COLUMBUS, Ohio — The long wait and anticipation of seeing Ohio State’s “new defense” under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles finally ended as No. 2 Ohio State took the field to face No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
There’s no question that the biggest question mark for Ohio State going into the Top 5 matchup was its defense and whether the changes made would be seen and felt on the field.
Against Notre Dame, the Buckeye defense gave up 253 yards of total offense, one touchdown, and one field goal, holding the Fighting Irish to just 10 points, all of which came in the first half.
“The story of the night is the defense,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said following the 21-10 win. “The turnaround after what’s been said about them in the offseason, questioning their toughness, and to play the way they did against the No. 5 team in the country, I’m proud of our guys. And if we can continue to win games like that, then that’s how we’ll win games.”
Not only was the defense an improvement, but the defense kept the Buckeyes in the game and allowed the offense to come back in the game in the second half. Surprisingly, the tone of the game featured the offense not producing and not being able to find its rhythm, while the defense held steady.
Ohio State scored just seven points in the first half of the game, its fewest in the first half since the loss to Oregon last year. Its 149 yards of total offense in the first half was its fewest since Penn State in 2018. Simply put, it was not the juggernaut of an offense that was assumed to be there. But the defense made up for that.
For Day, this was a proud moment demonstrating they can put together an ugly win with their defense — something that will pay off in the future. But he was also proud of the ability of the Buckeye defenders to respond and not panic after giving up explosive plays.
Notre Dame’s first offensive play featured a 54-yard reception from quarterback Tanner Buchner to receiver Lorenzo Styles due to a missed tackle, with an extra 15 yards added due to a penalty. But after that, the Buckeye defense stiffened and held Notre Dame to a field goal.
Ohio State didn’t allow the Fighting Irish to score at all in the second half, giving up only 72 yards. Notre Dame punted every possession following its lone touchdown in the second quarter.
“You saw energy, running the ball, being decisive, playing fast, and if they gave up a big play it wasn’t a panic, it wasn’t ‘oh my god the world’s going to end,’ they keep fighting” Day said. “Maybe last year we would have kind of put our heads down, but we didn’t. We played tough.”
Although it didn’t record an interception, Ohio State’s defense racked up 43 total tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, two pass break ups, and one quarterback hurry. There wasn’t one player whose stats jumped off the page, or one player who was the star of the defense, but it was an overall team performance that was especially effective in stopping the run.
Leading the way on defense was veteran linebacker Tommy Eichenberg who had nine total tackles, two sacks, and three tackles for loss. Junior safety Lathan Ransom was also a key contributor with seven total tackles.
After finishing No. 59 in the country in total defense and falling short of making it to the Big Ten Championship game and the College Football Playoffs, Ohio State knew it needed to be better on defense if it wanted to achieve its goals. Last season, Ohio State’s defense allowed an average of 372.6 yards of offense per game. In the offseason, it revamped its coaching staff, retaining only veteran defensive line coach Larry Johnson on that side of the ball.
The hype was there, as offensive players throughout fall camp commented on how the defense was giving them different looks, was playing with confidence, and was “different.”
It’s safe to say after Saturday’s performance, there is a “new Buckeye defense,” one that made an impact more than any defensive performance since the 2019 season.
But for Knowles, this is only the beginning, the “basic” package. “It was effective but we didn’t do much with it tonight, Knowles said. “There’s still a lot more we haven’t shown.”