COLUMBUS — Incoming Ohio State coach Ryan Day no doubt has many items on his wish list for the Buckeyes this holiday season.
One thing almost certainly not among them is continuing the team’s propensity toward the “Big 12” style of play — prolific offense, carefree defense — it has shown this season.
With that in mind, then, Day has plenty of work to do once he takes over after the last game of the Urban Meyer era, the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl against Pac-12 champion Washington.
The concern isn’t with the offense. With Dwayne Haskins Jr. airing out the attack, Ohio State already has obliterated the school mark for passing yards (4,849) and touchdown passes (48), and it is expected to surpass the record for average total offense per game, barring a total collapse. The Buckeyes are at 548.8 after 13 games, compared to the previous school best of 511.9 set in 2013.
The defense, however, is a different story.
It has been difficult for OSU fans to reconcile how a team that went 12-1 and won its third Big Ten Championship Game in the seven-year Meyer era also is on pace to set school season records for yards allowed per game (400.3 average, ahead of the previous mark of 385.7 in 1988) and points per game (25.7, ahead of the previous mark of 24.7 set in 1989).
A shutout of Washington, coupled with a near-shutdown of the Huskies’ offense, could spare the defense from ignominy in both cases, but it won’t erase the stigma.
Those numbers don’t sit well with Day regardless.
“It's the No. 1 thing in our plan to win — it’s to play great defense,” Day said.
What fans will remember most is the 2018 unit being ripped 12 times for runs of 50 yards or more this season, an affliction that showed up in the first game, a 77-31 win over Oregon State, and was still there in the 13th game, a 45-24 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten title game.
As for being compared to a Big 12 team, defensive end Jonathan Cooper seemed to speak for his teammates with his reaction.
“Yikes,” Cooper said. “For you to say we’re a Big 12 team … ”
When it was noted that the Buckeyes often looked like one this season, Cooper responded, “Yet we’re the Big Ten champs.”
Nevertheless, Day knows that there is work to be done on the defensive side of the ball, and that he perhaps has decisions to make about the staff headed up by defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
Day didn’t address staffing issues during a recent interview, he did note that, statistically speaking, a Big Ten champion is not supposed to look like a Big 12 champion on defense.
“It's really, really important for us. It’s the tip of the spear of the whole team, that and special teams,” Day said. “And so I think anybody in the program will tell you that that’s the most important part of what we do in the plan to win is to play great defense. So that’s the expectations here, and that’s not going to change.”
The numbers given up so far this year aren’t going to change, either, middle linebacker Tuf Borland said, but work toward shoring up the leaks continues heading toward the Rose Bowl.
“The past is in the past, we can’t control it, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Borland said. “We’re looking forward to Washington and playing as well as we can.”