Ohio State: Fixing run defense first priority for Day, Coombs
Two weeks have yielded a disappointing early conclusion for Buckeyes fans: This Ohio State football team — one with a sterling new quarterback, two of the best wide receivers in the nation and a bevy of highly touted defenders — cannot stop the run.
That is the predominant reason OSU is 1-1 and coming off of Saturday’s loss to Oregon. Ohio State’s College Football Playoff hopes might not be on life support, but they’ve certainly been on better ground in recent seasons than they are after two weeks of bad defensive football.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day was somber after Saturday’s game.
“I felt like it was a game that we were never in control of,” Day said of just his third OSU loss and first in the regular season. “It felt like they ran the ball, and we didn’t do a very good job of running the football.”
Ohio State actually averaged 4.1 yards per carry, perhaps a little on the humble side for Day’s squads of punishing run blockers. But No. 12 Oregon’s running made the difference in the Ducks’ 35-28 over the No. 3 Buckeyes.
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Nine days before, in the opener at Minnesota, OSU struggled with Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim. Before leaving the game with a season-ending injury, Ibrahim had 30 carries for 163 yards and 2 touchdowns. For the game, Minnesota had 50 carries for 203 yards on the ground. Far from prime work, but OSU would have been glad to reach those numbers this week.
Oregon running back C.J. Verdell ended up with 20 carries for 161 yards including a 77-yard score early in the third quarter. That gave Oregon a burst of momentum that was challenged, but never turned back. Reserve Travis Dye had 43 yards and a touchdown rushing and versatile QB Anthony Brown added 65 rushing yards. For the game, Oregon had 38 rushes for 269 yards, an average of 7.1 yards per carry.
To say that this influx of awful run defense is surprising would be an understatement.
Second-year defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs saw his group struggle with the run in 2020 only in OSU’s opening win over Nebraska. The Huskers managed 210 rushing yards on 36 carries, an average of 5.8 yards per attempt. Ohio State won that game 52-17. From there, OSU was steady defending the run. Their second-worst performance against the rush was against Alabama, which managed 157 yards and 4.1 yards per carry.
Coombs’ 2020 defense couldn’t handle the pass, allowing 400+ passing yards three times (against Indiana, Clemson, and Alabama). Of course, Ohio State won two of those three games, which is the rub. Struggling with pass defense might lead to some anxious moments, but it doesn’t have to lead to losses. Passing yards tend to come in chunks, and while yardage can lead to points, the opposing offense could have plenty of time to chew up the field itself.
Not so when an opponent is effective on the ground. Oregon’s ground-heavy attack netted 27 first downs and allowed the Ducks to control the ball for almost exactly half the game, which doesn’t seem impressive until you notice that Ohio State passed for almost 500 yards and eclipsed 600 yards of total offense. Similarly, in Week 1, Minnesota held the ball for over 38 minutes. With Stroud, Olave, Wilson, et al., the Ohio State offense is a threat anytime its on the field. So far, the best defense against Ohio State is keeping the Buckeyes defense on the field.
Another important part of the struggle is just how vanilla Coombs’ defense has been. In theory, it’s hard to drive the ball down the field with runs because of negative plays. Even if an offense averages 7 yards a carry, that could be a 10-yard run followed by a 3-yard loss, which would result in 2nd and long. But that hasn’t been the experience so far for OSU. In two games, Ohio State has a total of five tackles for loss, only one against Oregon.
Even if Ohio State still gets dinged at times on the ground, a more aggressive look could lead to better results. The inability of highly regarded defenders like Zach Harrison and Haskell Garrett to create momentum-shifting plays is puzzling. It’s certainly not a situation where they’ve been too busy working on the pass rush, as only two OSU tackles for loss have been QB sacks.
There’s still certainly a road through the Big Ten for the Buckeyes, and very possibly still to the CFP. But given upcoming matchups with Tulsa and Akron, that road back to pre-eminence will have to start with stopping the run. If not, to paraphrase something Yogi Berra allegedly said, it might get late early for the Buckeyes.