All About The D

From the hype leading up to tonight’s game, everyone seems to be talking about who Ohio State’s quarterback will be and how they will fare against the Virginia Tech defense.  I’ll be focused, however, on the other side of the ball — on Ohio State’s defense.

Much as Cardale Jones deserves credit for stepping in and leading the OSU offense, the real key to last year’s National Championship, in my view, was the Buckeye defense.  The defense gave up a lot of points during the regular season and was gashed repeatedly by a mediocre Michigan team, which caused many fans — me included — to fret about how Ohio State would perform against Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers.  But it was like a light bulb was suddenly turned on after The Gamne, and against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon the defense played lights out.  The D held up and repeatedly delivered crucial stops even though, against the Crimson Tide and the Ducks, they had to deal with a lot of offensive turnovers that put the opponents in good field position with the games on the line.

We know that Virginia Tech has a good defense, and it will be interesting to see whether Ohio State can move the ball against the Hokies and exorcise the demons of last year’s sack-filled debacle.  But for the Buckeyes’ long-term success, I think the defense is the key — tonight and for the rest of the season.  During the last three games last year, the Buckeyes managed to get great pressure with a four-man rush, cover opposing receivers, and shut down three of the Heisman Trophy finalists — all at the same time.

The defense has lost some starters from last year’s squad, and Joey Bosa is out tonight due to a one-game suspension.  Can Darron Lee, Adolphus Washington, Josh Perry, and Tyvis Powell inspire and lead the defense to play like it did in those three unforgettable games?  I think that is the question.

Where’s The Defense?

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Purdue Boilermakers.  I’ll be there, in what is likely to be a very soggy Horseshoe, looking to answer one question:  what the heck has happened to the Ohio State defense?

Ohio State is undefeated, but I doubt if any Ohio State fan feels real good about that.  Last week the Buckeyes gave up 49 points, and almost 500 yards of offense, to Indiana.  The defense fell apart at the end of the game, giving up 21 fourth-quarter points and two late touchdowns that turns a comfortable win into a 52-49, recover-the-onside-kick-or-die nailbiter.  The indiana debacle is just the worst performance of an Ohio State defense that has given up a lot of points and a lot of big plays.  Is it the defensive scheme?  Injuries?  Poor tackling techniques?  Players who aren’t playing up to their capabilities?  Bad angles and coverage breakdowns?  This defense is so bad right now that it is undoubtedly all of those things — and probably a few more besides.

The embarrassing performance of the defense is particularly galling for two reasons.  First, Ohio State has traditionally prided itself on playing stout defense; during the Jim Tressel era the Buckeyes were a mainstay at the top of the college football scoring defense and total defense rankings.  With that history, it’s tough to see players blow assignments, miss tackles, and take bad angles that turn short gains into big ones.  Second, the lack of a defense this year is hard to swallow because the Ohio State offense is playing so well.  If the Buckeyes defense were good, this team might actually be in the conversation about the best teams in the country.  You just can’t include a team that gives up 49 points and had an end of game meltdown against Indiana in that conversation, however.

Today’s opponent, Purdue, is a bit of a cipher.  The Boilermakers looked good in their early games and lost a tight one to Notre Dame, but have been blown out in their last two games, against Michigan and Wisconsin.  In those games the Boilermakers have struggled to run the ball and put up points and have been gashed on defense — particularly on the ground.  When the Boilermakers have the ball, will the Buckeyes defense look better against what appears to be a weak offense, or will the Boilermaker offense feast on the offerings of a feeble Ohio State unit that will feature the team’s fullback playing middle linebacker?

Purdue always makes me uneasy, too, because it beat the Buckeyes in 2009 and last year.  I don’t want to see another loss to these guys.