Ohio State Defense Puts in Valiant Effort But Gets Gassed Out Thanks To Anemic Offense in the Cotton Bowl

By Andy Anders on December 30, 2023 at 2:56 am
Jack Sawyer in the Cotton Bowl

A valiant defensive performance can be unraveled by repugnant offense.

Ohio State – perhaps for the first time under Ryan Day – experienced that phenomenon in the Cotton Bowl against Missouri.

All of the Tigers’ first nine drives failed to yield points. Eight of them ended in punts with another stop coming as the clock ran out for halftime. The defense gave the offense opportunity after opportunity to get things together and build a lead. It did so despite poor field position, with seven of those initial nine stops coming after Missouri started from its own 37-yard line or better. 

Three drives started in Buckeye territory.

None of that heroic defensive effort mattered. With the offense failing to register a pulse outside a few big plays from Xavier Johnson and TreVeyon Henderson, the defense ran out of gas near the end of the third quarter and Ohio State fell 14-3.

“The defense played plenty good enough,” Ryan Day said. “I thought they played their tails off and ran out of gas a little bit down the stretch. But to give up 14 points and 331 yards, they played great. Good enough to win, the defense did. We just couldn’t put it together on offense and that was the story of the game.”

Perhaps no sequence of drives highlighted just how much the defense battled to keep Ohio State’s anemic offense – and outside punter Jesse Mirco, abysmal special teams – in the contest than the second quarter of the ballgame.

The Buckeyes took the ball at their 9-yard line to start the period and went three plays and out, moving backward a yard. Missouri got the ball back in excellent field position at Ohio State’s 48, then picked up a first down in four plays.

Defensive end Jack Sawyer sacked Brady Cook to set the Tigers behind the chains on their next set of downs, then defensive tackle Ty Hamilton picked up a sack of his own to force a Missouri punt, which resulted in an ill-advised fair catch by Jayden Ballard at his own 5-yard line.

Again, Ohio State went three plays and out. But Mirco boomed a 59-yard punt to put the Tigers back at their own 32-yard line.

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook picked up a first down with his legs on a 12-yard takeoff, but then the Silver Bullets took aim once again and held for another punt, with Sawyer making a fantastic effort to keep Cook contained as he tried to scramble, forcing a throwaway on third down.

“I wanted to send the seniors out the right way, and we put so much work into it,” Sawyer said. “It’s tough when you don’t get the outcome you want.”

Following Sawyer’s stop, a punt wasn’t fielded that pinned Ohio State at its own 11.

It doesn’t take three guesses to figure out what happened next. The Buckeyes once again went three-and-out.

“To give up 14 points and 331 yards, they played great. Good enough to win, the defense did. We just couldn’t put it together on offense and that was the story of the game.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State's defensive performance

Still, the defense didn’t give in, forcing a three-and-out of its own following a 50-yard boot from Mirco.

Just to put a bow on the Jekyll-and-Hydian performance from Ohio State’s defense against its offense and special teams in the sequence, the Buckeyes were called for a block in the back on Missouri’s ensuing punt, their second of three special teams penalties on Friday, with two coming from the punt return unit and one from the punt coverage team.

Part of the issue was that Ohio State lost its backup quarterback, Devin Brown, to an injury early on in the second quarter. But between lapses in pass protection and a lackluster running game, the offense didn’t do enough to support freshman third-stringer Lincoln Kienholz, either.

“I feel like Lincoln got put in a tough spot there, to say the least,” Day said. “I thought he battled his tail off, but clearly we didn’t help him up front. We didn’t run the ball well enough.”

Through the first nine Missouri drives and the first 40 minutes of play, the Tigers gained just 115 yards. They were held to 2.8 yards per play. The worst offense in college football this year in that category, Iowa, averaged four yards per play.

None of it made a difference in whether Ohio State closed its season with a win because its offense averaged 3.6 yards per play for the entire game. It ran 14 fewer plays than Missouri did by the end of the contest. It went 2-of-15 on third down and lost the time of possession battle by seven minutes and 46 seconds.

That’s why, at the end of the third quarter, the dam began to rupture.

“I feel like we played so hard, we did all we could,” cornerback Denzel Burke said. “We just didn’t finish.”

Missouri strung together three first downs on a third-and-7 completion to Theo Wease Jr., a 10-yard Cody Schrader run and a 15-yard scramble by Cook after a false start penalty.

“It’s definitely hard to play against the quarterback run, it’s an extra blocker in the box,” Simon said. “We just tried to do our best to rally (to the football) and we did well in the first half, I guess. We just got outran in the second half.”

Then Cook connected with Marquis Johnson on a well-designed vertical route that saw Johnson run from the right side of the field to the left side near the numbers, getting behind safety Sonny Styles and forcing Burke into a near-impossible coverage assignment on such a long-developing route.

“We were balling the whole game, a lot of quarters (coverage) the whole game, then that one explosive (pass) they ran as a quarters beater, so props to them on that,” Burke said. “It just happened.”

That play went for 49 yards, then Schrader capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown run that gave Missouri a 7-3 lead with 14:55 to play.

The Buckeyes managed one first down on their following drive but ultimately punted again. The Tigers drove 91 yards in 13 plays, getting 42 yards on the ground from Schrader and another big pass play on a 31-yard go-ball to Wease. Star wideout Luther Burden III, largely limited with three catches for 15 yards on Friday, hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass on a slant that all but sealed Ohio State’s fate by making it a 14-3 game with just 5:12 left to play.

While there certainly appeared to be some fatigue for OSU on defense, its defenders stated there was more to it than that and felt that they could have played better in the end.

“It’s all about scheme and it’s all about being in the right position,” linebacker Cody Simon said. “I think sometimes we got out of position and they did a good job of running the ball at the end there. So we’ve just got to be better next year.”

If there’s a bright note to end on for Ohio State, it’s that the Buckeyes had one of the nation’s best defenses in 2023 and that they could potentially be even better in 2024 if their star juniors stay for another year.

Sawyer capped a fantastic stretch of play at the end of the season with a career day, racking up three sacks with the above-mentioned quarterback hurry. Simon had a career-high 12 tackles and figures to be the team’s starting Mike linebacker next year.

Missouri entered the game with a prolific offense, closing the season with a rare combination of 3,000-yard passer (Cook), 1,500-yard rusher (Schrader) and 1,000-yard receiver (Burden), but the Buckeyes held all of them mostly in check.

Sawyer has said that he’s “more than likely” returning for his senior season previously and feels other teammates might do the same. If enough key pieces come back, the ceiling for the Buckeyes on that side of the ball might reach the stratosphere.

But on Friday, their offense sold them short.

“I think a lot of us are all on the same page about, we don’t want to end our Ohio State careers like this with two losses,” Sawyer said. “We all love it here. We love Coach Day. We love the staff. Sometimes unfortunate things happen and you don’t get the outcome you want. I think it’s going to play a big factor in our decisions.”

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