When a defense gives up big plays, its biggest hope is for its offense to make more of them.
Luckily for the Ohio State defensive players, their counterpart on the other side of the ball picked up the slack against Cincinnati when the team needed it the most. The Buckeyes outgunned the Bearcats 50-28 Saturday night at Ohio Stadium to avoid the team’s first loss to an in-state school in nearly 100 years.
The OSU defensive backfield made an inauspicious start against Cincinnati’s redshirt-sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel. The gunslinger threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Chris Moore on the game’s fourth play.
“The first one they caught on (sophomore safety Vonn Bell),” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said after the game. “Vonn’s gotta be on top of the receiver and he’s gotta make the play. When you do what we do, you’re gonna put yourselves in one-on-one situations and you gotta win those one-on-one battles, and right out of the gate Vonn didn’t win his one-on-one battle.”
The big play was a familiar sight for Buckeye fans. Last season, the OSU defense ranked 112th out of 125 teams in the nation. This off-season OSU coach Urban Meyer hired Ash in an attempt to revamp the unit.
Things settled down on the next two Cincinnati drives as the defense began to gain ground. A shift in momentum peaked on the Bearcats’ third drive when sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa hit Kiel and forced a fumble that was eventually knocked out of the end zone for a safety.
“It got us going. We were a little slow in the beginning but it got us going, definitely,” Bosa said of the play. “I just made a move inside, my eyes got big, I ran as fast as I can and hit him as hard as I could. I actually thought he got the (throw) off so I stood up and went to walk back to the line but I saw the ball pop out. It was exciting.”
The Bearcats were forced into two more punts as redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and the OSU offense racked up the points on their way to a 30-7 advantage.
But when Cincinnati got the ball with 7:07 left in the first half, things began to go wrong again for the OSU defense.
Kiel hit junior wide receiver Johnny Holton on a 19-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 16. Then, after OSU’s first punt of the game, he and Moore connected once again. This time it was an even longer pass play — 83 yards — and the visitors were in the end zone again, cutting the lead to 30-21.
Despite the teams heading to their respective locker rooms during halftime, the positive vibes emanating from the Cincinnati offense remained on the field. After OSU’s first drive of the second half ended in a field goal by freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger, Kiel and Moore were at it again.
On the third play of the drive, Kiel pump-faked, and OSU senior cornerback Doran Grant bit on the move. Moore found himself in open space, and the receiver caught the ball and ran the the rest of the way for a 78-yard score.
“That was on me,” Grant said of the play. “He ran an in-and-out. I had my eyes in the backfield, and that was it.”
The three long scores were uncharacteristic of this year’s defensive unit. Prior to Saturday’s game, OSU had yet to give up a pass play of more than 20 yards. With that statistic out the window, Ash said the coaching staff decided to change the defensive scheme the rest of the game.
“After we gave up a couple big plays we were like, ‘let’s play safe here and try to keep things in front of us,’” Ash said. “That’s what we ended up doing, and obviously the offense took care of the rest.”
Barrett and company got their groove again after Moore’s third touchdown catch, scoring 17 points on their next three drives to extend the lead to 50-28. Meanwhile, the defense’s more conservative approach bore fruit as the Cincinnati offense was forced to punt on their final four drives of the game.
Despite the second half recovery, the Buckeye defense still allowed 352 yards in the air, prompting Meyer to say the team was “back to the drawing board” defensively.
“We’ve got to get that fixed. You can’t play championship football until that gets fixed,” Meyer said.
Things may not get any easier for the pass defense next week. OSU’s next opponent, the Maryland Terrapins, boast an array of receiving talent. Junior wide receiver Stefon Diggs was named to the pre-season Biletnikoff Award watch list. The award is presented to the nation’s top receiver at season’s end.
Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the challenge of facing talented passing offenses every week is simply the norm in today’s football, and that his defense will need to rise to the challenge going forward.
“It’s college football today. It’s the world we live in, and this is what we do and this is what we chose to do, so we’ve got to find a way to continue to get better.”
That improvement is set to be tested on Oct. 4 at noon when the Buckeyes travel to College Park, Md. to face the Terrapins.