Last year, Ohio State’s defense was downright offensive.
That’s a compliment. The defense scored seven touchdowns, an OSU record. It was a product of talent. Malik Hooker had three touchdowns, and fellow first-round NFL pick Marshon Lattimore had one.
It was also a product of design. The Buckeyes drilled continually in practice on creating turnovers that would instantly convert into points.
That hasn’t changed, but the results have. Ohio State has only one defensive touchdown this season, a strip sack by Nick Bosa that linebacker Jerome Baker returned for a touchdown against Maryland.
It’s not just the lack of points from the defense that is a concern; the Buckeyes have had trouble even causing turnovers. They have created only 13 through nine games after having 27 in 2016. In its past three games, Ohio State has notched only one: an interception by Amir Riep on the final play of the blowout of Nebraska.
Against Iowa last week, Ohio State defenders were unable to counter Iowa’s four interceptions of J.T. Barrett with any takeaways of their own. The result was a 55-24 debacle.
The challenge of beating Michigan State will be that much harder if the defense can’t make momentum-shifting plays. With a defense as talented as Ohio State's, it’s been a puzzling issue.
“I definitely was concerned, not only before the Iowa game but as the season progressed, that we weren’t getting them at the rate we expect to get them as a defense,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said.
He said that was a “huge emphasis” last week, and Schiano said the Buckeyes caused more turnovers in practice a week ago than they had all year.
“It’s been my history that when you do that in practice in a given week, you end up doing it in the game,” he said. “It didn’t hold true last week.”
Schiano likened it to a slumping hitter in baseball.
“You go through streaks when you get them in bushel baskets, and then you hit a lull,” he said.
Linebacker Chris Worley said the success of the 2016 Buckeyes has made opposing offenses more cautious this year.
“After you force as many turnovers as we did last year, teams are going to make sure they’re securing the ball,” he said. “They’re going to make that an emphasis.”
He theorized that because of the Buckeyes’ imposing defensive line, opposing quarterbacks are making more of an attempt to get rid of the ball quickly or take a sack rather than risk an interception.
As frustrated as the Buckeyes might be about the turnover issue, Worley said it’s important for the defense to maintain fundamentals.
“If we start putting an emphasis on taking the ball away in a game, you’re not going to get a lot of takeaways,” he said. “All you’re going to do is get a lot of missed tackles.”
Coach Urban Meyer said the dearth of turnovers is largely due to personnel losses from last year. Hooker had rare range and ball skills.
“I’m not sure how many opportunities we’ve had like that this year,” Meyer said.
Schiano said the Buckeyes will continue to plug away at trying to create turnovers.
“I’m confident we will start getting them,” he said. “We’re just not getting them now.”