COLUMBUS — The bright lights in the playoff always expose the truth for Ohio State.
Deep down, the Buckeyes already knew it anyway. It wasn’t like it was just an off night in the national championship, and the same problems that had existed throughout the season meant there was almost no chance the defense was going to hold up for any length of time against record-setting, rampaging Alabama.
Maybe nobody was going to stop the Crimson Tide offense this season no matter what. But that won’t really give Ohio State much solace since it was just the latest passing attack to roll up 400 yards through the air against it, the third opponent in the last five games to do so against one of the proudest units in college football.
Best in America? Not when the pass defense ranks No. 122 in the nation.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t change what we do, just fundamentally, but we also had to have some change-ups because if you just sit there, they’re going to pick you apart,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said after the 52-24 loss on Monday. “I think it goes back to: It’s one thing to have some ideas, it’s another thing to execute them. We didn’t do that well enough. There was just obviously way too many big plays, and then on offense we couldn’t go score for score with them, and then the game gets out of hand.
“When you’re playing against elite players — and this is probably one of the better offenses in college football in a long time — the margin for error is tiny. I think it’s probably more the execution. I thought at least in the first half we did a decent job against the run game. A huge emphasis point was we had to stop the run, and they’re very well balanced, so that’s a challenge when you go against a team like this. But clearly we didn’t hold up well enough in the pass game.”
So, where do the Buckeyes go from here to fix that glaring issue?
Blowout losses in high-stakes games have been turning points for the program in the past, most notably the shutout loss to Clemson in the 2016 semifinal that prompted offensive changes and opened the door for Ryan Day’s arrival in the first place. And even though there are dozens of ready-made excuses for why Ohio State might have struggled during such a challenging year in the midst of a pandemic, this offseason was always likely to include a bit of an overhaul on that side of the ball.
Day’s usual evaluation process starts with a look at the personnel, the scheme and then the way the fundamentals are taught. There will always be deep dives in all three areas as Ohio State gets into an offseason and plots the next step forward — and clearly that work will be focused on the pass defense since the front seven was among the most dominant run-stopping units in the country.
The Buckeyes could potentially benefit from a fresh set of eyes and new blood on the staff, and multiple Lettermen Row sources have indicated that veteran, respected co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison could be set to retire after two years with the program. If that spot opens as expected, that creates an intriguing situation to revitalize the Silver Bullets — although it could also be a delicate one. Kerry Coombs is absolutely one of the best defensive backs coaches at any level in the sport, but Ohio State will have to decide if it still believes he should be the top coordinator after the dramatic statistical slide that followed the loss of Jeff Hafley last year.
Granted, Coombs wasn’t working with two first-round NFL Draft picks at cornerback and a multiyear starter at safety who also turned heads during his rookie campaign at the next level. No matter how well the Buckeyes recruit in the secondary, there was sure to be a drop-off while trying to replace all that high-level talent without the benefit of spring practices, a normal training camp or a full season of reps. That’s not an excuse, but it’s certainly a major factor and one that must be weighed in figuring out how to address the unit moving forward.
“Usually, when you assess something like that, it’s not like: ‘OK, it’s only this,’” Day said in November after Indiana picked apart the Ohio State secondary. “It’s usually a little bit of this, a lot of this, maybe a little bit here and there. If you tighten up all three of those areas, usually you see improvement.
“At the end of the day you have to put the best players on the field — we believe in our guys. We have confidence in our guys, and I’ll be very surprised if we have to make changes. But maybe we will. We have to watch the film and see, because almost 500 yards of offense in terms of passing is too much. That’s just not acceptable.”
That performance against Indiana looked downright stingy compared to what happened in the title game with Alabama setting a first-half pace that had it on track to throw for nearly 700 yards if it had felt the need. That Crimson Tide attack may well be historical great, but Ohio State is going to have to beat teams built exactly like that if it wants to win another national title.
Even though they got closer than every other program after stomping Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes got a painful reminder on the biggest stage that they weren’t ready to do it yet.