'We're still finding our way.' Buckeyes need defensive improvement as Oregon battle looms
Ohio State’s defense figured to be a puzzle entering Thursday’s opener against Minnesota.
Then the Golden Gophers showed looks that forced the Buckeyes to use even more of those puzzle pieces than expected.
“They were changing personnel a lot,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Monday during his weekly press conference as the No. 3 Buckeyes prepare for Saturday’s showdown at Ohio Stadium against No. 12 Oregon.
The Gophers would use as many as three tight ends to try to outmuscle Ohio State. Those personnel changes often forced the Buckeyes to scramble to get their desired players on the field.
“We wanted to match personnel in that game because we felt like, based on their style of play, that was really important,” Day said. “It looked like a New York sidewalk at times. Guys were coming in, and guys were coming out.”
In addition to matching personnel, Day and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said the Buckeyes were rotating players to allow the cream to rise to the top, and they will continue to do so.
“We're still finding our way,” Coombs said. “We're still figuring out exactly who the best players and the best combinations in the best situations are. The only way to do that is to get some game experience, so we played a lot of guys who deserve to play, guys who have worked hard and got themselves prepared.”
Given the opportunity, players must show they’re ready.
“We have a saying around here, ‘Some do. Some don't,’” Coombs said. “As we continue to go forward, those that do will do more, and those that don't will do less.”
Both Coombs and Day gave the defense mixed reviews in the 45-31 win.
"Do I think it was great? No," Day said. "Do I think it was awful? No. Somewhere in between."
Added Coombs, “A lot of good, a lot of bad,” adding that there’s “a laundry list” of needed improvements.
He and Day were happy with the effort and physicality. They were pleased that the defense created two turnovers and would have had a third if not for a penalty that negated an interception.
But missed tackles were an issue. According to Pro Football Focus, the Buckeyes had nine missed tackles.
Some of that is to be expected. NCAA rules limited the tackling permitted during training camp. Ohio State was starting new linebackers, and freshmen cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Ryan Watts were pressed into starting duties because veterans Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown were unavailable.
“I think there's a lot of room for improvement,” Coombs said. “I think that's what Week 1 to Week 2 is about. We've got to tackle the ball better. We've got to leverage the ball better. We've got to make sure that we continue to limit explosive plays, which we did except for one.”
That was the fourth-and-1 play in which Mohamed Ibrahim broke a 56-yard run to set up Minnesota’s first touchdown. But the Gophers’ longest pass play gained only 22 yards.
Now comes Oregon. The Ducks had a lackluster opening victory over Fresno State. They converted three Bulldogs turnovers into 17 points to prevail 31-24. Oregon’s star defensive end, Kayvon Thibodeaux, left the game in the second quarter. Ducks coach Mario Cristobal described Thibodeaux’s status as day-to-day.
Oregon is considered the favorite to win the Pac-12, and the Buckeyes know that even a Thibodeaux-less Ducks team should be formidable.
“Certainly, it wasn't perfect,” Day said of the opener. “There's a lot of improvements we made, and that has to happen. Otherwise, we won't win this game.
"We have to play really, really well in all three phases to win this game. This is a good team coming in here, so I'm looking forward to see those guys take the next step."
The first priority on defense could be minimizing those missed tackles.
“Hopefully those runs that went for 5 or 6 (against Minnesota) go for 3 or 4 and then we get them on third down,” said Day.
Ohio State is a 14-point favorite, about the same as it was last week.
The Buckeyes hope that a long-awaited game at a packed Horseshoe will make a difference. Fans weren’t permitted at Ohio Stadium last year because of the pandemic.
"I guess it's been over 600 days since we've had a full stadium here," Day said. “And what a big game.”