Memory of struggles in 2018 drives OSU defense

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young (2) pressures Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Ben Bryant (6) during the second quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday, September 7, 2019 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

It has been only two games, cautioned everyone at Ohio State from coach Ryan Day on down about the Buckeyes’ rejuvenated defense.

Two games is a small sample size, but it doesn’t feel that way. Ohio State will play at Indiana on Saturday with a confidence on defense that was lacking last season. The Buckeyes were often out of sync and tentative in 2018. They set Ohio State records in several unwanted categories, including points and yards allowed per game.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

The defense looks like a different unit this season, especially in last week’s 42-0 rout of Cincinnati. The Buckeyes are swarming to the ball and playing with discipline. It’s as if they are taking out last year’s frustrations, and the criticism that came with them, on their opponents.

On Tuesday, Day used the word “scarred” to describe the defense after last season.

“They had to sit around last year and listen about how they went through some tough times,” he said. “They're a very prideful group. They were kind of just working and not talking much about it, trying to be quiet about it. At the same time, they were angry. They feel like they have something to prove. They have a chip on their shoulder. I love being around guys like that.”

Players credit the new scheme that permits them to think less and thus play faster. “Bullet” Brendon White said the defense began gaining confidence early in training camp when it had success against the offense.

That has carried over into the season. Against Cincinnati, the defense was suffocating. Bearcats running back Michael Warren had 15 yards on 10 carries. With only a few exceptions, the pass defense, aided by a consistent pass rush, was superb.

“When you see somebody make a great play, that kind of fires you up and fires each other up and it fires up the coaches,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “With a whole new scheme, we’re producing at a high level. We’re just going with the flow and having fun.”

The dominance has started with the defensive line, and end Chase Young is the ringleader there. But it has been a team effort. The back seven, which drew plenty of criticism a year ago, has been superb.

New defensive co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley have gotten some of the credit. Mattison, hired away from Michigan, spent little time dissecting what went wrong a year ago. He noticed as soon as he arrived that he had a talented, hungry group.

“I was really, really impressed when I walked in that weight room the very first day, just watching them train,” Mattison said.

The Buckeyes lost fewer players than usual to the NFL after last season, and that has given them needed depth at every position.

“I think they really trust each other,” Mattison said. “I'll use Chase as an example. We all know that we want him going as hard as he can. But he also has to trust the fact (it’s OK to say), ‘Coach, I can't do that anymore. Put somebody in and give me a rest.’ Then after that rest happens and that guy goes and plays as hard as he can, Chase goes in and plays even better.”

As Big Ten plays opens this week, the Buckeyes know that the defensive turnaround has to be sustained.

“It’s only two weeks into the season, so there’s a lot to be written,” Day said.

But he has good reason to believe that what he has seen so far isn’t a fluke.

“I think right now we're seeing the best version of these guys,” Day said.


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: