The-Ozone Rewind: Simplified Buckeyes Defense Led to National Title, 2015

Chris Ash

[Editor’s Note: From now until Big Ten Media Days, we’ll be reaching into The-Ozone’s 23 years worth of archives and each day we will be posting a story from yesteryear. Big moments, small moments, big games, bigger games, and the random recruiting updates about guys you haven’t thought about in a decade or two.]

February 18, 2015 | There were a hundred different stories written in the months following Ohio State’s College Football Playoff Championship win in the winter of 2015. This one — by Eric Seger — may be a trip back to the future for the Buckeyes. In this story, defensive coaches Chris Ash and Kerry Coombs talk about how a simplified Ohio State defense was the difference between being champions and being…not. As it applies to the present day, a simplified defense has been the plan of attack for current Ohio State defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley. Will similar results follow? — TG

Ohio State Defense Used Simplistic, Consistent Approach to Perform Best When It Mattered Most In 2014

A vast array of memories, anecdotes and tales will accompany those who recall Ohio State’s most recent National Championship season.

Buckeye fans, players, coaches and alumni will all look back fondly on the 2014 football season as the one when the Buckeyes etched their name in the record books as the first ever winners of the College Football Playoff.

They’ll remember the adversity the team faced with the loss of Braxton Miller to injury 10 days before the season opener, a bad loss to Virginia Tech, the loss of Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett to injury during the Michigan game, the rise of Cardale Jones and eventually, the title win. The list seems endless.

An aspect of the title run that might get lost in the shuffle, however, is the resurgence and complete reconstruction of the Buckeye defense.

By season’s end, new schemes implemented by first-year safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash had meshed almost perfectly with what Urban Meyer, Kerry Coombs and Luke Fickell wanted. The atrocious performances by the back end of the unit from a year earlier were all but forgotten by season’s end, when Ohio State’s defense was playing the best it had in Meyer’s tenure.

“I think the last three games were probably, we were playing like how we wanted to play earlier in the season but we just weren’t at that point yet,” Ash said Feb. 4 on Signing Day. “But I think the last three games is more of what you’re going to see this Ohio State defense play like consistently for the years to come.”

What’s odd, though, is that in those last three games — all postseason wins against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon — the Buckeyes actually allowed more yards per game than they did in the previous 12.

Against the Badgers, Crimson Tide and Ducks, Ohio State’s defense allowed an average of 376.7 yards per game. Compare that to the average of 333.8 yards per game in the previous 12, and you might be scratching your head after reading what Ash said regarding the tail end of the season.

Matchups with teams like Kent State (126 total yards allowed), Penn State (240) and Illinois (243) skew the averages for the first 12 games, much like the fact Ohio State played three of the nation’s best offenses in the postseason.

With that in mind, it’s how Ohio State held Wisconsin (averaged 482.1 yards per game before playing the Buckeyes, gained 258 against them), Alabama (averaged 490.5, gained 407) and Oregon (averaged 550.7, gained 465) below their season averages and forced them to make mistakes that had guys like Ash, Coombs and Meyer happy.

“We played fast, we played aggressive, I thought we were well-coached. We played with our hands, we got off blocks, we ran to the ball, we tackled well, we made plays in critical situations,” Ash said. “We sacked the quarterback, we got interceptions.”

They definitely did that. In the first 12 games of the season, Ohio State forced 25 turnovers — 18 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. That’s an average of 2.1 turnovers forced per game.

In the final three games against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, the Buckeyes forced eight turnovers — seven interceptions and one fumble recovery — for an average of 2.7 turnovers per game. The turnovers also were a big reason the Buckeyes kept their final three opponents out of the end zone more — especially against Wisconsin. The Buckeye defense’s points-against average in the final three games was 18.3, compared to 22.9 points per game in the first 12.

When some of the best teams in the country made mistakes, Ohio State capitalized and kept points off the board.

“The one play that really stuck out, sticks out in my head that was kind of a game-changer, momentum-changer was the interception Vonn Bell had against Alabama,” Ash said. “They had just gotten the ball deep in our territory, they run a playaction pass, he makes a tremendous play. Because if they go down and score there we might be in trouble.”

The Buckeyes held a slim 34-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl. At a time where Cardale Jones and the Buckeye offense had been stalling for a few drives, a bad punt by Cameron Johnston gave the Crimson Tide the ball at Ohio State’s 23-yard line.

Alabama quarterback Blake Sims then proceeded to roll out and loft a pass in the direction of tight end O.J. Howard only to have Bell pick off the pass near the goal line. It was a huge play and a big reason why the Buckeyes eventually won the game, 42-35.

“It’s a culmination of a whole year,” Ash said. “We had a system, the guys understood it, the guys believed in it, we had passion in the way we coached it and we stuck with it.”

Ohio State stuck with it even after ugly performances early in the season, such as the loss to Virginia Tech and allowing 352 passing yards and four touchdowns on just 21 completions to Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel.

“After the Cincinnati game, I’m sure people wanted to blow up what we were doing in the coverage,” Ash said. “We didn’t change anything. We kept doing what we were doing.”

Forcing their opposition into turning the ball over was crucial for the Buckeyes down the stretch. Plays like that are made because players are in position and quick enough to jump on a mistake. That was the difference for the Buckeyes.

“I think what’s happened is, if you watch that team play the last I don’t know, four, five six games defensively, the defensive speed was incredible,” Coombs said on Signing Day. “And the reason wasn’t because we got faster players or they got faster over the course of the season, it’s because the scheme was simple, they understood what they were doing, and they were able to play really fast.”

Coombs, Ash and Fickell often said during the season the defensive packages they were teaching were pretty basic, yet still had enough wrinkles to catch opposing teams off guard. They wanted their players to not have to think much on defense — instead, just focus on being really good at a few things.

“The outcome is what happened at the end of the year — we were playing our best football,” Ash said. “I think when you’ve got a strong belief and conviction in how you do things, as long as you’re sound and the players believe it and you teach it with passion, you have success.”

The passion and speed Ohio State played with defensively probably won’t be the first thing brought up when people look back to dissect Ohio State’s improbable run at the National Championship, but it should be part of the discussion.

“Did I say we were perfect? No,” Ash said. “We gave up some plays too at times. All three of those games could have been dominating wins if we hadn’t given up a couple plays in certain situations, but I thought we were playing our best football and I think if we continue to build off those last three games and we can play to that level earlier in the season we’ll get a lot better.”

One Response

  1. Then why did Schiano have to complicate it?

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