How Ohio State football defense generated first turnovers of season

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Safety Ronnie Hickman recognized the play call.

It was on the opening series of the second half in Ohio State’s 77-21 rout of Toledo when Rockets quarterback Dequan Finn kept the ball on a run-pass option and dropped back a step in the pocket.

As the sequence unfolded, Hickman watched for Finn to find wide receiver Jerjuan Newton.

In film sessions in the days leading up to Saturday’s game, Hickman and his teammates had noticed a pattern in the RPOs run by Toledo.

When Finn would pull it, he most often threw to the receiver lined up on the same side of the field as the running back, leaving Newton to be his top target.

“So I kind of had a feeling it was going to go to the boundary,” Hickman said. “It’s just how it looked in film.”

Sep 17, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes safety Ronnie Hickman (14) plays in Saturday's NCAA Division I football game against the Toledo Rockets at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Barbara Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

While Newton was covered by cornerback Denzel Burke as he ran almost 20 yards downfield, Hickman stepped in front of them to pick off the pass fired by Finn.

“I knew I had a chance,” Hickman said. “I knew that guy was a runner. Either he was going to run, or I was going to get there. I was fortunate enough to grab that.”

After Hickman was brought down around midfield, a handful of his fellow defenders mobbed him in celebration.   

The interception represented the first takeaway for Ohio State’s defense this season. Through two weeks, it had been among only eight teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision that had not forced a turnover.

It made for a statistical curiosity. The Buckeyes had caused plenty of havoc in the backfield and pressured quarterbacks in their first two games, hallmarks of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ system, but turnovers had yet to follow.

They resolved to reverse the trend.

“We had been harping on that,” defensive end Jack Sawyer said. “Attacking the ball and making sure we’re catching overthrows, stuff like that. We knew they were coming. We were playing really good defense. It was just a matter of time before that happened.”

After 153 snaps, one arrived, and it was no accident, a result that stemmed from careful pregame preparation.

All of the Buckeyes safeties expected the throw from Finn, not only Hickman.  

“That was a big talk in the film room,” safety Cameron Martinez said. “We had seen it so many times, and we were like he's going to throw it right to you. And that's what he did. I guess you're just speaking everything into existence.”

Hickman said one of the goals for the defense involves generating at least two turnovers each week. The Buckeyes forced an average of 1.5 turnovers per game last season.

They reached that benchmark against Toledo later in the fourth quarter when defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste stripped Tucker Gleason, the Rockets’ backup quarterback.

Jean-Baptiste knocked the ball loose as Gleason started to wind up and attempt a pass downfield.

After the ball bounced a few yards back on the Ohio Stadium turf, it was recovered by Palaie Gaoteote, a blitzing linebacker for the Buckeyes.

Sawyer credited Jean-Baptiste’s awareness for eyeing a stripe as he rushed off the edge of the line of scrimmage to match Hickman’s feat.

“Just two guys who made two big-time plays,” Sawyer said. “We expect that at of those guys.”

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said both of the turnovers helped to “flip the scoreboard” as they piled up points.

Both of them gave the offense favorable field position. Following Hickman’s interception, they took over at Toledo’s 48-yard line, and after Gaoteote’s fumble recovery, they gained possession at the Rockets’ 45-yard line.

The ensuing drives ended up in the end zone. The takeaways had come.

“I’m glad we were able to get that started this week,” Hickman said.

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman

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