Is Ohio State’s Defense A Major Concern?

By Jeff Rapp, October 11th, 2018

Quick question: Can you name an elite defender in college football?

Nick Bosa, technically, is a correct answer; however, Bosa has been out since the first half of Ohio State’s win at TCU and it’s a mystery if and when he will return this season.

Sure, there are defensive linemen like Bosa who are on the brink of being high draft choices and millionaires. After that, it’s difficult to come up with immediate names when assessing the absolute standout defensive players.

When you dig into the back sevens of top teams, including Ohio State, there aren’t many places to point to and label them as outstanding.

After all, Alabama won yet another snoozer Saturday despite allowing 31 points. Texas hopped up in the ranking after falling apart defensively, allowing 45 points and eking by Oklahoma. Other teams considered to be elite have endured similar afternoons.

Heck, even the two undefeated teams in the NFL, the 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs and 5-0 Los Angeles Rams, haven’t scared many opponents on defense.

With today’s rules involving protection of the quarterbacks, targeting and limitations of contact with receivers, it sometimes appears NO ONE can defend anymore.

So that evokes another question: Should Buckeye fans be deeply concerned about the current state of the defense or is this just the era we are now in given today’s rules and the priority placed on playing great offense?

The answer likely is … both.

We’ve seen the Buckeyes struggle at times and allow huge plays – in particular long runs in mop-up duty of the season-opening win over Oregon State and at more crucial times at TCU – and there have been moments where wide receivers have been loose zipping through the secondary.

In the 49-26 win over Indiana on Saturday, the Buckeyes led just 28-20 at halftime and the Hoosiers had amassed more than 300 yards of offense averaging 8.4 yards per play.

The Buckeyes adjusted and made critical defensive stops down the stretch but were still left to explain how middling Indiana cooked up more than 400 yards in the Horseshoe.

“You have to give them credit for some of the plays they were able to hit on us but at the end of the day, we have to play better, and we will,” said OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.

Still, this game is about outscoring the other team, and the Buckeyes seem well-built to do just that week after week with an offense that is among the best in the nation, averaging about 565 yards per contest.

Against Indiana, OSU racked 609 yards of total offense and 33 first downs. Even on a day when the Hoosiers were on and exposed some weaknesses, they simply couldn’t keep up.

After the game, fans and media members were buzzing about the performance of quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who completed 33 of 44 passes for 455 yards and six touchdowns. The number of completions and TD passes tied school marks.

But after a reporter asked head coach Urban Meyer if he was ready to give Haskins his blessing as a Heisman Trophy candidate, he smirked and responded, “I never want to hold our players back but right now I’m worried about Minnesota, I’m worried about our defense, I’m worried about our run game, and I’m worried about getting guys healthy.”

Haskins has thrown the ball all over the yard against the lesserlights on the OSU schedule and when needed in big games, but there is concern that the ground game has been halted on key third-and-shorts and fourth-and-shorts.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes rank just 56th national in total defense, allowing 365.2 yards per game. Indiana had lots of early success and QB Peyton Ramsey, a product of Cincinnati Elder, put up 322 yards passing. Two of his receivers, J-Shun Harris and Nick Westbrook, hauled in more than 100 yards receiving.

In previous games, pass coverage has been spotty but acceptable for the most part while penalties in the secondary had been rare. But with Bosa out, teams continue to test Ohio State’s press-man coverage and are finding ways to dent the defense. Plus, the IU game featured several pass-interference penalties, prompting reporters to ask Meyer afterward if it’s time for the OSU pass defenders to back off a bit.

“Well, we do, if you notice, we do bail sometimes,” he said. “Just hate to give the free-access throws to people. It just didn’t really snap at us until it did today. Penn State made some plays on us but today we really felt it – I felt it. That first half was awful.

“I know we have really good personnel. It’s just something that we have to keep working at. Are we going to take a look at other things? We already have.”

On Monday, Meyer said linemen Jonathon Cooper, Davon Hamilton and Dre’Mont Jones all graded a winning performance against Indiana. The only others he mentioned were linebacker Tuf Borland and safety Jordan Fuller.

But when asked if he’s starting to become concerned with the defense, Meyer said, “The weakness of our team right now is balance on offense.”

Most fans would beg to differ and point to the issues on defense, especially the big plays that have been allowed in the first half of the season. But even though Meyer demands high-level play in all areas, he’s been in this game long enough to know success is always relative.

Do the Buckeyes resemble a Big 12 team now? Yeah, they kind of do, and Meyer isn’t always comfortable with having a QB who is throw-first, but it is what it is.

The Buckeyes are 6-0, 3-0 in league games, in position to reach all of their lofty goals and are moving forward with the personnel and the schemes that they have. There will be tweaks, and the coaches are hoping the players can keep responding to adjustments.

It should be noted, for example, that OSU limited Indiana (4-2, 1-2) to just 89 total yards and 2.9 per play in the second half on Saturday.

Plus, there’s no doubt the team had a bit of a Penn State hangover. After that emotional and thrilling win in Happy Valley, the Buckeyes returned to Columbus around 3:30 a.m. then practiced with a high heat index all week. Haskins even admitted the team was groggy.

And OSU’s problems pale in comparison to most other teams. For example, the Buckeyes’ upcoming opponent, Minnesota, has been blown out in both Big Ten games after a 3-0 nonconference start. Despite Meyer repeatedly referring to the Golden Gophers’ “top-20 defense” and calling that group “outstanding,” P.J. Fleck’s crew allowed Iowa to score 48 points last week and gave up 42 in a loss at Maryland.

Can the Buckeyes guard anybody when they really need to? It’s hard to say.

Can anybody?