Expectations were already sky-high for Jim Knowles to produce a major defensive turnaround entering his first season at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator inherited a unit that finished 59th in total defense (372.6 YPG), 38th in scoring defense (22.8 PPG), 96th in passing defense (245.8 YPG) and 26th in rush defense (126.8 YPG). Not all those numbers were dreadful, but none represented a truly elite unit. Ohio State also gave up a whopping 77 combined points in the two regular-season losses that kept it out of College Football Playoff contention in 2021.
After nearly overhauling the entire defensive coaching staff in the offseason, Ryan Day made it clear that the Buckeyes were aiming for a top-10 defense under Knowles’ leadership in 2022. And while they didn’t quite get there, Knowles helped the defense improve dramatically by nearly every major metric. This past season, Ohio State ranked 14th in total defense (321.5 YPG), 24th in scoring defense (21 PPG), 26th in passing defense (200.5 YPG) and 26th in rush defense (121.1 YPG).
But that wasn’t enough to get the scarlet and gray over the hump. The Buckeyes suffered one less regular-season loss than it did the year prior and earned a backdoor berth into the CFP, but lost to Michigan for the second straight season – this time an even more lopsided defeat – failed to earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and ultimately fell to eventual national champion Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Once again, Ohio State’s defense took much of the heat as it gave up a combined 87 points in the Buckeyes’ two losses to end the year.
So although Ohio State appeared to take a big step forward under Knowles in many respects, it still wasn’t a large enough leap to take the Buckeyes to the promised land. That means in 2023, expectations will be even higher and patience could begin running thin among Buckeye fans, especially if Ohio State allows another offensive explosion in a potential third consecutive loss to its archrival in Ann Arbor.
Luckily for the Ohio State faithful, Knowles has a track record for producing continued improvement the longer he helms a defense in a particular program. The year before he took over as Duke’s defensive coordinator (2010), the Blue Devils had the 108th-ranked total defense in the nation. By the end of 2017, his final season with the program, Duke ranked 21st in the nation. That same year, Oklahoma State came in at No. 79 in total yards allowed per game. Knowles took over the reins in 2018, and by his final year in 2021, the Cowboys had the fourth-best total defense in the country.
Knowles knew upon coming to Columbus that his timeline for a turnaround would be sped up considerably from any previous stop in his collegiate coaching tenure. And now, with a full year under his belt to implement his notoriously complex scheme at Ohio State, many will view that as ample time for Knowles to truly stamp the Buckeyes as one of the best defenses in the country in 2023.
But while a multi-year investment in Knowles paid off in spades at his previous stops, as outlined above, there hasn’t always been a major statistical improvement across the board from year one to year two.
|2001||Western Michigan||49th (24.2 PPG)||56th (366.3 YPG)||17th (179.8 YPG)||87th (186.5 YPG)||5-6|
|2002||Western Michigan||70th (27.5 PPG)||28th (330.7 YPG)||20th (179.5 YPG)||54th (151.2 YPG)||4-8|
|2011||Duke||90th (31.2 PPG)||92nd (425.4 YPG)||84th (244.8 YPG)||85th (180.7 YPG)||3-9|
|2012||Duke||110th (36 PPG)||109th (469.2 YPG)||104th 267.2 YPG)||103rd (201.9 YPG)||6-7|
|2018||Oklahoma State||97th (32.5 PPG)||112th (452.5 YPG)||118th (267.1 YPG)||87th (185.4 YPG)||7-6|
|2019||Oklahoma State||61st (26.8 PPG)||82nd (412.3 YPG)||102nd (253.8 YPG)||67th (158.5 YPG)||8-5|
Knowles served as the defensive line coach at Western Michigan for four years before getting his first crack at a defensive coordinator job in 2001. The Broncos posted respectable defensive numbers, ranking 49th in scoring defense (24.2 PPG), 56th in total defense (366.3 YPG) and 17th in pass defense (179.8 YPG), but weren’t great against the run as they placed 87th in the nation (186.5 YPG).
In Knowles’ second season at the helm of the unit, Western Michigan improved to 28th in the nation in total yards allowed, giving up 36 fewer per game, and allowed almost 35 fewer rushing yards per game to finish at No. 54 in the country. However, the Broncos dropped three places in terms of pass defense and allowed 3.5 more points per game to rank No. 70 in scoring defense. As a result, Western Michigan went 4-8 in 2002.
Between Knowles’ first and second seasons as defensive coordinator at Duke, the Blue Devils’ numbers in major statistical categories took a step back across the board. Duke was 90th in scoring defense (31.2 PPG) and 92nd in total defense 425.4 YPG) in 2011 but fell to No. 110 and No. 109 in those metrics the following year, giving up 36 points per game and nearly 470 total yards per game. Duke dropped 20 spots against the pass, giving up about 23 more yards per game from 2011 to 2021, and saw almost an identical drop-off in rush defense. Still, the Blue Devils managed to win three more games and suffer two fewer losses than they did in 2011.
But perhaps such an evaluation should be weighted more toward Knowles’ most recent work. At Oklahoma State, the Cowboys improved across all major defensive categories between Knowles’ first year in 2018 and his second in 2019, even if some were relatively marginal. Oklahoma State allowed 32.5 points (No. 97) and 452.5 total yards per game (No. 112) in 2018, including 267.1 (No. 118) against the pass and 185.4 (No. 87) against the run. The Cowboys finished 7-6 on the season.
Given a second full season under Knowles’ leadership, the Oklahoma State defense finished the 2019 season with the No. 61 scoring defense (26.8 PPG) and 82nd-best total defense (412.3 YPG), ranked 102nd in passing defense (253.8 YPG) and No. 67 against the run (158.5 YPG). Improved team results followed as the Cowboys finished the year with an 8-5 record.
Of course, even Knowles’ numbers in his second seasons didn’t reflect the heights he’d eventually reach at each of those three stops. Not to mention, the stats his first Ohio State defense produced in 2022 were already better than most of those posted by Western Michigan, Duke and Oklahoma State in either of his first two years, if not significantly so. That’s an undoubtedly positive indicator for the trajectory of the Buckeye defense moving forward.
And thus far this offseason, the proof is in the pudding. Not only have Ohio State’s position coaches and on-field personnel unilaterally expressed an increased level of comfort given a full year in Knowles’ system, but improvements have also been apparent on the gridiron.
Look no further than the spring game, where the Buckeye defense dominated to win the exhibition, 40-31, in a scrimmage that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. Even before that, Ohio State’s secondary looked much improved in multiple practice sessions and scrimmages and the defensive line may have been the most impressive unit of all.
Spring performances don’t guarantee in-season outcomes, but Ohio State fans have legitimate cause for hope as it pertains to a better defensive season in the campaign to come.