“We completely have blown up and started from scratch, an area that we were not very strong in, pass defense,” head coach Urban Meyer said at Big Ten media days in July. “And (co-defensive coordinator) Chris Ash has done an admirable job of installing a brand-new pass defense that we're going to test and see how it goes during training camp.”
While there have been hiccups in the new, aggressive scheme that Ash brought with him when he was hired in the offseason, there is little doubt that the pass defense has been better this season.
Last year, the Buckeyes were repeatedly burned through the air. In the first Big Ten game of 2013 Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis torched the Ohio State secondary for 207 receiving yards and in the final conference game Michigan put up 451 yards through the air. Everything caught up to the Buckeyes in the post season as Michigan State threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins solidified himself as a top 5 NFL pick with 227 yards and two touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.
The Buckeyes allowed 268 yards passing per game in 2013, but with Ash and his new scheme they’ve held teams to under 190 yards per game through the air in 2014.
The scheme came under fire early in the season when Ohio State allowed Cincinnati’s Chris Moore to haul in 221 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Since then, the Buckeyes have righted the ship as they’ve held teams less than 200 yards passing per game in the nine games since that contest. The one strong performance in that span came from Michigan State’s Connor Cook, but his 358 yards through the air came on 45 attempts.
That game in East Lansing showed that the Buckeyes were close to executing Ash’s scheme.
“Disappointed with the total number of yards that they got at the end, but some of the pass breakups, specifically in the first half that we were getting, we were playing some pretty tight man to man with some pressure and we weren't necessarily getting there with pressure but we were playing tight with our coverage and we got some PBUs, would have liked to have a couple of takeaways in there,” Ash said following the Michigan State win.
“But I thought throughout the course of the game, especially in the second and third quarter, we were playing pretty good pass defense, tight coverage, got our hands on balls, making them throw in the tight windows. That's what we want to be able to do consistently. We just didn't do it for four quarters.”
While the total yardage in that game was a disappointment to Ash, the Buckeyes did hold Spartans’ receiver Tony Lippett to just 64 yards on five catches with no touchdowns. Lippett is by far the best statistical receiver that Ohio State faced this season, but that changes in a big way against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1.
Amari Cooper is the nation’s second leading receiver with 1,656 yards on a SEC single-season record 115 catches. He’s third in the country in receiving touchdowns with 14 and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“He is a freak,” Ash said. “He's big, he's fast, he has great ball skills. He's got good body control when he's going up to catch balls in the air. There's not many things he doesn't do excellent.
“He's a great player. They have a quarterback who can get him the ball. If he has a big day it's going to be a long day for us."
Cooper will be by far the biggest challenge for the Buckeyes new scheme. Like he did with Lippett, senior cornerback Doran Grant is expected to shadow the Crimson Tide junior.
Cooper has been held under 80 yards receiving just twice this season, racking up 14.4 yards per catch, meaning Grant will have to at his best.
"At (defensive back), the best players are the ones who consistently do their job and are consistently in the right spots and when they do that, the plays will come,” Ash said. “(Grant's) made a ton of interceptions this year in timely situations that have helped us win games. He's been a good tackler. He's been a good leader. He's doing a good job.”
Defending Cooper is not going to fall entirely on Grant, but on the scheme of Ash and fellow defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. The new scheme has propelled the Buckeyes into the No. 17 spot in pass defense nationally this season, a far cry from their 112th ranking a year ago. Even adjusting for different offensive schemes the Buckeyes are worlds better this season, allowing 5.8 yards per pass attempt this season (tied for seventh in the country) compared to 7.0 per attempt in 2013 (57th).
Still, the greatest test looms. Against Alabama and Cooper the Buckeyes have a chance to prove beyond any doubt that the revamped pass defense has been well-worth the offseason overhaul.
“I know he’s a great receiver, a very polished receiver,” Grant said. “He has big-play ability. I’m looking forward to the matchup honestly. I’m not sure how we’re going to handle everything, but I’m looking forward to going up against a great team period.”