Entering 2019, the Ohio State defense had to fix an issue that plagues college students across the nation.
It was having an identity crisis.
The Buckeyes gave up the most yards per game in school history in 2018, allowing multiple 70-yard plays and allowing unranked teams like Nebraska and Maryland to mount 30-, even 50-point games.
Saturday, they shutout Cincinnati.
“When guys know what they’re doing, and they trust what they’re doing, and they do it over and over and over again, they become confident in it,” co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said. “Our players were confident in the technique, the scheme.”
Shutouts in particular are a testament to defensive dominance. Ohio State’s route to a scoreless game wasn’t perfect, requiring two redzone takeaways, but holding an offense returning a 1,300-yard rusher and 2,400-yard passer from 2018 to zero points is no small feat, regardless of circumstances.
“For the staff and for the players, I think it’s special,” Hafley said. “It’s hard to shutout anybody, and I think [Cincinnati]’s a good football team.”
Junior defensive end Chase Young stood out the most on Ohio State’s defense, appearing everywhere with three tackles, 1.5 sacks and a blocked field goal.
He nearly intercepted a tipped ball, too. Head coach Ryan Day said he almost blew out his Achilles tendon in premature celebration.
“I left money on the field today,” Young said. “I had it. I had it.”
He wasn’t the only player pressuring Cincinnati sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Buckeyes combined for five sacks Saturday, including the first career quarterback takedown for sophomore defensive end Tyreke Smith.
On the ground, Cincinnati’s star junior running back Michael Warren exited a 1,300-yard season in 2018 to enter Week 2, 2019 and go for 15 yards on 10 carries against the Buckeyes.
“We were clicking on all cylinders today,” Young said. “The best is yet to come.”
Up and down the stat sheet, Ohio State put forth a group effort to piece together such a performance Saturday.
Nobody in the front seven finished with more than five tackles, despite making enough stops to hold Cincinnati to 107 yards rushing, most of it coming against substitutes. Four and five defenders were swarming to the ball carrier on most plays.
“They played fast and physical for the whole entire game today,” Hafley said.
Redshirt junior linebacker Tuf Borland credits the defensive performance to the unit having “a big chip on our shoulder.”
Hafley gave a ringing endorsement to that sentiment.
“When we turn on the film, you’re gonna see it,” Hafley said. “Our guys are playing with an edge to them right now, and it’s gonna be hard to block them.”
This is Week 2 for the Buckeyes. Finding improvements to make after a shutout can be difficult, but both Young and Borland said they needed to happen, both as individuals and as a team.
It’s frightening to contemplate the possibilities of a defense that performs better than Ohio State’s revitalized unit today.
“I don’t think we’ve touched the surface yet, to be honest with you,” Young said.