Exploring Metrics Requiring Immediate Improvement For Ryan Day’s Desired Top-10 Defense to Become Reality

By Chris Lauderback on August 2, 2022 at 10:10 am
Ohio State's 2021 Defense
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State begins fall camp in earnest this week and with expectations set at national championship or bust, the pressure is on for the Buckeyes to not only reclaim the Big Ten title but win a pair of games in the College Football Playoffs.

All signs point to the offense once again proving capable of upholding its end of the bargain but whether or not the defense can rise up remains to be seen. 

For his part, head coach Ryan Day made it clear he's not only expecting the defense to take strides from last season, he's looking for drastic improvement.

“In terms of expectations, we expect a top-10 defense. That's what we want. When we've played our best football, it's because we played really good defense, and we've been balanced and played complementary football. – Ryan Day

If you're not quite as bullish on the 2022 defense, you're likely not alone. The 2021 group finished No. 38 in scoring defense, No. 59 in total defense, No. 28 in rushing defense and a dismal No. 96 in pass defense as Ohio State went 11-2 with losses to Oregon and Michigan. 

Curious as to what it might theoretically take for the Buckeyes to become a top-10 defense in the nation, I took at look at how last year's top-10 defenses fared per key metric. 

Sure, overall defensive numbers can vary year to year but I felt like it was a basic litmus test worth exploring as Ohio State looks to right the ship under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. 

SCORING DEFENSE 22.8 (38) 18.3 (BAYLOR) 4.5
TOTAL DEFENSE 372.6 (59) 318.4 (CINCINNATI) 54.2
RUSHING DEFENSE 126.8 (28) 108.2 (HOUSTON) 18.6

Looking at the four main defensive metrics, Ohio State's struggles were most-pronounced against the pass as the unit yielded over 245 yards per game, a delta of nearly 60 yards compared to the nation's 10th-best passing defense in 2021. 

The Buckeyes ranked just 81st last year, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.6% of their passes. Interestingly though, in its losses to Oregon and Michigan, Ohio State gave up a more-respectable 213 passing yards per game which would've been top-40-ish though that's of course a tiny sample size. 

Tulsa (428 passing yards), Penn State (361) and Purdue (390) logged the three highest passing yardage games against the Buckeyes with each throwing it at least 52 times. Ohio State won each of those games but surrendered an average of 25 points per game and 7.46 yards per attempt, which, if extrapolated over a full season would've been the roughly the 75th-best yards per attempt allowed. 

This year, optimism abounds as the Buckeyes deploy Knowles' scheme, welcome two new assistants in the secondary and benefit from Josh Proctor's return from injury along with Tanner McCalister's transfer from Oklahoma State to complement Denzel Burke, Cameron Brown, Ronnie Hickman and others. 

Shaving at least 60 passing yards per game feels like a significant challenge however keep in mind the 2019 Buckeyes under Jeff Hafley allowed just 156 passing yards per game after the 2018 defense allowed 245, good for an 89-yard delta. 

Ohio State's run defense didn't look so bad on paper, ranking No. 38 in yards allowed per game and No. 33 in yards per carry (3.7) but the Buckeyes got ran over in their two losses. 

Oregon gashed the Buckeyes fo 269 yards on 7.1 per try, seemingly running the same play at will on the way to a 35-28 upset win in the Shoe. Up north, Michigan was even better, bullying the Buckeyes to the tune of 297 rushing yards on 7.2 a pop, again even as Ohio State knew the run was coming. 

Shoring up those numbers falls on a front seven that still has its fair share of question marks. Most fans are confident the defensive ends can get to the quarterback but the tackles and linebackers will need to step it up big time from last season for the run defense to be formidable. Put me down as expecting Tommy Eichenberg to turn in a big season but he'll need help. 

Improvements on the ground and through the air would make shaving at least 4.5 points off the 22.8 point per game allowed average very realistic, putting Ohio State's defense in top-10 scoring defense territory, at least by last year's standard. 

YARDS PER PLAY 5.3 (43) 4.8 (ALABAMA) 0.5
OPP 3-DOWN CONV% 42.1% (100) 32.2% (NOTRE DAME) 9.9
SACKS PER GAME 2.8 (34) 3.2 (TROY) 0.4
RZ TD% 73.4% (124) 45.1% (UTAH) 28.3
RZ SCORING% 85.7% (88) 72.0% (WASHINGTON STATE) 13.7
YARDS PER CARRY 3.7 (33) 3.3 (UTSA) 0.4
YARDS PER PASS ATT 6.9 (32) 6.3 (MICHIGAN) 0.6

More impactful to Day's top-10 defense goal than anything might be whether or not the Buckeyes can improve in the red zone. 

Ohio State stunk inside the 20-yard line in 2021, surrendering touchdowns 73.4% of the time, good for No. 124 out of 130 FBS schools. Only UMass, Tulane, Missouri, Arizona, UAB and Kansas were worse and those team combined to go 21-53 on the season with only UAB posting a winning record. 

Oregon and Michigan embarrassed the Buckeyes, scoring touchdowns on 10 of 11 red zone trips, good for a ridiculous 91% red zone touchdown rate. (Odd stat alert: Ohio State has ranked 101st or worst in red zone touchdown rate allowed in four of the last eight seasons.) 

Stiffening up in the red zone, even if they can't reach the 45.1% touchdown rate allowed that 10th-ranked Utah posted a season ago, could push the Buckeye defense to championship-caliber. 

A metric that's probably more symptom than cause, stopping opponents on third down proved incredibly problematic a season ago. The 2021 defense slotted No. 100 nationally, allowing teams to convert third downs 42.1% of the time. That was 9.9 percentage points off Notre Dame's 10th-ranked third down rate and easily Ohio State's worst over the last 10 seasons. 

As with the other highlighted metrics, Ohio State was awful in its two losses allowing Oregon and Michigan to convert a combined 57.2% third down tries (13-for-24). 

Maybe some good news on this front comes as Knowles' Oklahoma State defenses ranked No. 3 and No. 1 nationally the last two seasons, allowing third down conversions just 28.6% and 26.5% of the time, respectively. 

Speaking of Knowles, his new scheme receives an early test with Notre Dame looming in the season-opener. Should Ohio State's defense be ready from the jump, it could be a sign of big things to come as the Buckeyes embark on a quest for redemption after failing to win the conference and a spot in the CFP a season ago. 

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