Better or worse? Previewing Ohio State's defense in 2022
Last season, Ohio State had the most potent offense in college football. The Buckeyes also had 2 losses and missed the College Football Playoff.
Even those who don’t want to point fingers have to admit that the combined significance of points 1 and 2 above suggests that the defense has to improve. Factor in the midseason stripping of play-calling from Kerry Coombs and the postseason hiring of Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, and it’s clear that defense is going to be pivotal in Columbus this fall.
OSU returns 7 starters on defense, and can count on veteran leadership in the back 7. That said, will the D improve? Here’s the skinny on what to expect from the defense in 2022 — specifically, whether OSU will be better or worse in several key areas.
Pressuring the QB: Slightly better
OSU’s defense was 3rd in the B1G in sacks last year with 36. That said, as much as the Buckeyes face teams that are trailing and looking to throw the football, there’s room for improvement.
It’s part of Knowles’s pedigree — his Ok State team had 56 sacks last season. In his 4 years at his previous stop, Knowles’ squad led the Big 12 in sacks twice and finished 2nd once. There’s also reason for optimism in terms of personnel. Zach Harrison is a sleeping giant in terms of talent, and sophomores Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau could both be double-digit sack guys.
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Yes, State will be a little younger up front than in past seasons. But they’ll also be a little more explosive, particularly in disrupting opposing passers.
Run defense: Better
This is a spot where the Buckeyes really have to improve. The numbers from last year weren’t awful — OSU allowed 126.8 yards per game on the ground (6th in B1G) and 3.68 per carry (likewise 6th). But considering the pass heavy nature of the Big Ten, OSU can — and should — do better.
Four times last season OSU let opponents rush for over 200 yards. The Buckeyes were 2-2 in those games, and it’s worth noting that in 2019 and 2020, they allowed exactly 1 200+yard rushing game each season. The good news is that a more experienced group of linebackers and defensive backs should fill holes better and at least limit the big play.
Overall, the run defense was good. But the Buckeyes have to stop having games where they’re just hemorrhaging rushing yardage to opposing offenses. Getting that 4 games with 200+yards back down to 1 or 2 would likely lift OSU to 3rd or 4th in the conference … and could be the difference in making the CFP or not.
Pass defense: Better
OSU gave up 245.8 passing yards per game last year — 3rd worst in the Big Ten. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds — given OSU’s offense, teams were constantly behind and threw the ball a ton against the Buckeyes. The 461 passing attempts against OSU was also 3rd most in the conference.
That said, OSU was 9th in opposing QB rating in the conference. Some of that was playing freshmen in safe defense up 40. And some of it was getting torched. Three teams threw for 350+yards against OSU, but all 3 lost. Three teams completed more than 70% of their passes against OSU, and again, all 3 lost. Basically, OSU’s 2 losses came to teams that ran and ran while passing just enough to keep the game balanced.
That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes don’t need to improve in pass defense. OSU does return Ronnie Hickman, who has been rock solid as a tackle machine, and Denzel Burke, who is one of the better coverage guys in the B1G if not the nation. The addition of transfer secondary standout Tanner McAlister is significant because he’s both experienced and a veteran of Knowles’s system, having played for him for all 4 seasons that Knowles spent in Stillwater. The combination of returning talent and a new coordinator should pay some dividends in improved pass defense.
Special Teams: Better
Frosh punter Jesse Mirco didn’t get much work (only 31 punts), but was inconsistent when he did kick. OSU was solid in return coverage, allowing just 41 punt return yards all season. Given the quality of athletes, there’s no reason not to expect the punting/coverage group to do better, admittedly in what will probably be very few opportunities.
Hey, if it’s not better, heads might roll. Ryan Day has done a fine job, but like it or not, OSU is one of a handful of schools where an 11-2 season and a Rose Bowl win is kind of disappointing. Much of that was on the defense — which finished 9th in the B1G in points allowed (22.8 per game) and 9th in yardage allowed (372.6 yards per game).
Yes, OSU will score points and probably score them quickly. Yes, they will play a ton of blowout minutes. But there’s no reason they can’t at least be in the middle of the conference in both of those categories — and given the influence of Knowles, that might be shooting too low.
Everybody is going to be watching the Buckeye defense. Given the playmakers on offense, the other side of the ball is the question mark. For the Buckeyes to compete on the national level, they have to be better. The good news is they genuinely should be.