Ohio State football: New and old tactics combine to reduce penalties on the Buckeyes

Change has been a theme for Ohio State football this year.

It’s only natural as the transition from head coach Urban Meyer to Ryan Day plays out — especially given how many different ways the Buckeyes have looked this fall.

Here’s another: After being one of the worst teams in the country as far as penalties in 2018, they are one of the best so far in 2019.

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The numbers: Ohio State has been called for 4.8 penalties and had 45.9 yards marked off against it per game this season.

Both of those figures are way down from a year ago when the Buckeyes were flagged 8.3 times per game and lost 75.4 yards as a result. Those numbers ranked 124th and 126th, respectively, among Division I teams, and in both cases were the worst for Ohio State since at least 2001.

While Day credited the players for taking more personal responsibility, senior defensive tackle Robert “BB” Landers observed a change Day made in the preseason has had a big impact.

“In the preseason we played a lot more football, so we got to experience the tempo of the game as close as we could get it on a consistent basis,” Landers said.

Scrimmaging more in August also meant the players got to see a greater variety of plays and situations, better preparing them for the real thing.

“So you’ve repped it so many times in live situations — even though it’s in practice — that a lot of it has become more second nature,” Landers said.

On top of that, the veterans have tried to set a good example.

“We’ve held each other accountable, and the younger guys have kind of grabbed on to the older guys and soaked up how it’s supposed to look, how it’s supposed to be done so that’s kudos to all of the older guys on the team,” Landers said. “Then just coach Day’s strategy of letting us play more ball in the offseason, so going into the season the little mistakes we might have or that we’ve had in the past can get nipped in the bud.”

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Day also credited the players for the team ranking 14th in the country in penalties and 31st in penalty yardage.

“We try to stay clean as we can and talk about those kind of things, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the discipline of the team,” Day said. “I think there was a couple chances we had to take a couple blocks at guys, whether it was (Garrett Wilson’s punt return against Wisconsin) or (Pete Werner’s) fumble recovery, and we didn't push somebody in the back, those kind of things.

“How do you coach that kind of stuff? Well, you talk about it at meetings the best you can, you coach it off the film, but it's the players' responsibility to play with discipline, and I think they're doing that right now, so we've just got to keep that rolling.”

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Beyond that, Day revealed he also employed an old-school tactic that will probably be familiar to anyone who played the game from pee-wee on up.

“If guys would jump offsides or the ball would get loose, we'd have them run a lap,” Day said. “It sounds juvenile, but it's real. And we had consequences for that. We continue to still do that.”

On their end, Landers said the players have done some self-policing, too.

“More just critiquing each other’s game as we go along,” the Wayne High School product said. “Now and then with a stupid penalty you might have to snatch a guy up and say, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here. That’s now how this works. This is how it’s gonna go. Tighten up.’”

Although at least five games remain, Ohio State is on pace to have its fewest penalties per game since 2010, the last season of the Jim Tressel era.

That year they also were flagged for 4.8 penalties per game while having 44.6 yards per game marked off. (The latter number is slightly higher than 2011 when Luke Fickell was the interim head coach.)

During the Meyer era, Ohio State averaged 6.5 penalties and 57.4 yards per game, up from 5.5 and 46.1 in Tressel’s 10 seasons.

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