Ohio State turned in its worst defensive performance of the season against Toledo. But in a 56-point win that featured a near-historic output by the Buckeye offense, it was hardly the headline of the night.
The Buckeyes gave up only one fewer point to Toledo as Notre Dame and Arkansas State mustered between the two of them in the opening couple of weeks. Ohio State allowed twice as many touchdowns to the Rockets in the first half of Saturday’s contest as it did to its first two opponents combined. Toledo’s 307 yards of total offense were also the most surrendered by the Buckeyes so far.
Still, Ohio State held the Rockets to 183 passing yards and 3.8 yards per carry on the ground, not to mention the two turnovers it caused in the second half. Toledo managed just 34 yards in the fourth quarter as the Buckeyes pulled away for a blowout win that largely cloaked any defensive shortcomings.
Jim Knowles didn’t speak with media members immediately following the game, but the Buckeye defensive coordinator voiced his displeasure with the results given the opportunity Tuesday. Knowles mostly pointed the finger at himself in regards to what went wrong for the Ohio State defense.
“I don't think we did a great job. That starts with me,” Knowles said. “I think it was not at the level that we want our defense to be. Silver Bullet caliber, it wasn't there. Now, a lot to learn from it. Always great that you win and you can learn from that, but I think that starts with me, I just feel like I didn't do a good enough job preparing them for it.”
In particular, Knowles was disappointed in how Ohio State defended dual-threat quarterback Dequan Finn, who threw two 40-plus-yard touchdowns and ran for another 23-yard score in the loss. Knowles said the Buckeyes weren’t surprised by what Finn brought to the table, but couldn’t quite execute what he had in mind to shut him down.
Knowles said preparing for a mobile quarterback on the practice field proved to be a challenge as well, and Ohio State never opted to use a non-quarterback with more athletic ability to give his defense a different look in the leadup to the game.
“we had some schemes and some ideas, but we didn't execute them very well. And when you don't execute, that's not the players' fault. That's my fault.”– Jim Knowles
“You know it's there, you set up some things and some schemes to combat it. But he was really talented,” Knowles said. “And I saw during the game, I learned a lot personally too, because it's like, when you go against an option team, how do you simulate that in practice? It's difficult. How do you simulate a scrambling quarterback? Near impossible, it really is. Because you're not tackling in practice to get that sense of speed.
“So I thought we had some schemes and some ideas, but we didn't execute them very well. And when you don't execute, that's not the players' fault. That's my fault, because you gotta continue to be creative to find ways to do it. So I learned a lot from the experience and we'll get better.”
Ohio State has now given up a 50-yard pass play in every game this season, and while Knowles’ aggressive style of defense occasionally leaves the Buckeyes susceptible to chunk gains downfield, that doesn’t mean he’s happy when they happen.
Knowles said the Buckeyes look at every big play they give up and identify what went wrong, and thinks Ohio State is “on the right track” schematically despite the occasional large gain.
“We talk about explosive plays, right? I've talked before about how I've built those into the system, because they do happen,” Knowles said. “Now you don't want to give up any of them, so you never condone that, and it's always a concern and you have to look at it and say why did it happen? What's the issue? Was it just a 50/50 ball or were we out of position? And if we were out of position, why were we out of position? So every single explosive play is concerning. It's not the end of the world, because we've shown we can recover from it. And that's important, that your guys know you can recover.
“But every single one is concerning and needs to have an answer.”
As far as pass coverage, which could be a weakness for the Buckeyes given its No. 42 ranking in yards per game through three weeks, sophomore cornerback Denzel Burke has received criticism for his past two performances. Both Knowles and Ryan Day expressed confidence in Burke after the Arkansas State game, and even after another subpar showing this past week, Knowles said that confidence hasn’t waned.
“Denzel's serious about his craft. Comes in early, works with Coach (Tim Walton), does all the right things,” Knowles said. “Like I said before, life on an island is difficult, particularly at The Ohio State with all the attention and he's just going to get better and better every week. We have 100% confidence in him.”
Defending the run has been a strength for Ohio State, which ranks 24th in the nation with an average of 84.3 yards per game on the ground thus far. In terms of yards per carry, the Buckeyes’ average allowance of 2.61 is 16th-best in the country, and only 26 teams have given up fewer touchdowns in the run game.
But Knowles said the Buckeyes can be better in that department as well.
“It's been good. It can get a lot better. I think that last week could have been better,” Knowles said. “I'm still looking for us to dominate in all aspects at the point of attack. We're not there yet. So I think there's still a lot more work to do.”
In Wisconsin, Knowles and company face a team that ranks in the top 35 in the country in most major offensive categories, but perhaps will bring a more predictable attack to the table given its longstanding reliance on a physical run game.
Ohio State shouldn’t have the same issues with the Badgers when it comes to the threat of the quarterback run or even a particularly dynamic pass attack. But Wisconsin might be the best team the Buckeyes have seen this season in general, and certainly a step up in competition from the last two weeks regardless of its offensive tendencies.