Week after week, Ohio State’s defense has struggled with issues down the field, giving up a handful of big plays that allowed the opposing teams to gain momentum.
On Saturday, the No. 3 Buckeyes came out with a 30-14 victory, a score that makes Ohio State’s defensive performance look improved.
But the defense looked anything but improved.
Facing a Minnesota team Ohio State was expected to beat handily, the Buckeyes’ defense struggled in every facet against an offense that ranked in the bottom 50 of the NCAA in every major statistical category, except giving up points.
The Golden Gophers’ stats don’t jump off the page — Minnesota had 396 total yards, 218 passing and 178 rushing — but the way they earned those numbers does.
Minnesota ran 20 fewer plays than Ohio State, but strung together long drives with plays that consistently found the Buckeye defense out of sorts, including various straight-forward runs and slant routes that attacked the middle of the field.
Minnesota averaged 7.1 yards per play to Ohio State’s 6.6, including 5.4 yards per rush to the Buckeyes’ 2.9.
“I was disappointed in the run,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “We’re a team that challenges every throw, and when you get beat, that’s a problem. So that’s something that’s not a strength right now.”
Minnesota redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim was the bulk of the problems for Ohio State, rushing for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
Through the air, freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad completed 13-of-23 passes for 218 yards and two interceptions, one in the first and one in the fourth quarter, both on ill-advised throws that worked for Indiana against the Buckeyes a week ago.
In that sense, Ohio State adapted. In another, Ohio State regressed, failing to cover simple slant routes up the middle for the majority of the game, most of which went to junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who finished the game with 119 yards on eight catches.
“Their back had 160 yards rushing against us, and that’s not acceptable. And, like you said, he was only 13 of 23, but I see the same thing, those slants,” Meyer said. “The strength is that they came out and shut them out in the second half … and the best thing is we created some turnovers, and that was the difference in the game.”
Ohio State did hold Minnesota scoreless in the second half, with the help of two missed field goals by redshirt senior kicker Emmit Carpenter. The defense, even without allowing a point, consistently allowed Minnesota to drive and get into scoring range, but the Golden Gophers could not capitalize.
Sophomore linebacker Pete Werner knew there was still places to improve, even after a scoreless final two quarters.
“Although they did score zero points in the second half, we did miss a lot of things, missed our keys on a few plays,” Werner said. “I mean yeah, they had zero points, but we gotta learn from that.”
The Ohio State defense has failed to prove itself in recent games, but it is also not entirely at fault.
With the continued loss of junior defensive end Nick Bosa against TCU, the Buckeyes lost four other starters on the defensive side for the Minnesota matchup. Junior linebacker Malik Harrison and junior defensive end Jonathon Cooper missed the entire game, while redshirt junior cornerback Damon Arnette and redshirt junior defensive tackle Robert Landers left the game with injuries.
Meyer is still positive about the group he is putting on the field.
“I have great confidence still,” Meyer said. “Everybody’s dealing with it, but it’s a fact, and we have to play better.”
Ohio State may continue to struggle in areas of the field, but the team also continues to do something else: win. Meyer said above all, even with defensive problems to fix, the Buckeyes’ perfect record is the most important thing to remember.
“Not many teams are 7-0,” Meyer said. “I learned a long, long time ago … enjoy every win.”