At the midway point of the regular season, Ohio State could be at a crossroads when it comes to pass defense.
Do the third-ranked Buckeyes press on with their press-man coverage tactics, or do they need to back off in light of repeated breakdowns in the back end?
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed 26 of 49 passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns. He had eight completions of 15 yards or more, and Ohio State was flagged for defensive pass interference three times (one declined because a catch was made for a touchdown anyway).
After having a chance to look at the film, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wasn’t happy, but he did not sound ready to make major changes.
“We want to challenge every throw, and we’ve had some excellent corners around here. I believe we have excellent corners now,” Meyer said Monday.
“(Press man) is obviously something we believe in, and we will continue to believe in it as long as we can,” Meyer said. “But that’s a skill set that’s very difficult that we ask them to do. And we just gotta continue to work to get better. The risk-reward on that, once you get great at that you’re playing great defense now.”
After the game, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano agreed the Buckeyes are continuing to give up too many big plays and put the onus on the coaching staff to fix it.
“Whether it’s (defensive pass interference) or a completed pass — we play press man-to-man around here,” Schiano said Saturday. “When you play press man-to-man, you invite vertical threats. If you cover ‘em, they stop throwing ‘em. If you don’t, they keep throwing ‘em. So we haven’t done a good enough job covering them.”
The task this week — while also preparing for a visit from Minnesota this weekend — is to identify the problems and fix them.
“First is it something we’re teaching, we’re coaching? And then second, can it be improved? Do we have to make a change personnel-wise? There’s a lot of steps,” Schiano said. “We didn’t come out of the Penn State game (a week earlier) feeling like we played great. We made some opportune stops like we did today.”
Recent history offers reasons to stay the course.
With a different quarterback and primary target, Indiana also lit up the Ohio State secondary last season. Despite a 420-yard outburst by the Hoosiers in the season opener, the Buckeyes ended up a respectable 30th in the nation in yards allowed and 13th in pass efficiency defense.
Perhaps even more informative is the 2014 defense that helped Ohio State win the first College Football Playoff.
Those Buckeyes were not exactly a shutdown unit in the playoffs — they gave up 407 yards and 35 points to Alabama and 465 yards and 20 points to Oregon — but they made key plays when necessary, allowing the offense (42.0 points per game) to take care of the rest.
The following spring, then-defensive Luke Fickell told attendees at the annual Ohio State coaches clinic the key to success was not as much related to the specific scheme as it was consistency.
Despite a shaky start to the season, those Buckeyes stayed with what they had been doing and subsequently got better at it. Fickell thought that played a role in individuals such as Centerville’s Michael Bennett finding a new gear in the postseason. That in turn helped the Buckeyes play better team defense late in the year.
Can this Ohio State defense follow the same path?
The most recent game also offered some positives.
Although two of Ohio State’s defensive pass interference penalties occurred in the second half, the Buckeyes allowed only 89 yards and six points.
“We look at everything, overanalyze everything,” Meyer said. “So it’s not as simple as this. It’s a variety of things, but we tried to build on positives, and the positives are that the second half they played outstanding.”