Ohio State’s defense has impressed in many ways through the first two games of Jim Knowles’ tenure as defensive coordinator, but creating turnovers isn’t one of them.
Despite ranking among the top 25 total, scoring and rushing defenses in the country, the Buckeyes are one of just eight FBS teams that has yet to tally a takeaway two weeks into the season, along with Alabama, Notre Dame, Auburn, Maryland, Fresno State, Army and Temple.
Of course, two of the teams in that category are top-three programs in the country, and Ohio State’s lack of turnovers hasn’t resulted in any shortage of success so far. The Buckeyes’ defensive turnaround appears to be going according to plan, even if it has yet to achieve the “top-five” marks Knowles publicly aimed for in the preseason.
It might not be his chief concern, but if Oklahoma State transfer safety Tanner McCalister knows anything about his five-year defensive coordinator, Knowles will want the Buckeyes to begin totaling takeaways in short order.
“I mean, I'm sure he's bothered by it, just because when you look at ranking defenses and things like that, turnovers play a part,” McCalister said Wednesday. “But I'm sure Coach Knowles was more happy about us shutting down, basically just stopping them from scoring. Just stopping the offense from putting the ball in the end zone or putting points on the board. I mean, he's satisfied, but he's probably gonna want all the statistics and things like that.
“He's gonna want some turnovers, and I think if our D-line keeps playing like they are playing, guys are gonna throw the ball and it's gonna bring opportunities for turnovers. We definitely work on it in practice, just punching at the ball, trying to get the ball out. So I think they'll come, but yeah, I don't think Coach Knowles is too worried about it.”
Knowles has plenty to be proud of regarding the performance of his first Buckeye defense. Ohio State held Notre Dame and Arkansas State to a combined 22 points in the opening two weeks, which is 44 fewer than the Buckeyes gave up to this point a year ago. Ohio State has the 20th-ranked scoring defense in the country, and only Georgia has given up fewer touchdowns.
In the run game, the Buckeyes are allowing just two yards per carry to opponents, and its overall rush defense ranks 11th in the nation. Limiting points and stopping the run were key points of emphasis for Ohio State after last season’s shortcomings, and early in 2022, they’ve both been addressed.
So while Knowles isn’t thrilled about the Buckeyes’ lack of turnovers, he knows it’s far from the be-all-end-all when evaluating his unit. Knowles also thinks his group will start capitalizing on opportunities to take the ball away once players settle into his scheme in the coming weeks.
“Turnovers, takeaways, they're one part of the metric to being successful on defense. I think they come as guys get more comfortable in the system,” Knowles said Tuesday. “And when you're more comfortable, and you can see the forest through the trees and you're able to take more chances because you feel comfortable in the system. So I don't like it, but am I concerned? I'm concerned about everything all the time. That's just one thing.”
Knowles cited one stretch in his 2012 season as defensive coordinator at Duke to illustrate that very point. Matching up with Florida State and Clemson in back-to-back games, Knowles and company forced eight total turnovers while Duke didn’t cough the ball up once. But the Blue Devils gave up a combined 104 points and 1,278 yards of offense in those contests and didn’t come close to sniffing a win.
Another area in which the Buckeyes have been successful on defense is stalling red zone drives to force field goals from their opponents. Despite giving up a 54-yard gain on the first play of the game against Notre Dame, the Buckeyes held the Irish to three points on the drive and only gave up one touchdown the rest of the game. On four Arkansas State drives deep into Buckeye territory last week, the Red Wolves came away with just 12 points, all on kicks.
“That's one of our big things, to create turnovers. So the DBs especially, but I know the whole defense is itching for some turnovers.”– Lathan Ransom
Given the firepower the Buckeyes possess on the other side of the ball, that recipe should result in plenty of wins for Ohio State this season, should Knowles’ defense continue to hold firm in the red zone.
“The thing about defense is it's a right now proposition. Either you stop them or you don't, that's the way I look at it. Taking the ball away is one way, one way to stop them,” Knowles said. “Getting off the field on third down is another way to stop them. Then sometimes the ball ends up in the red zone. Either we did it to ourselves, or sometimes it just gets there through other ways, it doesn't matter. Then it becomes the field goals, and I think we've been doing that's one area we've been doing very well. So there are a lot of metrics; takeaways one of them. We want that to be better.”
In 2021, both the Buckeyes and Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense created 20 turnovers, tying for 30th in the country. On Knowles’ end, 11 of those were forced fumbles – 16th-best in the nation – and Ohio State’s physical play on the line of scrimmage early this season suggests the front end of the Buckeye defense will soon have success in that category as well.
Ohio State, which picked off 12 passes a year ago, has been close to a few interceptions already through the first couple of games, and junior safety Lathan Ransom said the Buckeye secondary is just as hungry to get its hands on the ball as any defensive unit.
“Man, that's that's one of our big things, to create turnovers,” Ransom said. “So the DBs especially, but I know the whole defense is itching for some turnovers.”
Toledo has only lost one turnover through the first two games of the season, but perhaps the Buckeyes will add to that total during Saturday’s 7 p.m. in-state matchup at Ohio Stadium.