Heading into the 2022 season, all eyes are focused on Ohio State's defense after the 2021 group struggled to do just about anything consistently well, resulting in the Buckeyes failing to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2016 and missing the College Football Playoff for the first time since the 2018 season.
All three levels of the defense were to blame and head coach Ryan Day wasted little time blowing up the staff, bringing in Jim Knowles to coordinate the group while adding fresh assistants in Perry Eliano and Tim Walton to replace former defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, secondary coach (and interim coordinator) Matt Barnes and linebackers coach Al Washington.
The pass defense took a huge chunk of the blame from fans for last season's struggles, and rightfully so as it ranked No. 96 in yards allowed per game (245.8) which was, unbelievably, an improvement over the 2020 group's No. 122 ranking (304.0 ypg).
But somewhat lost in the midst of the bitching about the pass defense was the fact Ohio State's rush defense regressed for a second-straight season and more importantly, really struggled in losses to Oregon and Michigan while damn near triggering a loss to Utah in the Rose Bowl.
Hell, things went south starting with the season opener as Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim torched the Buckeyes for 163 yards on 30 carries through three quarters before departing with a serious leg injury.
The next week saw Oregon's CJ Verdell crush the Buckeyes on what felt like the same play over and over to the tune of 161 rushing yards as the Ducks chewed up 269 yards on 7.1 yards per carry in a 35-28 win in the Shoe.
The pathetic display led to Coombs being demoted before Ohio State would take the field versus Tulsa and the run defense's metrics would slowly improve but it was hard to buy in as those improvements came against some scrub offenses.
|SEASON||OPP RUSH YPC||NATL RANK||OPP RUSH YPG||NATL RANK||OPP RUSH TD||NATL RANK|
For instance, Ohio State held Maryland to 56 yards on 1.9 yards per carry, Indiana to 34 on 1.3 per try and Penn State to 33 on 1.1 per tote but those three ranked No. 82, No. 119 and No. 117 in yards per carry for the season.
To their credit, the Buckeyes would then hold Michigan State to 66 rushing yards on 3.1 per carry in late-November, including limiting Kenneth Walker III to 25 yards but in reality, that was largely the result of Ohio State building a 21-0 first quarter lead and 49-0 halftime cushion, forcing the Spartans to try and air it out in what became a 56-7 OSU win.
Of course, to say things disintegrated from there would be an understatement.
The Buckeyes were bullied in Ann Arbor to the tune of 297 rushing yards on 7.2 a pop, led by Hassan Haskins' 169 yards and five touchdowns as Michigan handled Ohio State 42-27. Sixty-one percent of Michigan's total yards came on the ground and the Wolverines scored on five straight possessions to close it out.
The devastating loss sent Ohio State to the Rose Bowl instead of the CFP, where Utah's strong running game put up 226 yards on 5.1 per try but it wasn't enough to overcome Ryan Day's aerial assault in a 48-45 thriller to finish 11-2.
Those two losses, the most in a season since 2017, saw the Buckeyes give up 566 rushing yards on 7.2 per carry with nine touchdowns.
Overall, four of 13 opponents rushed for more than 200 yards against the Buckeyes as the program's yards per carry allowed dipped to 3.68, good for No. 33 in the country, after giving up 3.35 per carry in 2020 (No. 14) and just 2.98 a pop in 2019 (No. 6).
Now, just like the pass defense, it's up to Knowles, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and the rest of the staff to tighten things back up.
And while it took a few years for Knowles to get the run defense to elite status in Stillwater, the Cowboys gave up just 87.6 rushing yards per game last season, on 2.71 yards per carry last season, with both numbers good for 5th-best in the country.
|SEASON||OPP RUSH YPC||NATL RANK||OPP RUSH YPG||NATL RANK|
Since arriving in Columbus, Knowles has remarked more than once that he has better chess pieces to deploy thanks to Ohio State's recruiting machine. Come Labor Day weekend, we'll get to see if the improved chess pieces mesh with his scheme.
Up the gut, those pieces are 3-techs Taron Vincent and Tyleik Williams along with nose defenders Jerron Cage and Ty Hamilton, among others. The bookends of the front four will feature a ton of J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and Zach Harrison, with others vying to be in the mix.
How well guys like Vincent and Cage perform keeping linebackers clean and guys like Sawyer perform in the new Jack position will be major factors in grading the success or failure of the team's run-stopping ability over the course of a long season.
Behind the defensive line, a group of linebackers who struggled last season look to take a significant step forward. Tommy Eichenberg parlayed a big Rose Bowl performance into notable momentum at the Mike spot, Steele Chambers and Cody Simon are back and expecting plenty of reps, and names like Reid Carrico and Palaie Gaotoete are worth keeping an eye on among others.
Behind the front seven, Josh Proctor is expected back as a run-stopping safety and Ronnie Hickman returns after leading the Buckeyes in tackles last season, amid a laundry list of other guys vying for time in the secondary.
Bottom line, Day and his staff sure give off a vibe as if they believe they have the dudes and now just need to combine it with more variation and ability to disguise what the scheme is trying to do from play to play.
If those two facets pan out, it will be hard for Ohio State not to reclaim its spot atop the Big Ten and by extension, a bid in the College Football Playoff.