COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio State defense that had seemingly hit rock bottom found itself still sinking several days after its worst performance of the season.
Somehow that didn’t stop it from climbing out and reaching a higher point than at any other time this year.
Reeling from the meltdown at Iowa, dealing with the painful evaluations that come with a blowout and searching for answers for problems that had popped up more than once, by the middle of the week the Buckeyes piled on two injuries to starting linebackers to add to the task of bouncing back in a must-win matchup Saturday against Michigan State. Turns out, though, the defense had more than enough depth, talent and pride to stay down for long, suffocating the Spartans in a 48-3 beatdown that solidified Ohio State’s hold on the Big Ten’s East Division.
“If someone had checked on me Thursday morning, it was not a good deal,” coach Urban Meyer said. “It was awful. Once again, those are two of your better players [Jerome Baker and Dante Booker] and two guys that are starters going down.
“But I think the focus was pretty impressive all week. … That’s tough to play the way they did.”
That performance was basically flawless, save for one meaningless field goal at the end of the first half.
And coming off the heels of a complete defensive meltdown last week at Iowa with a unit that was suddenly short-handed, it also qualifies as unexpected.
The Buckeyes effectively rebuilt themselves on the fly, moving Chris Worley out of the middle and back to the outside role
where he thrived a year ago. Tuf Borland slid into Worley’s spot and promptly racked up 11 tackles, including 2 for a loss
and a sack. And Malik Harrison got the nod for his first career start, instantly making a mark with a tone-setting sack on
the opening drive of the game.
Ohio State had plenty of blame to spread around last week at Iowa, and both the secondary and defensive linemen were integral in the bounce-back effort. But it was the linebackers who came in for so much scrutiny against the Hawkeyes, looking lost against play-action passes and struggling to defend tight ends in coverage. And it was that same unit that suddenly rediscovered its best form even while being forced to tinker with its personnel.
If there’s a better example of how Ohio State completely turned itself around in just a week, good luck finding it.
“Obviously coming off a loss like last week, it was one of those things where you couldn’t play soon enough,” Borland said. “When we came off the field, by Sunday we wanted to get back after it, we wanted to practice, we wanted to get that taste out of our mouth. This certainly helps.
“That’s something this program prides itself on: Stepping in and being ready. So this week, we just locked in, we knew what we had to do and we did it.”
There will still be questions about why those jobs weren’t done defensively a week ago, and that mystery is probably never going to be solved. But with a shot at the Big Ten championship on the line, the Buckeyes didn’t allow it to happen twice in a row.
After going three weeks with just a Hail Mary interception as the team’s only takeaway, Ohio State nabbed 3 against the Spartans. With the pass rush inexplicably held in check a week ago, the Buckeyes were relentless in the trenches and piled up 6 sacks. And even without Baker or Booker on hand, the linebackers made it almost impossible to move the football on the ground, flooding to the ball and holding Michigan State to 64 yards on 34 attempts.
There was obviously nowhere else to go but up for the Buckeyes. But how high they climbed out of that hole was entirely up to them.
“I don’t think we were really prepared [at Iowa], but I think this week, we really focused more,” Harrison said. “We watched more film, we came in on our own and worked, we got together.
“The emphasis was just to get better.”
The Buckeyes accomplished that mission.
And in the unlikely process, the defense helped save the season as well.
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