It was one of the most inexplicable performances in the history of Ohio State defenses: Maryland scored 51 points, put up 535 yards of total offense, and very nearly crushed the Buckeyes’ Big Ten title hopes in the penultimate week of the 2018 regular season.
On paper, the Terps were a team OSU should have easily contained. On FieldTurf, it was a much different story.
That day alone, Maryland racked up six different plays of 30 yards or more, including touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards by Anthony McFarland.
The Maryland running back ended that day with 298 yards on the ground, the second-highest total ever recorded by an OSU opponent.
That photo at the top of this article? It was the two-point play Maryland ran in overtime. If the receiver on the right had been just a step quicker, he would have caught the football on the left, and the Buckeyes would have missed out on the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.
It was one of the lowest points in a season filled with lowlights for the Buckeye defense.
Just one year later, it’s a very different story in Columbus. The same defense that allowed six 30+ yard plays to Maryland in one miserable afternoon has given up only five of those plays all season.
After giving up 51 points to a team that missed a bowl game in one bizarre afternoon in 2018, this year’s defense has allowed 42 points in its last seven games combined.
So what happened? How did an OSU defense that spent last year in a state best described as “actively on fire” turn into one of the most dominating units in school history?
“I think there’s a lot of things,” said head coach Ryan Day this week. “In terms of maturity, these guys are all a year older. That’s all changed. The scheme has changed. There’s a lot that goes into it. The offenses we’re seeing are different. This team is hungry. I think they all really enjoy playing with each other. I think it’s a conversation that would take more than just one answer on why.”
There is undoubtedly at least a little truth to all of those. The Buckeyes returned nine starters from last year, which always helps.
When several of those starters are likely ticketed for the first round of the NFL Draft, that’s an added bonus.
When one of those guys had worked his way into the Heisman race after spending a big chunk of 2018 hobbled by ankle injuries, that has to be factored in.
The talent all around the unit is some of the best in the nation, and motivation hasn’t been an issue this year.
“I think so much of it has to do with a bunch of guys who sat around for a whole off-season, heard that they struggled,” said Day. “They came in with something to prove. They worked really hard in the off-season, got bigger, stronger, dove into the defense, created great relationships with the coaches. Now they’re playing at a high level.”
That’s all true, and it undoubtedly plays a role.
Scroll up seven paragraphs and you’ll notice Day sliding a reference to a new defensive scheme into the middle of his answer. The scheme is different because the defensive coaching staff is almost entirely different.
You have a better chance of getting most football coaches to hand you a copy of their gameplan than getting them to bad-mouth another coach. That’s especially true if it’s a coach who was on the same staff as them.
You can call it professional courtesy or a natural byproduct of a very small industry where everyone is separated by two or three degrees at the most. It just doesn’t happen.
It’s also not that tough to figure out what coaches are really thinking while they’re busy saying all the right things.
Ryan Day had close to a month after being named the next OSU head coach in early December to figure out which assistants he wanted to keep on staff and which ones he didn’t. All of the assistants from the offense are back this year. Only one of the assistants from the defense is.
The continuity on the offensive side of the ball has coincided with a more or less uninterrupted excellence. The 2018 Buckeyes averaged 43 points per game through their first eight contests. The 2019 team is doing even better at 48.25 per game.
The almost total turnover on the defensive side of the ball has coincided with a more or less total turnover in their performance. The 2018 Buckeyes averaged 22.88 points allowed through their first eight contests. The 2019 team is doing just slightly better at 7.88 per game.
The 2019 Buckeyes have given up more than 10 points only once, when a couple garbage-time scores by FAU pushed their final tally up to 21 points. By this point in the 2018 season, OSU had given up more than 21 points in five of its eight games.
Last year’s co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is now at Oklahoma. CB coach Taver Johnson is now an assistant defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. Bill Davis was judged to be the best man to coach the Arizona Cardinals’ linebackers.
The architect of that defense, Greg Schiano, is spending this fall away from the game, but is considered the leading candidate to take over the smoking rubble at Rutgers in a few weeks.
It was a more or less open secret that Schiano’s 2018 defense was simply too complicated. It asked players to make too many choices after the ball was snapped, which worked as a reverse-alchemy machine that turned fast four and five-star recruiting gold into a slow three-star defense with lead in their shoes.
Just like Day, new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has steadfastly refused to comment on the issues from last year. But he seemingly had little trouble diagnosing what needed to change.
“You’d love to get very, very skilled players a chance to play, but at the same time you have to be very very simple in that you don’t want a young man to not play as well as he can because of confusion,” said Mattison earlier this year.
Back in February, new co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley shared a similar vision.
“I think we have to make it easy for our players to play fast, do what they do best,” he said.
The only holdout from the 2018 defensive coaching staff, DL coach Larry Johnson was even more blunt this spring.
“You can never be simplified enough,” he said in March.
The results have been incredibly obvious. An OSU team that entered November 2018 off a 49-20 humiliation at Purdue is now No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The team that gave up 31 to Nebraska last year knocked that down to 7 this fall.
Indiana scored 26 in 2018, while a much more talented group of Hoosiers managed just 10 this year.
It’s a pretty good bet that Maryland’s 51 point explosion from last year will fall much shorter this weekend as well against the revamped Buckeye defense.