Western Kentucky presents unique challenge for Ohio State

COLUMBUS — Worlds collide this week when Jim Knowles meets up with a Western Kentucky team that should remind him a lot of opponents from his past.

“Absolutely,” said Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, who spent four seasons at Oklahoma State before coming to Columbus last year. “They’re very similar to a Big 12-type of offense. They’ll throw the ball down the field. They’ll get you running on the perimeter trying to tire out your defensive linemen, get you moving sideways in order to then go up top and create eye violations. So yeah, it’s similar.”

After two weeks of focusing on Ohio State’s offensive direction with a new starting quarterback, the defense figures to be under the microscope this week.

Here are five things to know about the game:

1. The Hilltoppers will test the Buckeyes’ defense from front to back.

Quarterback Austin Reed led the nation in passing yards last season and he’s off to a strong start (589 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions) through two games. Reed has a group of weapons that includes star slot Malachi Corely (101 receptions last season) and former Buckeye Blue Smith, a wide receiver who graduated from Wayne High School and also played at the University of Cincinnati. Smith has eight catches, including a TD reception, through two games.

“You have to be able to keep the ball in front of you,” said Knowles, who called Reed a “smooth operator” who understands what opposing defenses are trying to do. “You’ve got to be able to do what I call a smart swarm. You’ve got to be able to chase with with proper leverage. You can’t just chase randomly on the screens. Everybody’s got to be at the right place.”

2. Knowles is taking a different approach this season.

He built a reputation for “playing offense on defense” while building the Cowboys defense into one of the best in the country, but Knowles said this week he might not need to take as many chances with higher caliber athletes filling out his unit.

“I think if you live in that world against teams where you have a skill advantage, it can look really nice, but when you get into the matchup games, you know, I found that it can hurt you,” he said. “So you need to be able to adjust.”

3. Ohio State could use a big game from its defensive ends.

Three Buckeyes have sacks this season, and none of them play end.

While that has raised concerns among fans, Knowles said Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimolau are doing their jobs in his scheme, which calls for the front to absorb blockers to free up the linebackers to roam around and clean up.

That takes some starch out of the pass rush on early downs, and Ohio State’s first two opponents limited the number of times they asked their quarterback to drop back and survey the field for more than 2-3 seconds before getting rid of the ball.

“They will throw more than our first two opponents,” Day said. “It will be a big challenge for our defensive ends and our defense.

“Everything starts up front on both sides of the ball. (Defensive line coach Larry Johnson) takes a lot of pride in getting pressure on the ball. This will be a good opportunity to do that this week. They have a good scheme and a good quarterback.”

4. The Ohio State offense might benefit from more opportunities, too.

The Buckeyes have put up pedestrian numbers offensively through two games for a combination of reasons.

Lack of execution has shortened some possessions, but they have also had fewer possessions because of changes to the clock rules and opponent strategy designed to keep the clock running.

With the Hilltoppers expected to press the issue, Ohio State should get more possessions and more chances to get into a groove and light up the scoreboard.

5. It’s Kyle McCord’s show now.

Day declared the junior from Philadelphia St. Joseph’s his full-time No. 1 quarterback this week and hopes that status and the experience of starting the past two games will add up to improved performance.

“First off, it gives Kyle peace of mind knowing that he’s the starter and deserves that opportunity,” Day said. “He’ll get more of the reps than he has the last couple of weeks, and I think it’s good for the team to know Kyle is the starter.”

Junior receiver Emeka Egbuka said the players approve.

“I have an idea of how good he can be,” Egbuka said without going into too much detail. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some pretty impressive accolades this season.”

He also confirmed getting more practice reps with McCord could help the passing game develop further.

“You’d be surprised at the limited amount of reps that you do get in a week,” he said. “You might not get every look (from the defense) you want every single time.”


Western Kentucky at Ohio State, 4 p.m., Fox, 1410

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