The strategy was sound and effective during Knowles’ four seasons in the Big 12 with Oklahoma State, but will it work in the Big Ten?
“When I was a young coach, I would have thought the same thing: You can’t do that,” he said.
The secret, in his estimation, is changing gaps and fooling the offensive front with different looks and post-snap activities.
“What I found is that if you can create indecision with the offensive line or the quarterbacks or their combination schemes, or even one step of their footwork, create a little bit of hesitation, and you have some athletes who are attacking and moving around, you give your guys an advantage,” Knowles said.
He calls that playing offense on defense, a.k.a. forcing the offense to respond do what the defense is doing instead of the usual.
“You can’t do it all the time,” he added. “It’s all about the mix. It’s all about the balance. It’s throwing it in there every now and then, giving different looks and having your guys believe that when you call it you have a chance to set them back, and so far we’ve been able to do that.”
Though the Big 12 is known for having pass-happy teams on the forefront of the spread offense movement a decade or more ago, the league has moderated over the years. Many of its best offenses were also quick to evolve and embrace the reintroduction of multiple tight end and multiple back sets, so Knowles is not flying blind when it comes to facing a power team such as Wisconsin.
“You’ve got to be able to win one-on-one battles in the running game,” Knowles said. “Hard-fought, fistfight — all those things that you I think when you first start playing defense as a kid, that’s what you think of like, Hey, I’m gonna put my hand down. I’m gonna defend the line. Not back up, and fight.
“Now, as you get older and play defense, you think sacks and the glory and the game kind of changes, (but) we just have to put that hard-nosed mindset and everything that (strength and conditioning director Mickey Marotti) does in the weight room.”
Last year, Ohio State was had a good run defense — most of the time. When the Buckeyes were bad, they were really bad, though. Minnesota (203), Oregon (269), Utah (226) and Michigan (297) all ran over, around and through the Scarlet and Gray in games that took place both early and late in the year.
Those struggles more than anything led head coach Ryan Day to decide something different needed to be done with the defense, and that led him to Knowles, whose Oklahoma State defense was among the best in the country last season.
The Cowboys faced a variety of different offenses, including four that averaged more than 180 yards on the ground per game, and Knowles has said his scheme includes multiple packages for different offensive looks even though he likes the 4-2-5 best.
That includes a “classic” 4-3 look with a “Sam” linebacker replacing one of the three safeties who is normally on the field, but that package has not been seen in an Ohio State game this season.
That could change Saturday, but Knowles indicated whoever is on the field will be called up on to do their job all the same.
“That’s just all got to come down to one play,” he said. “I know you’re gonna run it. I know this is how you’re gonna block me. And it’s gonna be me versus you. And we have to win those situations. So our guys need to just come out prepared, and we need to practice like that.”
Wisconsin at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ABC, 1410