It wasn’t until the third quarter of Ohio State’s win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday that its defense surrendered a play of 20 or more yards.
On the opening series of the second half, Owls quarterback Chris Robison floated a pass downfield in the direction of tight end Harrison Bryant. Though draped by safety Jahsen Wint, Bryant leaped high enough to grab the pass for a 26-yard gain, setting the offense shy of the red zone. It helped that he stood half a foot taller than Wint.
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The completion served as a rare sequence from the opener.
Although the Buckeyes often allowed chunk plays last season — with nearly five plays of 20 yards or more per game — they surrendered only two against Florida Atlantic, including one late in the game. Players thought it was one of the biggest signs of an improved defense, and they mostly attested it to a new outlook to surround ball carriers.
“We've emphasized running to the football,” cornerback Jeff Okudah said. “Our pursuit to the football really helps eliminate (big plays), because if he makes one guy miss, someone else is right there. If he misses, someone else is right there. It's kind of like a swarm to the football. You're not going to make all 11 guys miss unless you're Barry Sanders or something.”
Last season, the Buckeyes allowed 67 plays of 20-plus yards. Only 33 FBS teams, including two from the Big Ten, allowed more.
Coach Ryan Day and a revamped defensive coaching staff urged better tackling in preseason practice, and they also stressed that better effort in pursuit of the ball carrier, including in the days before the Florida Atlantic game.
“That was a big emphasis that whole week of practice, and weeks going back to spring,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “I think just running to the ball and the scheme kind of helps with that too. It’s just eliminating big plays by effort.”
Defensive lineman Jashon Cornell said film study helped, too.
“I think we were prepared,” Cornell said. “We had been in the film room. We come in on extra days, we stay after practice as a defense and watch the film. We knew what we needed to do before the play even started. We could read the offense. I think that gave us the upper hand.”
The Buckeyes need the trend to continue against Cincinnati, which visits Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Last season, the Bearcats offense showed some explosiveness, totaling 72 plays of 20-plus yards, 25th in FBS. In their opening win over UCLA, they had two.
The Bearcats return their top running back, Michael Warren II, who rushed for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Several Ohio State defenders described Warren as an elusive runner who benefits from an effective offensive line.
“They're big, tough up front,” Werner said. “Tough guys. They're just going to try to run down the ball and keep doing that and doing that. Their running back is tough and he will bounce off.”
Linebacker Baron Browning mentioned good tackling would be important against Warren. Missed tackles might allow for longer gains, and Warren could benefit.
“He keeps his feet moving,” Browning said. “He's not an easy tackle. We got to do a great job tackling.”