Javon Hagan flung his arms behind his torso in celebration as if he were flying. The redshirt senior safety certainly felt like he was flying after he recovered a fumble and secured Ohio’s third turnover of the season.
While it was the Bobcats’ lone turnover in their 21-20 road win against Buffalo, it served a much greater purpose than just giving the ball back to the hands of quarterback Nathan Rourke and the offense.
It served as a vote of confidence.
“That was an electrifying moment,” Hagan said. “To finally get the offense the ball back, we’ve been struggling on getting turnovers. It’s about being at the right place at the right time.”
Hagan was right. It’s been a sluggish start for a defense that led the Mid-American Conference with 32 turnovers last season. And in its first four games this season, Ohio allowed an average of 464 yards per game, but it’s beginning to turn things around.
Against one of the most run-heavy teams in the country, the Bobcats held Buffalo to 181 rushing yards on 43 carries. The only team that had fewer rushing yards was the University of Pittsburgh, but that’s because it had found holes in its pass defense.
For the first time all season, Ohio’s defense played with a sense of balance. Its issues with missed tackles and lack of turnovers were noticeably minimal after its Week 5 bye, thus having two weeks to not only get healthy, but to fix major issues from nonconference play.
“We’re still a work in progress,” defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “The end result (of the game) is what we really wanted, but we still got a ways to go.”
Collins and the defense’s next challenge is to elevate that performance against Buffalo into the trenches of the conference schedule. It still has other areas to take care of that weren’t seen in its game with the Bulls too.
So far, the Bobcats have just five sacks, good for ninth in the conference.
Interceptions have been even tougher to find. Ohio has just one, and it came near the end of a 41-20 win over FCS Rhode Island in Week 1.
It’s not a complex method or secret formula to continue to elevate the defense, according to Collins. He believes that doing less is more in Ohio’s case.
“It’s just continue working on fundamentals and techniques,” he said, “understanding what their run fits are and knowing what their leverage is and being able to tackle. That’s a day-to-day process, it’s not something where we just snap our fingers at.”
While practices haven’t shifted away from their usual scripts, players spend time working through pursuit angles and hip tracking techniques for tackling fundamentals at the start of practice. There’s been more of an emphasis on celebrating in practice, too, in order to boost the morale and change the “next play” mentality that’s ingrained within the program.
Some of those celebrations look like dancing after getting a turnover against the scout team or yelling the lyrics to the rap songs that play throughout practice. Regardless, it’s a step away from the typical straight-faced business approach that Ohio has seemed to carry this season.
“I feel that we need to bring that juice because football is a game full of emotions,” Hagan said. “The issue in the past was one of us would make a play, and we would see guys not as excited. We have to straight up tell everyone to bring our emotions out and be enthused when we’re out on the field.”
That excitement showed after Hagan flew toward the sideline after his turnover against Buffalo. Everyone on the sideline had a mix of high-fiving, yelling and even sprinting the length of the sideline.
Ohio typically has been one of the most revered defenses in the conference, and there’s optimism that it will get back to the playing level it had a year before. It showed flashes of that last week, and there’s optimism that it can take another step in its homecoming game Saturday.
So whether it be Hagan pretending to fly or another member of the defense doing a creative move, the Bobcats feel ready for whatever comes their way.