For Ohio State, defense might be the difference in The Game

COLUMBUS — Throughout the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the home to Ohio State’s football program, motivational sayings and historic highlights are peppered across nearly every wall in the building. 

In the center of the team’s main meeting room lies a specific message that is reinforced weekly by coaches but is particularly apt this week with the arrival of The Game on “Big Noon Saturday” against bitter rival Michigan.

“Tough love.”

There is much to focus on when it comes to the latter word, with the Buckeyes taking their semiannual trip to Ann Arbor to face that school up North. Ohio State enters ranked No. 2 in the country on the back of another 11-0 start. The team has outgained its opponents by an average of 176.5 yards per game this season, the third-best mark in FBS, and is peaking at just the right time, having won its two most recent games by 30-plus points for the first time in 2023.

Yet despite the feelings of positivity bubbling up across the football-mad state over a clearly talented group that has fought through adversity to find itself on the cusp of greatness, there is no denying that the reason the “tough love” applies is because of what has transpired in this final regular season game the past two years — two, lopsided losses to the Wolverines.

“There’s guys with scars. And, you know, I’m one of them,” said head coach Ryan Day, who is 1-2 against Michigan and 39-0 against the rest of the Big Ten. “It just drives you every day. To work harder. And to make sure you do everything you possibly to win the game.”

Because it is the most recent data point between the two programs, last year’s edition is naturally top of mind for many both inside and outside Columbus. Ohio State led at halftime at the Horseshoe, but let both the game and the narrative surrounding the rivalry slip away by allowing big play after big play to turn a close one into a runaway on their home turf. 

The Wolverines scored four touchdowns across the third and fourth quarters, three of which came as a result of long plays — a 45-yard touchdown reception by tight end Colston Loveland and a pair of 75-plus-yard runs by tailback Donovan Edwards. 

Is Ohio State at its strongest before trip to Ann Arbor?

Is Ohio State at its strongest before trip to Ann Arbor?

“We’ve all probably seen those plays a million times now. It hurts when you watch it, you know it’s all about the little details,” said linebacker Cody Simon. “All those big plays happen because of a small little detail. That’s all fundamentals, so we have to get back to making sure we are fundamentally sound at every position.”

So far this year, that’s been the case. OSU is allowing the fewest yards per play in FBS (3.99) and is in the top five in just about every major statistical category. It’s the only team in the country that has held every opponent under 20 points and is on pace to be one of the best defenses in school history, with some of its numbers not seen since the late 1970s when the offenses the Buckeyes faced were quite different.

Much like last year’s productive unit, however, the defensive numbers racked up over the course of 11 games won’t mean much compared to what’s produced in The Game.

“You have to be focused on what’s happening right now — the things that are in our control,” second-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “Those things that happened in the past … I need to figure that all out and process that and determine what’s important to then pass on to the team because they don’t need to be worried about any of that. They’ve got to play hard. They’ve got to play tough. They’ve got to play fast.

“Ultimately, we’re better now because of that.”

Ohio State’s biggest area of improvement on defense has centered around stopping explosive plays down the field. The Buckeyes have allowed just one gain of more than 40 yards all season — the only team in the country that can claim that — and have been suffocating offenses left and right by forcing them to string together long drives before getting into scoring position. 

Should Michigan be concerned about Ohio State?

Should Michigan be concerned about Ohio State?

Most are unable to put up with the relentless pressure from the front four, or from any number of active linebackers causing havoc over the middle of the field. It’s a key why the Buckeyes have allowed only 10 touchdowns coming into this week and why they’re one of just two teams –— Michigan being the other — to allow single-digit points per game.

The emphasis on preventing the big play started in the spring, with Knowles noting that his secondary received great practice by trying to stop Marvin Harrison Jr., a likely Heisman Trophy finalist who should be the first receiver drafted in a few months. Those in the front seven constantly harped on gap alignment and integrity no matter what formation an opponent would present.

Both players and coaches encouraged competition on this front throughout the summer and into the fall, with several members of the secondary banding together with the promise to run sprints after practice if they either allowed a catch (half a “gasser”), a touchdown, or a ball over their heads (a full field one).

“It’s a constant pursuit to defend explosive plays,” added Knowles. “You never know where they’re going to come from, you better be on high alert — it better be something that’s a priority. It’s shown to be a real factor in this game, so we can never stop talking about it, defending it, and practicing it.”

While there is natural variance to what the Buckeyes run from week to week based on opponents or injuries, the ability to focus on what needs to be done internally has been another element that is reflected in both the team’s talent and its mentality. 

It’s not the opponent who gains big plays, it’s the defense that allows them. And they allowed far too many last year against the Wolverines.

This year represents a shot at redemption in that area, even if Michigan’s offense is statistically slightly improved.

Quarterback J.J. McCarthy hasn’t been quite as sharp, yet still leads the Big Ten in just about every passing category besides total yards — and is a threat to take off and run it himself, too. Wide receiver Roman Wilson is in line to return as a potential big-play threat as well after suffering a concussion last week against Maryland, while Loveland has picked up critical third-down conversions nearly every week.

But nowhere is Michigan more impressive than in the run game, a key part of its identity since Jim Harbaugh took over. It’s been leaned into even more in the games their head coach has missed due to suspension. 

Tailback Blake Corum, who did not play last year in Columbus due to injury, currently leads the country in rushing touchdowns. Edwards, who racked up his career-high of 216 yards in The Game last year thanks to those smattering of big plays, has started to come back to life as a dynamic understudy, with touchdowns in two of the past three games.

It’s no secret that limiting those two — and the Wolverines’ ground game in particular — is paramount to success.

“Their running game is multiple because of all the different formations. They do a great job hiding their formations and their intent. Their offensive line is as good as we’ve faced, and the backs are really good,” added Knowles. “When you look at the history of The Game, it starts there, you have to (stop) that. So then the balance becomes, how do you prevent the explosive plays on the back end with not over-committing and leaving yourself exposed.”

That’s a needle that Knowles and his defense will have to thread carefully while remaining true to the principles that have allowed them to reach this point undefeated. 

It’s also something that goes back to the overriding mentality that the Buckeyes have played with ever since ending up on the wrong side of games against both Michigan and Georgia, painfully ending 2022 just shy of winning the first national title during Day’s tenure and second of the College Football Playoff era.

When asked what challenges the Wolverines’ offense posed coming into The Game, junior defensive back Denzel Burke replied succinctly on Tuesday: “Nothing.”

That’s not something you would typically hear about the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense, but it is reflective of the attitude change at OSU, and how the internal pressure to play perfectly is far greater than whatever is thrown at them on the field.

“We’ve just got to go out there and do our job, compete and play hard for each other,” said Burke, who is one of several upperclassmen who have not beaten the school to the North. “We’re going to be the villain walking in there. This game is really about respect for us. Especially my class in the last two years, never gotten those gold pants (for beating Michigan). We’ve just got to go out there and be us.”

Such confidence has been earned by the group’s play so far this year and is something coaches can say they’ve been able to see when watching film. While there are a few new faces in the starting lineup compared to a season ago, the bigger impact has been a group that is playing faster and more self-assured at the same time. 

“Everything we’ve done this entire year has been for this game. We couldn’t be more ready for it,” said Simon. “Our coaches have done a great job of allowing us to kind of build to this moment. It’s the reason you come here. There’s nothing else to it other than to win this game.”

Thanks to the defensive improvement, especially against those costly big plays that tripped them up this time last season, Ohio State is certainly in a better position to do just that.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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