This is the third and final edition of our Ohio State Football Season in Review series. After looking at the historic success of the offense, we turned to the historic failure of the defense. How do the coaches factor in?
What was expected
With Dwayne Haskins directing a new-look offense and the usual stout defense (despite heavy losses to the NFL for a third straight year), the Buckeyes were picked to win the Big Ten East for the seventh time in seven years under head coach Urban Meyer.
Another conference title and a return to the College Football Playoff with a roster that was young but teeming with talent were also penciled in.
At least one site projected Ohio State to be the best team in the country.
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Offensively, the Buckeyes began the season flying high with a fleshed-out passing game built on run-pass options and relying on Haskins’ ability to make every throw.
As the season wore on, though, the running game bogged down, resulting in struggles in short yardage and the red zone that factored heavily into a shocking 49-20 loss at Purdue and lackluster wins in the middle of the season.
Meyer and offensive coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson ultimately found a winning formula that utilized Haskins’ legs just enough to open more running room for the backs and more throws down the field, but their needing more than half a season to do so given they knew Haskins’ skill set from the start is perplexing.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano came under fire from fans all season as a poor performance in the season-opener against Oregon State turned out to be a sign of things to come.
A season-ending injury to star Nick Bosa in week three and nagging injuries to other veteran linemen ruined Schiano’s plan to feature the front while newcomers found their bearings in the back end of the defense.
Reviews of big plays the Buckeyes allowed all-too-frequently often yielded a similar picture: Everyone blocked on the line, a linebacker being out of position or walled off and a safety missing a tackle.
>>RELATED: What went wrong at Purdue?
The Buckeyes were outflanked at times, particularly at Maryland when the Terrapins averaged 8.6 yards per play (most ever by an Ohio State opponent), but more often when they were gashed it was because someone (or someones) wasn’t able to defeat a block, get to the right spot fast enough or make a tackle at the point of attack.
Or they gave up a long pass.
The safeties were too often unable to make tackles down field that would at least prevent 20-yard runs from becoming 70-yard lightning bolts.
The cornerbacks, meanwhile, struggled to defend the ball in the air and frequently were flagged for pass interference when they would be isolated in coverage, a feature of Schiano’s defensive philosophy.
Though the Buckeyes mixed in more zone defense later in the season, the coordinator was slow to adjust. By then the seeds had already been planted for a historically bad harvest on that side of the ball.
Day gets credit for his work with Haskins, as does Tony Alford for another strong year by the running back, Wilson for developing the tight ends and Greg Studrawa for leading the offensive line through its rough patch.
In his first season as a full assistant, Brian Hartline oversaw the most productive receivers group in Ohio State history.
The offense figured out a game plan to take advantage of the personnel, though it was not fully realized until the Michigan game.
On the other side of the ball, defensive line coach Larry Johnson had his group playing great at the end of the season (and probably needed a medical degree to deal with what was happening earlier).
Meyer and Schiano frequently said the linebackers were playing better than they got credit for, but there is still a lot of room for improvement from Bill Davis’ group, who rarely played downhill other than against a Michigan team they knew would be running right at them.
The suspect secondary might have been better if not for almost every member missing a game here or there with an injury, but the fact remains the cornerbacks (Taver Johnson) and the safeties (Alex Grinch) were both under new management that failed to produce positive results.
After Meyer sat out the preseason while his handling of domestic abuse allegations by former assistant coach Zach Smith were investigated, Meyer was suspended for three games for mismanaging Smith’s employment.
The players insisted it was business as usual (aside from Meyer not being around), but it is hard to believe his absence at the beginning did not have anything to do with what turned out to be just a strange season.
The Buckeyes won 12 games, beat Michigan and repeated as Big Ten champs. A Rose Bowl appearance will cap it off next month.
Although any season that includes those accomplishments has to be considered a success, the Buckeyes seemed to play with a certain malaise most of the year.
Whether they were not able to get out from under high expectations or missed Meyer setting the tone in training camp, the Buckeyes rarely played with the vim and vigor Meyer had always said he expected since returning to his home state in 2012.
With Day taking over for the retiring Meyer as head coach, there are a lot of variables.
Who he retains remains to be seen.
Changes seem more likely on the defensive side of the ball given Schiano’s slowness to adjust to his personnel and the struggles of some position groups.
If Haskins goes pro, most of what was developed offensively this year will no longer be useful.
Either way, Day could choose to expand on the adjustments he and Wilson made to Meyer’s spread-option offense this season or making more wholesale changes.