Ohio State Defense Looks to Validate Its Standing As One of Nation’s Best Units in Cotton Bowl

By Dan Hope on December 28, 2023 at 9:20 am
Jack Sawyer vs. Western Kentucky
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Ohio State’s defense was clearly better in 2022 than it was in 2021, yet its season was ultimately defined by how it came up short in the Buckeyes’ final two games of the season.

The Buckeyes don’t want to end up in the same position two years in a row.

Ohio State’s defense hasn’t just been better in 2023 than it was in 2022, it’s been one of the best defenses in the entire country. The Buckeyes rank second in the country with only 11 points allowed per game and third in the nation with only 259.9 yards allowed per game this season. Until the final week of the regular season, Ohio State hadn’t allowed 17 points in any game all year.

With the game on the line against Michigan, however, Ohio State’s defense was unable to get the stops it needed. While the Buckeyes did a better job of limiting explosive plays than they did in their 2022 loss to the Wolverines, they allowed Michigan to score points on all four of its second-half drives (excluding the Wolverines’ end-of-game kneeldown), leading to Ohio State’s 30-23 loss in Ann Arbor.

For a defense that had consistently delivered in clutch moments until that point in the season, it was a big disappointment that it was unable to do so in the most important game of the year, which led to Ohio State failing to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff.

“We learned that when you're going up against a team where you know what they're gonna do and you know they're gonna try to bleed the clock out, you gotta get stops. And there might be a couple of different things we could have done differently, maybe give a couple of different looks, I think is what we've thought about,” Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer said this week. “And it just comes down to making a play and getting off a block maybe a little quicker. And being able to get that ball back to the offense a little bit earlier would have been huge. And I feel like we didn't do that. So like I said after that game, that wasn’t on the offense, we lost that game.”

Last year, Ohio State followed up its worst defensive performance of the season against Michigan with an equally bad defensive performance against Georgia in which it allowed the Bulldogs to score 42 points on 533 total yards and 8.88 yards per play, the most Ohio State has ever allowed in a single game.

This year, Ohio State is determined not to let one disappointing defensive performance turn into another.

“It's been a year of improvement on defense. It's been a year where the defense has taken the challenge to step up for everyone. And I know they want to go out that way,” said Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. “You see guys got a bad taste in their mouth and they want to finish the right way.”

While the Cotton Bowl against Missouri isn’t quite the same stage as a College Football Playoff game against Georgia, it will nevertheless be one of the biggest challenges of the season for Ohio State’s defense. 

Led by a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in wide receiver Luther Burden and a Doak Walker Award finalist in running back Cody Shrader, Missouri’s offense is arguably the best Ohio State has faced all season. The Tigers rank 24th in the FBS with 442.9 yards gained per game this season, more than any team Ohio State faced in the regular season, and 15th in yards per play. They’re as balanced as any offense the Buckeyes have faced, ranking 13th nationally in passing yards per attempt (9.1) and 43rd in rushing yards per attempt (4.6).

“You can't really focus in one area,” Knowles said.

Collectively, Michigan and Missouri can be considered the two best offensive teams Ohio State has faced all season, which means the Buckeyes’ performance against those two teams might say more about whether Ohio State’s defense is elite than its dominance in the first 11 games of the season.

No amount of dominance against Missouri will fully make up for the loss to Michigan, and considering Missouri has scored at least 21 points in every game it’s played this season, Ohio State shouldn’t be expected to be as dominant against the Tigers as it was for most of the regular season. But it is an opportunity for the Buckeyes’ defense to validate that it really is one of the nation’s best units this year if it can play well enough to lead Ohio State to victory.

“It's been a year of improvement on defense. It's been a year where the defense has taken the challenge to step up for everyone. And I know they want to go out that way.”– Jim Knowles on Ohio State’s defense

“I think we played really well. If we could have a couple of drives back in a certain game, it'd be nice. It'd be a definite answer,” Sawyer said when asked how well he thought the defense played this season. “But I mean, other than that, I think we did have a good year, we had a really good year. I think maybe we could have disrupted the ball a little more, created a couple more turnovers. But other than that, I think that we played our asses off all year, and we had a really efficient defense.”

That’s one reason why the Buckeyes aren’t expected to have any opt-outs on defense, though they will be without starting safety Lathan Ransom and could also be without middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg due to injuries.

“It was really just the idea that we've put so much work in the offseason that it's all not for naught at the end of the year,” Chambers said of the entire Ohio State defense playing in the Cotton Bowl. “Yeah, we lost a game, but we still did all that work for something, so we’ve got to end up winning this game.”

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