Last season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were far from a perfect team, and the problems weren’t limited to one area. If you’ve read my off-season film studies, there was a mix of what to expect in the future as well as a look back at all the issues the Buckeyes had last season.
On offense, the Buckeyes led the nation in yards per play, total offense and points per game. However, this was not without difficulties. The Buckeyes struggled to establish the running game, and that was amplified in short-range situations. There aren’t many more frustrating things about football than watching a team fail with a yard to go, and that’s why Justin Frye is now part of the team.
Defensively, there were three personnel changes due to last season’s struggles, the most notable being $2 million defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Ohio State’s biggest problems were defending the run — especially in close range — and leaving the field on third down. One of the main reasons this happened was lack of organization and understanding of responsibilities. This combination was really hard to watch last season, and today we’re going to exorcise all those demons one last time.
Ohio State was a good football team last year, but expectations are much higher this year compared to how they finished in 2021. Today we take one last look back that will allow for one last opportunity to suffer together before heading to fall camp.
Disorganization in the defensive pass
To begin our look back at the 2021 season, the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about Ohio State’s defensive struggles is the lack of organization. This issue has occurred a few times throughout the season and against various teams. Tulsa’s Davis Brin Jr., Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Cade McNamara all found success against Ohio State’s simple passing defense.
In the game below, we take a look at Aidan O’Connell and Purdue’s passing offense against the Buckeyes. Purdue is quad on the short side of the field where the Buckeyes have just three defensemen lined up on the four receiving options. There’s no control here, and that leaves Ronnie Hickman Jr. in a bind as a safety above the four. The nickel wedge and wedge bite on the bubble screen, which has three vertical lanes attacking the two safeties. The level of disorganization and the players not having defensive responsibilities led to a big play.
This example highlights the impact of not having responsibilities in order, and the multiple errors leading to a long touchdown pass.
The Buckeyes struggled with the run last season, especially against teams with the talent to take advantage of a simple Ohio State ploy. Oregon’s Joe Moorhead set the tone for the Ducks by running the same play in the same situation over and over again, forcing the Buckeyes to stop him. The Buckeyes didn’t, and later in the season it happened again against Michigan.
Looking at the issue itself, there wasn’t a single aspect that was wrong. Zach Harrison does his job, which is to read the zone and get the quarterback to make a decision. This means that the wedge is responsible for setting up the edge, but it fails because it follows the crack block inside. Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown recognizes this. He hands the ball over, giving the Ducks a free shooter to block anyone in the way. For the running back, it’s a free walk to the end zone, which was just the start of the Buckeyes’ defensive problems that day.
Jim Knowles is under a lot of pressure, but if he can fix the first two games we watched regularly, he’s earned a good chunk of that paycheck. Organization and physicality will go a long way towards achieving the Top 10 defense that Ryan Day expects.
Lack of physics
Of all the games last season that speak to the failures of defense in 2021, no game exemplifies those failures better than this game against Utah. Ohio State struggled at times to tackle running backs and really struggled to tackle players who ruled the football.
This game stands out because Utah quarterback Cam Rising makes Ohio State’s defense non-existent. Rising nearly slips into the backfield after the miscommunication, and Utah doesn’t even execute the correct play in this situation that ends in a touchdown. The main problem here is that there’s not even an attempt to fill the hole that Rising ends up going through. After Rising breaks through, a group of Buckeyes surround him. Teradja Mitchell, who hits Rising, does not conclude, pushing him outside into the wide open grass. A stack forms and everyone falls on top of each other in one of the worst displays in an Ohio State defense.
Exorcising those demons is what fall camp is all about, and the Buckeyes will have to get back to physically setting the tone for their opponents.
Short distance racing game
The physical problem was not exclusive to defense, and at times the offensive line was unable to gain the momentum needed to get first downs. In this section, there are two pieces that highlight why this happened.
In the first game, we see the Buckeyes in a 3-and-3 situation against Nebraska. Ohio State lines up in a gun look, with running back Treveyon Henderson standing directly behind CJ Stroud. Ohio State only ran two games of this look last year: stretch zone and division. This allowed the defenses to be comfortable attacking in these situations, as they had a general idea of what lay ahead.
Nebraska’s defensive line immediately brings players into the backfield, and they are able to tackle Henderson for a loss, forcing a punt.
To take advantage of the game above, when teams know what’s coming, the importance of being physical up front increases. During the offseason at Justin Frye’s first press conference, he talked about how his daughter should know the inside zone is coming and that his line should always be able to help the running back get first no matter what. ‘he is coming.
As seen in the clip, once again the Buckeyes offensive line forgoes immediate penetration into the backfield. Before Stroud is even able to get the ball back, a Penn State defender is in the way of Henderson, again leading the Buckeyes to miss in this scenario.
The lack of physicality has really set the Buckeyes back, and when physicality is there, the focus on calling for creative play isn’t as important. Offensively, this is arguably the only place the Buckeyes need improvement. If they manage to get rid of this frustrating aspect, the offense will be more complete than ever.
The Buckeyes had a lot of problems last season, and at various points throughout the season people convinced themselves that Ohio State was solved. At the end of the season, the realization that this was not the case set in during the trip to Ann Arbor, leading to one of the most disappointing regular seasons for the Buckeyes in a while. In a program where discipline and physicality were the backbone of Ohio State, last season’s performance in those categories was a disappointment that fans did not take lightly.
Neither did Ryan Day, which led to four new coaches on the Ohio State staff. It shows that Day knows this team has a higher cap than what was hit in 2021. If Ohio State is going to compete for a national championship, fixing those issues is the first place to start. For the defense, being organized, disciplined and physical will right a lot of the wrongs the unit has done over the past two seasons. Offensively, getting the tough yards when needed will help keep drives going and maintain momentum on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes have talent, which is why the general lack of execution was so frustrating last season.
Regardless of all the issues in 2021, it’s time to move on to 2022, with Ohio State’s fall camp on the horizon. This latest look will serve as a totem of the chess on which this fresh new season will be built.