Missed tackles emerge as issue for Ohio State's defense
Safety Marcus Hooker lowered his shoulder and prepared to level a hit.
It was midway through the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s 49-27 victory over Rutgers on Saturday night when he approached Bo Melton, a wide receiver for the Scarlet Knights who had caught a pass near the Buckeyes’ 15-yard line.
Instead of the blow bringing Melton to the Ohio Stadium turf, he stayed on his feet and spun around. Eyeing more yards, he sprinted toward the sideline and ultimately fell just shy of the goal line.
On the next play, Rutgers scored its final touchdown.
The sequence did not impact the outcome of a game largely settled in the first half, but it offered evidence of an issue that has lingered through this season for the Buckeyes — a less-experienced defense is missing more tackles.
In Saturday’s game, Hooker missed three tackles, among a total of 10 for defensive backs and defensive linemen, according to data collected by Pro Football Focus.
Some of the sloppiness re-emerged after Ohio State had been more disciplined in its win at Penn State the previous week.
The performance against Rutgers mirrored the season-opening victory over Nebraska in which the defense finished with 11 missed tackles.
Coach Ryan Day thought his team fared well in the first half against the Scarlet Knights, holding them to only a field goal as it built a 35-3 lead.
“We were tackling well and running to the ball,” he said.
But Day acknowledged missed tackles emerged over the final two quarters, in which Ohio State was outdone by 10 points and 126 total yards.
As the Buckeyes led the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense last season, they relied on solid tackling, a point of emphasis by Jeff Hafley, who spent a year as their defensive co-coordinator before taking a head-coaching position at Boston College in January.
They missed an average of 6.9 tackles per game last season, an average that has risen to 8.7 through the first three games this fall.
The circumstances are different. Not only did they lose veteran upperclassmen, especially in the secondary, but limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic impacted them all offseason.
It was not until late September that Ohio State went through a full-contact practice, a span of nine months without live tackling. Coaches and players, though, said they still spent time during workouts emphasizing tackling through proper positioning.
Seeking improvement in the weeks ahead, the Buckeyes pointed to more in-week practices as an opportunity to instill some consistency with tackling.
“I think that just comes back to practice habits,” linebacker Tuf Borland said. “Stuff we do day in and day out shows on the field.”
Day offered a similar outlook in his postgame news conference as the Buckeyes shifted their attention to a game at Maryland, which is averaging 40 points in its past two victories and has displayed one of the better passing offenses in the Big Ten.
If the Buckeyes bounce back, it’ll begin in their practices, especially in the midweek workouts that often are their most physical.
“We got to practice better,” Day said. “If we want to be where we need to be, if we want to be a great team, it has to happen on Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s something that’s got to be a focus.”