By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS – A year ago, Ohio State’s pass defense was a disaster scene. The only thing missing was a declaration from the governor.
The reaction from Urban Meyer as he sorted through the rubble was drastic.
“We completely blew it up,” Meyer said about OSU’s 2013 pass defense. “Anything associated with that is gone. It had to change.”
Until quarterback Braxton Miller re-injured his throwing shoulder in practice Monday, fixing the pass defense was probably the biggest concern Ohio State had.
In the last three games last season, Michigan threw for 451 yards, Michigan State got 304 yards in the air and Clemson passed for 378 yards. Even Wisconsin, a team not known for its passing game, lit OSU up for 295 yards in the air.
Ohio State played “soft” coverage, allowing receivers room to get open, or when it did challenge receivers they often blew right past defenders for big plays.
The frustration maxed out in the Orange Bowl when Clemson’s Sammy Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards in what was no longer a surprising underperformance by OSU’s defense.
Meyer attacked the problem head-on. And that approach is at the core of the change in philosophy for the defense this season.
Pass defense will be more aggressive and players’ assignments will be less complicated.
The first big change came when Meyer hired former Arkansas and Wisconsin assistant Chris Ash as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach to replace Everett Withers, who left to become head coach at James Madison University.
From day one, Ash said he wanted Ohio State to play more aggressively against the pass. He coaches that every day and the players have bought into the change.
“If you make a mistake, he’ll come running at you from 30 yards away at full speed,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “Coach Withers would wait until you’d watch it on film and then say, ‘You need to make these corrections for the next practice.’ Coach Ash wants it done right then and there.
“He has come in and he’s made huge changes to the defense and he’s going to get it right. He’s going to make sure everything is right before the first game.”
Ohio State’s defensive backs often looked confused last season. And something Miller said some of them told him backs up that impression.
“They feel a lot more comfortable with what they’re doing. It’s not too complicated. They said last year the defense was so complicated that every time a motion was made they’d check into another play,” he said at the Big Ten football media days.
Sophomore safety Vonn Bell, who got his first start in the Orange Bowl, said, “We’ll be very aggressive on everything.”
Powell said, “We’re more aggressive. The corners are pressing now. There are no short routes given up, no screens or anything like that. And I see a lot of confidence in the secondary.”
That confidence was lacking internally and externally last season.
“We know last year we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, especially we didn’t finish the way Ohio State fans are used to. We’ve always been considered Defensive Backs University. But the way we finished last year wasn’t that,” sophomore cornerback Eli Apple said.
Last year’s struggles and the criticism that came with them will be motivation this fall, Powell said.
“It hurts. It hurts. But we know we have to come out and change that, get that off us,” he said. “The fans are not going to lie to you. And we knew what it was too. Just coming out here and trying to prove that wrong and change the whole mentality for the whole world to see is great motivation.”