The Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday Night with a lot of new faces on the defensive coaching staff. After an up and down – mostly down – season last year on the defensive side of the ball, Ryan Day made the decision to move on from three of his assistants last year. In Week 1, the Buckeyes reaped immediate rewards from the decision to bring Jim Knowles on as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator.
The former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator showed that his reputation was well earned, and with his most talented roster to date, his defensive unit posted a gem of a first performance. What Knowles brought with him to Ohio State was a highly structured, highly aggressive defensive philosophy, and that physical style of football was on full display. Knowles was brought in to instill toughness, and the Buckeyes defense showed they could win games when they need to. The Buckeyes were stout against the run, stingy against the pass, and forced six consecutive punts to close out the game.
When it was time to win, the defense stepped up, and throughout the game improvement from last season was shown in every facet. With the first real look of what Knowles envisions for Ohio State’s defense in the books, we can now take a look at how the vision was displayed on the field.
For Ohio State fans, the pass defense might not have been the first box to check off, but the memories from last year of Anthony Brown looking like an All-American for Oregon and Tulsa throwing for over 400-yards were still open wounds. The Buckeyes gave up a few big plays in this regard, but the general feel of the performance was positive. Ohio State limited Notre Dame’s All-American tight end Michael Mayer to only five catches and 32 yards, and they limited Tyler Buchner to 2-of-10 passing to finish the game after going 8-of-8 to start.
Knowles was able to create a lot of problems for the first time starter Buchner after the defense settled in. They made Buchner uncomfortable by creating consistent pressure. As Knowles noted at the end of fall camp, the pass rush helps the coverage and vice versa. In the play below, the aggressiveness Knowles is known for was on full display when in a third-and-short situation, he brought six rushers.
The blitz is disguised really well here, and towards the bunch side is where Ohio State overloads the Notre Dame offensive line. Cam Brown (No. 26) for the Buckeyes comes on a corner blitz, making the pass rush to that side five-on-three. In coverage here, the defense is looking at quick game due to the down and distance. The remaining defenders in coverage have all the downfield passing options accounted for after Buchner makes his first reads, and Zach Harrison (No. 9) takes away the check down in the flat.
The combination of coverage and the overload blitz to the strong side allowed Eichenberg to get a free lane up the middle and he make a huge play on third down.
In the next example, Notre Dame is in a second-and-long situation with momentum building on their side. The clip starts a little later then initially planned, but if you pause the clip at the beginning, you can see the immediate penetration Mike Hall (No. 51) gets on the inside. This is a quarterback’s worst nightmare, and even though Buchner escapes the initial rush, the rest of the defensive line collapses the pocket to make the play. Once again the combination of coverage and pass rushing gave Notre Dame problems in a critical moment of the game.
The last play in this section shows how successful earlier blitzes can help a four man rush later in the game. This is not just straight up four man rush, as Knowles uses a double twist stunt, meaning the defensive tackles will push up the field to the outside and the defensive ends will wrap under into the inside gaps. Hall takes the two linemen up the field, and once Sawyer comes under, the right guard slips off Hall to pick up Sawyer. This gives Hall leverage on the right tackle, and he is able to come underneath and sack the quarterback to ice the game.
When Notre Dame tried to pass in the second half, Knowles and the Ohio State defense did an incredible job of remaining disciplined in coverage to go with an extremely effective pass rush. The defensive line had an incredible performance in limiting what Buchner did outside the pocket and making him feel uncomfortable at all times as a passer. This is a noticeable change to last season, where it felt like every time an opponent had a reasonable third down distance, they were able to pick the first down up.
The one takeaway that was written about with ample volume this offseason were the struggles Ohio State had stopping the run. There were a lot of reasons Ohio State struggled in this regard from scheme to physicality, but the overall product was an objective failure. The Buckeyes and Knowles had a lot to prove against a Notre Dame offense that prides itself on physicality up front.
In the first play here, Notre Dame is running their pin-and-pull inside zone run scheme. Notre Dame’s left tackle is uncovered to his inside gap, so he is pulling across the formation to the play side. This key gives the Ohio State defenders an immediate read on where the ball is going to go. JT Tuimoloau sets the edge after coming off the block from the right tackle. This allows Tuimoloau to shuffle with the running back and he makes the initial contact in the backfield.
Going back to the reading of keys, the linebackers flow and so does Ronnie Hickman, leading to a group of silver helmets around the ball in the backfield, which is a sight for sore eyes.
This next play was early in the contest, but this was a hint at more to come throughout the game. After giving up one of the biggest plays of the game that included a 15-yard penalty on top of it, the Buckeyes had to nail down early. The reason this play stood out to me was the fact every gap and both options were accounted for here. If you pause at the 0:02 second mark, you can see Ohio State’s straight line of defenders across the field in every gap. This takes away the quarterback run, and the interior penetration blows up the running back in the backfield for a huge second down stop early.
The run defense came a long way over the offseason, and with Buchner’s skillset as well as a decently experienced running back room, this was going to present an early challenge for the Buckeyes. One play set that wasn’t highlighted, but I’d be negligent without mentioning the sequence of two Notre Dame run plays in the second half.
The Irish ran a jet sweep zone read, and they gave the ball to the receiver in motion for a big gain. A few plays later, the Irish came running the same play, this time the Buckeyes took away the jet sweep and tackled Buchner in the backfield. The run defense was improved tenfold, and the adjustments made by Knowles in the moment highlighted that improved the most.
Lastly, the Buckeyes showed a new level of discipline on Saturday, and with that discipline came the toughness Ohio State fans were craving to see again. As a defense you don’t force six straight punts without discipline, and the Buckeyes won the game because of their defense playing structured, assignment football.
In the first play here, Notre Dame runs a toss sweep to the outside. When it comes to responsibility football, each player in this case does their job. Hickman (No. 14) sees this is an outside run, his responsibility here is keeping outside contain. He forces the cutback to Eichenberg, who flows and makes the initial contact behind the line of scrimmage. This play is finished by Harrison, who stays with his responsibility of the quarterback until he sees the ball in the hands of the running back. He then flows down the line to clean up if the running back does cut back, and in this case, he does.
This assignment football and discipline is the exact reason Notre Dame was unable to establish the run against Ohio State.
The last play of the day showed the improvement in the pass coverage. Ohio State was in a 3rd-and-7 obvious passing situation. Ohio State only brings four in their rush, this means they have seven defenders dropped in coverage to defend five receiving targets. Mayer was the obvious target here. Ohio State runs Hickman outside, leading to Mayer sitting in the middle short of the first down distance. Ransom breaks on the ball and makes a great tackle to make a timely third down stop with Notre Dame inside their own 10-yard line.
Once again, last year this play would have been a first down, and the Fighting Irish offense would have found this every third down they needed it. Not anymore though.
Now there might be questions surrounding how good Notre Dame’s offense actually is, but the teams that gave Ohio State trouble last year played similar styles to Notre Dame offensively. The Buckeyes couldn’t stop the run, didn’t make adjustments, and gave up easy passes on third downs leading to them being unable to get off the field. Notre Dame brought a well coached offensive line to Columbus to battle the Buckeyes, and a quarterback who could bring multiple dimensions to the table as an athlete.
The Buckeyes were prepared for every trick Notre Dame was ready to throw at their defense, and that all comes from the new identity under Jim Knowles. Ohio State’s defenders were playing fast and aggressive at all three levels while playing disciplined responsibility football. Knowles showed Ohio State fans there is no need to sacrifice one for the other. The physicality was there, and the Buckeyes are just scratching the surface in the potential under Knowles, who said the defense was relatively basic.
Ohio State’s defense still has a lot to prove — this was one game. For a debut though, the film shows Knowles couldn’t have asked for a better start as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.