Ohio State Defense Didn't Make the Plays It Needed In Second Half Vs. Michigan

By Andy Anders on November 25, 2023 at 6:15 pm
Mike Hall and J.J. McCarthy

There are always many areas to point to when Ohio State loses a football game, particularly when it loses a football game to Michigan.

It’s unfair to say that the defense’s performance cost the team the game in the second half. Not when an early Kyle McCord interception set the Buckeyes behind from the get-go, the punt team didn’t win the field position battle as much as it could have, a final interception thanks to a pass protection breakdown ended Ohio State’s final drive.

Again, there are a lot of factors that go into a football loss.

That doesn’t change the fact that the Buckeyes’ defense didn’t meet its standard in the second half of their biggest game of the season.

“We just didn’t get the stops when we had to,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said after the game. “Had some guys in position, didn’t make the plays.”

Michigan scored on each of its four second-half possessions, the lone drive that didn't end in points being when the Wolverines were kneeling out the clock. They racked up 18:15 time of possession in the final 30 minutes, in large part thanks to averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the ground with 21 rushes for 122 yards.

It started with the Wolverines’ first drive of the third quarter. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy connected with tight end Colston Loveland for 21 yards, and then Michigan introduced a wildcat package with Alex Orji at quarterback to help open things up on the ground.

Orji picked up 20 yards on a keeper during his first play in the ballgame. The Buckeyes held for a field goal from there, but it was the first of four consecutive 40-yard-plus scoring drives on tap for Michigan in the third and fourth quarters.

Michigan’s starting quarterback was making plays with his legs, too. A 15-yard scramble from McCarthy on Michigan’s second drive of the second half set the table for an 18-yard strike from the signal caller to tight end AJ Barner. 

“He showed that he’s an excellent quarterback. He made plays with his feet when he couldn’t with his arm,” Knowles said of McCarthy. “And we didn’t (make plays). That’s what happens in matchup games, you go against great players – we needed another play.”

Michigan guard Zak Zinter went down on the play. There was a long break in the action while he was carted off the field. 

In the first half, the Wolverines averaged a woeful 1.9 yards per carry. It seemed that Zinter’s injury galvanized the team in many ways, but particularly on the ground, because on the next play, Blake Corum burst through an open hole on the left side and dashed 22 yards to the end zone to put Michigan up 24-17.

Ohio State never pulled even again.

“You always wish you had just made those plays in the critical moments,” Knowles said. “I thought the guys played hard. But it’s just disappointing for the players.”

Michigan followed an Ohio State three-and-out with a seven-play, 44-yard downfield journey to extend its advantage to two scores at 27-17.

Then came the drive that put the Buckeyes’ offense in desperation mode. Michigan went 56 yards in 13 plays, making a point to drain seven minutes off the clock. The Wolverines ran the ball nine times for 42 yards on the possession, including a 3rd-and-1 conversion from Corum. McCarthy also threw for a first down on a 3rd-and-2 at the beginning of the drive.

James Turner booted through his third field goal of the day, this time a 37-yarder, and Michigan led 30-24 with 1:05 remaining. 

“They did a nice job running the ball,” head coach Ryan Day said. “We ended up hanging on at the end, giving our offense a chance to win, but too much time off the clock there. We’ve got to get a stop there and get off the field.”

Michigan hung on to win by that margin exactly after an interception by McCord, who was hit while making the throw, on Ohio State’s final drive.

For a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 17 points all season and improved in many ways since Knowles’ first year as coordinator in 2022, it and Ohio State as a whole simply failed to take control in the second half. Now the Buckeyes have lost to Michigan for the third year in a row, the first time since the 1995-97 seasons. 

“Not enough,” Knowles said of his evaluation of the defense coming out of the contest. “Ultimately you’ve got to win this game. We were a play short, so that’s something I’ve got to keep working on.”

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