Attacking Protections with 'the' Ohio State Buckeyes
Jim Knowles always seems to have a great game plan for the Penn State offense. I break down their favorite pressure from this year's matchup, a combination of best practice paths to the RB's side.
Jim Knowles was hired away from Oklahoma State to bring the Ohio State defense into modernity. Head Coach Ryan Day felt he had to make a change after the ’21 season. Sitting 11-2 and winners of the Rose Bowl, some might think all is well in Columbus. Taking a deeper dive, there were significant issues.
The offense in ’21 finished #1 in OFEI (DVOA for college) and had a future 1st-round QB in CJ Stroud. Defensively, the season was a roller coaster. The Big Ten, in general, is not an offensive juggernaut of a league, and after giving up 42 in a losing effort to Michigan and another 45 to Utah in the Rose Bowl, Day had seen enough.
Starting with the Urban Meyer era, the Buckeyes have been a 4-3 Cover 1 defense that looked more like the ‘old school’ Pete Carroll Legion of Boom Seahawks than the modern hybrid college scheme we see today. Ohio State has always seen itself as ‘different’ in the Big Ten, being able to recruit nationally, lure speed from the south, and play (and compete) in the College Football Playoff.
In short, the defensive philosophy had become stagnant, and the output did not match that of the offensive side of the ball. Sure, they were winning the games they should, but when the Buckeyes played on a national stage, the results were mixed on the defensive side. If Day and the Buckeyes were going to be viable National Championship contenders, they would have to look more like an SEC team, i.e., they needed a better defense. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart have figured out the recipe for success: top-10 defense with an elite offense.
In ’21, the Buckeyes would finish 41st in DFEI, not worthy of a true championship contender (BCF Toys). Instead of reaching into the SEC and pulling from a pool full of Sabanites, Day pivoted to a more hybrid approach. For a generation, the Big 12 has been on the front lines of the evolution of offensive football—it is a Spread dominant league where DCs go to die. So, why would Day choose a coordinator for an offensive league?
After ’21, there was a surprising team among the top defenses in the land, Oklahoma State. The leader of that unit was Jim Knowles, who was plucked away from Duke in ’17. Knowles had been a 4-2-5 DC but had transitioned to a more multiple approach in the Big 12, which tends to happen. His hybrid system fit the transition Day was seeing in the B1G.
The top teams in the league were transitioning into hybrid Spread systems. Michigan, under Harbough, runs a ‘power’ Spread offense. Penn State under Franklin is an 11p Y-off Spread system. Luke Fickell was hired at Wisconsin and brought Spread guru Phil Longo from N. Carolina. Minnesota’s PJ Fleck and Nebraska’s Matt Rhule (former Big 12 HC at Baylor) both run an RPO-heavy brand of the power Spread.
Much like the transition that has taken place in the SEC, teams at the traditional powers have shifted to a more modern QB and athlete-friendly approach, developing Spread offense. To counter the evolution, defenses in the SEC have had to adjust, running more hybrid systems. Day recognized that the Big Ten was having its own Spread revolution, and he needed to redirect and adapt his defensive philosophy to stay ahead of the curve.
Knowles fit the bill and had proven he could create a nationally elite defense in what is known as a DC graveyard. Plus, he did it with non-NFL talent. Only a pair of LBs, Malcolm Rodriquez (6th/Lions) and Devin Harper (6th/Cowboys, now Bengals), and CB Christian Holmes (7th/Commanders) were drafted the following offseason.* The fit has been an instant success.
*An Oklahoma State fan mentioned that a trio of Safeites, Bernard Converse (6th/Jets via LSU), Jason Taylor II (7th/Rams), and Tanner McCalister (UDFA/Browns via Ohio St.) are all active in the league & were on the roster in ‘21.
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