Forty-two yards. That’s how much ground Northwestern gained through the air against Ohio State Friday.
That’s less than every team in college football averages in 2019.
Junior quarterback Aidan Smith finished 6-for-20 with an interception as Ohio State’s secondary gave little room for his receivers to breathe, while the Buckeye pass rush came through with five quarterback hurries and a sack. Ohio State’s energy and preparation in the secondary shut the Wildcats down.
“We came out with great energy on defense,” head coach Ryan Day said. “I thought we had an edge to us. You could feel it in warmups.”
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade led the charge with two pass breakups.
No other starter on Ohio State’s secondary broke up or intercepted a pass, but when a team finishes below 50 yards on 29 percent completions, there’s a heavy implication that the secondary did work that didn’t appear on the stat sheet.
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said he felt that the coaches did a great job designing the gameplan, and that the players responded well on the field.
Through seven games, an offense has yet to gather 300 yards against the Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes entered Saturday ranked No. 3 in pass defense, and should only see their stock rise after the contest with Northwestern.
“This is why you take a job here. You take it to have a chance to win every single game,” Hafley said. “It’s been exciting, and yes, I’m having fun. This is the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time.”
Fun feeds into Ohio State’s defensive success. After the impetus placed on simplifying the defense so players could go out and make plays in the offseason, the stats are showing that that approach paid dividends.
“Everybody’s out there playing freely,” redshirt senior cornerback Damon Arnette said. “We’re not worried about giving up a play or making a play, we’re just out there playing football.”
However, there’s a lot of work that occurs before Ohio State can play.
Every team reviews film. Every team trains. Every team works out in the offseason. It’s the extra step beyond that that the coaches are seeing from the Buckeye defenders.
“I did bed-check last night, and just about everybody on that defense was going through their film and watching, looking at the tips and going through things,” Day said. “Very serious group right there with great leadership.”
Hafley said one of the most impressive parts of Ohio State’s secondary was the play of its depth. When the starters were finished, sophomore cornerback Sevyn Banks and junior cornerback Amir Riep each intercepted passes once they got their shot on the field.
“We always have a goal to get a fourth-quarter shutout, and that’s really important to us and to the team,” Hafley said. “You could see the older guys were excited, and the young guys went and did that.”
Northwestern entered Friday with the nation’s No. 123 passing offense. No. 6 Wisconsin, which Ohio State plays next week, is No. 98.
The benefit for the Badgers is that they complement that with the country’s No. 11 ground game, featuring junior running back Jonathan Taylor, who won the 2018 Doak Walker Award as college football’s best running back.
However, if the secondary can turn in a similar performance against Wisconsin as it did against Northwestern, forcing any team to become one-dimensional can prove effective.
“This group is special,” Hafley said. “They have an edge. They play with a chip on their shoulder. It’s fun to be around them.”