Greg Schiano has higher expectations for the 2017 Ohio State defense.
Higher, that is, compared with last year’s unit. And remember, that one was among the best nationally in almost every major statistical category and produced four NFL draft picks, with three of them — all from the secondary — going in the first round.
“I think we had a really good defense last year,” the second-year defensive coordinator said. “How do we become elite? That’s our goal in trying to become that.”
He believes there is one tightening in particular that would aid the cause.
“We gave up some big chunk plays, 25 yards-plus plays, too many of them last year,” Schiano said. “We’re really focusing on lessening them.
“The other teams, they’re on scholarship, too, so they’re going to hit some of those. But can we decrease them? Because there is a really high correlation between plus-25-yard plays in a drive and them scoring points in a drive.”
Last season, the Buckeyes gave up 30 plays of 25 yards or more. That’s not counting the 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Oklahoma in the Buckeyes’ 45-24 win or Penn State’s 60-yard return of a blocked field goal that was the winning score in a 24-21 upset.
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“We have a really good defense, and if we don’t give them a big chunk, somehow, some way we usually figure out how to stop them or take it away,” Schiano said.
The “chunk” plays were shortcuts to points last season. Of the 20 touchdowns Ohio State surrendered by conventional means, 13 of the drives had at least one “chunk” play, and three of them had two. But only three of the 25-yard plays went for touchdowns.
Although it might be assumed the vast majority of those big plays were passes, 11 were runs.
“You’d think it would be because we gave up a lot of deep shots because we play so much man-to-man coverage, but it wasn’t,” assistant coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “There were only four of those balls caught on corners all year, two of them in the Clemson game (a 31-0 loss in a College Football Playoff semifinal), and not touchdowns.”
Clemson had a 30-yard touchdown pass, but it came on a wheel-route play to a running back out of the backfield. Most of the 25-yard-plus plays last season came because of leaky seams on run plays or medium-length passes.
“It was because of bad fits on tackling, some guys in wrong gaps — it was little things that we’ve worked really hard to rectify,” Coombs said. “And I believe that we can. I love our players because when we identify something and say, ‘We’ve got to work on this,’ they work on it really hard to improve it.”
First-year linebackers coach Bill Davis has watched his players take the emphasis to heart.
“On defense, that’s the name of the game — if you stop the big plays, you’ll win a high percentage of the games,” Davis said. “With the linebacker position, first it’s be where you’re supposed to be and do your job. If you have a gap to fill, you have to fill that gap. If you don’t and they find it, that’s where they get plus-25.
“The second is tackling. We’ve got to be great tacklers. That’s what we do; that’s what we’re paid to do. We’re going to get to the ball and we’re going to tackle.”
If it happens, starting with the season opener at Indiana on Aug. 31, elite status could be right around the corner.
“What we identified in our offseason study was when we don’t give up a play like that we’re a very, very efficient defense, one of the best in the world,” Coombs said.