COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nearly halfway through the 2016 season, there isn’t a team in the country with a better red-zone defense than the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Despite losing eight starters from last year’s squad, the Buckeyes have put together a supremely talented collection of playmakers that utilize athleticism, cohesion and positional depth to stymie opposing offenses. Ohio State foes have reached the opposing 20-yard line just 12 times in five games and only seven of those have resulted in scores — just three touchdowns and four field goals.
That means that nearly half the time an Ohio State opponent has been 20 or fewer yards from the end zone, the Buckeyes have turned them away with no points. The latest such instance came at a critical juncture of Ohio State’s 38-17 win against Indiana on Saturday. With the Buckeyes holding a 31-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Hoosiers got four cracks at a first down near the goal line and came away empty each time.
“The fourth down, that was the play of the day,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Here’s how and why the Silver Bullets were successful:
Indiana took over at the Ohio State 13 after intercepting J.T. Barrett, and its trip to the red zone should have lasted just one play. On the first snap of the drive, Ohio State defensive end Jalyn Holmes punched the ball out of Devine Redding’s grip and the ball appeared to be recovered by the Buckeyes.
Holmes is a junior who showed glimpses of his potential over the previous two seasons but has really put it all together in 2016. Although the Buckeyes rotate heavily, he’s technically a backup behind fellow defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard. When an athlete who can do that isn’t even one of the two most talented at that position, you know you’re in good shape.
Even though the officiating crew ruled that Indiana recovered the fumble, Holmes’ play is indicative of the talent level, depth and athleticism on the Ohio State defense. It also gave a glimpse into the Buckeyes’ ability to shrug off things that don’t go their way.
“You just have to roll with the punches,” defensive tackle Robert Landers said. “It’s really up to you and the defense on how you’ll handle it. You can sit up and complain about it or you can put your hand in the dirt and go another play.”
With the Hoosiers 2 yards from a first down and 5 from the end zone, second down was a key play for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has yet to allow a rushing touchdown through five games — the only team in the country with that distinction — and here is another example why.
Right when running back Mike Majette received the handoff, it appeared there was a running lane for him. It didn’t last. Hubbard pushed right tackle Brandon Knight into that gap, closing out any chance he has of reaching a hole. Linebacker Chris Worley provides support from that same side to close off any hope Majette had of bouncing back outside.
On third-and-1, Ohio State provided another textbook example of why it’s so good defensively in a confined space. The throw from Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow was a horrible one, and Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker was better positioned to catch it than the tight end he was covering.
He blanketed him from the start and has the athleticism to cover a pass catcher with the same effectiveness of a cornerback. What Indiana probably envisioned as a mismatch was turned on its head, regardless of the fact that Lagow’s throw never had a chance.
Still at the 4-yard line after that incomplete pass, the Hoosiers needed to gain only a yard to get a first down and keep their hopes of winning the game. Instead, they went backward.
This time the stars for Ohio State were freshman Nick Bosa and junior Michael Hill, two more players who have emerged this season. The entire Ohio State defensive line got good push on the Indiana offensive line, calling into question the Hoosiers’ decision to run it up the gut. Given that Redding was given the ball a full six yards behind the line of scrimmage and 7 behind the first-down line, it’s hard to imagine how Indiana thought that might be successful against such a good front.
“That was a big moment for our defense,” Hubbard said. “We’re the only team that hasn’t let up a rushing touchdown and we want to be stout in the red zone. That means a lot to us.”