Improvement for Ohio State in 2022 had to come from its defense.

After all, the offense was tops in the nation in scoring and returned its starting quarterback, running back, and most productive wide receiver, along with most of the offensive line. But on defense — where embattled coordinator Kerry Coombs lost his play-calling duties in mid-2021 and was fired after 2 seasons — there was room to improve.

Yes, we’re 7 games into the Jim Knowles era, and yes, Ohio State’s 2 biggest tests of the regular season await, with Penn State on Saturday and then Michigan to end the regular season. But it’s plain to see that some things are different.

A year ago, Ohio State finished 38th in the nation allowing 22.8 points per game and 59th ceding 372.6 yards per game. This year, they’re 5th (14.9) and 2nd (239.9), respectively. Obviously, there are some technical differences, with Knowles favoring a 4-2-5 look. And yes, there are a few key personnel changes (like veteran DB Tanner McCalister, who has been a godsend in a banged-up secondary). But for the most part, many of the same players are playing much better. What’s the difference?

1. Avoiding the big play

A year ago, Ohio State was next to last in the Big Ten in giving up plays of 10+ yards (187) and 8th in the league in allowing plays of 20+ yards (53). A year later, they are first on 10+yarders (just 54) and a close 4th in 20+yarders (19).

The difference is particularly notable in defending the pass. A year ago, OSU gave up 132 10+ yard passes. This year so far, 38. Ohio State is allowing a full yard less per average pass attempt (5.9 this year versus 6.9 a year ago) and allowing opposing passers a worse completion percentage (61.6% a year ago, 55.7% this season) and worse touchdown to interception ratio (21/12 a year ago, 6/7 now).

That Ohio State has done this despite being without starting defensive backs for much of the season is astonishing. Knowles’s defenses at Oklahoma State tended to give up more passing yardage than many would have preferred — after all, the Big 12 is a shootout league. But he clearly learned something in the pass-heavy world — how to avoid getting bashed by the big play routinely.

2. Getting off the field

The single biggest difference in the Ohio State defense has been its ability to get off the field. A year ago, Ohio State was next-to-worst in the Big Ten in allowing 3rd down conversions (42.1%). This season, they’ve been the best in the league (24.5%). The same trend — albeit to a lesser extent — is present on 4th down plays. A year ago, Ohio State was 8th in the Big Ten (47.6% allowed), and now they’re 2nd (27.3%).

Some of this trend comes from the defensive front, where Knowles has gotten big production from Mike Hall and, increasingly, from Zach Harrison. Some comes from avoiding untimely penalties, as Ohio State has also gone from the next-to-most penalized team in the Big Ten (85 flags a year ago) to 4th fewest penalties (35 this season). Improved run defense is also significant, as OSU is allowing almost a full yard per carry less this season than last. These things have added up to an OSU defense that is getting off the field as a matter of routine.

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3. Turning red zone trips into 3s.

7s beat 3s, both in poker and football. On 91% of Ohio State’s red zone defensive trips this season, the opponent has scored. That stat is 12th in the Big Ten and actually looks pretty ugly at first glimpse (although the mere 11 red zone opportunities by opponents certainly tells a story). But a closer look notes that Ohio State has allowed just 5 touchdowns in those red zone trips. With a rate of 45.5% of opponents’ red zone opportunities ending in touchdowns, OSU is 4th in the Big Ten in that category.

A season ago, on the other hand, not only was Ohio State toward the bottom of the scoring rankings (86% of red zone defensive possessions ended in scores, 12th in the conference), but they were awful in terms of giving up touchdowns on red zone possessions — 31 of opponents’ 42 trips ended in touchdowns. That 73.8% rate was the worst in the Big Ten, and 124th in FBS. A season ago, Oregon had 4 red zone possessions and 4 touchdowns in their win over OSU. Michigan had 7 red zone possessions and 6 touchdowns in that win.

The 3rd down issues above certainly have mattered in the red zone. Also, Ohio State has done a good job not even letting opponents sniff the red zone. Only once (Arkansas State) has an opponent made it there more than twice, and two teams (Iowa and Rutgers) didn’t reach the OSU red zone at all. Coombs’s OSU teams gave up a red zone score in every game. Knowles’s team rarely lets anybody in the red zone, and makes them kick field goals when they do reach it.