How Ohio State football’s year of defensive fixes collapsed under Michigan’s unexpected attack

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The first crack in Ohio State football’s defensive dam Saturday seemed almost fluky — a high-risk, high-reward play call gone terribly wrong.

Then Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy connected with another receiver on a big scoring play. Then another. Without a trace of the precipitation that had blanketed 2021’s loss in Ann Arbor, a proverbial snowball was rolling downhill, growing in size and speed and bearing down on OSU’s season.

The finishing flourish came from a more expected source — the Wolverines’ dynamic running game. After a 45-23 loss, OSU’s defense was forced to confront the possibility that it traveled 365 days of change and reform only to end up in the same uncomfortable place.

When the implosion happened last season in Ann Arbor, safety Bryson Shaw was left to speak for a defense suffering from fractured leadership on the staff. On Saturday, Jim Knowles took ownership of his first setback as OSU’s defensive coordinator.

“Obviously, the players are hurting much more than me,” Knowles said. “I’m crushed, but they’re young men who put their heart and soul into it. So they’re the ones that I have to be able to look in the eye and talk to them.

“Scheme, technique, fundamentals — everything that goes into it has to fall on my shoulders”

Ryan Day thought he had fixed this. Ohio State’s coach overhauled his defensive staff last winter in part because the previous staff did not ward off enough fundamental flaws or make sufficient in-game adjustments.

He hired Knowles at the once-unheard of price of $1.9 million on the strength of his reputation for solving problems on the fly.

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Day seemed as shocked as anyone standing at the microphone Saturday. All of that upheaval and left OSU even farther away from Michigan on the scoreboard.

“I’m gonna have to obviously look and see where all the breakdowns were, but it wasn’t just one area,” Day said.

“… Obviously, the first thing we need to do in games like this is play great defense. Other than two plays in the first half, I felt like we did — but not in the second half.”

We’ll start with those first-half plays, because they seem instructive in retrospect.

While Michigan’s prolific rushing attack limped into The Game, it clearly had OSU’s attention. Blake Corum, one of the nation’s leading rushers, started but played only a few snaps before shutting down. His primary replacement, Donovan Edwards, wore a cast on his left hand. Another backfield option, Kalel Mullings, had, until very recently, been a linebacker.

The Buckeyes’ man schemes choked off that running threat throughout the first half, allowing only 2 yards per carry after adjusting for sacks. That was supposed to put the game on McCarthy’s arm, which would play into the hands of OSU’s active defensive front and playmakers in the secondary.

instead…

• McCarthy connected with Ronnie Bell for 33 yards to help set up a field goal on Michigan’s first possession. It appeared OSU cornerback Denzel Burke lost his footing, allowing Bell to escape wide open.

• Knowles came after McCarthy with an all-out blitz on a third-down play in the second quarter. McCarthy got the pass off to Cornelius Johnson, who slipped away from cornerback Cam Brown’s missed tackle for a 69-yard touchdown. Up to that point, with 7:26 remaining in the first half, Michigan had only managed a field goal.

• The second of Noah Ruggles’ three field goals gave OSU a 13-10 lead in the second quarter. Cam Martinez subbed in for Tanner McCalister at nickel safety to start the next defensive series. Johnson went right to Martinez with a double move on the first play, and McCarthy connected with him again for a 75-yard touchdown.

Those three snaps accounted for 177 of the Wolverines’ 204 first-half yards. Otherwise, OSU kept them bottled up.

“The explosives, when they go for touchdowns, they become a different story,” Knowles said. “Typically, in the course of my career, you preach the explosive plays, and they have a chance to get the guy on the ground, and then you recover. But when they go for touchdowns, certainly that’s something that falls on me.”

McCarthy, though, was far from finished.

• Michigan crossed midfield on the opening possession of the second half. Tight end Colston Loveland ran a mesh concept up the seam with Johnson. Safety Lathan Ransom got caught up in the confusion, and by the time he recovered, Loveland was halfway home to his birthplace in Idaho after a 45-yard touchdown reception.

• Early in the fourth quarter, OSU appeared to have held Michigan to a field goal attempt when pressure up front had McCarthy scrambling on third-and-10. He threw one up towards the end zone, and safety Ronnie Hickman obliged by never turning around before running into Bell for an uncharacteristic pass interference. McCarthy scored on a 3-yard touchdown run on third-and-3 to push the lead to 31-20.

Five pivotal passing plays involving four different Michigan receivers and five different defensive backs. Also, as the season progressed, OSU’s defensive line increasingly created four-man pressure. The only sack of McCarthy, though, came when linebacker Cody Simon blitzed and forced an intentional grounding in the first quarter. The quarterback’s escapability also helped him rush for 37 yards on five attempts.

Yet even those were not the true back-breakers. Ohio State had allowed only one rushing play of 50-plus yards in its first 11 games. That was Wisconsin starting running back Braelon Allen’s 75-yard touchdown run against mostly OSU backups in the fourth game of the season on Sept. 24.

• Ruggles’ field goal with 7:23 to play cut the deficit to 31-23. On the first play of the ensuing series, OSU brought multiple blitzers. Michigan ran a counter play off right tackle, and when Ransom stepped to his right to follow McCarthy briefly, it left him virtually no chance to catch Edwards. He raced 75 yards for a touchdown.

• When Edwards added an 85-yard touchdown run on a very similar looking zone play, the Wildcats were just piling on.

“The runs that got us were simple, and that’s the hardest part that I have to look at,” Knowles said.

Knowles has used a call-and-response in meetings to emphasize the importance of limiting explosive plays. He says “Five or less,” and they respond “undefeated.” While the Buckeyes haven’t always held opponents to five or less, that pursuit had them undefeated until Saturday.

Michigan’s nine explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards, passes of 15-plus) accounted for 428 of its 530 yards. Knowles called it “disheartening” for both the players and the fans who watched it. So many of those plays were inches away from not happening at all.

“In big games like this, it’s the little things,” defensive end JT Tuimoloau said.

In victory formation, McCarthy held back one last throw. After his final knee-down, he tossed the ball back and over his head, into the hands of Edwards. He and the rest of the offense could leave Ohio Stadium with a full reservoir of swagger.

Ohio State now returns to square one, searching for the next adjustment that closes the growing gap between its defense and its fiercest rival.

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