When the worst defensive season in school history happens during a 13-1 campaign, that's not a horrible reality. Nevertheless, the final year of Urban Meyer's tenure left Ohio State in an uncomfortable spot.
Less than 12 months later, the Buckeyes are back to looking like one of the premier national championship contenders.
Behind this defense, it's fully deserved.
On a day when the Buckeyes' tremendous offense faltered—and avoided a Justin Fields injury scare—Ryan Day's squad received a superb showing from the opposite unit at Ohio Stadium. The defense ensured a 28-17 victory over No. 8 Penn State, helping OSU improve to 11-0 and lock up a place in the Big Ten Championship Game for the third straight year.
Penn State managed 64 yards on 25 snaps and trailed 14-0 at halftime. The Nittany Lions clawed back in the second half because two Ohio State fumbles in a four-play span allowed them to score 10 points despite covering only 23 yards.
Given the field position, only surrendering a field goal after the second giveaway was crucial. What could've been a game-tying touchdown drive ended in three points, and Ohio State never relinquished control.
After a Fields touchdown pass to Chris Olave, the Buckeyes pushed the lead back to 11. And then, linebacker Justin Hilliard made the game's decisive play, intercepting Will Levis with the Nittany Lions driving in Buckeye territory in the fourth quarter:
Overall, during PSU's final four possessions, the Buckeyes forced a three-and-out, an interception and a pair of turnovers on downs. Yes, self-imposed mistakes hurt Penn State on one drive. James Franklin replaced an ailing Sean Clifford with Levis too.
No matter the penalties and who took the snaps, though, Ohio State's defense—led by edge-rusher Chase Young—made life miserable for the Nittany Lions' blockers.
In his return from a two-game suspension, Young amassed nine tackles with three sacks. Baron Browning had 2.5 tackles for loss with 1.5 sacks, Malik Harrison added two TFLs and Jashon Cornell provided the key disruption on the sack he and Young combined to make.
Given how the unit performed in 2018, the rapid progression of this defense is remarkable.
Last season, Ohio State allowed 5.8 yards per play, 403.4 yards per game and 25.5 points per game. Every single one of those statistics set a program-worst mark, and the Buckeyes ranked 72nd, 71st and 50th in the categories, respectively.
Within the context of a 13-1 year, the struggles didn't crush the program. But they also necessitated a change in leadership.
After co-coordinator Alex Grinch left for Oklahoma, Day did not retain co-coordinator Greg Schiano or linebackers coach Billy Davis. Day swiped Greg Mattison and Al Washington from Michigan, installing Mattison as a co-coordinator alongside Jeff Hafley and Washington as the linebackers coach. The trio joined respected defensive line coach Larry Johnson on that side of the ball.
And the results are inarguable.
Ohio State leads the FBS in yards allowed per snap (3.6) and per game (217.4), as well as scoring defense (10.5). The unit is among the best at preventing explosive plays, highlighted by an FBS-low seven gains of 30-plus yards allowed. Plus, opponents have converted just 28 percent of third-down attempts.
Heading into Week 13, seven of the Buckeyes' previous 10 opponents had their single-worst offensive yardage output of the season happen in that matchup. We can add Penn State—which lumbered to 227 yards on 3.5 per snap—to the list.
Saturday, Young broke the previous single-season school record of 14 sacks (Vernon Gholston in 2007) and left the field with 16.5 this year. The Buckeyes have already matched their 2018 total of 23 takeaways too.
Only a victory over rival Michigan separates Ohio State from an undefeated regular season. After next week, either Wisconsin or Minnesota will await the Buckeyes in Indianapolis on Dec. 7. Win there, and Day's team is headed to the College Football Playoff.
Considering the breaks Penn State needed simply to keep it close, Ohio State should feel quite confident about its CFP chances.
Thanks to an offense with Fields, J.K. Dobbins, good receivers and a quality line, the Buckeyes don't need a large margin for error. This defense provides a championship-sized one anyway.