This Week in Ohio State Football: Jim Knowles changes his philosophy

Welcome back to another edition of “This Week in Ohio State Football,” where we attempt to highlight some of the most interesting things being discussed about the Buckeyes — with spin when necessary.

Once again, we are going to look back and put a bow on last Saturday’s game and look ahead to what they are facing this weekend (or farther down the road):

1. Old dog learning new tricks?

Ryan Day made news Tuesday when he declared Kyle McCord is officially Ohio State’s starting quarterback, but that was pretty much expected after he took the lion’s share of the snaps against Indiana and Youngstown State.

So the biggest news overall has to be Jim Knowles confirming he is taking a different approach to calling the defense this season, at least so far.

Specifically, he is looking to call a more conservative game to let the players dictate the action rather than trying to outwit the opposing playcaller..

That comes after Knowles’ first season as defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes saw improvement across the board but was ruined by big plays allowed in the biggest games.

While Knowles has said he can live with allowing a few explosives per game, the Wolverines had nine and the Bulldogs had an astounding 17.

Moreover, Knowles’ saying comes with the caveat most or all of them need to be doubles and triples rather than home runs, and he hopes to generate enough havoc plays (tackles for loss, sacks, turnovers) to offset them.

Michigan had six touchdowns of 45 yards or more. Georgia had one, but it was a 75-yarder that accelerated their comeback in the fourth quarter.

In both games, Ohio State seemed to have control of the game until their opponent managed a quick score, leading to lots of second-guessing since late November.

Knowles himself said in an interview before facing the Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl he might need to worry less about winning every play by making the perfect defensive call, a thought he seems to have confirmed to himself upon studying the season’s results when all was said and done.

“It’s a change,” he said Tuesday. “How much? I don’t know. I try to pride myself on changing over the years because the game changes. Your personnel changes. If I’m honest I can’t say that was on my mind when I came here because the things you do at the previous stop are working so you bring those with you but I was of the mindset of course that I have to see the personnel, I have to see how they handle all the different patterns and the comprehensive nature of the system and then it’s just learning. It’s just trying to grow and do what’s best to win. It’s not what I know. It’s what our players know and what they do best.”

2. Why change course rather than trust his system?

When Knowles coached at Duke and Oklahoma State, he was often at a personnel disadvantage. That increased the need to make things happen and minimized the downside if it didn’t work.

At Ohio State, his collection of four- and five-star talents are more likely to win their individual battles, so opening up the unit to being gashed makes less sense.

“My job is to make sure that we win the game, you know, not get the TFLs,” Knowles said. “And a lot of times I think the best philosophy here is to let the guys play. Keep the points off the board.”

3. Defensive philosophy has been a long, strange trip for Ohio State going on three decades now.

The embarrassment at Michigan in 1995 when Tim Biakbutuka ran for 313 yards brought on the Silver Bullets era of “press” defense that choked the life out of opponents with man to man coverage and eight men in the box.

But the spread offenses of the early 2000s made playing that ultra aggressive style no longer advisable, and Jim Tressel’s defensive coordinators Mark Dantonio and Jim Heacock successfully answered with a zone-blitz style that mimicked somewhat the approach of former Buckeye Dick LeBeau’s great Pittsburgh Steelers defenses.

It was not as popular among fans who longed for those days of locking up guys in man to man and getting after people, but the attempts to return to the latter were a mixed bag at best over the previous 11 seasons.

Knowles doesn’t fit neatly into either box, but he does want to be aggressive — now only when it makes sense, apparently.

4. Establish the run? Well, maybe not.

While Ohio State’s defense is untested (until this week when pass-happy Western Kentucky comes to town), the offense remains a work in progress.

Reviewing the game confirmed the line still has a variety of issues, including penalties, coming off double teams too quickly (or too slowly) and at times questionable technique.

This starting unit should improve with time, but the game at Notre Dame is just two weeks away, and I am not sure it will ever be a group that mauls people like the Woody Hayes or Urban Meyer days.

Scheme might be an issue as Ohio State has looked better using gap runs (with angle blocks and pullers moving people around to clear a path to run) than zone (big dancing bears in a line trying to create a crease), but the Buckeyes continue to try to employ both. Day touted that as a way to put extra stress on a defense, but then again only if it works.

5. How will the Buckeyes move the ball then?

As an old small school offensive lineman myself, I like the idea of establishing the run.

In a perfect world, Ohio State would be able to do that, but it might be that they have to use more short passes in the place of runs. Those aren’t the same thing, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to move the ball (See the Bengals with Joe Burrow… except last week.)

We saw some of this Saturday with more quick stuff to the receivers and involving the running backs in the passing game as well, both things that had a positive effect.

McCord looked comfortable getting the ball out fast, and of course he’s got some of the best weapons in the country both out wide and in the backfield.

6. Can they walk (move the ball through the air) and chew gum (develop a reliable running game) at the same time?

I suppose we’ll find out.

In 2021, Day never seemed to get the running game to a point he trusted it, though at the time I felt like he might not have given it enough of a chance to earn his trust. He has subsequently said about as much when talking about throwing too many passes in the loss to Oregon.

The coach also confirmed he felt that way by spending most of last season trying to run the ball in obvious running situations with big personnel, but it never really came together. We saw more of that against Indiana but not so much against Youngstown State.

What’s next? Well, Day said sometimes the coach has to see things on the field to know what he thinks is true and what he thinks turns out to be false. He also mentioned having to be stubborn about what he wants to see sometimes, so if I had to guess that means he wants to keep working on the running game but might not exactly be able to bring back three yards and a cloud of dust even if he wanted to.

7. When it comes to quarterbacks, there can be only one.

Or can there?

Day gave no indication the coaching staff is thinking of using Devin Brown as a “Wildcat QB,” but it sure is interesting to think about given the short-yardage struggles mentioned above.

The fact they called what are essentially single-wing runs for Brown in each game make it seem somewhat realistic, though of course they would have to have him do more than run when he comes into the game for it to be a viable change-up.

And if Brown were inserted in obvious running situations, the onus would still be on the offensive line to move people, but the quarterback run can make it easier by giving the offense an extra blocker.

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