B1G 40: Can Buckeyes fix silently subpar defense?

B1G 40: Can Buckeyes fix silently subpar defense?
July 2, 2014, 9:15 am
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

Can Ohio State rebuild a silently subpar defense?

The Buckeyes were a win away from playing for a national championship last season. They went undefeated in the regular season for the second straight time under Urban Meyer. They spent practically the entire season in the top four in the AP poll and missed out on a Big Ten title game victory by just 10 points.

All that being said, for an elite team, the Buckeyes’ defense was not good. And it was apparent that Meyer knew it.

Despite having the best offense in the Big Ten, Ohio State ranked just fifth in scoring defense (22.6 points per game) and seventh in total defense (377.4 yards per game). Things got particularly rough for the Buckeyes down the stretch, as they allowed an average of 32.8 points per game over the final five games. That includes the Big Ten title game vs. Michigan State and the Orange Bowl vs. Clemson, two games in which opposing quarterbacks Connor Cook and Tajh Boyd shredded the Buckeye defense.

[B1G 40: What can be expected from Rutgers this season?]

And that was the biggest problem all year: defending the pass. In the Big Ten, only Indiana had a worse pass defense than Ohio State, which allowed 268 yards per game through the air each week.

And though the Buckeyes boasted star defensive players like linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby — a pair of first-round picks in this spring's NFL Draft — things just didn’t go well.

To help remedy this situation, Meyer brought in a pair of new coaches to help retool a defense that he was obviously frustrated with throughout last season. And he went within the Big Ten to do it.

Chris Ash was named defensive backs coach and takes over as co-defensive coordinator alongside Luke Fickell. Ash spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator under Bret Bielema, the first two at Wisconsin and last year at Arkansas. In 2011, Ash’s Badgers ranked fourth in the nation with only 163.6 pass yards allowed per game. In 2012, they ranked near the top of the country in numerous defensive categories, including 15th nationally in total defense with 322.5 yards per game.

"We've competed against a Chris Ash defense before, and I have respect for him as a coach," Meyer said when Ash was hired in January. "I like the fact he has experience in the Big Ten Conference and that he is a great recruiter. He was highly recommended by everyone I spoke to."

[MORE BIG TEN: Welcome to the Big(ger) Ten: Maryland, Rutgers officially join]

Meyer also brought in Larry Johnson to be the Buckeyes’ new defensive line coach. Johnson was an assistant at Penn State for 17 years under Joe Paterno and the head coaches who followed. He was mentioned as a possible candidate to replace the departed Bill O’Brien before James Franklin was hired this offseason. When Franklin got the job, Johnson headed to Columbus. The Nittany Lions' defensive line succeeded for years under Johnson, and Meyer & Co. are hoping he can do the same with the Buckeyes.

Ohio State figures to be a contender for the conference title and more yet again, and an improved defense would go a long way in accompanying Heisman-candidate quarterback Braxton Miller to a spot in the College Football Playoff. Again, the Buckeyes figure to have plenty of defensive stars, particularly along the defensive line. Defensive end Noah Spence was an All-Big Ten first team selection last season. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was on the second team. And defensive end Joey Bosa made an impact, too. The three of them combined for 22.5 sacks last year, and all are back this season.

But a crop of talented defensive playmakers didn’t help much last season. The real key is Ash and whether he can fix things in a secondary that was gashed several times a year ago. If he can, there might not be much that can stop the Buckeyes in 2014.