Enter Sabino

By Kyle Rowland on November 11, 2012 at 9:00a

Few teams test linebackers like the Wisconsin Badgers. They field two physical running backs behind an offensive line that is equally as tall as they are wide and strong. And they run right at you. It’s the very definition of smash mouth, Midwestern football. 

Captain Etienne Sabino is ready for a triumphant return.

Two years ago, undefeated and No. 1 Ohio State went to Madison and came away with a resounding loss, sending the Buckeyes’ national title hopes tumbling. Wisconsin returned the opening kickoff, which didn’t help. But neither did the 179 rushing yards and three touchdowns that John Clay and James White ran for.

The week before, Ohio State was dealt a blow when “Star” Tyler Moeller suffered a torn pectoral muscle. Wisconsin’s elimination of the Buckeyes’ linebackers with a complex scheme that took them out of the game contributed to the Badgers’ offensive onslaught. Without linebackers, stopping Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack is all but hopeless.

“You have to have your weight up to tackle Montee Ball,” sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “And they have one of the best lines in college football.”

That’s why the confidence surrounding linebacker Etienne Sabino’s progress from a broken fibula in his lower right leg is so encouraging for Ohio State. The senior captain was injured in the first half against Nebraska on Oct. 6. Six weeks later, he is slated to not only play against the Badgers but start.

“He’s had two good days (of practice),” head coach Urban Meyer said Wednesday. “He’s still got a bit of a limp, but he’s practicing. As a matter of fact, he’s running with the first-team defense.”

A lot has changed since the Sabino last played. The number of losses remains the same – zero – but the personnel on defense, specifically linebacker, may be unrecognizable.

Sabino, who celebrates his 22nd birthday Monday, has been used to hitting Zach Boren in practice. A fifth-year senior, Sabino has been around for Boren’s entire career. Hitting one another with Boren as a lead blocker at fullback has been a daily ritual the past four seasons.

Not anymore. Now they are running mates.

“That’s our plan,” said Meyer, when asked if Boren would stay at linebacker. “If it’s base (defense), those are our three top guys right now (Sabino, Boren and Ryan Shazier).”

Boren was moved to defense the Tuesday following Sabino’s injury due to a lack of depth at linebacker. He started that week against Indiana and became an immediate impact player, leading the team with eight tackles. He has 29 tackles on the season, including 1.5 tackles for loss.

The Ohio State defensive woes this season have been well documented, and the root of the issue lay with the linebackers. The Buckeyes’ struggles were so great at times that they went away from their base 4-3 defense and played in nickel.

Once attrition hit in the form of injuries – multiple freshmen are out and senior Storm Klein has a bulging disc in his back – there was no choice but to move Boren.

The performance from Boren at Indiana, while admirable, did not lead to an improved defense – at least not that night. Ohio State surrendered 481 yards and 49 points to the Hoosiers. It was the highest point total the Buckeyes had ever allowed in a win. Indiana scored on three plays of 25 yards or more and two of 50-plus yards.

Sabino's injury prompted Meyer to move Boren to defense.

But that was rock bottom. The past three games have each seen rapid improvement, culminating in the best defensive effort of the season last week against Illinois. The Fighting Illini didn’t have much fight, as they were limited to 170 total yards. In its past two games, Ohio State has held Penn State and Illinois without an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter.

Shazier has been the catalyst in the defensive tsunami. He was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after both the Penn State and Illinois games. His past three games have been as productive a stretch as any linebacker has had throughout the country all season: 34 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception return for a touchdown and one forced fumble.

Despite his tackles by the dozen, Shazier has felt a missing presence on the field without Sabino. He knows how much it pains Sabino not to be out there with his teammates. But Sabino has kept a positive attitude throughout the ordeal and was chatting with the defense on the sideline and still active in the meeting room.

“It’s great to have him back out there,” Shazier said. “ He’s got a lot of experience and it adds more to the linebacker corps.

“He’s real excited. He’s talking about it a lot. He’s happy, you can tell. He’s trying to get every rep he can take. He’s a great linebacker. It’s just good to have another dude out there we can trust.”

Freshman defensive end Noah Spence has gained the trust of coaches and teammates as he’s become more acclimated with the defense. It has led to senior defensive end Nathan Williams acting more freely and being able to rove and drop back in coverage as a hybrid linebacker.

“By having him learn a package and continuing to expand on that, that’s what you have to do,” defensive line coach Mike Vrabel explained of Spence. “You have to gain the confidence of your players and coaches to go out there and play. Every time he goes out there, we know he’s going to play hard. We just hope that his development continues and that role can expand a little bit.”

The cumulative effect with Spence’s development hasn’t only benefitted the linebackers, it has kept his fellow linemen more fresh due to substitutions and also led opposing offensive lines to try to contain Spence, along with Williams, John Simon, Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel.

Ohio State has also gotten back to basics, as in fundamentals. Four to six seconds of relentless effort, finishing tackles and leveraging the football were pounded into the heads of each defensive player on the Buckeyes, from walk-ons all the way up to Simon.

“We have to keep playing to the final whistle,” Shazier said.

In Madison, they’ll first need to drag a running back to the ground.


Comments Show All Comments

1stYrBuckIClub's picture

I'm so glad Sabino has really stepped up into the role of leader... It was a very generous and selfless move for him to take a redshirt as a junior, and a lot of us fans had hoped it would pay off in his development. I kinda hope guys that are slightly underperforming (like Curtis Grant) can see that you don't always succeed early, but with a lot of hard work and preparation, your time pays off like it has for Sabino.

Nkohl13's picture

I really hope he comes in and dominates. It would be great to see him finish on a high note like that after waiting so long and finally stepping up this season only to break his leg. 

ziplock007's picture

Wisky and TTUN on the horizon... glad to have you back

biggy84's picture

I'm wondering if Curtis Grant is privately suspended from playing. I remember a couple of years ago Dorian Bell was suspended and the public didn't know about it until later. Moving your starting fullback to defense when you had a guy start there earlier in the season is very odd. 

MediBuck's picture

Apparently he doesn't have the mental aspect of the game down (both in scheme and hunger). The guy is obviously a physical specimen, but until he puts it together, will have to ride the bench...

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

MediBuck's picture

The guy had a tough road at OSU, even redshirting unselfishly as 1styrbuck noted. Just when it seemed like he'd turned the corner as a player and leader, he breaks his fibula and has to prowl the sideline. I hope he has a monster of a game tomorrow and has a ridiculous sendoff against scUM.

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes

RBuck's picture

Have to wonder if Sabino will be game ready. Also going to be interesting to see who's lined up where and what schemes the D's using.

Long live the southend.

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

Off topic, but gotta vent...

It's ridiculously asinine the love these pundits have for the SEC. Alabama loses to a 2 loss team who DOMINATED that game, then drops three spots in the poll. Georgia and LSU, both one-lossers, still highly ranked. Methinks the SEC is living off past reputation, and no pundits want to admit the whole freaking conference was over valued this year. I hope they get shut out of a NC game and come crashing back to earth. Been hearing that stupid chant for too long. Die, SEC, die!!!

I like cookies.


Their time in the sun is fading. Saban wants to try the NFL again before retiring and Miles may end up at TTUN before its all said and done. Florida's best days are behind them. Spurrier is nearing retirement. The ONLY reason the SEC gets the love its does is because of ESPN (who are owned by Disney, the most evil corporation on the planet). They gotta protect that huge TV contract. They promote the SEC teams not because they're good but because they're trying to advertise so they get a return on that contract investment. I really, really hope when the playoff comes and a 1-2-3 loss SEC team gets into the Top 4 over undefeated non-SEC teams that there will be hell to pay.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

That one pisses me off as well - OSU wins two games and we dropped 4 spots... Welll here is hoping KSU and Oregon stay undefeated...

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

flabuck's picture

Southern, I know what you're saying.  It's circular logic that keeps them all in the top 10.  Ridiculous. 

flabuck's picture

Boren makes me nervous.  I love his effort but he seems slow running sideline to sideline.  Really disappointed that Grant or Williams didn't step up.

Earle's picture

Wisconsin's ground attack is custom-tailored for Boren.  I expect a big game from him on Saturday.  Michigan will be more of a challenge for him, but he is smart enough to put himself in the right positions to make up for his lack of lateral speed.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

grant87's picture

Glad 2 have him back!  Even if he plays 1/2 of the snaps his experience should help tOSU get after those Badgers!

Maybe tomorrow, when today will be yesterday things will be clearer.