The Ohio State defense in numerical terms: Despite little sparkle, Buckeyes still smother

The thing is, Ohio State has been one of the stoutest teams in college football on the side of the ball most associated with toughness: defense. Archrival Michigan gets hailed as a boa constrictor on nearly every broadcast this season, but that name might be more apt for the way Jim Knowles’ unit gets things done: Ohio State’s defense doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, nor does it have the most sacks in college football. It simply doesn’t let its opponents move the ball at all.

While “underrated” is a loaded word to describe the unit — the Buckeyes are the No. 3 team in the country after all — there doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgement that with the Buckeyes offense outside of the top 30 FBS teams in scoring, Ohio State has succeeded in a different way this year.

The Buckeyes held Notre Dame (17th in the nation by scoring offense) to 14 points. They held Penn State (tied for ninth) to 12. They didn’t force a turnover in either of those games. They just bled the Fighting Irish and Nittany Lions out over the course of the game.

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Here’s a closer, by-the-numbers look at Ohio State’s defensive excellence in 2023:

Ohio State defense numbers to know

Total defense: 260.1 yards per game

The Ohio State defense is giving up 260.1 yards per game this year, good for fifth in college football behind only Penn State, Air Force, Michigan and Ohio.

It allowed 240 yards to the Nittany Lions, Penn State’s first time with fewer than 350 yards this year. James Franklin’s unit went at abysmal 1 for 16 on third down, the worst third-down conversion rate for a team with a minimum of 15 attempts in the last 10 years, per ESPN stats.

Against Notre Dame, the defense seized its opportunities: Ohio State did allow 351 yards and the Fighting Irish went 5 for 10 on third down. But a fourth-and-1 stop on Notre Dame’s first series of the game after a 14-play drive set the tone. Notre Dame scored two touchdowns on long, grinding drives in the second half.

If there’s a blueprint to beat Ohio State, that might be it. But few teams have the personnel to pull that off, and only one team has running back Audric Estime, a key part of Notre Dame’s success staying on schedule in that game. Though he rushed for just 70 yards, he finished averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

That’s the crux of what makes the Buckeyes defense so good: It knocks teams off schedule. And when teams fall behind the sticks, the Ohio State defense is able to strike.

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Scoring defense: 10 points per game

In addition to stifling yardage, Ohio State is giving up just 10 points per game, third in the country behind Michigan and Penn State. That is even more impressive when taking into consideration Ohio State’s resume, which includes two top-10 victories.

Teams have an extremely difficult time going forward against the Buckeyes once they are forced to pass. It’s no secret pass-rushers love a reason to pin their ears back and get pressure.

Turnovers forced: 7

This is where Ohio State is surprisingly pedestrian.

With just seven turnovers forced this season (two fumble recoveries and five interceptions), the Buckeyes are tied for 104th in the country. In a sport where big plays and quick-change situations reign supreme, Ohio State is doing things the old fashioned way: force teams off the field and let the offense do its work instead.

Midseason All-America selection Denzel Burke has one interception on the year, although that’s largely because teams avoid targeting him altogether. And when Burke didn’t play against Penn State, freshman Jermaine Mathews Jr. played a solid game in his stead.

The Buckeyes are 16th in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage, allowing first downs on just 30.2% of attempts. Even if they aren’t making the biggest plays, they’re making the important ones.

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Quarterback pressure rate: 36%

The idea Ohio State isn’t generating pressure is a bit of a misconception around the Buckeye defense.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Ohio State — despite having logged just 14 sacks so far this year — has a pressure rate of 36%. Furthermore, it has a 33.3% pressure rate with four or fewer rushers, allowing its outstanding secondary to shine on the back end.

In other words, Ohio State doesn’t have to compromise the back end to get pressure. Its line can handle that well enough on its own.

This is a different Ohio State team than the college football world is used to seeing in recent years. While individual defenders standing out and starring is nothing new, seeing the unit play this well is a change of pace. Not only that, the Buckeyes have also stood up in front of their two toughest tests this year and held them to a combined 26 points.

“They now have confidence that they can win the game on defense,” Knowles said of his defense, per ESPN. “I don’t look at stats but I guess Penn State had a pretty good defense, so we talked to them before the game: ‘Hey, you’re not just playing Penn State’s offense. You’re playing Penn State’s defense. If they make one play, we’ve got to make two. If they made two, we got to make three.’ So it’s a sense of maturity, leadership, maybe a little chip on the shoulder.”

“Pretty good” is selling the Penn State defense short, by a longshot. The thing is, it also understates Ohio State’s as well. The Buckeyes’ were the better unit on Saturday. Penn State held out for a while itself.

But in the end, the Buckeyes held out longer. That’s where toughness starts to make a difference.

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