COLUMBUS — The Ohio State defense wasnâ€™t perfect, far from it, during the still double-digit win at Penn State last week.
But there was an NFL-like flow to the calls that the Buckeyes would like to maintain when they host Rutgers on Saturday night.
There was no coincidence to it. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is less than a year removed from being defensive backs coach of the Tennessee Titans for two seasons — in a league where matchups rule the discussions. The stint was in essence his pro sabbatical from a previous six-year run as cornerbacks coach at Ohio State.
â€œI feel like we had a great game plan going into Penn State, and I credit Coach Coombs for that,â€ senior linebacker Pete Werner said. â€œThere is kind of a pro feel to it, and I talked to him about that.
â€œThatâ€™s just him having the knowledge that he has to give us the best look against our opponent. â€¦ We utilized that to the best of our ability, and it showed.â€
The defensive calls were on point, for the most part. They were a mix of pressures and blitzes up front with coverage diversity in the back.
Thatâ€™s where two safeties — Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor — were on the field a lot with three cornerbacks. Proctor, for example, was often utilized as the stick who stirred the stew of schemes to limit the productiveness of Penn State’s go-to tight end Pete Freiermuth.
Coombs credited the efforts of the players and the work of the defensive staff â€“ including co-coordinator Greg Mattison, line coach Larry Johnson, linebackers coach Al Washington Jr. and safeties coach Matt Barnes â€“ for the plan. Though there were a couple of â€œ50-50 ballsâ€ the Nittany Lions were able to convert in the second half to keep the score respectable, it was an overall effective effort by the defense.
â€œI thought the guys on the staff did a really nice job of formulating plans to stop the run primarily,â€ Coombs said. â€œThat was very important. We had some different schemes in the run game.
â€œThen I thought they did a really nice job of putting together a package for the third downs. I thought on third down we were really good with a combination of pressure and coverage, and being able to do some things to keep them from being comfortable in the pocket. The staff worked really hard on putting those things together.â€
Plus, it was Game Two of the season, which was part of the combination.
â€œFor one, we knew our opponent better, because we didnâ€™t really have a good feel for what Nebraska was going to going into that opener,â€ Coombs said. â€œYou have an idea, but you donâ€™t know.â€
Penn State, on the other hand, had put a game on video. Not just that, it was an overtime loss at Indiana in which the Nittany Lions, in a fight for the win, had to go deep into their playbook.
â€œI felt like we had a much better idea of seeing this yearâ€™s players and this yearâ€™s offense from Penn State, which gave us a chance to plan a little bit more,â€ Coombs said. â€œAnd obviously these guys on the staff, having played Penn State, they know what those games are like and what their strengths are of their personnel, having a lot of good information from them on how to put a plan together to try to take away what they do best.â€
Itâ€™s part of the pro way. Ohio State used a similar approach last year when Ryan Day hired Jeff Hafley away from the San Francisco 49ers to share coordinating duties with newly hired Mattison, who came from Michigan but also had NFL stints on his resume.
Day put them in charge of revitalizing a defense which, having been coordinated by Greg Schiano — ironically, now in his second term as the coach at Rutgers — had been statistically the worst in school history.
Hafley instituted the one-high safety scheme that usually featured three cornerbacks, including Shaun Wade on the slot receiver. But he also mixed up the coverage schemes, stepping away at times from the persistent press-man on the edges, a staple of Schianoâ€™s approach, into occasional zones. The turnaround was amazing, the way the Buckeyes were able to keep quarterbacks slightly confused from one play to the next.
This year — though Hafley moved on to become head coach at Boston College, and despite Ohio State featuring eight new starters on defense — Day wanted to keep the defense on the offensive. He brought back Coombs who had gained deeper insight into the NFL approach which focuses as much on matchups as it does alignments.
â€œThe structure of the defense is remarkably similar to last yearâ€™s defense,â€ Coombs said. “[It’s also] accurate you are seeing some of the changes in the back end [such as the occasional two safeties and occasional quarters zone]. But those are changes that are designed to try to supplement the base package, and maybe target taking away some things the offense does really well in certain formats.â€
The presence of veteran linebackers, including Werner, three-time captain Tuf Borland and journeyman Baron Browning, allows the Buckeyes to recognize situations on the field and adjust on the fly, which enhances the package.
â€œWhen you have a bunch of talent and knowledge, as far as the defense, you have the ability to do those certain things,â€ Werner said. â€œCoach sees that in us. He knows we all have a great sense of the game, so heâ€™s going to hold us to a standard where he can take some risks, he can call certain calls and mix it up to just make it hard on the offense.
â€œI think weâ€™ve done a great job responding to his play calling, all the calls in our playbook. Weâ€™re going to have to continue to execute and follow his plan.â€