Best In America.
That's the moniker that the proud Buckeyes secondary coined for themselves several years ago when there was a debate which Power 5 program is truly "D-B-U", for the best group of defensive backs in the country.
It goes without saying that this year's pass defense didn't exactly live up their expectations and the issues that had happened throughout the season manifested themselves in a major way on Monday night.
While the goal is to win games and the Buckeyes lost only to Alabama in the national championship, the pass defense was an issue all year long. It finished the year ranked No. 122 in college football.
Trevor Lawrence threw for 400 yards against the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl, even though the game was never really in jeopardy. However, Mac Jones torched Ohio State through the air. It was the third time in the last five games the Silver Bullets had surrendered at least 400 passing yards.
Jones got the ball out of his hands quickly on the vast majority of his throws. He didn't have to go through many progressions. The offensive gameplan from Steve Sarkisian was masterful: a perfect example of this was on the 44-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith, when linebacker Tuf Borland was in a 1-on-1 with the Heisman winner. The idea of Smith being healthy enough to play in the second half is a total nightmare ... who knows how many yards he could've racked up.
But this is what the Crimson Tide did all season: Alabama came into Monday's game as the nation’s leader in completion percentage (75.8), and they completed 80 percent on Monday (36-of-45); Ohio State was 93rd in completion percentage defense (63.8). Alabama finished the year 324-of-425 (76.2), just shy of the NCAA record of 76.7 by Texas in 2008.
“When you’re playing against elite players — and this is probably one of the better offenses in college football in a long time — the margin for error is tiny," Ryan Day said after Monday's loss. "I think it’s probably more the execution. I thought at least in the first half we did a decent job against the run game. A huge emphasis point was we had to stop the run, and they’re very well balanced, so that’s a challenge when you go against a team like this. But clearly we didn’t hold up well enough in the pass game.”
So the challenge becomes how to fix it. And that means all eyes are on co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs.
Kerry is one of the most likable coaches I've ever covered and he's deeply admired for his recruiting ability. He's done well as a position coach working with some incredibly talented players, before leaving to go work with Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans for a couple years.
The defensive issues this year bring back memories of 2018, when Greg Schiano's defense really struggled in a similar fashion. The pass defense two years ago was a liability and ultimately cost them a chance to play in the CFP because of a brutal loss at Purdue.
But Jeff Hafley came in and did an amazing job with the defense last year. Ohio State's 2019 defense was much improved, largely with the same personnel. Schiano's defense ran a 2-high safety look in 2018, while Hafley went to a single-high safety in 2019. Generating the kind of pass rush they had in 2019 also helped the secondary, but last year's group was remarkable.
Can Coombs fix the issues that Ohio State had this year? I'd like to believe that he can. The personnel next year will likely not change much. With Shaun Wade expected to turn pro, Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown (post-injury) and Marcus Williamson are all expected to return. Josh Proctor will likely be the starting safety. After that, there are a host of first and second-year players that will battle for playing time, including six incoming freshmen defensive backs that are all highly-recruited and very athletic. Jakailin Johnson and Jordan Hancock (No. 1 nickel corner in the nation) are the two most likely to compete for time at corner, but Denzel Burke could see the field as well.
No matter what the answer is, Ohio State got a major dose of reality on Monday night: if you want to win a national championship, you have to have a defense that's capable of stopping some of the best offensive talent in the country. Alabama isn't going anywhere and many in Tuscaloosa think that Bryce Young will be an upgrade from Mac Jones at quarterback. That's a scary thought and one that provides immediate attention for Ohio State in its quest to get back on college football's mountain top.
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