Buckeye Defense Searching For Identity: ‘We have to do things differently’

By all accepted measures, the Ohio State defense is currently one of the two or three worst defenses in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes currently have the conference’s worst rush defense (236 ypg) by nearly 60 yards. Their 7.4 yards allowed per pass attempt is third-worst in the league, as is their 129.91 pass efficiency defense.

They are also the only team in the conference to allow at least 30 points to each opponent this season.

Sure, this may all be a small sample size, but how many samples of the same thing do you need before you know what you’ve got?

Ohio State has now allowed at least 400 yards of total offense to their last four opponents. That may span two different seasons, but so far those seasons aren’t looking all that different. It’s the first time the Buckeyes have allowed four-consecutive 400-yard games since the last four games of the 2018 season. Those four games were also the last four games of Greg Schiano’s tenure as OSU’s defensive coordinator.

When Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer after the 2018 season, Day had a different vision for the defense. That vision didn’t include a defense that allowed 34.3 points per game over their last four outings.

The reality of Day’s vision now has the Buckeyes allowing 36.5 games over their last four contests.

After Saturday’s 35-28 loss to Oregon, the topic of conversation with Day revolved around his defense. And for good reason.

Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was the subject of much of the postgame questioning, but Day didn’t lay the issue at anybody else’s feet.

“I think everybody on our staff works really, really hard, and we all make decisions together as a group, and ultimately it comes back to me,” he said. “I’m the head coach.”

He’s 100% right, but he’s also given his assistant coaches a job to do. When the product on the field isn’t commensurate to the standard that is expected, the questions get a little tougher and the answers get quite a bit more serious.

Day’s preferred one-high safety defensive system worked wonders in 2019 but struggled last year during a pandemic. This year, those struggles are continuing, but the reasoning can no longer be blamed on COVID.

Something needs fixed. Fortunately, there are only a few places Day needs to look to find the issue. Unfortunately, finding the issue and fixing it are two very different things.

“I think any time you run into that situation, you have to ask yourself is it the personnel, is it the scheme, or is the coaching,” Day said. “And that’s where we’ve got to get back to the film and figure out what exactly that is. If it’s the scheme, we’ve got to get that fixed. If it’s the coaching, we’ve got to do it better. If it’s the personnel, we’ve got to make some changes.”

Day assured the assembled media on Saturday that he would have answers to those questions this week. Those answers will likely be some combination of players missing assignments, the coaches not making sure the assignments wouldn’t be missed, and possibly the need to simplify some things moving forward.

This is a defense that is still searching for an identity, and the longer it searches, the more that actually becomes their identity.

Day isn’t throwing in the towel just yet, however, nor should he.

“I think we’re still very, very talented,” he said on Saturday. “We got some good stops, but it wasn’t good enough. In terms of eliminating explosive plays, that’s what we want to do with this style of defense. Obviously the big run was big and there was a couple of other ones that popped out. If that’s happening, we’re not at our best. And we don’t have an identity if that’s happening.”

Kerry Coombs also spoke after the game, and just like Day, he laid the blame at his own feet.

“My response is that I’m responsible,” he said. “That’s my job. We have to play better. And when I say we have to play better, I’m not blaming the players. The standard of our defense is one of excellence. It’s very high, and so I have to do a better job.”

It has been said that maybe Day’s defensive preference and Coombs’ background don’t really mesh, but after getting a first-hand baptism for an entire year last season, Coombs now has more background than a year ago.

Coombs is fine with the defensive scheme, it just needs to get better.

“I love the scheme. I love the players,” he said. “To have the opportunity to be a football coach at Ohio State in this role is a blessing and I don’t take it likely. I can assure you we will get better.”

People on the outside are searching for answers and throwing out suggestions that range from a complete defensive overhaul to simply doing the opposite of what the Buckeyes are doing right now.

The reality, however, is that major overhauls don’t typically happen during a season, nor should they. This boat is out to sea right now. It was deemed seaworthy when it left the dock, so the ship’s crew is going to have to make this work if they want to reach their destination.

But this isn’t just about making something work. It’s about meeting a standard that hasn’t been met since 2019.

“The defensive structure that has been in place has been a successful one and one that a lot of folks are really comfortable with,” Coombs said. “Again, I think we have to execute, we have to prepare, we have to do a good job of having our kids in the right places to make the right plays.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we have to do things differently going forward. The result today is not acceptable and so we have to do things differently. Absolutely.”