When it comes to thinking of the great defensive players in OSU history, usually they are names like Spielman, Katzenmoyer, Hawk, Laurinaitis, Vrabel, Willis, Tatum, and Doss. All of those names did many things great, but one thing was a constant, stopping the run. Yes the home of the Silver Bullets has been known for churning out great defensive backs along with linebackers/defensive line, but make no mistake, those great ones in the backfield could stop the run as well.
Stopping the opponent from holding the ball in the three yards and a cloud of dust Big Ten has been a huge reason for the reign of dominance OSU has enjoyed throughout the decades. More recently, no team has been able to ‘out physical’ the Bucks in the past decade (aside from that Florida game that we have selectively forgotten about) and it has served them well throughout the years. Looking into our mirror from last season, and our crystal ball for next season, we will focus on the impact of stopping the run game.
Last season, with such high expectations, it was very surprising for most Buckeye fans to see our Bullets struggling in the early part of the year. Fast forward to now, it was impressive to see the transformation to the end of the year and the improvement the entire unit made. Specifically, as far as overall rushing statistics, the defensive unit far surpassed their ability to stop the pass game.
To be fair, some of the stats of the opponent’s running game vs. their pass game may be skewed. After all, OSU did go 12-0, which leaves little time for the other teams to run often when they are losing. In 2012, Ohio State allowed 116 yards rushing per game, ranking 2nd in the Big Ten (Michigan State was first) and 14th in the nation. That statistic sounds pretty impressive, but look a bit closer. With 392 opponent rushing attempts, that leaves an average of 3.55 yards per rush. With the tremendous history of this football team and the talent level that is continuously arriving in Columbus, that number will not quite be good enough for the coaches this season. In comparison, Alabama led the nation in rushing defense when it comes to yards per attempt at 2.43 yards. That means ball control, and it also means national titles.
Looking more intensively, it’s easy to see that the OSU defense showed some signs of brilliance last season as far as rushing goes, but is still looking for consistency game-to-game. For starters, the Miami, Michigan State, Penn State, Illinois and Michigan games were very impressive in the defensive rushing category. Those teams had -1, 34, 32, 74, and 108 yards on the ground respectively. Take out that breakaway from “Shoelace” and that’s even more impressive. But even with that, UM averaged close to six yards per play total, which will not fly with Coach Meyer.
There were times of struggle. Cal had 224 yards rushing in Ohio Stadium, something that is more rare than a high APR score for the football team in Ann Arbor. The other bad showings were versus Nebraska and Wisconsin, both of which make a little more sense. Nebraska has one of the more elusive running quarterbacks in the country, and Wisconsin had an offensive line that was big enough to push back the Red Army if it wanted to.
However, regardless of the opponent’s rushing prowess, the lack of big plays on defense and the allowance of offensive big plays forced the coaches to take a ‘bend but try not to snap in half violently’ approach. The Buckeye defense ranked 79th in the country in tackles for loss, 66th in the country in turnovers, and allowed Indiana to rack up 481 total yards.
The Cal game seemed to be the impetus for the change this season, and the first sign of the new defense taking shape was in East Lansing. The piece that helped was undoubtedly Zach Boren. The stability he brought to the middle was indescribable, and the fact that the defensive coaches could finally start to use blitzes from corners, safeties and linebackers was directly related back to their trust in him. That trust was non-existent early in the year, and the shell type defense the backfield grew into towards the end of the year was able to be flexible due to that stability in the middle. Coach Fickell knew the coverages would not be busted with a creative blitz, therefore keeping the offense on their toes. This was not possible early in the year, and being able to stop the ground game in conference, specifically November, is paramount to success for any team. It didn’t come right away with Boren, as the Indiana offense can attest to, but it did shape up nicely by November.
More specifically, however, it’s easy to see one glaring problem on the defense which might have put the Bullets in bad positions so many times. Everyone knows the leading tackler, Ryan Shazier, and have heard about his team leading 115 total tackles. The problem is, the next three leading tacklers were two safeties and a corner (Christian Bryant, Bradley Roby and CJ Barnett). That does not lend itself well to completely shutting down an offense. Yes we may be somewhat satisfied with the 14th best rushing defense, but OSU has to find more consistency in their linebacking corps. Zach Boren was the sixth leading tackler, and he played half the year on offense.
The good news for OSU, and there is a TON of it, is we have one of the most explosive linebackers in the country back, the aforementioned Ryan Shazier. And with the emergence of young guys like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Josh Perry and hopefully Mike Mitchell, Trey Johnson and Curtis Grant, the future seems bright enough to wear shades indoors for the Buckeyes. Also, looking at the statistics, the average yards per play went down more than a full yard from September to November, showing improvement by the players and coaches to get it fixed when it mattered most.
And remember, this is a team that shutout Michigan the entire second half to get the biggest win of the year.
And now, the outlook seems ever positive for the upcoming season, with a schedule that has dynamic quarterbacks in Northwestern and Nebraska, proven rushing machine Wisconsin, and a Sparty team that now is partially run by the walrus Jim Bollman. But all of this pales in comparison to the run that MUST be stopped. After stomping Michigan again this year, as we’ve been known to do as of late, we have a herd of elephants running at us. The Alabama Crimson Tide, a team Urban Meyer is waging war against, sports the best running game and best run defense in the country over the past 7 years. In order to compete with it, you need speedy linebackers with size. We now have that, and we can stop them. I wouldn’t have said that in the past, this year I believe it. You should to, Alabammer.
When it mattered most, last year’s OSU team could stop the run. Early in the year, and in the first half of THE Game I suppose, that darn tackling bug bit us again. But overall, stopping the run was something the coaches kept working on, and it ultimately led to the best feeling of all, putting those gold pants around the necklace. Now, let’s do it again vs. that team up north. After that, let’s poach some elephants in the national title.