Note we didn’t say that was the most satisfactory answer of course. After all, we always want a complicated answer when we see something change so significantly in such a small amount of time, don’t we? But study of the Buckeyes brings one back to this same fact. For all the adjustments of the X's and the O's, it still came down to the Jimmys and the Joes.
In that case, however, there is a natural followup question: Why did the players play better?
From Chris Ash’s perspective it was mostly a matter of time and faith.
“It’s a culmination of an entire year,” said Ash, who was hired in January 2014 as secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator. “We had a system, the guys understood it, the guys believed in it, we had passion in the way we coached in it and we stuck with it.”
The last part is key because there were some rough days early on. After giving up 370 yards rushing to Navy’s triple-option attack, the Buckeyes went into their second game of the season without having really gotten to play their new base 4-3 “quarters” defense against a live opponent using the type of offense it is actually built to stop. The newness show as the Ohio State defense wasn’t bad, giving up only 320 yards, but it wasn’t good enough, either. There were breakdowns at key times, particularly on third down, that let the Hokies keep drives alive and string together enough points to pull a 35-21 upset at Ohio Stadium.
Ash expressed confidence then, however, and continued to do so even after the Buckeyes yielded 352 yards passing to Cincinnati in a 50-28 win two games later. The problems in the two games seemed to be fairly different as the Bearcats scored on a couple of long bombs and the Hokies did more of their damage on short and intermediate passes, but the answer for the coaching staff remained the same in any event.
“We didn’t change because of a loss to Virginia Tech. We didn’t change because of how we played in a particular game the way we wanted to whether it be pass defense ... After the Cincinnati game, I’m sure people wanted to blow up what we were doing in coverage, but we didn’t change anything,” Ash said.
As the season wore on, the pass defense got tighter and tighter, but the run defense began springing leaks in November. No matter, the Buckeyes had a plan.
“We kept doing what we were doing,” Ash said. “There were some games we didn’t stop the run very good. We didn’t change what we were doing. We stayed with it consistently and the players developed because of that.”
And then Ohio State took on three straight top 30 scoring offenses and held them all below their season scoring average. The Buckeyes stonewalled Wisconsin and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Melvin Gordon to get into the first College Football Playoff.
In the second phase of the postseason, Ohio State took on the only two offenses ranked higher than their own in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P+ (an overall measure of consistency and explosiveness similar to OPS in baseball) and held both in check.
Neither performance was perfect, but both were plenty thanks to that Buckeye scoring attack.
In their last three games, the Buckeyes notched eight of their 45 sacks, seven of their 25 interceptions and 19 of their 110 tackles for loss, truly saving the best for last.
The teachings of Ash, coordinator Luke Fickell and fellow defensive staffers Kerry Coombs and Larry Johnson kicked in not a moment too soon.
“The outcome was what happened at the end of the year: We were playing our best football,” Ash said. “I think when you’ve got a strong belief and conviction and how you do things, as long as you’re sound and the players believe in it and you teach it with passion then you’ll have success.”
What’s next? We’ll have more from Ash soon.