Winning Third Down At a Competitive Clip Will Go a Long Way in Solving Ohio State's Defensive Woes

By Chris Lauderback on June 14, 2022 at 10:10 am
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles

It's no newsflash Ohio State's defense was the Achilles heel of a 2021 squad that failed to win the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff. 

The Buckeyes ranked No. 38 in scoring defense, No. 59 in total defense and No. 100 in pass defense while posting an 11-2 record with losses to Oregon and Michigan. Six opponents scored at least 24 points and five scored at least 31, including 45 and 42 by Utah and Michigan, respectively. 

As a result, head coach Ryan Day sent much of his defensive staff packing and most notably, brought in Jim Knowles, by way of Oklahoma State, to serve as his new defensive coordinator. 

With a new scheme and new attitude, along with the law of averages, there's good reason to think the Buckeyes will be much improved on defense this fall. 

One way Knowles' group can reach greater heights in 2022 is to fare better on third down. 

A season ago, the Buckeyes were flat out terrible on third down, allowing opponents to move the chains a shocking 42.08% of the time, good for No. 100 in the country. 

That marked the first time in at least 10 seasons Ohio State's defense fared so poorly on third down and was nearly 500 basis points worse than the 2020 defense's rate, which was already the program's worst of the CFP era. 

2021 42.08% 100
2020 37.14% 35
2019 29.13% 4
2018 32.68% 15
2017 32.09% 17
2016 32.16% 11
2015 34.91% 29
2014 33.95% 13
2013 35.61% 30
2012 32.98% 19

Within the atrocious 42.08% conversion rate allowed for the season, Ohio State's defense was particularly bad in its two losses. Oregon and Michigan combined to convert 13-of-24 third downs against the Buckeyes (57.17%) and as you'll recall, many of those were backbreakers. 

Ohio State allowed a 20-yard pass from Anthony Brown to C.J. Verdell on a 3rd-and-11 during Oregon's opening possession and the Ducks would find the end zone three plays later to cap a 99-yard drive and take a 7-0 lead. 

Early in the third quarter, Verdell raced 77 yards for a touchdown on a 3rd-and-3 snap giving the Ducks a 21-7 cushion. On Oregon's next possession, Travis Dye ran for a 5-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-4 putting the Ducks in front 28-14 midway through the third quarter. 

Finally, Verdell ran for seven yards on 3rd-and-6 from the OSU 21 and on the next snap, the Ducks cashed in with a 14-yard touchdown pass to take a 35-21 lead. 

Michigan only faced eight third downs all day as it ran over and around the Buckeye defense but did convert five, including three on the opening drive to set the tone. 

Hassan Haskins ran for 16 yards on a 3rd-and-2, picked up two yards on a 3rd-and-1 and then 17 yards on another 3rd-and-1 to set up A.J. Henning's 14-yard touchdown run giving the Wolverines a 7-0 lead. 

Shortly thereafter, an 11-yard pass from Cade McNamara to Cornelius Johnson on 3rd-and-3 extended what became a 13-play, 82-yard touchdown drive putting Michigan in front 14-0. 

The two backbreakers came via self-inflicted wounds in the fourth quarter. Steele Chambers jumped offsides to move the chains on a 3rd-and-1 and a few plays later, Denzel Burke was flagged for pass interference on a 3rd-and-2 snap. Michigan scored three plays later making it 35-20 bad guys with 9:14 to play, effectively ending any chance at an Ohio State comeback. 

In the last-second win over Utah in the Rose Bowl, the Utes converted 5-of-12 third downs on the way to 463 total yards. 

Fast-forward to 2022 and now it's up to Knowles to right the ship. By default, the simple fact he runs a complex scheme should immediately give Ohio State's defense a boost, on third down or any other, as the opposing offense won't already have a great read on exactly what the Buckeyes are going to do. 

2021 28.61% 3
2020 26.51% 1
2019 39.27% 67
2018 37.57% 55

Thinking specifically about third down, it's clear Knowles cracked the code in the Big 12, ranking No. 1 in the nation in third down conversion rate for the 2020 season and backing that up with a No. 3 national ranking last year. 

Of course, Notre Dame converted 11-of-20 third downs against Knowles' defense in Oklahoma State's 37-35 win in the Fiesta Bowl (tbf, he wasn't there to call the plays). That said, the Cowboys held Baylor to a combined 9-of-29 third down conversions in two games.

Oklahoma State also stopped Oklahoma on 13-of-18 third down tries during a 37-33 win, held Kansas State to 2-of-12 on third down in a victory and saw Texas convert just 4-of-14 in another Cowboys win. 

Now in Columbus, Knowles figures to have better talent to leverage within his scheme.  But meshing the two doesn't guarantee success. Instead, the players and coaches are focused on installing a new defense, getting stronger and focusing on fundamentals to ensure a season like last year's doesn't happen again. 

Improving in a host of defensive metrics will prove crucial in getting back to the top of the conference and into the CFP with tightening up on third down near the top of the list. 

View 58 Comments