In a 2018 season that saw the Ohio State defense struggle, its game against Maryland served as a glaring low point.
Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes’ offense bailed out the defense for a 52-51 victory in a game that nearly became one of the worst losses in recent Ohio State memory.
As Ohio State prepares to host Maryland on Saturday, a drastically improved defense is hungry to gain some redemption for its ugly performance a year ago. The Terrapins piled up 535 yards, including 335 on the ground. Running back Anthony McFarland ran for 298 yards. The Buckeyes gave up seven touchdowns to Maryland in that forgettable showing. By contrast this fall, though, Ohio State has surrendered only five touchdowns in five Big 10 games.
Nationally, the Buckeyes are currently number-one in scoring defense and second in total defense. How can a defense, which consists of pretty much the exact same players as last year, look so different?
“I think there’s a lot of things,” said Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day on Tuesday. “In terms of maturity, these guys are all a year older. That’s all changed. The scheme has changed. There’s a lot that goes into it. “The offenses we’re seeing are different. This team is hungry. I think they all really enjoy playing with each other. I think it’s a conversation that would take more than just one answer on why.”
Day is right. There are a lot of things that have played into the defense’s turnaround. Every returning player on the defense has shown growth. Linebacker Pete Werner is one example. He was looked at as a liability by many last year, but has evolved into a reliable play maker this fall, ranking third on the team in tackles. There are many others, too. Cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette have become among the best CB duos in college football. Up front, blue collar defensive tackles Davon Hamilton, Tommy Togiai and Jashon Cornell have been instrumental in a rush defense that is allowing only 92 yards per game.
A change in coaches has also made a major impact. Veteran defensive line coach Larry Johnson was the lone holdover from the previous staff as Day conducted a house cleaning on that side of the ball when he took over for Urban Meyer. Greg Mattison was hired from Michigan to coordinate the defense along with former 49ers secondary coach Jeff Hafley. The result has been a unit that is playing faster and with much more discipline than it did a year ago.
As for Day, he credits his defensive players for using their past struggles as motivation. “I think so much of it has to do with a bunch of guys who sat around for a whole off-season, heard that they struggled,” said Day. “They came in with something to prove. They worked really hard in the off-season, got bigger, stronger, dove into the defense, created great relationships with the coaches. Now, they’re playing at a high level.”
From a player’s perspective, Cornell believes the Buckeye defenders are playing with a better chemistry this season. “We learned how not to be selfish,” he said this week. “Sometimes you want to play for yourself, but now the team is playing for each other. We’re not arguing. We’re not yelling at each other. We’re not getting down on each other. If a player makes a mistake, we’re pushing them up saying, ‘Look, we’ll get it on the next play.” O