As Ohio State’s 2013 football season wound to a close, Urban Meyer was asked about a defense that had ceded 41 points to Michigan and more than 300 passing yards in a loss to Michigan State.
Was it scheme that was keeping the Buckeyes from playing like Silver Bullets, was it personnel, or was it something else?
“All of the above,” replied the head coach, weary of answering such questions.
They didn’t get much easier after the Buckeyes gave up 40 points and more than 500 total yards in an Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. After the game, Meyer’s press conference more resembled a postmortem as he answered how a season that had started with 12 straight wins had fallen apart so quickly.
“We're not a championship caliber defense right now,” he said.
So what went wrong? With spring football less than a week away, now seems like as good a time as any to answer that question.
Today, I’ll look back at the issues the Buckeyes had during the 2013 season. Going forward, I’ll break down what the Buckeyes have done about it, including comments from new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash on how he hopes to return the Buckeyes to the championship outfit expected from both coaches and fans.
Any discussion of what happened a season ago has to start with the Jimmys and Joes, as they say in college football.
Simply put, the Buckeyes simply didn’t have much experience or depth in the back end, one reason the team finished 110th in the nation in passing defense.
In the past, I’ve gone to great lengths to detail the number of players who could have helped the Buckeyes in 2013 but simply weren’t on the roster by the end of the season. From the recruiting classes of 2009-13, there were eight linebackers and nine defensive backs who were unavailable because of either injury, dismissal or other attrition, players who could have been experienced seniors ready to chip in at a moment’s notice or eager freshmen who could have provided key depth.
“We’ve made mistakes in recruiting, we’ve had some injuries, and we haven’t played very well at certain times,” Meyer said.
That’s kind of attrition is difficult to overcome for any program, and OSU certainly wasn’t immune a season ago. The death blow, in many ways, was losing senior safety Christian Bryant, a vocal leader and a three-year starter who suffered a broken fibula in the fifth game of the season vs. Wisconsin and did not return.
Considering the Buckeyes were still showing signs of struggling getting the pass defense together at that point, Bryant’s injury was one the team simply couldn’t bounce back from.
“Our entire defense took a major blow when Christian Bryant went down,” Meyer said.
With the senior from Cleveland Glenville out, Ohio State had to turn to a fifth-year senior in Corey “Pitt” Brown who hadn’t seen the field consistently as a defensive player. Other options such as sophomore Ron Tanner or true freshman Vonn Bell were deemed too young, but Brown struggled against both the pass and run until being replaced by Bell in the Orange Bowl.
Meanwhile, the issues at linebacker could be summed up in one sentence – the Buckeyes had just six scholarship players at the position this year, including two true freshman in Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson. While Ryan Shazier was a stud, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry were often banged up and weren’t effective vs. the pass, while sophomore Camren Williams proved to be not ready for prime time in his second year in the program in his limited action.
From the very beginning, it seemed that defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers weren’t a good match, especially when it came to covering the pass.
Ohio State ceded far too many yards through the air throughout much of their partnership. Ross Fulton could go into the issues much more deeply than I can, but the two came from different scheme backgrounds, with Fickell coming from a Cover-3, zone blitz background under Jims Tressel and Heacock, while Withers came from a Cover-4, pattern matching background.
On top of that, there never seemed to be a bread-and-butter approach that the defensive players could hold on to. Of course, it’s hard to come up with one when you’re thin on personnel and nothing seems to work, but a life preserver could have come from a decision to pick one approach and stick with it.
For example, Ohio State altered its defense tremendously in the Wisconsin game, opting to man-up corner Bradley Roby on star UW wideout Jared Abbrederis. The strategy allowed Abbrederis to set an OSU opponent record with 207 yards receiving, but OSU largely shut down the Badgers’ running game and escaped a prime-time game in Ohio Stadium with the win.
The Buckeyes wouldn’t be so lucky later in the season, and communication always seemed to continue to be an issue. For example, against Michigan State, the Spartans scored the game-winning TD when tight end Josiah Price came across the formation and slipped behind safety C.J. Barnett, who clearly expected help behind him.
At the end of the day, the Buckeyes never seemed comfortable with one another or what they were doing, something the head coach referenced late in the season.
“It’s too many (issues), not just one thing,” Meyer said. “It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage. It’s all of the above. It’s the pass rush, the time to call the blitzes, making sure the blitzes match the coverage. You’ve got to play better.”
For years, Ohio State’s defensive leadership talked about players doing their “1/11th,” which means that if every person just does their job, the defense as a whole will be successful.
That was something referenced by Fickell late in the season, who said the issues the Buckeyes ran much deeper than just depth problems in the linebacking corps or inexperience in the secondary.
“Some people say, well, your pass defense has been this,” Fickell said. “Well, you know what, that's on the pass rush every bit as much. That's on the backers every bit as much to match things underneath.
“It's a game played by 11 guys out there. It's the greatest team sport known to man. I say it over and over and over again. We can't lose sight of that. Our kids can't lose sight of that because we all tie together.”
Clearly, though, the Buckeyes didn’t in 2014. Looking back at some of the issues the team faced as it was gashed by Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson, it was clear that the defense just wasn’t on the same page at times.
In the Michigan game, the Buckeyes were often gashed by misdirection plays, with no one staying home to guard against throwback passes and screens even as OSU faced a troubled offensive line and a banged-up quarterback in Devin Gardner.
Michigan State, then, offered a veritable bevy of issues, from the breakdown on the game-winning pass to Brown incorrectly undercutting a deep route that allowed a 72-yard score to an ill-advised corner blitz call that left Barnett out to dry on single coverage.
Clemson then stretched the Buckeyes wide and deep, with Sammy Watkins proving too much to handle on short screen and sweep passes and also occasionally beating the team over the top as well. Miscommunication also marked the day at times, including on a play where Bell was beaten for a TD by Watkins with no help over the top.
Some of those mistakes could be attributed back to mistakes by personnel and some to scheme, but all were errors in execution that marked the season’s results for OSU. Add in troubles with communication and it’s no wonder the Silver Bullets didn’t live up to their name for large portions of the 2013 campaign.
Those problems about not being on the same page were alluded to in the offseason by a few coaches, but we’ll get deeper into those issues tomorrow in Part II of our defensive breakdown.
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