afternoon. Eddie George was overshadowed by a guy no one had ever heard of or could pronounce.

Bill Young had run John Cooper's defenses at Tulsa, followed him to Tempe and did the same job at Arizona State before accompanying him again to Columbus. They experienced moves, promotions, rebuilding efforts that became conference titles, and Rose Bowls together. Their families were tight. Every bit of Coop's ascendance included Young.

That afternoon was so bad, Coop ended their 15-year relationship. Cut ties with his DC life partner.

It was the worst afternoon for exactly 26 years. Day allowing Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes to pursue other opportunities carried a fraction of the emotional baggage Coop absorbed after the 1995 disaster. In both games, Ohio State was helpless to stop the run. It barely looked like an FBS defense.

left-handed schoolgirl defense
Michigan's second offensive play of the 2nd half. Corum mostly untouched for 55 yards. The third play would be a 13-yard TD run.

Stroud had 394 passing yards in Ann Arbor - only seven opposing quarterbacks have ever thrown for more against Michigan in a game. He also had 34 completions, good for fifth all-time against the Wolverines. Even if the Buckeyes had been able to run the ball competently, there's no Ohio State offense that could have survived that Ohio State defense.

Producing a defense that ineffective with Ohio State-level football talent is the fastest path to termination. Back in 1995 Young had Mike Vrabel, Luke Fickell, Matt Finkes, Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Damon Moore, Rob Kelly and Greg Bellisari. Fred Pagac took over in 1996, and with nearly the same lineup - they allowed nine points a game. Nine.

The 2018 unit was crisis-level bad, but we saw what Hafley was able to do in just one season. And now Jim Knowles has the opportunity to do what Pagac and Hafley did in 2019 and 1996, except he doesn't even need to be as good as they both were.

Ohio State is coming off a 48-45 Rose Bowl victory where they managed to survive their historically terrible defense along with several opt-outs, including two receivers who will become multi-millionaires next Thursday night. Wrecked a team that beat Oregon twice, while shorthanded.

Winning with Day's offense and quarterbacks should never be that uncomfortable. Okay is a cure.

The program is also coming off the worst 2nd half by Ohio State defense against Michigan since 1902, when the Wolverines won 86-0 and Freddy Cornell wrote Carmen Ohio on the train back to Columbus because he was so sad.

Michigan only scored six more 2nd half points that afternoon than it did last November. The 2021 game might as well have ended 86-0. Fortunately, we are blessed with plenty of great songs. We don't need another one. We just need an okay defense.

Because okay defenses win championships when paired with Day's offenses. Let's just be okay.

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