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Ohio State Turned Its Defense Around And Looks Like A Contender Again

The first two weeks of the college football season raised an unusual but not unreasonable question: Was Ohio State going to be less than its usual dominant self in 2021? 

In the season opener at Minnesota, the Buckeye defense was uncharacteristically leaky. The Gophers’ expected points added (EPA) per play was 0.08, then the fifth-highest number the Buckeyes had allowed in Ryan Day’s three seasons as head coach. Minnesota scored 31 points and had a second-half lead before the Buckeyes overwhelmed them with long touchdowns — a reminder that it pays off, especially in a sloppy performance, to have the most talented players on the field.

The next week, at home against Oregon, the Buckeyes were gashed for 0.28 EPA per play, their second-worst number since Day took the big chair. The only team to more comprehensively destroy the Ohio State defense had been Alabama (0.38 EPA per play) in 2020’s national title game, and now, including the prior season, the Buckeyes had played three ugly defensive games in a row. The team’s star players were shining, but in some cases less brightly than usual. Five-star redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud posted gaudy numbers for the second week in a row and finished with 484 passing yards against the Ducks, but he threw an ugly interception to seal a Buckeyes loss. Stroud appeared good enough to be the signal-caller for 125 or so Football Bowl Subdivision teams, but in an Ohio State QB room loaded with other blue-chip talent, it wasn’t outrageous to wonder if Day might make a change under center.

But six weeks on, the Buckeyes’ early season issues have shifted into the rear view. Stroud has spent his October mowing down the Big Ten East’s customary bottom feeders, posting at least a 97.8 QBR against each of Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana in a trio of blowout wins. The defense, meanwhile, has gone from a bit of a sieve to one of the most impressive units in college football. The Buckeyes haven’t faced a stiff test since that Oregon loss, but the extent to which they’ve leveled the opposition, and their raw talent, suggests that everyone else should be living in fear of them.

Maryland v Ohio State

Related: Our 2021 College Football Predictions Read more. »

The primary source of doubt those first two weeks was that defense. Minnesota was able to move the ball a bit on Ohio State via both the run and the pass, rushing for 4.6 yards per non-sack carry and averaging 6.8 yards per dropback.1 P.J. Fleck’s team put together three scoring drives of at least 75 yards, each taking between five and nine plays. The Buckeyes survived because their cadre of four- and five-star running backs and receivers ran wild, scoring five touchdowns of more than 37 yards apiece.2 

The next week, Oregon overmatched the Buckeyes physically and schematically. The Ducks ran for 7.1 yards per carry overall and an average of 4.89 yards before contact, easily the worst figure for an Ohio State defense under Day (and the program’s worst performance by  that metric since a weird 2014 win over Indiana). Ducks offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and QB Anthony Brown also gave the Buckeyes a rough ride with their run/pass triple-option scheme, which routinely had defenders running to places where the ball wasn’t going. Mix in poor angles and tackling, and this was a regular sight in a 35-28 Oregon win: 

Then, Day made a personnel change. He took play-calling responsibilities away from defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, effectively benching him for defensive backs coach Matt Barnes. It’s not yet clear if the Buckeyes’ defensive strategy has changed a lot — their blitz rates and defensive coverage rates are pretty similar before and after the coaching change — but they’ve been a lot sharper, and no opposing offense has posted a positive EPA rate against the Buckeyes over their past five games. Through Week 2, when Coombs was in control, the Buckeyes were 116th of 130 FBS teams in defensive EPA per play. Since the mid-September play-calling switch, they’re eighth. In October alone, they’re sixth.

The Buckeyes have been even more overwhelming on offense. They are so powerful on this side of the ball that the best a good defense can realistically hope for is to keep them somewhere around 30 points, as Oregon did. They’ve cleared 40 points in every other game, and they’re on a four-game streak of 50-plus showings in which they could have scored more if they hadn’t let their foot off the gas. 

Stroud had a few growing pains against Oregon, including the loss-sealing interception on an overthrow as he rolled out to his right late in the fourth quarter. But the signs were there early that he’d be really good — he had nine completions of 20-plus yards that day — and after struggling against Tulsa and sitting out with an injury against Akron, he’s torn up the Big Ten.

What’s worked? Pretty much everything. Stroud has a five-star arm, and his offensive line has made sure he gets the time to use it. He has faced pressure on 17.6 percent of his dropbacks, the third-lowest rate in the FBS, despite facing a blitz on an exactly average 26.1 percent of those dropbacks. He has two of the most elite receivers in the sport, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who can get downfield and open quickly. The average Stroud pass travels 11.1 yards downfield in the air, ninth-farthest in the country — and deeper downfield than the career average of Buckeye predecessors Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins, Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller.

The Buckeyes are also getting a preposterous season from five-star freshman tailback TreVeyon Henderson. On 79 carries, Henderson is averaging 8.77 yards. He isn’t on pace to reach the 215 carries that would qualify him to break Bryce Love’s 8.05-yard mark set in 2017, but he’s having the most efficient rushing season the sport has seen in years. Put his excellence alongside Stroud’s and the receivers’, and it makes sense that Ohio State’s EPA per play on offense is currently towering over even the best seasons under Day’s old boss, Urban Meyer.

When Ohio State was struggling in the season’s first few weeks, the Big Ten appeared to be much more open than it’s been during the Buckeyes’s four-year streak of conference titles. That wasn’t just early season narrative at work. On Sept. 19, the day after the Oregon loss, ESPN’s Football Power Index gave the Buckeyes just a 33.3 percent chance to win the conference. On Sunday, a day after Week 8 wrapped up, those chances jumped to 55.7 — not quite back to the 71 percent chance the model gave them in the preseason, but rising quickly.

Early on, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State and Maryland all looked primed for their best seasons in a long time. Iowa and Penn State both have bad losses, while Maryland has fallen off the radar altogether, and only one of Michigan and MSU will remain unbeaten beyond this weekend. (The Wolverines have not looked great since I wrote this story about why they were worth believing in.) The Buckeyes host Penn State on Saturday night for what would have been a top-10 matchup had the Nittany Lions not lost to Illinois (in nine overtimes) this past weekend. The season is getting longer, and it’s starting to smell like it belongs to the same team as always.

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Footnotes

  1. This year, the Football Championship Subdivision per-carry average is 5, and the dropback average is 6.7.

  2. Receiver Chris Olave is one of the rare non-blue-chip recruits to star in this era of Ohio State football. The former three-star prospect had four catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Minnesota game.

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo.

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