COLUMBUS — Jim Knowles was hired a year ago to make Ohio State’s defense better.
He did that, but not to a large enough degree for the Buckeyes to achieve their team goals.
Although they allowed about 51 fewer yards and 1.7 fewer points per game, the Buckeyes lost their two most important games of the season and failed to win the Big Ten for a second year in a row.
Unlike 2021, the 2022 Ohio State team made the College Football Playoff, but the 42-41 semifinal loss to No. 1 Georgia ended up being a microcosm of the season for the defense as the offense had one of its best showings, especially considering the opponent.
There were signs of improvement from Knowles’ unit, but ultimately not enough to make a significant difference in the bottom line.
“The adjustments we made, the things we did in the third quarter show me and can show our guys that we can have a defense that wins the national championship,” Knowles said Wednesday in his first press conference since the Peach Bowl.
“It’s just so valuable because it’s the best competition in the country, you know what I mean? So you’re not speculating anymore. You can actually say, ‘Hey, look: Here’s how this held up, good and bad against the best competition in the country.’”
The Bulldogs finished with 533 total yards. Only 32 came in the third quarter after a 300-plus yard first half, but they tacked on 187 in the fourth quarter.
Most importantly, the defending and eventual national champions outscored the Buckeyes 18-3 in the final stanza, and big plays were the biggest problem for Ohio State that night.
Georgia had 17 of them, including a 76-yard touchdown pass that accelerated their comeback in the middle of the fourth quarter when time was starting to become a factor.
That play and several like it Michigan managed against the Buckeyes figure to be the most indelible reminders of the season for the Ohio State defense.
Not only were they the difference in wins and losses, they also called into question whether or not the defense improved or even got worse in the transition from Kerry Coombs to Knowles, who was hired away from Oklahoma State at a rate of $1.9 million per year.
While the traditional numbers don’t show a major difference between Ohio State’s 2021 and ‘22 defenses, advanced stats show a clear picture.
The Buckeyes improved significantly on a play to play basis under Knowles, but they got worse when it comes to preventing the big one.
Ohio State’s defensive success rate, which measures each play by the percentage of yards to go for a first down the offense gained, improved from 43.4 last year to 35.7 this season, ranking eighth in the country according to CollegeFootballData.com.
But opponent explosiveness, which measures the percentage of available yards gained on any successful play, increased from 1.27 to 1.4, a figure ranking 123rd out of 131 teams.
This trend held up on standard downs, where the Buckeyes were ninth in success rate and 112th in explosiveness, and on passing downs, where they ranked 14th and 129th.
It was also evident in comparing how Ohio State stopped the run (seventh in success rate/114th in explosiveness) and the pass (27th/117th).
As he did in the locker room after the Georgia game, Knowles took the blame for the unit’s shortcomings.
“Anytime a play goes bad, I always want to critique myself on the call on that play in that situation,” Knowles said. “You know, if I had it back, blah, blah, blah, what would I do? Those are the things that keep keep me up.”
He expressed satisfaction with the scheme overall, saying about two thirds of it has been installed so far and that is more than he managed to put in during his first season at previous stops.
“So now that I have a year under a belt, my job is to say, ‘OK, with the guys, we have coming back, what do they do best?’ You know, and talk about those things,” Knowles said. “It’s not what I know, but it’s what they do best.”
A season’s worth of learning the scheme and film from which to teach its finer points should help, but Knowles said he also hopes to capitalize on just knowing the players better.
And that is a two-way street.
While he spent the last 12 months learning what his players can and can’t do, he also hopes to have built enough trust to get them to buy into what he asks them to do next.
“Really it’s just about the technique, and now that I’m coming into year two, I’ve got to be even more demanding and put on more steam with the players individually on the preciseness of the technique,” Knowles said. “And I’ve got to really bear down. I mean you’re coming in the first year, and you want to make sure that you make that connection with everybody. And now’s the time for me to use it. I need to use that connection and hone down on those techniques.”
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