Pass-defense issues recall 2018 woes, but Ohio State believes they're fixable
As Ohio State hung on by its fingernails on Saturday against Indiana for a 42-35 victory, unpleasant flashbacks to 2018 were inevitable.
That Buckeyes team, like this one, is an offensive juggernaut. But its defense two years was a sieve. Poor tackling, rampant miscommunication and schematic issues plagued Ohio State. It cost them in a 49-20 loss to Purdue and almost did in a 52-51 overtime escape against Maryland.
On Saturday, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 491 yards, the most Ohio State has surrendered since Purdue’s Jim Everett dissected the Buckeyes for 497 in 1985. Penix’s five touchdowns were the second-most ever thrown against Ohio State. His favorite target, Ty Fryfogle, had 218 receiving yards, the third-most given up in the Buckeyes’ history.
Give a lot of the credit to those two. They were spectacular.
But Ohio State pass-defense breakdowns greatly contributed to Indiana’s success, and it’s something the Buckeyes must correct starting this week at Illinois.
“It starts with practice today,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on Tuesday. “We’re going to go out there and make sure we’re not giving up big plays, and forcing teams to go (methodically) down the field. The No. 1 thing in this defense is to avoid the big plays.”
Ohio State allowed Indiana 238 yards on only four plays.
“Those four plays in particular are egregious,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said.
On just one of those was a Buckeye in proper position to make a play. Cornerback Shaun Wade had tight coverage but lost his balance as the ball arrived on a 63-yard Fryfogle touchdown in the third quarter.
The others were clear busts. Indiana’s first score, a 68-yard touchdown, came when Miles Marshall beat cornerback Sevyn Banks after safety Marcus Hooker left his spot deep to cover a shorter route. Hooker later got beat for a 33-yard score by Fryfogle when he bit on what looked to be a crossing route.
On a 51-yard completion in the second quarter, linebacker Teradja Mitchell lined up against running back David Ellis wide. That itself wasn’t ideal, and it became worse when Mitchell let Ellis go past him, apparently believing the Buckeyes were in zone coverage. Ellis was wide open for the big gain.
Fryfogle’s other touchdown came when he ran free down the middle after slot cornerback Marcus Williamson veered wide to an already covered receiver. That came out of a triangle formation, which Indiana often uses to set picks, and Williamson might have anticipated that was coming.
Indiana did set an effective pick out of that formation on a way-too-easy 16-yard touchdown on fourth-and-10 for its final score.
For the season, Ohio State has given up nine touchdown passes and yields 291 passing yards per game. In 14 games in 2018, Ohio State gave up 18 passing touchdowns and 245.2 yards per game through the air.
Greg Schiano was the defensive coordinator in 2018. Jeff Hafley, working with also new co-coordinator Greg Mattison, fixed the problems last year. It certainly helped to have two first-round cornerbacks in Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette and safety Jordan Fuller as a reliable backstop.
Wade is the only returning starter among the defensive backs, and the loss to an Achilles injury of Cam Brown dealt a blow to already unproven depth.
In his postgame news conference Saturday, Day said that repeated breakdowns are usually the result of personnel, scheme or coaching issues. After reviewing video, Day on Tuesday said it was “a little bit of all three. In all three of those areas, we can improve, and we will.”
As much as the second-half defensive problems recall 2018, there are significant differences. The current defense is much more stout against the run. Ohio State is holding opponents to 3.5 yards per carry. Excluding the two sacks, Indiana ran for 10 yards.
“I think the issues here (are) really all in the pass game,” Day said, “and they're correctable.
“Maybe the ones a couple years ago were a combination of run game and pass game, and so I know that we can correct them. I know we have the right scheme. Now we just have to go do it.”
In terms of personnel changes, Day said that will be evaluated. The most likely spot is Hooker at safety.
“That position for us is very, very important,” he said. “He’s the one that’s got to keep it on front of him, and he's in charge back there.
“Marcus has had some good moments. He's also been a little inconsistent so coach Coombs and he are going to work on that this week and address some of the things that he needs to get better at. And we'll look at a bunch of different combinations this week to see what's best and get this thing fixed.”
Coombs wasn’t a part of the 2018 defensive debacle. He had left Ohio State to coach cornerbacks for the Tennessee Titans. But he had big shoes to fill replacing Hafley.
“I think I have to do everything better,” Coombs said. “Obviously, whatever you see on the field is a reflection of what you've taught and how you've taught. So when any player at any position makes a mistake, as his coach, you should take that personally, and I do.”
No. 3 Ohio State at Illinois
When: noon Saturday
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)