It’s not conservative. It’s not bend-but-don’t-break. Jim Knowles has pushed back on both of those terms, as getting Ohio State’s offense back on the field remains a “right-now proposition” for him.
Whatever the terminology Knowles or pundits want to use for it is, though, the Buckeyes’ strategy pivot to less aggression and more big-play prevention on defense is paying dividends through four weeks of action.
“You want to keep the offense off-balance,” Knowles said on The Ryan Day Radio Show Thursday. “(But I’m) probably blitzing less than I ever have in my career. But I also think it’s what is working. So it’s not about what I know, it’s about what executes and what the players get done.”
A month of competition has come and gone and Ohio State ranks second in the country for scoring defense, allowing 8.5 points per game. The Buckeyes rank sixth in total defense as well, surrendering 255.5 yards per contest. Perhaps most notably, Ohio State is one of only five teams that has yet to allow a play of 40 yards or more this season while it also ranks in the top 10 in 20-yard plays allowed (nine) and 30-yard plays allowed (three).
It’s been against a variety of offenses. Notre Dame presented the most balanced attack Ohio State has seen with efficient quarterback play from Sam Hartman and a powerful rushing attack, but the Buckeyes’ point-stoppers bottled up both Indiana’s surprise triple-option scheme and a prolific Air Raid from Western Kentucky, featuring the nation’s leading passer from 2022 in Austin Reed.
“We saw it from the first game,” Knowles said. “Indiana came out with an option attack, which might usually throw you for a loop. But our guys, they understand things, they communicate, talk about it on the sidelines. So it’s a good sign, because every week does bring something different.”
Such changeups and curveballs have come as no surprise to linebacker Cody Simon.
“When you play at Ohio State, everyone attacks you different ways and gives you new looks,” Simon said. “We’re still working through all the little tricks and nuances that the offense will bring. We’re definitely more mature as a defense, but there’s always going to be new issues and new problems that arise.”
What’s allowed the Buckeyes to adjust and find success in those settings, both Knowles and Simon stated, is the veteran presence within Ohio State’s defense.
“I think the main difference is that we can expand on what we did last year,” Simon said. “Now we have an understanding of how Coach Knowles wants to coach us and his scheme, how he’s making the scheme up in his brain. He’s pretty impressive with the way he thinks about defenses, I think it’s that development and how we can be a more advanced defense (that's led to our improvement).”
“(I’m) probably blitzing less than I ever have in my career. But I also think it’s what is working.”– Jim Knowles
Knowles added that linebacker Tommy Eichenberg has served as the quarterback of the squad, and his knowledge has allowed the group to make checks at the line and adjust to various looks and formations on the fly.
Every ounce of it mattered against the Fighting Irish. While OSU gave up four gains of 20 yards or more in South Bend, it surrendered none that went for 30 or more. Two 4th-and-1 stops – one of which was made by Simon on a Hartman scramble – contributed to a first-half shutout despite multiple long Notre Dame drives.
“That’s always the goal of the defense, is to find any way to stop momentum, to stop the offense from creating more plays,” Simon said. “I was fortunate to be in that situation – that was a big play for our defense. Being able to get off the field, it’s always big. To leave the field with no points, it’s a big deal.”
“Big emphasis this year on not giving up explosive plays, and we’re making strides in that area,” Knowles said. “A little bit less risky, but that means when you use it, you can catch people off-guard.”
One area the Buckeyes could stand to improve defensively is their third-down efficiency.
If getting the ball back to the offense is a “right-now proposition,” there’s no better way to accomplish that task than forcing punts and field goal tries. Ohio State currently allows its opponents to convert on 35.7 percent of their third-down attempts, just 44th in the nation. Such situations are of increased importance under college football’s new clock rules, which now keep the timer running after first downs.
“We’ve always emphasized third down,” Knowles said. “Coach Day and I have talked about it, we need to even spend more time on third down, more time in the red zone. They’ve always been key, but now with the limited possessions, you better win in those areas.”
For now, Ohio State is focusing on getting back to basics during its off week.
“The amazing thing about football is it’s really all about fundamentals,” Simon said. “It’s all about the basics, and that’s the main focus of bye weeks is getting back to being violent with your hands, footwork, it’s all simple. That’s the thing about these big moments in games, you think it’s miraculous plays, but it’s really just the basics and who can do their basics better than the other team.”