Ohio State needs to punch Notre Dame in mouth to change soft perception | Rob Oller

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

Regarding Ohio State’s No. 1 question mark entering Saturday’s game against Notre Dame – what will it take for last year’s stumbling defense to find its footing? – I offer a solution.

Years ago, a friend said her boss asked employees how the company could change its public perception? It seems the business was known to be “in bed with” a supplier in which the working relationship was supposed to be objectively neutral.

Without missing a beat, my friend said, “Simple, get out of bed with them.”


Similarly, what will it take for Ohio State to play better defense this season? Simple, play better defense.

In other words, talk is cheap. If the Buckeyes want to change a negative narrative into a positive – goodbye 2021 finesse, hello 2022 force – action is required, and it needs to begin against the Fighting Irish.

Saturday is the time to put up or shut up. That’s the beauty of sports. A chance to walk the walk. It’s easy to claim your new defensive scheme will work wonders. Easy to toss attaboys at new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles for instilling a new attitude and installing a new attack-the-quarterback system. Easy to say last year’s inexperienced defenders are this year’s maturing veterans. 

But actually doing the thing? Different story. Seeing is believing.

Is that being skeptical or cynical? Probably both, but no apologies, because there isn’t a single coach entering the first game without doubts, no matter how well he attempts to conceal them.

The Buckeyes’ defense may indeed be “100% ready,” as Knowles said this week, but preparedness and performance do not always equate.

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Steele Chambers (22) and Ohio State Buckeyes safety Ronnie Hickman (14) tackle Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) after a catch during the second quarter of their game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on October 30, 2021.

Coaches might have a good feel for how players, especially those playing their first college game, will handle the bright lights and mayhem of the moment, but “You play like you practice” does not always hold true. Sometimes an average practice player turns into a superstar at kickoff and sometimes an exceptional practice player fails to duplicate excellence on game day.

Knowles said last week: “I don’t have that many concerns. Now that the corners are coming back, I feel confident in what we have. Just seeing it in an actual game situation, that’s every year for a football coach. The first time you put them out there, you want them just to play as well as they can. But I have no concerns with them.”

Knowles trusts his players, but does not entirely trust how they will play. As he put it, “You have to do it on the grass.”

Ohio State coach Ryan Day explained, “We try to simulate the games as much as possible in practice. It’s not that easy. We have a spring game where we have a crowd in there. We’ve been in there several times.”

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Steele Chambers (22) reacts to a targeting call after he hit Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the third quarter of the NCAA football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021.

The goal is to accustom players to Ohio Stadium so when they exit the tunnel for the first time their eyes are only wide as dinner plates, not trash can lids.

“There is a lot of pressure on everybody, and we talk a lot about how the pressure should be felt during the week, and if you put a lot of pressure on yourself Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then you shouldn’t feel the pressure on Saturday,” Day said. “It’s like going into a test unprepared. If you don’t know the information, you’re going to be sweating in the back row. But if you know the stuff cold, you’re not as nervous.”

That’s the mental part, but what of the physical? It’s one thing to teach players a new defensive scheme, but are these Buckeyes talented enough to reverse last year’s subpar performances against the best opponents? Oregon, Michigan and Utah manhandled the defense, which finished 51st in yards allowed per game, 31st in points allowed, 87th in passing yards and 24th in rushing yards.

Fortunately for Ohio State, precedent exists for a radical turnaround. And two of the biggest turnarounds happened in 2002 and 2014, the last two OSU national championship seasons. 

In 2001, the OSU defense ranked 33rd in yards allowed, 20th in scoring, tied for 50th against the run and 32nd against the pass. One year later Mark Dantonio’s defense was 23rd (total), second (scoring), third (run) and 95th (pass). Jim Tressel’s spring and preseason practices emphasized stopping the run, and the Buckeyes improved 47 spots, even as the pass defense fell off. (You get what you practice).

In 2013, the Buckeyes ranked 57th in yards allowed, 33rd in points, 12th against the run and an embarrassing 118th against the pass. In 2014, after Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash to help run the defense, the rankings were 11th, 19th, 31st and 15th. Meyer emphasized improving the pass defense during the 2014 offseason and the work paid off.

Day changed his defensive staff this year. We shall see. Ohio State fans can only cross their fingers and hope the Buckeyes punch Notre Dame in the mouth for four quarters, which is the only way to change perception.


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