PHOENIX - For many years under Jim Tressel, Ohio State always seemed to hang its hat on defense. When Urban Meyer arrived however, the script immediately seemed to flip.
That flip however cost the Buckeyes a chance at a national title in 2013 when Ohio State was torched in the Big Ten title game by Michigan State's Connor Cook, who threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-24 win over OSU. The Buckeyes were then sent to the Orange Bowl, where Clemson did much of the same to Ohio State. Tiger wide receiver Sammy Watkins set Orange Bowl records with 16 receptions for 227 yards and two scores in a 40-35 win over the Buckeyes.
Many of Watkins' yards came the catch, as Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd completed many of his passes on bubble and tunnel screens. It was after that game that Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said Urban Meyer met with the coaching staff and said a change needed to be made.
"We were not a very good defensive team at that point in time," Coombs said at Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl media day Dec. 29. "Coach Meyer came in and met with us afterward and said, 'We are going to blow this thing up and we are going to make some changes.'
"We made dramatic changes and we would like to think that we are (currently) on-body coverage most of the time. We are going to challenge most throws and that is in partial to who we are and what we do. I think that has been a huge part of the maturation and change in our defense over the last couple of years."
Since making the changes on defense and playing more press-man coverage, the Ohio State defense has improved immensely on the stat sheet. Since 2014, the Buckeyes have shown improvement each season statistically in pass coverage. During their championship season, OSU ranked 39th in pass defense (201.1 pass yards per game). A season ago, the Buckeyes ranked 16th (184.5 ypg) and this season rank fifth in the country, allowing just 164.5 pass yards per game.
Much like the national title season in 2014, Ohio State must go through one of the top wide receivers in the country to get to the championship game. In the 2015 Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes went up against Alabama's Amari Cooper and while Cooper caught two touchdown passes in that game, Ohio State was able to limit the big play.
This season, the Buckeyes are set to go up against Clemson's Mike Williams, who is thought by many to be the top draft eligible wide receiver in college football. Ohio State's top cornerback Gareon Conley is likely to line up across from Williams for most of the game during the Fiesta Bowl and Coombs said Conley is preparing for that matchup with plenty of extra work.
"Gareon texted me last night at 7 o'clock that he was going down to watch film. We had to do a Fiesta Bowl function, and he was not out at the mall or wherever kids go, he was watching film," Coombs said. "He is preparing. He has been a pro from the day he walked on campus and his skill set continues to evolve but that is true for all of the guys in our room, Marshon (Lattimore) and Denzel (Ward) as well.
"The challenge of the receivers that we are going to play is phenomenal. We have to be at the top of our game and our preparation has been intense for this game."
Conley was a redshirt freshman when Ohio State last matched up with Clemson, and while he did not play that season he was still a part of the transformation defensively for the Buckeyes. He said that the press-man coverage has allowed the OSU corners to play more physical, something he believes has made them more successful.
"When you have corners that can press, you can do a lot of stuff with the defense," Conley said. "It helps us out because we are up closer and it helps us get our hands on people, and we are good when we get our hands on people."
Unlike the 2014 Orange Bowl in which the Ohio State corners played primarily 5-10 yards off the line of scrimmage, the current Buckeye corners largely line up directly on the line of scrimmage and dare opposing receivers to break their press off the ball. Conley said he prefers the press-man defense because it plays into Ohio State's corners skill sets.
In addition, Conley said the press-man defense usually eliminates the quick wide receiver screens that Clemson had so much success with three years ago against Ohio State.
"It takes away the easy tunnel screens and bubble screens and once you get press-man, they are going to take shots downfield," Conley said. "Our coaches are confident that we will do a good job (covering) that."