COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — J.T. Tuimoloau stood in front of the Buckeyes before practice the week after Ohio State’s second straight loss to Michigan.
As the sting of defeat began to set in and the prospect of missing the playoff remained a possibility, the second-year defensive end offered a reminder to his teammates.
Ohio State still has a chance.
“I felt like we just needed to get back on track, and these boys push me to go my hardest and bring out the best in me every day,” Tuimoloau recalled. “I know what we can bring so I just wanted to come and just reiterate that. The job’s not finished.”
That’s the focus for Ohio State’s defense ahead of the College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against No. 1 Georgia (13-0) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31: Correct mistakes and limit big plays.
Ohio State (11-1) allowed 530 yards of offense during its loss to the Wolverines on Nov. 26, including five plays of 45 yards or more that went for touchdowns. Those explosive plays have been on the mind of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
Knowles said he takes ultimate responsibility for Ohio State’s miscues in its only loss of the season.
“Any call that goes for an explosive, you have to look at, take responsibility for,” Knowles said. “You got to evaluate the call from top to bottom and the game plan.”
Coach Ryan Day said Michigan’s 85- and 75-yard touchdown runs were enough to “ruin the whole day,” but he’s taking the good with the bad when evaluating his defense.
“There was still a lot of good things that happened,” Day said. “It wasn’t like you watch the film and you’re like, ‘Jeez, we just got completely outmatched.’ It was just a lack of execution and too many big plays.”
Occasional questions on defense have lingered for much of Day’s tenure.
In 2019, Day and the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and advanced to the CFP behind a stout defense that held teams under 260 yards and 14 points per game.
But in 2020 and 2021, those numbers ballooned. Ohio State gave up 401.6 yards and 25.8 points per game in his second season and were 372.9 yards and 22.8 points on average during his third, which prompted him to seek out Knowles and make changes on the defensive coaching staff.
Knowles’ defense allowed just under 304 yards per game and ranked No. 12 in total defense this season, and he’s been doing his part to quickly turn the focus toward the CFP.
“We’ve been having some of the best practices we’ve had all season,” safety Ronnie Hickman said. “Being able to have this second chance is huge, so we’re just doing everything we can to not let it slip through our fingers.”
The defending national champion Bulldogs boast the No. 7 overall offense and topped 500 yards in seven games this season.
Georgia’s passing and rushing offense both rank among the top 20 in college football, and its duo of running backs between Daijun Edwards and Kenny McIntosh topped over 681 rushing yards apiece.
Ohio State’s defensive line consisting of Tuimoloau and Zach Harrison will also be challenged by Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, a Heisman Trophy finalist. Harrison thinks it’s been a source of motivation to set the tone up front.
“Everything under the sun, we’ve heard it,” Harrison said. “This team’s got a lot of fight and this team’s got a lot of heart. We’re just not going to give up on this team and not going to give up on this year and just try to win it all.”
Explosive plays kept the Buckeyes from the conference championship game for a second year, and Ohio State will need its defense to bounce back if it hopes to make the title game Jan. 9 against either TCU or the rival Wolverines.
“It was a big loss, but after going through everything and seeing our outcome play out, for me and my family and my family here, it’s been like, ‘Hey, we got a shot,’” Tuimoloau said. “We got an opportunity. Let’s go do this thing.”
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