Jim Knowles threw a curveball Tuesday when asked whether Ohio State’s three tackles for loss against Youngstown State met his standard for the defense.
Rather than set parameters for where he’d like his ball stoppers to be in producing takedowns behind the line of scrimmage, Knowles dug into what has been a shift in his mindset as a defensive coordinator from 2022 to 2023.
“I’ve adjusted,” Knowles said. “When you’re at places where you need to live in that world, feast or famine type of world where you’re trying to make sure you take a lot of chances, do a lot of different things to somehow gain the advantage – I think I’ve adjusted my philosophy here. We have different players, and my job is to make sure we win the game, not get the TFLs. And a lot of times, I think the best philosophy here is to let the guys play.”
That implies more base defenses and fewer blitzes like those the Buckeyes ran when Michigan gouged them for five touchdowns of more than 40 yards in a 45-23 beatdown in Columbus last year.
Both that contest and Ohio State’s College Football Playoff game against Georgia caused Knowles to evaluate many of his thoughts in that regard.
“(The shift in philosophy happened) last year when we experienced some issues,” Knowles said. “If you live in that world against teams where you have a skill advantage, it can look really nice (when you play aggressive). But when you get into the matchup games, I’ve found that it can hurt you. So you need to be able to adjust.”
Those games magnified lingering doubts that were in the back of Knowles’ mind, even as the Buckeyes played the weaker opponents on their schedule.
“It was building throughout the season,” Knowles said. “We gave up explosive plays. Even to Indiana or Toledo last year, we gave up explosive plays. Those were still wins, but it was always on my mind. Then it really came in after the season when I did the study.”
Of course, there will still be times when Knowles dials up a blitz or tries to change the picture for an opposing quarterback. It’s just a matter of picking and choosing his spots for when to send the heat.
“It’s always about balance,” Knowles said. “You never want to be predictable. You want to be able to put the pressure in when it’s least expected.”
Balanced aggression isn’t just about play calling, though. It also shines through in the ways players are instructed, Knowles said.
"A lot of times, I think the best philosophy here is to let the guys play.”– Jim Knowles
He wants his players to have free reign to make plays, but on the flip side, everyone needs to stay within the structure of a scheme and fulfill their respective responsibilities.
“We have to make sure, as coaches, that they do their jobs and trust the defense,” Knowles said. “We have guys that want to make plays, and at times that leads you to putting your eyes in the wrong place.”
Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky is one that serves as a litmus test for many of those ideological adjustments, Knowles feels.
The Hilltoppers finished second in all of college football in passing yards per game a season ago, with quarterback Austin Reed leading the country in passing yards at 4,746. He and the team’s leading receiver last year in Malachi Corley (1,295 yards in 2022), back from an injury that held him out in Week 2, will challenge Ohio State’s secondary in ways most Group of Five teams can’t.
“They’ll throw the ball down the field. They’ll get you running on the perimeter, try to tire out your defensive linemen,” Knowles said. “Get you moving sideways in order to then go up top, create eye violations.”
With No. 9 Notre Dame on the docket for Week 4 and featuring a dynamic transfer quarterback in Sam Hartman, Ohio State will find out soon enough if the adjustments to Knowles’ philosophy are reaping benefits.
“We’ve gotten better in our first couple of games at explosive plays and minimizing that, but we haven’t really been tested yet,” Knowles said. “This will be important.”