Ohio State’s defense can learn on the fly — an early sign of improvement

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It didn’t take Steele Chambers long to get mad against Indiana. On the first play of the game, the Hoosiers came out and ran the triple option for a two-yard loss.

The fifth-year Ohio State linebacker loved the result, but going against an option offense in the season opener wasn’t what the Buckeyes prepared for. In fact, they practiced against maybe five plays leading up to last Saturday.

“That’s stretching it,” he said with a laugh.

There was no obvious sign of a defense caught off guard by a new Week 1 offense, though.

Ohio State got a three-and-out on the first drive and allowed just three points and 2.2 yards per carry the entire game.

That represented growth.

Chambers said he isn’t sure the Buckeyes defense would’ve been able to take defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ adjustments and apply them successfully so quickly a year ago. But if there was a knowledge gap a season ago, it has dissipated.

“We would’ve been just running around like chickens with our heads cut off for the first half at least. We just know stuff more,” Chambers said.

It shows that the Buckeyes are now in their second year with Knowles.

After Indiana’s first play, Knowles went to work quickly scribbling out adjustments from the press box. He relayed those adjustments to coaches on the field and to the players.

“That’s first games,” Knowles said.

The first game of the season brings a lot of unknown, especially when playing a team like Indiana, which had 23 new players from the transfer portal.

But for Ohio State, which brought back five of its top seven snap earners from last season, its experience paid off. Even Chambers, who hasn’t seen a triple option since high school, acknowledged he would’ve been lost on the field last season.

“Last year, if you asked me to do a fit-to-fallback, I would have no idea what we’re doing, probably just end up on my ass or something,” Chambers said.

All offseason, the talk from Ohio State’s coaching staff and players centered on the defense being ready to take the next step.

But that is hard to define, and to prove, until players get on the field.

Cornerback Jordan Hancock said he saw things change for the Buckeyes around the first scrimmage of preseason camp.

“Guys were flying around, not thinking and not hesitating,” Hancock said.

It showed Saturday in the play of the interior defensive linemen, with Michael Hall Jr., Ty Hamilton, Tyleik Williams and Jaden McKenzie all earning double-digit snaps and Knowles’ praise.

Williams finished second on the team in tackles with five. Hamilton had three tackles and McKenzie had two.

“When you have defensive tackles, when you go look at it, they’re making tackles, not just using up blocks for three yards or less in the run game, that’s really something positive to build on,” Knowles said.

Ohio State, of course, still has questions it needs to answer. Can it generate a pass rush against a more conventional offense? Can the secondary hold up against a team that wants to throw the ball around? And more.

“We need to grow more against a conventional offensive system,” Knowles said.

Ohio State hosts Youngstown State on Saturday and Western Kentucky the following week before the trip to Notre Dame. Youngstown State beat Valparaiso 52-10 in Week 1 behind 302 yards on the ground. Western Kentucky beat South Florida 41-24 after throwing the ball 50 times for 336 yards.

But the win at Indiana shows the growth of the defense. Ohio State can learn on the fly.

“Everybody is a lot more knowledgeable about their assignments and stuff,” Chambers said. “If you understand what they’re doing and make adjustments on plays you already know, it becomes easier.”

(Photo of Steele Chambers: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)

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