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Better Ask A Buckeye, Part 2: Breaking Down The Ohio State Defense With Land Grant Holy Land

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 26 Michigan at Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday I talked to noted Buckeye Matt Tamanini about the potent Ohio State offense. As we wait for kickoff in a few hours, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read Matt’s thoughts on the Scarlet and Gray defense, which is itself one of the top 15 teams in America in scoring defense and total defense.

Matt has some interesting thoughts on Buckeye DC Jim Knowles’ philosophy, spotlights some players to be aware of when the Red and Black have the ball, and picks the winner with both his head and his heart. Enjoy.

MD: The Buckeyes gave up season highs in points allowed (45) and rushing yards (252) in their last outing against Michigan. How can they avoid a repeat of that performance against a Georgia team that loves to run the ball?

Matt: It’s weird because for the first three quarters of the game against Michigan, Ohio State essentially slowed down (and, in some cases, stuffed) the Wolverine running game. The OSU defensive line was getting push and they were controlling the line of scrimmage, however, that let J.J. McCarthy and the Michigan passing game go one-on-one with the Buckeye cornerbacks (which is always something that you want to do as an offensive coordinator).

Then, when OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles made the adjustment to stop the pass, Michigan went back to what it does best and took advantage on the ground. To me, the story of that game wasn’t Michigan running at will, it was Ohio State’s defense getting beat on five major chunk plays: passing touchdowns of 45, 69, and 75 yards; and rushing TDs of 75 and 85 yards.

Those two long, running touchdowns alone account for 160 of Michigan’s 252 rushing yards on the day. Obviously I’m not trying to discount those plays and stats, but that is what lost OSU the game, unlike the year before when Michigan ran the ball down the Buckeyes’ throats.

Knowles’ defense is designed to be aggressive and factors in allowing a handful of chunk plays into the equation; it’s just a matter of limiting how many and keeping them to the 20-25 yard variety, rather than the 75-85 yard kind. Will OSU be able to do that on Saturday? I don’t know, but they clearly can’t win a game giving up four touchdowns of 69 yards or more. That is very, very not nice.

MD: Even with that explosive effort from the Wolverines, Ohio State’s scoring defense has been a solid 3.5 points per game better in 2022 versus 2021 (19.3 vs 22.8 last season). What’s been the difference?

Matt: Despite the explosive plays allowed, Knowles’ defense has shown marked improvements on nearly every area of the field. He is allowing players to do what they do best, and not attempting to force them to play in a system that doesn’t fit their styles. While the defensive line hasn’t all of a sudden returned to the Bosas/Chase Young level of dominance, they have four to five players – especially Mike Hall Jr. is healthy enough to play – that will be very high draft picks across the front.

The linebackers have gone from a continuous point of frustration to the most consistent unit on the defense as the OSU scheme has gone from a traditional 4-3 to a 4-2-5 under Knowles. Steele Chambers (in his second season at LB after moving from running back) and Tommy Eichenberg have been great at being able to essentially cover the field sideline to sideline and fill gaps in the run game.

Knowles calls his unit a “safety-driven defense,” and the collection of Ronnie Hickman, Tanner McCalister, and Lathan Ransom started the season very strong, but waned as the season progressed. Again, as it always is in football, injuries played a part in that, but so did opposing offensive coordinators getting to see the new OSU scheme on film.

If Knowles is able to mix things up a little bit for the CFP, the athleticism and talent is there for the back part of the secondary to shine, but they certainly need to step it up from where they ended the season.

Unfortunately, that leaves us with the cornerbacks, which is the unquestioned weakest position group on the OSU roster. They entered the season with only six scholarship CBs and the top three all got hurt during fall camp and seemingly rotated injuries throughout the year. While the next three guys stepped up when called upon, they were mostly very young and inexperienced.

It appears that the Buckeye corners are as close to 100% healthy as they have been since early August, and that’s good, because they will probably struggle on Saturday, but they would undoubtedly be torched if they were still hobbled.

MD: Who is the one player on the Buckeye defense Georgia can’t afford to lose track of, and why?

Matt: Without question, J.T. Tuimoloau. Guys like Chambers and Eichenberg will probably put up the bigger tackles totals, but when it comes to a game-wrecker, Tuimoloau has the ability to completely change a game. He had one of the most incredible defensive performances in Ohio State history in the victory over Penn State in October – Tuimoloau had six tackles (three of which were for a loss), two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a tipped pass that resulted in a Zach Harrison interception, and two INTs of his own, including a game-sealing pick-six.

Obviously a performance like that might never happen again, but it shows you what he is capable of if not fully accounted for.

MD: What player/position grouping are you concerned about on the Ohio State defense? Is there a player or group you’re worried Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken could exploit?

Matt: I know that the bread and butter of Georgia’s offense is its tight ends and running backs, but even just watching UGA games casually throughout the season, I was able to tell that their wide receivers are far better than they are given credit for. So, while it might be breaking his tendencies, if Monken can get the ball to his WRs against Ohio State’s shaky-at-best corners, that could be an opportunity to pick up fairly easy yards in key situations.

MD: Fill in the blank: the Ohio State defense will be fine so long as ____.

Matt: ...they don’t allow Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington to combine for over 150 yards receiving. Of course, “fine” is a relative term, because I’m still not sold on their ability to stop the run or the WR passing game, but if the Georgia tight ends go off – either individually or collectively – Ohio State has no shot.

Even though OSU effectively shut down Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer in the season opener, there really is no possible way to prepare for the two masses of skill and humanity that UGA has at tight end. Because Knowles’ defense relies so heavily on safeties, I’m assuming they will try to cover the TEs with safeties, but perhaps having Steele Chambers help out in certain sets from the linebacker position.

Honestly, I don’t know how you stop those two guys from picking up yards at will, but I’m hoping Knowles and company has a plan.

MD: Because it’s not a Q&A without a reckless prediction: what is the final score of the 2022 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl?

Matt: I mean, if you want a reckless prediction, I will go Ohio State 104, Georgia -6, but even I’m not enough of a homer to be that crazy. Do I think that Ohio State can win the game on Saturday? Of course, I think they probably have the best chance of any of the other semifinalists still alive.

But that’s a different question than if I think that Ohio State will win the game on Saturday. If you were forcing me to pick a score for this game completely just using my head and my eyes, I would probably go UGA 41, Ohio State 24. However, I am a college football fan and blogger, so nothing I do is ever expected to be rational, so my pick with my heart is Ohio State 37, Georgia 34.

I also reserve the right to change my picks at any point up until I make my official ones on Land-Grant Holy Land on Saturday morning.

Thanks once again to Matt for being a good sport and a fount of knowledge about all things Buckeye. Here’s hoping tonight brings his team their last loss of the season.

Go ‘Dawgs!!!