Remember this play. When Ohio State needs a defensive stop at Nebraska in three weeks. When the Buckeyes need a late turnover in November. Or during the playoffs (I know, I know, tap the brakes on that one).
Remember this play. Cincinnati running back Tavion Thomas is headed for the end zone with 5:10 to play and Ohio State holding a 42-0 lead.
Now freeze that image for a few words about what it means for a defense to hold an opponent to zero. Zip. Zilch.
“It’s a big deal,” Buckeyes cornerback Jeff Okudah said. “It puts on film what we’re capable of. Indiana will put on the film and see we pitched a shutout. I don’t remember the last shutout at Ohio State.”
Note: It was 56-0 at Rutgers in 2017; the last home shutout was 58-0 against — who else? — Rutgers in 2016.
Cincinnati is not Rutgers, and although the Bearcats are not Penn State (whiteout version) or Michigan (non-Army version), they did finish 11-2 last season. Shutting them out was a big deal, for Ohio State’s confidence as much as for whatever worry it puts into the Hoosiers, who play host to the Buckeyes on Saturday.
“A shutout at any level is so hard to get, and for the staff and for the players it’s special,” Ohio State defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley said.
Now back to Thomas sprinting toward the end zone. The sophomore from Dayton was as good as in. Clean air ahead. The shutout was broken. Even Hafley thought so, saying he momentarily gave up on the goose egg as Thomas approached the goal line.
Remember this play. Reserve cornerback Amir Riep grabbed Thomas around the legs, forcing the runner to twist and stretch for the end zone even as he bobbled the ball. At about the 6-inch line, reserve linebacker Dallas Gant dived over Thomas and slapped the ball into the end zone, where Marcus Williamson recovered for the Buckeyes.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day loved the effort from his backups.
“To strip the ball out on the 1-yard line shows we have a backbone, shows we’re going to keep fighting,” Day said. “It was a good sign for the defense.”
Take your brain back to last season. Does the strip play happen? Doubtful. For one thing, Thomas would have run untouched, just another gash job against a 2018 defense that too often looked like it was playing Twister: arms and legs struggling to find their spots.
One year later and this defense is nothing like its immediate predecessor. Players hit harder, attack more effectively and, mostly, don’t swing and miss when tackling in space. The fourth-quarter strip against UC was simply representative of how much things have changed.
Perhaps no OSU defensive player has achieved more of a turnaround than junior linebacker Baron Browning, who might as well have been covered in invisible ink last season for how often he disappeared.
What happened? A few things. The scheme simplified, allowing the entire defense, and especially the linebackers, to think less, react more and play faster.
“What’s holding people back? Usually fear, hesitation and doubt,” said linebackers coach Al Washington, who came over from Michigan in January. “You have to address that on a day-to-day basis and develop the self-talk.”
The self-talk. I am good. Now go be good. It’s a confidence thing.
But scheme and self-belief do not fully explain what we’re seeing from this defense.
Washington revealed the rest of the story.
“I love them,” he said of his players. “I feel we have a bond with each other. Coach Day has encouraged everybody to connect. You play hard when you love the guy next to you. That’s where we are, but still need to get better.”
What’s better than a shutout? Two of them. Indiana is on the clock.