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How Good is Ohio State's Defense? Breaking Down the Jim Knowles-Led Unit

By: Connor D'Aquila ⏐ Writer ⏐ Twitter:@ConnorDaquilaIT


Photo via Adam Cairns | Columbus Dispatch | USA Today Network


Much has been said about this Ohio State defense. In their second year under coordinator Jim Knowles, they appear to be making big strides. Through three games, they have allowed three points to Indiana, seven to Youngstown State, and ten to Western Kentucky. While the first two games weren’t as dominant as most OSU fans hoped, the defense was certainly not the problem. For some background on the defense, Knowles runs a base 4-2-5 scheme, meaning four on the line, two backers, and five defensive backs. He tasks the safeties with a lot more work than traditional defenses. Generally, it means filling gaps and containing when they pressure, which you can expect a lot of out of a Knowles defense. It is not a simple scheme, but it seems like Ohio State is beginning to grasp it.


Through three games, they rank sixth in pass yards per game at 140.3, 20th in rush yards at 83.3, and third in total defense at 223.7 yards. By the way, Notre Dame does come in at number four in total defense for the year. Returning five of their top-seven tacklers and their two sack leaders, the talent Ohio State has is certainly top-notch. At the same time, they get a second year in the Knowles defense, which has proven to be very important in past stints. No matter what, the Buckeyes have the talent and production to give the Irish offense a lot of trouble. Now, let’s dive deeper into the OSU defense.


Jim Knowles History

When Knowles came over with a $2 million per year contract, expectations were high. After Jeff Haffley and Kerry Coombs, this would be Ryan Day’s third defensive coordinator in only four years. It was time for one to stick, and Coach Knowles brought a promising track record. After playing Defensive End at Cornell, he worked his way through various assistant positions, eventually finding himself as head coach at his alma mater. He stayed there from 2004 to 2009 when he made the jump to Duke as DC. Taking over a very bad unit, Jim slowly built the squad up. The Blue Devils began developing some talented individuals, seeing plenty of all-ACC honors and one draft pick, but it didn’t fully come together until 2014. That year, they posted their best defensive scoring numbers since 1994 at 21.77 points en route to a 9-4 record and Sun Bowl berth. 2017 was the crowning year, however, as the team posted just 20.33 points allowed per game, the program’s best number in 40 years. In his final six years with the team, they made five bowls, an unprecedented number for that program.


Oklahoma State was able to poach Knowles after that historic season, and a very similar pattern can be seen with the Cowboys. They struggled in his first season, but thereafter posted improvements every year. By 2021, when Notre Dame faced them in the Fiesta Bowl, Oklahoma State was top-ten in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and sacks. They were dominant, and it was enough for Coach Day to offer him the jump to OSU. It will be interesting to see how these patterns play out in Columbus.


Photo via David Dermer | AP Photo


Recent Ohio State History

Knowles was hired before the 2022 season after Coach Ryan Day cleaned house on the defensive staff. It was this same exodus that brought Al Washington over to Freeman’s staff. In the 2021 season, the Buckeyes' defense was no where close to their normal standard, and it was time to make a change. While the offense was unbelievably explosive that year and ranked number one in the country, total defense was down at number 53. Their 366.6 yards allowed per game was bad enough to be eighth out of 14 in the Big Ten. The 2022 season started pretty well for Knowles’s defense, but they finished the season allowing 45 points to Michigan and 42 to Georgia, both of which were devastating losses. They also gave up 30 points to Maryland the week before Michigan and were not all that far from losing. Despite this, it was enough to finish 14th nationally in total defense at 321.5 yards and 24th in scoring defense with 21 points per game allowed. They certainly improved in this first year, but it was also not the numbers many Buckeye fans hoped for. Ryan Day is an offensive-minded coach, and that has been evident through his first several seasons, but it will be interesting to see how that changes with Coach Knowles leading that side of the ball.


Key Players

Tommy Eichenberg is likely the best player on the Ohio State defense. Brother of former Irish offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg, Tommy currently leads the team in tackles and is highly regarded throughout the country. The redshirt junior linebacker was ranked third-best at the position in the country by Pro Football Focus coming into the season, and he has lived up to that thus far. Watch for him to especially have an impact in the run game, as he was second in the country last year in run stops at 49. Next up is JT Tuimoloau, a defensive end who had as much hype as anyone coming into the season. Despite finishing with only 3.5 sacks last year, he showed flashes that many thought would translate to big-time production for 2023. So far, he has no sacks, no tackles for loss, and only seven total tackles, but his potential should be enough to scare the Notre Dame o-line. If they start getting a lot of pressure on Hartman, watch for JT to be leading that. The other player who would contribute substantially in that category is Jack Sawyer, who also falls in the category of defensive end with potential but not production. Tyliek Williams has had a strong start to the season on the interior. Among the DBs, look for Denzel Burke, their number one cornerback to have a major impact. He has begun to show flashes as an elite cornerback, and if he could eliminate Thomas or Merriweather, the path to a strong passing attack becomes far more difficult. We also can’t forget about Sonny Styles, brother of former Notre Dame receiver Lorenzo Styles, who has been getting on the field a lot in his sophomore campaign and is showing a ton of promise.


This Ohio State defense is no joke, and the Irish will certainly have their work cut out for them. It is also important to understand that the games we have seen from them are not the most talented teams, but the same could be said for Notre Dame’s offense. Either way, this should be a great matchup with one of the best offenses in the nation against one of the best defenses. Also keep in mind that statistically, the Al Golden-led ND defense is in the same tier as OSU.



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