As his offense continues to work through some deficiencies, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day is adjusting to a new reality he hasn’t had the fortune of enjoying since his first year at the helm in Columbus — a defense that can carry the day.
In a top-10 showdown immediately pegged as a likely defensive struggle, Saturday’s game between Ohio State and Penn State lived up to that billing as two elite defenses traded stops for most of the day. Behind another prolific performance from superstar wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., the Ohio State offense did just enough to assist its defense and earn another signature win to remain unbeaten.
Before he could even settle into his postgame press conference on Saturday, the offensive-minded Day preemptively answered a reporter’s question about the unfamiliar concept of heavily relying on his defense to win games.
“Yes, I’m OK with it,” Day said emphatically and with a smile.
To say Ohio State’s defense won the game doesn’t quite do the dominant performance full justice. Behind a quality offensive line led by a future first-round pick in tackle Olu Fashanu, Penn State’s rushing attack entered the game ranked in the top 25 in the country. On Saturday, Ohio State limited talent running backs Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton to a combined 74 yards on 18 carries.
The lack of production in the run game routinely forced sophomore quarterback Drew Allar into undesirable situations, and he responded poorly on the biggest stage of his young career as the Ohio State pass rush harassed him early and often to the tune of four sacks.
As a team, Penn State didn’t convert a third down opportunity until the game clock ticked under two minutes in the fourth quarter and the outcome was hardly in doubt.
Perhaps the most immediate takeaway in the aftermath of the game was that, quite simply, Ohio State wouldn’t have been able to survive such an uneven offensive performance in recent years. While Penn State’s defense, which entered the game as the top-ranked scoring defense in the country, played a significant role in the offensive struggles, Day’s most recent teams would have faltered as a result.
Day said there were “a lot of people who did a lot of great things on defense” on Saturday but was especially complimentary of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who took his lumps in the offseason after year one in the program fizzled over Ohio State’s final two games.
“I gotta give Jim Knowles and his staff a lot of credit for the adjustments they’ve made,” Day said. “That was two top-10 wins in the first seven games where our defense played really well, and I’m happy for our guys. I’m happy for the success they’ve had. They came off last season with a few scars, just like we all did, but you’re starting to see the confidence grow in a big way.”
In a program where the expectation is to be the best in the country at whatever it does, Day said his defense has a chance to reach such lofty expectations under Knowles’ guidance.
“Now he has a feel for the conference, I think, and he’s taken the next step with our personnel,” Day said of Knowles. “And the guys are playing with confidence. I think he does a tremendous job of giving them enough information that they need without overloading them, which allows them to play fast and confident.”
Day added, “That was the most confident and energetic group I’ve been around since 2019 out there on the field today. When the crowd was into it, the whole group had that look in their eyes, and they were getting the crowd involved … I love that. That’s the confidence that is building week in and week out.”
Defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, who had a sack, tackle for loss, and deflected a pass on Saturday, said it hasn’t always been easy to stay patient and “trust the process” following last year’s struggles. However, the unit remained united and entered this season with a collective chip on its shoulder to rewrite the narrative, he said.
“We heard a lot about what we were last year,” Tuimoloau said. “There’s barely any talk about what we are this year. I think that’s a lot of our motivation and wanting to continue to be a great defense for our team.”
Linebacker Steele Chambers admitted adjusting to Knowles’ scheme last season felt like a chore at times given the constant thinking about their individual assignments. Now, the defense is able to play fast and free, and that approach has changed their entire mentality.
“What’s happening to the defense is we’re just unlocking that feeling you had whenever you first started playing the game and you’re just running around and having fun with your friends. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing a job,” Chambers said.
Few if any offenses figure to pose much of a challenge to Ohio State in the coming weeks prior to what is shaping up to once again be a battle of undefeated teams when the Buckeyes travel to take on Michigan in the regular season finale. As is typically the case, final evaluations will be reserved for how Ohio State fares in that game. But for now, Day certainly likes how his defense is trending.
“If we can play like this, then that is championship-level defense,” Day said. “And if we can keep growing as a team, we’ll be tough to beat down the road.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.