Movie review: Jim Knowles is as good as advertised with a quick physical defense against Notre Dame

The Ohio State The Buckeyes beat Notre Dame Fighting Irish Saturday night with plenty of new faces on their defensive coaching staff. After a season of ups and downs – mostly downs – last year on the defensive side of the ball, Ryan Day made the decision to switch three of his assistants last year. In the first week, the Buckeyes reaped immediate rewards from the decision to appoint Jim Knowles as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator.

The former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator has shown that his reputation has earned him well, and with his most talented roster to date, his defensive unit has published the first performance gem. What Knowles brought with him to Ohio State was a highly structured and very casual defensive philosophy, and that physical style of football was crystal clear. Knowles was brought in to instill toughness, and the Buckeyes defense showed they can win matches when they need to. The Buckeyes were brave against the run, stingy against the pass, and forced six straight runs to finish the match.

When it was time to win, the defense stepped up, and throughout the game, there was an improvement in all aspects of the game from last season. With our first real look at what Knowles depicted defending Ohio State in the books, we can now take a look at how the vision is presented in the field.


defense pass

For Ohio fans, the passing defense might not have been the first square to be checked, but memories of last year’s Anthony Brown looking like the first Americans to throw Oregon and Tulsa for more than 400 yards were still open wounds. The Buckeyes dropped some big plays in this regard, but the overall feeling of the performance was positive. Ohio State capped Michael Mayer’s tight American Notre Dame end with just five catches and 32 yards, and limited Tyler Buchner with a 2-of-10 pass to finish the game after starting 8 of 8.

Knowles was able to create a lot of problems for his first player Buchner after the defense stabilized. They made Buchner uncomfortable by creating constant pressure. As Knowles noted at the end of fall camp, the rush helps cover and vice versa. In the play below, Knowles’ aggressiveness was on full display when he was in third position and short, he brought in six contestants.

The blitzkrieg is well hidden here, and toward the massive side where Ohio State is overloading the Notre Dame offensive line. Cam Brown (#26) comes in for the Buckeyes on a corner kick, making the pass rush to that side five on three. In the coverage here, the defense is looking at a quick match due to falls and distance. The defenders remaining in coverage had all pass options down the field after Buckner made his first reading, and Zach Harrison (No. 9) pulled the check in the flat.

The combination of coverage and overloading on the strong side allowed Eichenberg to have a free pass in the middle and he did a huge job in third.

In the following example, Notre Dame is in a second and tall position with momentum building on their side. The clip starts a little later and is initially planned, but if you pause the clip at first you can see instant hack Mike Hall (#51) step inside. This is a quarterback’s worst nightmare, and although Buckner gets away with the initial rush, the rest of the defensive line is pocket-breaking to do the job. Once again, the combination of coverage and a passing rush caused problems for Notre Dame at a critical moment of the match.

The final play in this section shows how successful previous blitzkrieg attacks were in helping four men to rush out later in the game. This isn’t just a direct four-man lunge, Knowles uses a double trick, which means defensive tackles will push the field outward and the defensive edges will wrap down the inside gaps. Hall takes the two men into the field, and as soon as Sawyer comes in, the right guard slips out of the hall to pick up Sawyer. This gives Hall the effect of a right tackle, which is able to come down and take a quarterback to the ice in the game.

When Notre Dame attempted a pass in the second half, Knowles and the Ohio State defense did a great job maintaining discipline in coverage to go with a very efficient passing rush. The defensive line had an amazing performance in limiting what Buchner did out of pocket and making him feel uncomfortable at all times as a pass. This is a notable change to last season, as I felt that every time an opponent had a reasonable distance by a third, they could have picked the first.


run defense

The only takeaway written in large quantities in this off-season were the struggles Ohio State had in stopping the race. There were plenty of reasons Ohio State was struggling in this regard from the sketch to the physical, but the overall product was an objective failure. The Buckeyes and Knowles had a lot to prove against the Notre Dame offense that prides itself on the body up front.

In the first play here, Notre Dame runs the scheme of operation within their own district. Notre Dame’s left interference is detected with a gap inside him, so he pulls the formation to the side of play. This switch gives Ohio State defenders an instant readout of where the ball is going. JT Tuimoloau sets the edge after bouncing off the right guard. This allows the Tuimoloau to switch with running backwards and make the initial contact in the background.

Going back to reading the keys, the midfielders flock and so does Ronnie Hickman, leading to a cluster of silver helmets around the ball in the backcourt, a sight for sore eyes.

This was the next play early in the competition, but that was a hint of more during the match. After giving up one of the biggest plays in the game which included a 15-yard penalty overhead, the Buckeyes had to get through it early. The reason this play is so special to me is the fact that every gap and both options are accounted for here. If you stop at the 0:02 second mark, you can see the straight line of the Ohio Defenders across the field in every gap. This eliminates the back sprint, and the inside penetration blasts the back sprint into the backfield for a huge second stopping early.

Running defense has come a long way during the season, and with Buchner’s skill set plus decently experienced running room, this was an early challenge for the Buckeyes. One playgroup not highlighted, but I’d be negligent without mentioning the two-game sequence of Notre Dame in the second half.

The Irish ran on a jet sweep area, giving the ball to the receiver on the move for big gains. After several plays, the Irish came running the same play, and this time the Buckeyes took the sweep and tackled Buchner in the backcourt. Running defense has been improved tenfold, and the tweaks that Knowles has made right now have highlighted this improvement the most.


discipline

The Buckeyes finally showed a new level of discipline on Saturday, and with that discipline came the strength Ohio State fans have been eager to see again. As a defense, you don’t get six hits in a row without discipline, and the Buckeyes won the match because of their organized defensive play and soccer.

In the first play here, Notre Dame runs a toss-out campaign. When it comes to responsible football, every player in this situation does their job. Hickman (No. 14) sees this as an external race, and his responsibility here is to maintain external containment. It forces the curtailment on Eichenberg, who flows in and makes the initial contact behind the squabble line. This play is completed by Harrison, who remains in charge of the quarterback until he sees the ball in the line’s hand. Then it flows down the line to clean up if the dip does not go down, in which case it does.

This mission is football and the discipline is the exact reason why Notre Dame was unable to start the race against Ohio State.

The last play of the day showed an improvement in pass coverage. Ohio was in a clear passing position at 3rd and 7th. Ohio State only brings in four in their dash, meaning they have seven defenders dropped in coverage to defend five conceding goals. Meyer was the obvious target here. Ohio State runs Hickman outside, which results in Meyer sitting halfway down the first distance. The Ransom breaks the ball and they make a superb third stop tackle in time with Notre Dame inside their 10-yard line.

Again, this last year’s play could have been a first, and Fighting Irish has found this every third they need. Not anymore.


Now there may be questions about how good Notre Dame’s offense actually is, but the teams that caused Ohio State’s trouble last year played similar tactics to Notre Dame offensively. The Buckeyes couldn’t stop the run, didn’t make adjustments, and gave up easy passes on third kicks which meant they couldn’t get off the field. Notre Dame brought a well-trained offensive streak to Columbus to battle the Buckeyes, and a mid-back who could bring multiple dimensions to the table as an athlete.

The Buckeyes were prepared for every trick Notre Dame was ready to defend, and it all comes from the new identity under Jim Knowles. The Ohio State Defenders were playing fast and aggressively at all three levels while playing disciplined football. Knowles showed that Ohio State fans don’t need to sacrifice one for the other. The physical strength was there, and the Buckeyes were scratching the surface in potential under Knowles, who said the defense was relatively basic.

The Ohio State defense still has a lot to prove – this was one game. Despite his debut, the film shows Knowles could not have asked for a better start as a defensive coordinator at Ohio State.