This week’s column looks to Lynyrd Skynyrd for inspiration as we examine why the Buckeye defense has looked more like its old self the past couple of weeks. Hint: It’s really not that complicated. With Ohio State off this week, we also take a look at the most interesting Big Ten matchup on tap while also keeping an eye on the Buckeyes’ next opponent.
What we learned this week: It’s amazing what better players can do for a defense.
That Ohio State is playing better when the other team has the ball is no coincidence when you look at the players in the lineup.
There is no doubt they were missing Nathan Williams, who was not there for Indiana, and they needed players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington to step up.
Perhaps the unit would have rounded into form sooner with the improving play of Etienne Sabino against Michigan State and (a very good) Nebraska offense, but his injury set them back yet again before that debacle in Indiana on Oct. 13.
Zach Boren’s move to linebacker from fullback was necessitated by the broken bone in Sabino’s leg, and the Boren of the 52-22 win over Illinois is a better player than the one of the 52-49 win over the Hooisers three weeks earlier.
Don’t forget CJ Barnett was out of the lineup for a few games and needed a little time to get re-acclimated with the rest of his teammates in the speed of the game, too. That was key as it allowed Orhian Johnson to return to Star, where he has been the most productive player at the position this season.
I hate to sound like an excuse machine for the coaching staff, but sometimes people go a little overboard in looking to blame people when something goes wrong. Often there really are reasonable explanations for why things don’t turn out exactly how they’re expected to.
On top of all that, you’ve got a new staff learning what each member knows, what the players can do within that knowledge and how to put it all together.
I like the potential of the quarters coverage that they went into the season wanting to play, but I can see where it could be a dicey situation, with a variety of people learning it all at once. I like the different options it gives you, and I think it’s just about the best coverage out there – when played correctly – but then I’m a little old school in defensive philosophy. I grew up in an old-fashioned 5-2 set that involved hitting, reading and shedding blocks at every position up front rather than all of mostly anchoring one spot. I get the ups and downs involved. I see that it puts a lot of responsibility on each individual player, and that it leaves the door open for one guy’s mistake to make more of a negative impact on a play, but done right it’s pretty dang hard to beat because when you have so many guys playing two gaps, you’ve got multiple outs all over the field. It can work out to be the equivalent of having extra defenders out there, a reverse of what the offense is trying to do with the zone read and option stuff that hs become so prevalent in the past decade.
To their credit, the coaching staff never seem to panic. They’ve all been through transitions like this before, and surely they had seen some of the similar struggles. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight no matter how badly everyone wanted it to.
Urban Meyer’s greatest strength as a coach is undoubtedly his passion, but sometimes I think that gets him in a little trouble. And I’m not just talking about his famous bout with burnout, I’m talking about even just with the things he says.
As a member of the media I certainly appreciate his bluntness and honesty with us in terms of a lot of different things he says, but I think sometimes he gets a little ahead of himself. Sometimes we hear him talking about what he wants to see in an ideal situation, but I am pretty confident he’s realistic enough to know he’s going to have to settle for less than perfect on a regular basis, particularly in Year One, whether he likes it or not. That usually comes out through the course of a 30-minute press conference, but sometimes it gets lost in our little soundbite world that we now live because the first thing is often what gets highlighted even if the next sentence hollows it out a little bit and brings it back to the center.
Slowing down that Illinois offense is no great feat in and of itself, but holding any team under 200 total yards is to be commended. It’s more than we probably would have expected to see from this Ohio State unit even against a bad offense prior to this week, so in a world where average is somewhat understandably surprising to see, we should know when the defense turns in a dominant performance.
Meanwhile, the offense putting 50 points on the board without Braxton Miller going absolutely crazy is noteworthy as well. It speaks to the development of a lot of guys around him. The offensive line obviously did a lot of work to make holes for Carlos Hyde, and the junior running back did his best to take advantage.
Meyer sounded a little bit sour after the game, but when you can nitpick a specific part of the passing game after quarterback throws for 220 yards and a touchdown, you must be living okay. Don’t overlook the fact he was complaining about only the drop-back passing game, not the play-action part that was just fine, and quite productive as a matter of fact.
Bottom line: Players are developing and/or getting healthier on both sides of the ball, and that usually makes coaching a lot easier to do.
What we can expect to learn this week: How good is Wisconsin’s defense in space?
The Badgers have stopped a two-year slide in effectiveness of their stop unit this season, but I’m not sure how tested they truly are yet.
Nebraska spent half its win over the Badgers in late September running into itself and shooting itself in the foot and still gained 340 yards and scored 30 points in the conference opener.
Since then, Wisconsin’s defense has played somewhere between well and okay, but the competition still hasn’t been much to be scared of, particularly as far as passing goes.
Purdue has good threats on the outside, but hapless Danny Hope played around with his quarterbacks that afternoon and probably hurt the chances of his team getting into any type of rhythm. As against Ohio State, the Boilermakers picked up almost all of their yards on a handful of big plays. Wisconsin picked off two Minnesota passes, but that was against a true freshman in his first start. Andrew Maxwell, the league’s No. 10-most efficient passer at the moment, threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns without an interception as Michigan State beat the Badgers in overtime two weeks ago. The Badgers slowed down Le’Veon Bell, but most good defenses do because of the poor quality of the MSU offensive line.
And why does this matter? Because Indiana has the best passing game in the Big Ten and plays host to Wisconsin this weekend in what could turn out to be a de facto Big Ten Leaders division title game.
Not only are there high stakes, the noon game is of added interest because the Buckeyes are idle and Wisconsin is their next obstacle to a perfect start under Urban Meyer.
If Indiana can stretch the Badgers out from sideline to sideline, and execute consistently, there should be plenty of opportunities to make things happens. Running back Stephen Houston is a weapon as well on the inside for head coach Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers.
The Buckeyes have to like their chances against that Wisconsin defense if it has problems dealing with improving Indiana. Although what they want to accomplish with their formations is different, the Buckeyes will be able to provide some of the same problems in space in two weeks in Camp Randall Stadium when they look to improve to 11-0.