Despite Finishing As a Top-25 Scoring Defense in 2022, Job One for Jim Knowles in 2023 is Limiting Big Plays

By Chris Lauderback on January 8, 2023 at 11:05 am
A familiar view for OSU safeties in 2022.
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch-USA TODAY NETWORK

Chances are, as we sit here on January 8, with Ohio State out of the College Football Playoff despite putting up 41 points without a host of key offensive players, you've heard that the Buckeye defense has some issues stopping good teams from scoring. 

After racking up 11 straight wins to start the season, things came crashing to a halt as new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles saw his defense allow 45 points versus Michigan and 42 more versus Georgia. 

Even as the Wolverines and Bulldogs (and the Maryland Terrapins before them, albeit in a losing effort) gashed the Buckeyes, Knowles' unit still finished its season with the nation's 24th-best scoring defense (21.0 ppg) and the 14th-best total defense (321.5 ypg). 

Those figures represent modest gains over the 2021 Ohio State defense which gave up 22.8 points and 372.7 yards per game. But Knowles wasn't brought in to realize just modest gains over what was an awful defense the year prior. 

Gene Smith and Ryan Day handed Knowles a 3-year contract worth $1.9 million annually to fix things and fix things in a hurry. 

The good news is Knowles' first Ohio State defense did show improvement and his history suggests a juggernaut could be coming in due time but the bad news is his defense kept the Buckeyes from playing for a national championship tomorrow night. 

While Knowles' defense indeed had its moments in Year One, its downfall was largely an inability to prevent explosive plays. Yes, upon arrival Knowles talked about how his defense would be aggressive and therefore he had a threshold of five big plays per game but when the stakes were highest, five big plays were just the start. 

SEASON 10+ YDS (RANK) 20+ YDS (RANK) 30+ YDS (RANK) 40+ YDS (RANK) 50+ YDS (RANK) 60+ YDS (RANK) 70+ YDS (RANK)
2022 127 (6) 52 (48) 25 (66) 18 (115) 11 (123) 6 (120) 5 (128)
2021 187 (89) 53 (50) 19 (20) 9 (23) 7 (66) 4 (67) 3 (47)
2020 124 (64) 43 (70) 18 (62) 9 (61) 6 (78) 3 (69) 0 (1)
2019 136 (7) 44 (12) 16 (5) 10 (25) 3 (8) 1 (4) 0 (1)

As it turned out, with one game left in the college football season, Ohio State's defense ranked in the bottom 12% of all FBS squads when it came to giving up scrimmage plays over 40 yards, and even worse when it came to giving up scrimmage plays of 50+ yards, 60+ yards and 70+ yards. 

Out of 131 FBS defenses, Ohio State ranked No. 128 allowing five different scrimmage plays of at least 70 yards. Four of those game came versus Michigan and Georgia. 

The Buckeyes slotted No. 120 allowing six different scrimmage plays of at least 60 yards. Five of those came against Michigan and Georgia. A sixth 60+ play, versus the Bulldogs, didn't happen only because Kenny McIntosh tripped over the OSU 10-yard line with no Buckeyes in sight. Georgia scored two plays later. 

While the defense's big play issues certainly stuck out most in the two losses, Knowles' group wasn't stellar against ranked foes in general. The metric is a bit hard to quantify since not all programs faced the same number of ranked teams but Ohio State placed third-to-last, giving up 11 plays of 40+ yards against ranked opponents and next to last by surrendering eight plays of 50+ yards against ranked opponents. 

All of this of course gives Knowles and company a chance to improve drastically next season. And if you look at Knowles' history with Oklahoma State, he certainly created a track record of increasingly strong defenses culminating in his 2021 unit ranking No. 4 in total defense and No. 9 in scoring defense. 

The challenge in Columbus is he likely won't have four years to achieve that kind of success. 

2021 9 80 210.2 37 4 9
2020 6 68 218.4 47 44 34
2019 12 31 253.8 102 82 61
2018 5 119 267.6 118 112 97

Reducing the timeframe to reach point of arrival calls for a meshing of improved playcalling and personnel starting with spring ball in just a few months. 

Most fans are happy to see Ohio State's defense actually try to dictate what the offense can do but there were indeed times Knowles' playcalling was not just aggressive but arguably reckless, particularly against the backdrop of where the defense had personnel shortcomings. Those moments have overshadowed the large portions of games when the defense was clicking. 

Putting guys on an island who shouldn't be on an island - at least not consistently - proved reckless a handful of times over the last two games. Sometimes it wasn't just tough to process due to what was being asked of the personnel but also game situations. We saw it versus Michigan, we heard Knowles say he was looking at it. Then, with Ohio State leading by 14 points late against Georgia, the Bulldogs scored a touchdown on a 10 second possession as a safety fell down in coverage and had no help over the top. 

On the personnel side, Knowles has made it known his defense is "safety driven" and with losing Tanner McCalister and Ronnie Hickman, at minimum, there will be some new blood anchoring the secondary. Lathan Ransom will likely return and play a major role, after having some positive moments in 2022. After that, many fans are excited to see what Sonny Styles can do after a year in the program, among others. 

Ohio State will also have Denzel Burke back at corner, Steele Chambers and maybe Tommy Eichenberg at linebacker and a host of talented guys across the defensive line headlined by JT Tuimoloau. 

Developing these existing pieces who by the way now have a year of seasoning in Knowles' complex system, bringing in more high-end talent, and finding a more effective balance in aggressive playcalling must merge to give Ohio State's 2023 defense a shot of limiting big plays in its most important games.  

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