Through nine games in 2017, Ohio State has forced 13 turnovers.
It took five games to reach that milestone last season. Through nine games in 2016, the Buckeyes had forced 14 interceptions alone. They had 18 turnovers total.
Ohio State’s offense was more inconsistent last season, but the ability for the Buckeyes’ defense to regularly force turnovers often aided the offense as is scored seven touchdowns and consistently gave the offense opportune field position.
Forcing turnovers effectively became part of the team’s offense. This season, it has disappeared.
“You know last year, the big thing was, you know, we put an emphasis on that in practice,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said Tuesday. “We probably have a period or so where we focus on taking the ball away multiple times. We’ve done the same thing this year, it just hasn’t happened.”
There was expected to be some drop-off in the number of turnovers Ohio State forced heading into the year. The Buckeyes finished 2016 tied for the 10th-most turnovers in college football with 27, and they lost 15 of those to the NFL draft with safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley being selected in the first round.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said while losing the three key playmakers on defense hurt, he still has faith in the Buckeyes to be able to turn it around and force more turnovers again.
“I don’t think it’s that simple, but I think that’s part of it when you’re talking about three first-round picks,” Schiano said. “But I’m confident we will start to get them. I really am. We’re just not getting them.”
The coaching staff has noticed the inability to force turnovers this season, Schiano said. The Buckeyes have continued to practice different methods to increase their takeaways through practice, but nine games in, the results have not yet shown up on the field.
“I definitely was concerned, not only before the Iowa game, but as the season had progressed, we weren’t getting them the way that I expected and that we expected as a defense,” Schiano said. “We talked about it last week and we actually made a huge emphasis and got more in practice than we got at any point this season.”
Practicing turnovers is not exactly something that is easy to do. Players can practice techniques to force fumbles, learn how to get better reads on quarterbacks, but a degree of error on the other side of the ball is required.
After watching the Buckeyes rack up turnovers last season, Worley said opposing offenses this season have gone into games against Ohio State focused on being overprotective of the football. Worley said ball carriers are holding on tighter to the ball and shielding it better, quarterbacks are quicker to release the ball and less likely to throw it in the direction of a looming safety.
There is only so much the players can do to force turnovers, Worley said, so it has not become as much of a focus for the team this season.
“Honestly, we can’t focus on that,” Worley said. “Because if we start trying to put an emphasis on taking the ball away in a game, you’re not going to get any takeaways. The only thing you’re going to get is missed tackles. So we’ve got to just focus on doing the little things and everything’s going to come.”
Worley might say it is only a matter of time until the Buckeyes start forcing turnovers, but the team could start to need them sooner rather than later. With a matchup against No. 12 Michigan State at noon Saturday that could decide the Big Ten East, Ohio State needs as much to go its way as possible to keep its conference championship hopes alive.
The Buckeyes will not all of a sudden become the ballhawks they were last season. But Schiano said the team will keep practicing different techniques to turn its fortunes around in that area and perhaps the Buckeyes can at least put themselves in better positions to force more turnovers.
“It’s kind of like a batting streak,” Schiano said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and you go through streaks where you’re just getting them and bushels and then sometimes you’re in a lull. We’re doing a lot of the same emphasis drills and a lot of the same emphasis things on video, as much if not more. It’s just not adding up right now. But we keep going, it will come.”