For the first time in nearly two years, the Ohio State defense pitched a shutout on Saturday against Cincinnati.
And for the first time in well over a year, the Ohio State defense looks like… well… an Ohio State defense.
The Buckeyes dominated the battle in the trenches, recording five sacks and limiting Cincinnati’s star running back Michael Warren to just 15 yards on 10 carries.
A year after the a nightmarish season that inspired an almost wholesale change of the defensive coaching staff, things looked very different in the Horseshoe on Saturday.
“I thought we owned the line of scrimmage today, did a great job. They were flying around,” said head coach Ryan Day. “That’s what we envisioned when we put this together, we all got together I guess back in January when it all came about.”
The new-look Buckeye defense is a much simpler one than a year ago. The whole idea is to free up OSU’s superlative athletes to make quick decisions and attack and swarm the ball.
That’s what happened to the Bearcats, who struggled to find room to run, time to throw, or much of anything for the majority of the game.
UC had just 108 yards in the first half, including 18 yards on 14 rushes.
“I think the staff did a great job preparing them,” said co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. “We knew exactly what we were going to get, and our players were confident in that, they were confident in their technique, the scheme.”
Confidence was in short supply for the 2018 OSU defense, but things have been very different so far this fall.
Hafley said getting them to that point has been relatively simple.
“When guys know what they’re doing and they trust what they’re doing and they do it over and over and over again, they become confident in it. I think when you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re usually not confident,” he said.
The 2018 defense relied on in-play complexity to fool opponents. Often, that seemed to leave the Buckeyes a little perplexed as well.
Thusfar in 2019, OSU has done a lot of pre-snap disguising of coverage, but seemingly kept things simpler once the ball was in play.
One example came on a play in the second quarter. SAM linebacker Pete Werner rotated back to a deep safety spot, safety Jordan Fuller moved over to cover a receiver, and CB Shaun Wade blitzed off the edge. He came pretty much clean, and stripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hand for a fumble.
The actions during the play were straight-forward enough, but happened from unpredictable spots. The coaching staff took its talented and speedy corner and put him in a position to make a play, which he did. It’s the kind of thing you can do when you have 5-star talent like Wade.
And when you have 5-star talent like Chase Young, you can lean on him to disrupt both the rushing and passing games. For the second straight week, Young finished with 1.5 sacks. He also blocked a field goal, and nearly intercepted a pass that Wade jarred loose from a receiver with a big hit.
Those sacks and turnovers helped keep the Bearcats off-balance and in bad positions all game.
“It’s huge. You get them behind the sticks or you get them to third down and good luck,” Hafley said.
“Just watching that D-line get after it is awesome.”
There were even some encouraging signs from the second string defense.
Despite giving up a long drive late in the game, the reserves forced a fumble on the goal line, as Amir Riep and Dallas Gant knocked the ball out at the OSU 1, and Marcus Williamson pounced on it in the end zone to preserve the shutout.
In the end, the difference between a 42-7 and 42-0 win might not seem like much, but Hafley said it’s a big deal to the team.
“For the staff and for the players, I think it’s special. It’s hard to shut out anybody, and I think that’s a good offense,” he said.
Day said it’s far too soon to declare the Ohio State defense a finished product, but it was a second encouraging outing in as many weeks.
“It’s another step in the journey. It’s what we see in practice every day. Going up against them in spring and during preseason, I knew they were going to be tough, and they’re getting there,” Day said.