Ohio State: Offense saves the day again ... but will 2022 include a defense to help?
In many way, Ohio State’s Rose Bowl victory over Utah was a microcosm of the Buckeyes’ entire season. CJ Stroud began the season with high but uncertain expectations. Stroud was perhaps the most consistently explosive player in college football. Even in a bowl game without his two All-American receivers who opted out, Stroud spread the ball around amongst a ridiculously talented corps of skill players.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the most consistent receiver on the team, and he made the Rose Bowl his personal highlight film in a record-breaking and legend-making performance. And lest anyone forget him, TreVeyon Henderson remains a nearly unmatched dynamo. The 2021 season (and Rose Bowl) concluded with 11 wins and an offense that put up north of 550 yards and 45 points per game.
But the question is whether the 2022 season will include a defense to complement that offense.
Ohio State’s pair of losses, and most of the other competitive games this season — including the Rose Bowl — could be best characterized as defensive letdowns.
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Ohio State allowed 45 points and 463 yards in the Rose Bowl. The defense allowed 500+ yards twice in 2021, once in their crushing home loss to Oregon. Ohio State allowed 487 yards and 42 points to Michigan in the regular-season ending loss that knocked OSU out of the CFP picture.
It’s pretty apparent to everybody around the program that changes have to come. Ryan Day even admitted the frustration publicly, quipping at halftime that “35 points in the first half is ridiculous.” Granted, Day’s struggling defense held Utah to just 10 points in the second half, allowing the offense to take control late in the game. But coordinator Kerry Coombs was demoted early in the season and de facto play-caller Matt Barnes is headed for Memphis, if the postgame rumors are accurate.
OSU did get solid seasons from Haskell Garrett, Ronnie Hickman and Denzel Burke. But the linebackers were hit and miss, the pass rush didn’t develop, and the secondary yielded far too many big plays.
After the game, Day pointed out late progress from the defensive line and suggested that the way forward is through improvement by that group.
“The D-line at one point really imposed their will,” he said. “If we can start becoming more consistent in that area and having that mentality and building into the offseason here, we have a chance to have a really good defense next year.”
The personnel is there for improvement — Jack Saywer, JT Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams. But then, Ohio State returned Zach Harrison this season, and he put together one of the doziest seasons imaginable. New coordinator Jim Knowles will find a Big Ten that will probably remind him more than occasionally of the Big 12 offenses he faced at Oklahoma State. But whether it’s changes in personnel, changes in scheme, or changes in attitude, the Buckeyes season, productive as it was, made clear that changes have to come on defense.
For Ohio State, the aftermath of Saturday’s victory was as bittersweet as the season. It was full of dazzling success on offense, sometimes followed by mundane failure on defense. Going into 2022, there is every reason to think Day’s Buckeyes will light up scoreboards with anybody in the country, Alabama or Georgia included.
The difference showed in the CFP: Alabama and Georgia took on Cincinnati and Michigan’s offenses and combined to yield exactly a single touchdown — or 5 touchdowns less than the Buckeyes gave up to Utah on Saturday.
Day is coaching at a program where 11-2 won’t be good enough. He knows that. He’s coaching at a school where a QB who is a Heisman Trophy finalist and a sophomore receiver who sets school records throughout the season won’t guarantee his future. He’s coaching at a program where a great offense is well received and enjoyed. But he better find a defense to go with it.