B1G 5: Ohio State still has to prove its defense is CFP worthy
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
The aftermath of last weekend has suddenly dampened the hope of the previous 2 months.
This Ohio State defense isn’t championship level. In fact, it’s blatantly average.
That’s not a good place to be while staring at the 2 biggest games of the season.
“They’re a top 10 team playing for a chance to go to (the Big Ten Championship Game),” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Saturday’s game against Michigan State. “It’s a huge challenge.”
It is, as much as anything, another chance for the Ohio State defense to prove the significant improvement made since a Week 2 loss to Oregon wasn’t built with a string of gimme putts.
Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska.
Any offense in that group throw a scare into any defensive coordinator?
Those 7 teams averaged 15 points per game against the Buckeyes’ surging defense since coordinator Kerry Coombs was demoted and replaced by Matt Barnes. But despite the narrative that the move to Barnes created an elite defense, the reality that Ohio State rolled through a group of teams that have all had problems moving the ball all season is staring back at us more than ever.
Then came Purdue last weekend.
Before we go further, understand that Purdue isn’t exactly an elite offense. The Boilermakers shuffled quarterbacks early in the season before settling Aidan O’Connell, who only slightly had more touchdowns than interceptions (12 to 8) going into the Ohio State game.
Then he threw for 390 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs in a 59-31 loss to the Buckeyes, completing 77 percent of his passes.
Purdue had 9 pass plays of 15 or more yards, and 5 plays of 20 or more yards. Ohio State played three and four down linemen, and dropped seven or eight into coverage the entire game.
The cloud zone coverage was designed to allow short throws, and have players funnel to the spot of the reception and limit yards after the catch. Yeah, well, that didn’t work.
Purdue had more than 200 yards after the catch. Purdue, everyone, is 58th in the nation in total offense and 90th in scoring offense.
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s pass rush, which had 32 sacks in the 7 previous games (see: gimme putts), didn’t get any against Purdue.
“I don’t think we did that well enough, to be honest,” Day said of the Ohio State zone defense.
Now here comes Michigan State, which doesn’t throw with the proficiency of Purdue, but is more balanced offensively and brings a serious threat in the run game with Kenneth Walker III, the nation’s leading rusher.
And just in case you think Day is happy with the Ohio State rush defense – currently 14th in the nation (105.9 ypg) – consider what he said this week about the Buckeyes’ ability to stop the run: “It’s a week-to-week thing. It seems like every week is completely different. All we can do is go off what we see, and put the guys in the best position to be successful.”
Think about that last statement – any statement that begins with “All we can do…” is never good, and more telling than anything – with Walker (1,473 yards, 17 TDs) in town this week, and with a trip to Michigan (averaging 225.1 rushing yards per game) next week.
Sports Betting in Big Ten Country
21+ and present in OH. Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.
Both games will decide who plays in the Big Ten Championship Game, and could decide who plays for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State has the best offense in the nation, and the defensive lapses have been a problem only once this season – the 35-28 loss to Oregon in Columbus.
That game has defined Ohio State in 2021, and will continue to do so until the Buckeyes prove they can play defense in games that matter.
Those games begin this week.
2. Running strong
Jim Harbaugh has been saying all season he loves the makeup of this Michigan team.
They have fun. They play for each other. They learn and move forward from obstacles.
Case in point: Injuries to starting RB Blake Corum and backup Donovan Edwards. With both missing considerable time, Michigan has turned to senior Hassan Haskins – who has rushed for 616 yards and 5 TDs in the last 5 games.
He should improve those numbers this weekend, and easily eclipse 1,000 yards for the season. Maryland has the second-worst run defense in the Big Ten, giving up 157.5 ypg.
“I’ll take all the carries they’ll give me,” Haskins said.
Michigan has already proven it’ll load up on Haskins, who has rushed for 985 yards this season, just 12 yards shy of his first 2 seasons combined at Michigan.
He’s not the gamebreaker that Michigan State star Kenneth Walker III is, but Haskins moves the pile and has deceptive speed. He’s nearly as productive in similar circumstances: an offense that relies on the run game to set up the pass.
Haskins saved Michigan’s season last week at Penn State, when the running game consisted of Haskins and no one else. Corum was on the sideline in a walking boot, and Edwards returned from injury but was limited. That meant all Haskins, all the time.
He had 31 carries against a stout Penn State run defense, and ran for 156 yards. More impressive: Haskins didn’t have a carry of more than 17 yards.
Penn State knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it. Now think about next week’s game against the aforementioned Ohio State run defense.
“All we can do …” is not a good plan for Haskins.
3. MaDison special
In his 5 seasons as defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Jim Leonhard has never had a defense like this at Wisconsin.
The Badgers are nearing rare production – despite limited help from a struggling offense.
The Wisconsin offense has never been this bad under coach Paul Chryst, and the defense has never been this good. Since a 38-17 loss to Michigan in Week 4, Wisconsin has given up 44 points in 6 straight victories (7.3 ppg).
Think about this: In the Badgers’ 2 most lopsided losses (to Michigan and Notre Dame), the defense controlled the game. Michigan had 365 total yards and Notre Dame 242. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s offense had 210 and 240 in those game, losing 38-17 and 41-13.
With all the hype centered around Georgia’s dominating defense, it’s easy to overlook that Wisconsin is No.2 in the nation in scoring defense (14.6 ppg) and No.1 in total defense (211.4 ypg).
“Paul must be kicking himself about his offense,” one Big Ten coach told me. “He has a championship defense, a group of guys that can stop anyone in any conference. But his offense can’t move the ball, and can’t protect the ball, and puts his defense in very difficult short field situations.”
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: offseason movement on the coaching staff.
1. Ohio State: This might be the offseason WR coach Brian Hartline leaves the comfort of his alma mater to take on an offensive coordinator role.
2. Michigan State: On a staff full of career assistants comfortable in their roles, OC Jay Johnson – who has had success at various Power 5 stops — could get a head coaching offer from a Group of 5 school.
3. Michigan: OC Josh Gattis has worked under Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, and has developed into a strong play-caller. The further Michigan goes this season, the higher Gattis’ profile.
4. Wisconsin: Jim Leonhard has had offers from both the NFL and CFB, and is an ideal head coaching candidate. How much longer will he wait?
5. Purdue: Name alone isn’t everything for OC Brian Brohm. His work with quarterbacks and offenses at Western Kentucky and Purdue has been impressive, and he’d be a good fit for any number of G5 openings.
6. Iowa: DC Phil Parker has stayed with Kirk Ferentz for 2 decades, and could’ve moved to any number of jobs. He’s highly regarded among the coaching community and might be waiting for the Iowa job when Ferentz retires.
7. Penn State: OC Mike Yurcich has been with 4 major Power 5 programs in the last 4 years, and could be with his 5th after this season – whether that’s moving with HC James Franklin to another job, or moving on his own.
8. Minnesota: OC Mike Sanford Jr. got 2 seasons as the Western Kentucky head coach in 2017-18 before getting fired. He’ll get another shot soon.
9. Maryland: One industry source told me OC Dan Enos “left Nick (Saban) too soon” – and if he had stayed another year or two under Saban at Alabama, he’d already have another HC job.
10. Nebraska: Tight ends coach Sean Beckton has a history of recruiting the state of Florida, and will be a strong commodity for any of the 3 major Florida schools (Florida, FSU, Miami).
11. Rutgers: OC Sean Gleeson is an innovative play-caller whose offenses (despite Rutgers’ struggles this season) have been successful everywhere he has coached. He could move to a bigger P5 job.
12. Illinois: DC Ryan Walters is one of the top young defensive coaches in the game. In one season under Walters, the Illini have gone from giving up 34.9 ppg in Big Ten games to 21.6.
13. Northwestern: An associate head coach at 2 schools (Toledo, Iowa State), only a matter of time before RB coach/recruiting coordinator Lou Ayeni gets a shot at a head coaching job, likely in the G5 level (a MAC job).
14. Indiana: Assistant HC Deland McCullough has NFL (Chiefs) and CFB experience, and is an elite recruiter. His next move is as G5 HC.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
Michigan State (+19.5) at Ohio State
Michigan (-14.5) at Maryland
Purdue (-11.5) at Northwestern
Rutgers (+17.5) at Penn State
Nebraska (+9.5) at Wisconsin
Last week: 4-1.