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Ohio State football’s Matt Barnes on ‘tumultuous’ start to season, the Michigan loss and what comes next

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 12/28/2021 Nathan Baird, cleveland.com
Ohio State secondary coach Matt Barnes walks into team practice on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2021, ahead of the the Buckeyes' appearance in the Rose Bowl. © Nathan Baird/cleveland.com Ohio State secondary coach Matt Barnes walks into team practice on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2021, ahead of the the Buckeyes' appearance in the Rose Bowl.

LOS ANGELES — By the time Ohio State plays Utah in the Rose Bowl on Saturday, nearly four months will have passed since the loss to Oregon that changed the course of the season.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day made the biggest in-season change of his career, demoting defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and giving play calling duties to secondary coach Matt Barnes. Schematic and on-field personnel changes followed. Those shifts helped OSU’s defense improve, but as exemplified by the Nov. 27 loss at Michigan, did not solve every issue.

The name card in front of Barnes during OSU’s media session Tuesday still read “secondary coach.” He said he had a brief Zoom meeting with incoming defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who does not start until Jan. 2. Barnes said the two did not discuss the assistant’s future with the program.

A physical, run-based Utah offense gives Ohio State’s defense a chance to come full-circle.

“Particularly early on, it was a tumultuous year,” Barnes said. “I’ve said this before — when we weren’t playing great defense, I was right on top of that. I was in every meeting. And believe me, a lot of the decisions we made were things that I suggested when we weren’t playing well.”

So why did things improve after the switch?

Barnes deferred any personal credit to the collective performance of the staff and the natural maturation and development of young players. Ohio State’s linebacker rotation was all first-time starters. It started a true freshman at cornerback and lost starting safety Josh Proctor for the season in the Oregon game.

“As young players continued to play, they got better,” Barnes said. “So I don’t know how much of that (improvement) was schematic and whatever else as much as it was just getting organized and getting those guys more experience.”

Improvements were apparent throughout the season. However, those early deficiencies — especially against the run — were not seriously tested again until the game in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines rushed for 297 yards and controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Asked what stood out to the defensive staff when reviewing that game, Barnes mentioned intangibles.


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“Just playing with a chip on our shoulder, playing with energy — those are big things,” Barnes said. “But you know, we’re moving past that game. Now we’re excited about this game, another great challenge, great opportunity.”

What is the next opportunity for Barnes? He originally joined Day’s first staff in 2019 as special teams coordinator and was promoted when Coombs came on as defensive coordinator the next season. He said he and his wife and their soon-to-be-2-year-old son all love Columbus. Barnes would “love the opportunity” to remain with OSU.

Is this period before the transition awkward for the staff members who may or may not remain for 2022?

“I could see on the outside looking in you might think that, but we’re all professionals,” Barnes said. “We all understand how this business works. Shoot, just as a film junkie myself, what little bit of Oklahoma State I had a chance to watch, It’s an exciting defense. He does an outstanding job. I’m excited for for the future of our program defensively.”

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