The air raid siren is quiet for now as Ohio State tries to restructure a pass defense that was overwhelmed much of the season, and definitely down the stretch.
But these few weeks are just the quiet before the next wave, perhaps the most dangerous of the season. In the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, Ohio State plays Clemson, its talented quarterback Tajh Boyd, playmaking receiver Sammy Watkins and an offense designed by coordinator Chad Morris that specializes in getting receivers open for big plays.
“They’re a little bit scary with the things they can do because they have really great players,” said Ohio State junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, who yesterday was named first team All-America by both the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated. “They have a lot of speed on their team, and a lot of guys can do a number of things with the ball in their hands.
“We also have great players on defense, and we’ve just got to try to cover their athletes.”
No. 1 Florida State got it done by attacking Boyd and keeping Watkins and the other Clemson receivers in check during a 51-14 win in October. But don’t confuse the Seminoles’ pass defense with the Buckeyes’.
Florida State finished the season first nationally in fewest passing yards allowed (153.0 a game). Ohio State gave up almost twice that in its last game, a 34-24 loss to Michigan State, and that was against an offense known for throwing only when necessary. Against the Buckeyes, though, the Spartans on several occasions made the pass defense look confused and, at times, silly.
The Buckeyes are 102nd nationally in passing yards allowed (259.5). Pass defense was the elephant in the room during a second straight 12-0 regular season as they pushed their winning streak to 24 games and climbed as high as No. 2 in the polls. But pass defense finally helped bring the party to a stop just when a spot in the national championship game was in reach.
“We’ve just got to break on the ball a little better, and be more sound in our gaps and responsibilities,” Shazier said. “We’ve just got to communicate a little better. It’s little things we’ve got to fix.”
Those “little things” were like squeaks under the hood that kept getting louder during the season — defenders giving too much cushion on routine pass routes, losing track of receivers in zone coverage, taking bad angles on breaks or being slow to “trigger” — as coach Urban Meyer calls it — and at times missing tackles after catches.
Nearly every player in the secondary had trouble from time to time, and so did the linebackers.
A whole season passed and those problems were never consistently fixed. It’s why defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-coordinator Everett Withers, the safeties coach and presumed coverage schemer for the backside of the defense, finished the season with fans criticizing them.
“It is what it is. Guys have got to make plays, and we’ve got to put them in positions where they can make plays,” Fickell said after the Michigan State game. “There’s no finger pointing. … Guys have got to cover, guys have got to rush (the quarterback), guys have got to get there with pressure. The biggest thing is we’ve got to get better as a group.”
From a player’s perspective, Shazier said, the scheme is fine.
“I feel like guys are being put in the right place to make plays, it’s just some of the plays we weren’t making, and some of the guys weren’t making plays we need to make,” Shazier said.
A year ago, Meyer declared his first Ohio State team, which was suspended from the postseason, fit to compete against any in the country because it had improved so much defensively. He made no such declaration after the Big Ten title game this year. The offense didn’t help much in that game, either, with only two quarters of effective play.
But not being able to stop the pass doomed the Buckeyes.
The “little things” wound up being the big problem for the defense, because teams, even conservative Michigan State, passed at will. In the last four games, the Buckeyes gave up 288 yards passing and two touchdowns at Illinois, 320 and two touchdowns to Indiana, 451 and four touchdowns at Michigan, and 304 and three touchdowns to Michigan State.
That’s a combined 1,363 yards and 11 touchdowns, and those four teams combined to complete 121 of 190 passes, with Ohio State intercepting just three. Clemson, with the nation’s 12th-most prolific passing offense (329.3 yards per game), can be expected to come out throwing to test those “little things.”
“I’m kind of surprised, because those little things, we definitely should have controlled at the beginning of the season,” Shazier said. “We’ve just got to do a better job in the time we’ve got before this game and try to fix them.”