College Football
Ohio State's new strength: A defense that's 'fast, strong, violent'
College Football

Ohio State's new strength: A defense that's 'fast, strong, violent'

Updated Oct. 24, 2023 3:41 p.m. ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ryan Day laughed at the first question he got during his post-game news conference following Ohio State's 20-12 grudge match of a win over Penn State on Saturday.

A reporter said, "Are you tired of me asking about winning with defense?"

Day smiled. He was relieved to get away with that result, even if he knew deep down that if this team is going to make a run — beat Michigan, win the Big Ten title and make it to the College Football Playoff — then it's going to have to be with a defensive mindset.

"Yes," Day said with a chuckle. "I'm OK with it."


Penn State trailed 13-6 as it held the ball to start the fourth quarter. On the first play, Ohio State edge rusher JT Tuimoloau sacked first-year starting quarterback Drew Allar. On the next series, Tuimoloau broke up a pass on fourth down. On the following possession, defensive end Kenyatta Jackson smothered Allar on fourth-and-30, delivering the fourth and final sack of the game. Allar finished a disastrous 18-of-42 for 191 yards and a touchdown, which came when it was too little, too late.

"I felt the toughness and physicality on defense," Day said. "I'm happy for our guys. They came off of last season with a few scars, just like we all did. But you're starting to see the confidence grow in a big way."

By "scars," he meant the way Ohio State lost first to Michigan in "The Game," and then to eventual national champion Georgia in the CFP semifinal. The defense gave up more than 40 points and 530 yards in each of those losses. 

This year, Ohio State (7-0) already has two top-10 wins in seven games and boasts the best résumé in the country. Yes, quarterback Kyle McCord led an epic game-winning drive to beat Notre Dame on the road, but make no mistake: these impressive victories were because of the defense. The Buckeyes gave up just 14 points to the Fighting Irish and 12 to the Nittany Lions, who had been averaging 39.7 points per game.

Joel Klatt breaks down Ohio State's win over Penn State

Penn State amassed just 15 first downs, was a combined 2-for-19 on third and fourth down, and made only one trip inside the red zone. It mustered 240 total yards on 3.5 yards per play and ran for only 49 yards. Entering the matchup, it was the Nittany Lions who were supposed to play spoiler on defense with the nation's top-ranked unit. Instead, it was the Buckeyes who turned heads.

"Unbelievable job," Day said. "If we could play like this, then this is that championship-level defense. If we can keep growing as a team, then we'll be tough to beat here down the road."

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was hired in December 2021 after Michigan embarrassed Ohio State, 42-27. He's paid $1.9 million per year to ensure this program has a dominant defense. There were flashes last year, but now it seems like his unit might really be coming together. Yes, Tuimoloau had some fourth-quarter heroics (just like last year), but freshman Jermaine Mathews filled in for the Buckeyes' top cornerback Denzel Burke, who missed the game with an injury, and Josh Proctor was a difference-maker with four tackles, one for loss, and two pass breakups. The defense as a whole pressured Allar and made him uncomfortable all day.

"Just overall, they played fast, strong, violent," Day said. 

And, they take pressure off the offense, which is especially helpful for McCord as the young quarterback continues to grow and gain confidence.

"It's not that mindset that we have to go and score a touchdown every single time or else the game is going to be in jeopardy," McCord said. "It's a huge testament to their work ethic. Seeing them come out and shut that offense down, it takes a lot off of the offense's shoulders."

It also impacts the way Day calls the offense, which is different from recent years when he had the luxury of former first-round quarterbacks Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud running things. This year's offense isn't like those other ones. Yes, it has wideout Marvin Harrison Jr., who might be the best player in college football. But Ohio State is ranked 101st nationally in rushing offense (127 yards per game). It doesn't help that backs TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Chip Trayanum haven't been 100% healthy and that the offensive line is not as strong as it has been previously. Day also wants his team to be more explosive — it currently ranks 30th nationally in plays of 20 yards or more.

Ultimately, Day doesn't care how Ohio State wins. As long as it wins.

"If you feel like your defense can flat-out win you a game, then you have to make sure that you're doing your part," Day said. "You can't be selfish in that moment, as much as you'd love to just push the pedal to the metal.

"The goal is to win the game. Sometimes, we forget about that."

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter at @LakenLitman.


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