It Takes a Lot of Time to Make Silver Bullets, but Jim Knowles is Going to Try and Expedite the Process

By Johnny Ginter on August 12, 2022 at 10:10 am
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles

"Silver Bullets" is one of the more kickass monikers in college football.

In my mind, this is because a silver bullet is a thing designed to take out the worst monsters that lurk in the collective imaginations of our brains. If you have an irrational fear of the eldritch unknown, if you're afraid of what horrible monster might be at the end of the alleyway, a silver bullet is your best bet as a mere mortal to get out alive. It is a near-mythical weapon to help the hapless.

During the height of Tresselball, when Ohio State's offense often only existed in theory, the Buckeye defense was that weapon. The pink, flabby countenance of your average Johnny Ginter circa 2004 might recoil in horror at having to watch the likes of Lydell Ross and Mo Wells run directly into the teeth of an opposing defensive line 45 times a game, but he was comforted by the fact that none of that seemed to really matter as long as A.J. Hawk was on the team.

Or Donte Whitner or Ashton Youboty or any number of other badasses that ensured that no matter how crappy the offense got, as long as Mike Nugent could kick three or four field goals, Ohio State was getting out of there with a win.

This, of course, wasn't sustainable. Jim Tressel's defenses were always somewhere between "very good" and "fire hose except instead of water it shoots razor blades at you", but college football never stops evolving. By the end of his tenure, relatively great defenses like those helmed by the likes of Mark Dantonio and Jim Heacock were still effective at helping to win a lot of games, but simply weren't enough to carry a moribund offense to more championships.

Urban Meyer immediately revamped the Buckeye offense to great effect, but then eventually the Silver Bullets faded into myth and legend somewhere in the bottom of the Anduin River (until Jeff "Bombadil" Hafley found it and then threw it away after a season). Like Tressel, Meyer had lost the plot over a critical segment of his team, which seems like it should've been foreshadowing for similar failures in other areas that we all could've picked up on but didn't.

Both coaches won national titles, but I think that there's a general feeling that had they been able to put together the two sides of the equation, Columbus could be the beneficiary of the same kind of dynasty they've got in Tuscaloosa.

Maybe now Ohio State has that.

“We talk about having a Silver Bullet defense to mirror the traditions that have been around here, I tell the guys that means top five. That's what we're pressing for. But nothing really goes through my mind other than it's great to be at the Ohio State because the expectations are high. And that's what I've always wanted.”

Me too, Jim! But as it turns out, fielding a top five defense is really, really difficult.

In the past ten seasons, Ohio State has fielded a top-five defense exactly one time (the aforementioned Jeff Hafley season in 2019, when they were statistically the best in the country). In the past decade, Buckeye defenses have, on the aggregate, trotted out the 31st ranked defense in college football, but this should be contextualized by a number of top ten defenses contrasted with several in the 60-70 range.

In other words, "wildly inconsistent" is probably the most charitable thing that you could say about the defense in the past several years, punctuated by some incredible individual performers.

There are a lot of plausible explanations for this: poor relationships among coaches, staff turnover, bad hires possibly based on a tux rental in the mid-80's, recruiting misses, and so on. And maybe all of those are part of why Ohio State hasn't been consistent enough on both sides of the ball to create a football Voltron that stomps all over opponents and also manages to avoid pitfalls against, say, Purdue.

While expectations for Knowles' transformation of the Buckeye defense might be lofty (and possibly unrealistic), that doesn't mean that they're unfair, and because of that I'm glad that the defensive coordinator has decided to embrace the narrative that he'll be dealing with the entire season. He's going to be the first person to get credit if the Buckeyes shut out an opponent, and the first person to have his house egged if Arkansas State scores more than 13 points.

That's part and parcel of being a two million dollar man in Columbus, but it's also because fans know that if he's successful, the Buckeyes might finally have found what they need to take on the assorted Lovecraftian horrors of the college football world.

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