Confidence Lifts Ohio State Defense in Advance of Penn State
It's the photograph that defines the frustration Ohio State's defense lived throughout the 2018 season, and although it doesn't hang in the locker room as a reminder, it's burned into the mind of cornerback Shaun Wade.
He can still see himself and teammates Jordan Fuller and Sevyn Banks giving futile chase as Penn State's K.J. Hamler sped away for a 93-yard, catch-and-run touchdown in OSU's eventual 27-26 victory last year at Beaver Stadium.
"It's definitely still in my head," Wade said after Ohio State's 56-21 victory Saturday at Rutgers. "I try not to think about it."
Maybe he isn't thinking about it now, or won't be by Saturday, when the second-ranked Buckeyes play host to the No. 8 Nittany Lions in a noon kickoff (Fox-TV).
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley didn't like hearing of Wade's preoccupation with the Hamler TD.
"I'll make sure he's not thinking about it any more," Hafley said.
The more he talked about the key to OSU's defensive turnaround this season, the more the reason for Hafley's aversion to Wade's recollection surfaced.
The search for answers on how Ohio State, with almost exactly the same personnel, has reduced its defensive yardage allowance from 404 yards per-game last year to 216.4 yards per-game this year, and how its points allowed per-game have declined from 25.5 in 2018 to 9.8 has been elusive.
OSU's coaches have been loathe to highlight a scheme change, because that reflects poorly on former head coach Urban Meyer and former defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
The current staff members would sooner paint their garage doors maize and blue than break the brotherhood by criticizing colleagues, particularly Meyer, who's still a fixture in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center during the week.
Hafley is the first connected with the current staff to give a plausible explanation for the improvement apart from the obvious change from man-heavy pass coverage to zone schemes that create more opportunities for more players to be around the ball.
Besides that, the other tangible difference is confidence, a restoration of the lost belief Wade and his teammates progressively experienced throughout last season as opponent after opponent gashed them for big plays.
Hamler's near-length-of-the-field TD was just one of eight Penn State plays that gained 20 yards or more in its one-point loss to Ohio State last season.
That's as many such gains as Buckeyes have surrendered in games this season against the three best teams they've played -- Michigan State, Wisconsin and Cincinnati.
"I watched the personnel last year, but I don't want to draw any comparisons to that," Hafley said. "How have we done it this year? One, we've gotten the guys to buy in. Our staff has done a really, really good job of teaching the scheme.
"But more importantly, more than anything else there is in football, it's fundamentals and technique. I say that because I think that's lost today in football.
"I've said this before. People say, 'I'm going to draw this blitz up and this coverage up and I'm going to do this and this and this.'...If you have to spend all your time doing that, then how do you teach getting off blocks? How do you teach leverage? How do you teach the proper steps? How do you teach tackling?
"How do you teach all the little things that are so much more important than scheme? That's what we've done."
Asked to account for the scheme change, sharpening technique and rebuilding players' confidence has played into OSU's overall defensive improvement, Hafley credited the players' belief, in the coaches and in themselves.
"It's hard to put a percentage on that," Hafley said. "I'd put the biggest percentage on the players buying in...(that confidence) is huge, it's everything. You see it day by day. If a guy plays well, the way he comes out and practices the next day, he practices better. In life, anything is confidence.
"...They developed a confidence in themselves. If you watch us, I hope you see a confident group, because you have to play this game confident.
Hafley's preoccupation with bolstering that confidence is so staunch he feigns ignorance when asked what Wade did wrong on the Hamler play that still haunts him.
"I haven't seen the play and I really don't care to see the play," Hafley said. "Where was his help? Where was the pass rush? Was it totally his fault? You can never blame just one guy or one person."
Hafley likely knows the answers to those questions, because it's inconceivable he hasn't seen that play and every other play involving the Buckeyes last year. He acknowledges he did a self-scout of the personnel before spring practice, to better understand the talent at his disposal.
Unless the film he watched came with an alert: "Warning...touchdown coming on the next play. DON'T WATCH," you know Hafley has seen the Hamler getaway.
He likely just doesn't want to discuss it because, why plant that seed or bury in deeper in Wade's mind?
"When those scars happen, hopefully you learn from them," Hafley said. "We all have them. Darelle Revis got beat for touchdowns, and the next guy is going to get beat for touchdowns.
"...Playing corner is about the next play. Whether you were good or bad on the last one, he can’t think like that, and I’ll make sure he doesn’t think like that."
Wade's mind was certainly uncluttered last week at Rutgers, where he tipped a pass to himself on the second play of the game and registered his first interception of the season.
Two plays after OSU turned that into points, he forced a fumble that also led to a TD.
Those turnovers lent credence to the belief that Wade, just a redshirt sophomore, has played his way into the top two rounds of the NFL Draft in April.
Ohio State's schedule, with Michigan to close the regular season and the Big Ten title game and College Football Playoffs beyond, affords him the chance to elevate even more in coming weeks.
First, though, there's the rematch with Hamler, who is expected to play for Penn State after leaving its win over Indiana last week with a possible concussion.
“I think Shaun’s a new player," Hafley said. "I think he’s a better player, and I think he’ll be ready this time."
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