Ohio State football hoping to turn quarterback pressure into sacks

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive end Tyler Friday (54) applies pressure on Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. in last Saturday's game against the Hoosiers. Friday did not get the sack, and the Buckeyes recorded only two sacks of Penix.

Replacing Chase Young was no small task for Ohio State’s defense entering this season.

A prolific pass-rushing defensive end, he led the country in sacks last fall and finished fourth in the voting for Heisman Trophy.

Young put significant pressure on quarterbacks, hurrying them or knocking them to the turf.

Without Young, the Buckeyes have seen a decline in sacks. Through four games, they have compiled 11 sacks, an average of 2.75 per game, after averaging 3.86 per game last season.

But coaches and players see signs of encouragement that could lead to more opposing quarterbacks falling on their backs in the coming weeks.

“I think they're getting a lot of hits,” coach Ryan Day said. “I think they're getting a lot of hurries. I think they're getting some knockdowns. I'm sure they all want to keep getting sacks and getting production, but they are pushing the pocket, and they're getting a pretty good push in there.”

According to data from Pro Football Focus, the Buckeyes have disrupted quarterbacks with frequency this fall. It’s even more than they did last season. It just hasn’t led to sacks, the negative plays that can upend drives.

This season, Ohio State has averaged 27 pressures, 4.75 quarterback hits and 19.75 hurries each game. Last season, it averaged 17.3 pressures, 3.2 quarterback hits and 10 hurries.

Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs acknowledged a desire for some of the pressure to result in more sacks, but sometimes quarterbacks are successful in evading the rush. Last week, Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. relied on a quick release that allowed him to throw downfield despite a condensed pocket.

Some of his passes went off as a hit arrived.

“He was an accurate thrower in those situations,” Coombs said.

Penix completed 27 of 51 passes for 491 yards and five touchdowns with an interception against the Buckeyes. He was sacked only twice. The split-seconds made the difference.

“We have to figure out how to get home faster,” senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “I feel like we were winning and getting our pressures. But what we try to be really critical of is how we can be a second faster, a step faster, just a little bit, so that we can get that ball out and get a sack and get a sack-fumble and create plays for our team. We just have to look at the film critically and figure out what we can do better.”

Not only can sacks at times lead to turnovers, namely fumbles if the quarterback is hit hard enough, but Day also sees them as boosts of momentum.  

On the Hoosiers' opening drive, the Buckeyes sacked Penix on third-and-10 and prompted a punt, a sequence that Day felt enlivened his sideline.

“It’s such an energy boost for our team,” he said.

A matchup with Illinois could offer an opportunity for Ohio State to convert some of the pressure from its pass rush into sacks.

The Fighting Illini have allowed 11 sacks this season, among the most in the Big Ten. Only two other conference teams have surrendered more.

Some pressure could ease the burden on the Buckeyes’ secondary, which has had an uneven start to the season.

But sacks would also be validation for Cooper and other defensive linemen who have been hurrying passers and are eager for the flashy numbers to back it up.

“I feel like people aren't really seeing the type of defensive line that we have and the players that we have that are rushing extremely well because of the stats and sacks and stuff like that,” Cooper said. “But I couldn't be more proud of my guys, and we just have to keep going.”

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