Is improved Ohio State defense ready for Michigan?

COLUMBUS — Jim Knowles arrived at Ohio State a year ago with one task: Make the defense better.

He did that broadly, but not well enough for the Buckeyes to accomplish any of most important goals of the season.

Moreover, his first edition of the Silver Bullets shot blanks at the worst possible times: In losses to Michigan and Georgia to end the season.

If the Philadelphia native who arrived in Columbus after treks through Cornell, Western Michigan, Mississippi, Duke and Oklahoma State did not quite get the full measure of what makes Ohio State-Michigan “The Game,” he surely does now.

His unit did not answer the bell a year ago when the Wolverines averaged 8.8 yards per play and won 45-23, and he’s been answering questions about it ever since.

“It’s a long, arduous, grinding process to get here, but it’s extremely rewarding,” said the 58-year-old Knowles, who certainly comes off as one who enjoys that part of coaching.

“I think that’s the job of a leader is to have a vision, to learn from your mistakes. To not have an ego — which a lot of us coaches do.

“What’s best? What happened? How do I fix it?”

Then it’s back to the lab for the man known as a mad scientist of defense before he arrived in Columbus because he could come up with specific plans for each week’s opponent.

But concocting a plan is only half the battle for a coach.

He also has to figure out how to implement it, and that means presenting it to players in a way they can make it reality.

That is where things seemed to break down last season when missed assignments and fundamental failures led to explosive plays that sunk the Buckeyes at the most important times.

“You’ve got to get people to buy in,” Knowles said. “Then you’re selling it for 365 days, and you’re growing it and you’re watering it and you’re feeding it and you’re nurturing it and you’re bringing it (along).”

A year later, Ohio State looks like it has taken another step on defense.

The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the nation against the pass, and they are second in points allowed (9.3 points per game) while coming in third in total defense (252.9 yards per game).

Advanced stats like them, too, as they are seventh in the nation in defensive success rate and 11th in preventing big plays.

But they had strong stats at this point last season before the roof fell in on them.

None of those numbers will matter if the guys in Scarlet and Gray don’t play like the Silver Bullets of old on Saturday, and no one had to tell Cody Simon or Denzel Burke.

The two defensive players Ohio State made available for the media this week both sounded like they understand the challenges third-ranked Michigan presents, and they have faith in the answers they can provide at the behest of Knowles.

“Everything we’ve done this entire year has been for this game,” said Simon, a senior linebacker from New Jersey. “So we couldn’t be more ready for it, and our coaches have done a great job of allowing us to kind of slowly build to this moment. But it’s the reason you come here. There’s nothing else really to it other than to win this game.”

He has split time with Steele Chambers as the Buckeyes’ starting Will linebacker, but this could be more of a Simon game because his specialty is stopping the run.

Meanwhile, Burke is part of a secondary enjoying a renaissance season that will be tasked with not getting beat deep while the big guys take care of their business.

“Just got out there and do our job,” Burke said. “Hold each other accountable. Next play is the most important play. Stop the run. Run the ball. Can’t do no better than that.”


Ohio State at Michigan, Noon, Fox, 1410

About the Author