Buried in the story of Ohio State’s 52-3 demolition of Northwestern is a drive that encapsulates a major reason why the Buckeyes have gone from No. 72 in total defense in 2018 to No. 2 in 2019.
With Ohio State leading 7-0 in the first quarter, Northwestern came out with a series of quick-hitting runs that moved the ball 40 yards on the ground and set up a 33-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
Northwestern failed to score again after that, the same quick-hitting runs unable to move the team into scoring position for the remainder of the contest. Its offense was the latest victim of a trend among opponents of Ohio State’s defense in 2019 — if something works against it one drive, the Buckeyes make the adjustments necessary to ensure it won’t work again.
“In the run game, I thought [Northwestern] did a really good job,” co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said. “They had some extra time with the bye week. I thought they had some good run plans. I thought we adjusted well.”
Ohio State nearly lost to Maryland, then 5-5, in 2018 after it failed to adjust. Maryland redshirt freshman running back Anthony McFarland broke off two 70-yard-plus touchdown runs on near-identical plays, en route to a 298-yard rushing performance.
It took a 14-point second-half comeback and failed Terrapin two-point conversion in overtime for Ohio State to scratch out a 52-51 win, all because the defense failed to adjust.
This season, Ohio State allows an average of eight points per game — No. 2 in the nation — and allowed touchdowns on back-to-back drives just once this season, with its backups on the field in the fourth quarter against Florida Atlantic.
Miami (Ohio), Nebraska and Michigan State all found temporary success, scoring a touchdown through the quick passing game, a new power option formation and downfield passing, respectively. None of them maintained that success, failing to score another touchdown because of the defense’s ability to adjust.
Against Northwestern specifically, junior defensive end Chase Young said adjusting to what its opponent did on the ground was a matter of staying poised and zoning in on their keys as a unit.
“We had to regroup, refocus, and we had to shut it down,” Young said.
Hafley said the ability to shut an offense down after it finds some success is a product of the communication among himself, defensive backs coach Matt Barnes and graduate assistant Sean Duggan from the press box to co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Al Washington on the field.
“Defensively, it’s calm. We look at what happened. We talk about why,” Hafley said. “We see it pretty well from up there. We’re able to get the answers and make some quick adjustments.”
The communication relayed from box to sideline to player is as good as anywhere Hafley has been, he said. After changes communicated like lightning between drives, the Buckeyes slow successful offensive schemes.
“When they say halftime adjustments, half the time I’m like, ‘If we wait until halftime, we’re gonna get killed,” Hafley said. “Every single series, we have to adjust.”
Ohio State successfully flipped the script against Northwestern’s offense when it found success, as it has with so many others in 2019.
Young said he and his teammates aren’t taking time to celebrate that success, however. Their minds are now fully focused on doing the same Saturday against No. 13 Wisconsin. The Badgers average more yards rushing than any opponent Ohio State has played or will play, with junior running back Jonathan Taylor, a former Heisman Trophy finalist, leading the charge.
“My mind is gonna be immediately set on Wisconsin,” Young said. “I feel like that’s what all the leaders on this team are gonna do. We’re gonna pull the young guys with us.”