Front Seven Awaits Wisconsin's Vaunted Rushing Attack

By Kyle Rowland on September 24, 2013 at 9:15a
Melvin Gordon, meet Noah Spence.

For years, the most unpopular person in Columbus was the offensive coordinator. The win percentage was irrelevant. A conservative game plan left butts in seats but caused yelling to rise. Rarely did a week pass without criticism directed toward Jim Bollman.

Ohio State now has an up-tempo offense filled with playmakers. In a role reversal, it’s the defense that has drawn disapproval. Suddenly, Luke Fickell, the man who kept the Buckeye football program from caving in on itself, is the target of endless scorn.

It started last year, when the Silver Bullets played uninspired football the first half of the season before bottoming out at Indiana, allowing the most points ever in an Ohio State win – 49. They closed the season strong, finishing as the second-ranked defense nationally for the month of November. Even that came with head coach Urban Meyer being present in defensive staff meetings.

The unit lost its entire defensive line in the offseason. The lone returning starter along the front seven is linebacker Ryan Shazier. They’ve been adequate through four games, though rumblings could be heard after the Buckeyes gave up 34 points and 500-plus yards at Cal.

Enter Wisconsin and its ground-and-pound offense. The Badgers rank third nationally in rushing offense with 350 yards per game and 12th in total offense with almost 550 yards per game. It will be the first test for the newly formed front seven, and possibly the biggest of the season.

“It’s not as tricky as you might think, but that doesn’t make it easy,” Fickell said. “Some people say, ‘Wow, this isn’t a tough one to prepare for.’ Oh, yeah, it is.”

When it comes to producing running backs, Wisconsin’s factory would make Henry Ford proud. The program spits out All-Americans on a near annual basis. On the current roster is the NCAA’s active career rushing leader, James White, and the season’s top rusher, Melvin Gordon, who’s already tallied over 600 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Two great backs,” Meyer said. “I don’t know where the heck they keep getting these guys, but they have great backs. We have our hands full.”

The Buckeyes will field a young, inexperienced front seven combined with a veteran secondary. The Badgers’ power-run game will provide the first litmus test for Ohio State’s much-maligned linebacker corps. The nickel and dime defenses used the first four weeks will take a week off.

“This will be the biggest challenge for our defensive front seven to this point and maybe the rest of the year.”

“We need to take our game to a different level,” linebacker Curtis Grant said. “In games like this, everybody has to maximize their talent.”

The defense welcomes back Michael Bennett after a one-game absence. Adolphus Washington is probable. He’s sat out the past two games with a groin injury. Joey Bosa, Steve Miller and Chris Carter are just some of the names that have emerged as depth along the defensive line in light of injuries. 

“We’ve had a lot of guys who have stepped up this year and we needed that,” Miller said. “We’re just going to keep it going.”

It’s the linebacker position where the concerns lie. Grant still hasn’t had a breakout performance that shows coaches he’s finally put his struggles in the rearview mirror, and Meyer spent parts of last week lamenting the progression of Joshua Perry. Meyer declared Perry one of the most talented players on the defense, but acknowledged he’s yet to blend that into productive play. It starts in practice.

“We’re developing a lot of young guys," Fickell said. "We only have one guy with any true experience, and that’s Ryan Shazier. A couple times he’s gone down and we’ve had a true freshman [Trey Johnson] come in and take his spot. There’s definitely [a depth issue]. We probably have 10 guys in that room. The thing that you see out of that room is there are a lot of guys that aren’t there. In the last four or five years, we have had probably five or six guys that for different reasons are still not in that room. There are a lot of different things that have put us in that situation. We are still developing and we have got some depth issues.”

Someone that many believed would help alleviate the issues at linebacker is Mike Mitchell. But a quarter of the way through the season, it appears he’ll be redshirted. Mitchell is yet to appear on defense or special teams. Fickell said Mitchell is ready to play, but the Buckeyes will hold him out unless the situation calls it. They aren’t going to burn a year of eligibility for a handful of meaningless snaps.

“He still takes reps with the defense,” Fickell said. “He’s getting the best of both worlds right now because we might get an extra year out of him. He’s willing and able, but his opportunity has to arise.”

It’s only September, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of Saturday’s game. Ohio State and Wisconsin are pegged to be the top two teams in the Leaders Division. With Penn State ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game, the winner will hold an all-important one-game lead in the standings. Meyer referred to the Badgers as the king of the Big Ten since they’re the league’s three-time defending champion. But don’t think the Buckeyes forget that they finished undefeated a year ago.

“This will be the biggest challenge for our defensive front seven to this point and maybe the rest of the year,” Meyer said. ”The run game's real. You get embarrassed real fast if you’re not gap sound and handling your business.”


Comments Show All Comments

BierStube's picture

Having a fast paced offense is a double edged sword.  While we score and score fast, it does put the defense on the field much more now than during the JT years.  I have not watched much of Wisconsin this year.  That being said, they do seem to have a number of long runs each game (watching highlights).  In some cases, those runs account for more than half of the total rushing yardage.  We need to make them drive the field, force long second and third downs, and make them try and pass to beat us.

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

Buckeye_Ryan's picture

That is true about the fast pace of the offense, although I've been pretty impressed with their ability to slow it down and go more ground-and-pound when needed. With El Guapo back that ability should be even greater. 

Born a Buckeye, raised a Buckeye, will die a Buckeye.

buckz4evr's picture

The good news is Meyer has shown he can slow the game down if needed.  A lot of fast paced teams struggle with that because they don't have elite running backs that can take over a game. beat me to

alust2013's picture

I'm not entirely certain why everyone is making a huge deal out of the defense in the Cal game. They have a solid offense with a serious passing attack. Sure, we gave up a couple of weird big plays, but I think they are going to put up pretty big numbers against just about anybody. If they had a better defense they would be a real contender. I won't be worried unless we get run over by Wisky. 

...and Michigan still sucks.

Breakawayspeed's picture

Wiskeys "ground & pound" approach works well against the inferior teams during the non-conference schedule and some weak in-conference defenses ( Looking at you Indiana).  But they are unlikely to get 350 rushing yards against tOSU and control the outcome.  However, it is step-up time for the front seven.  This ought to be fun to watch! 
I think they are basically a one trick pony.  Load the box and see if they can pass themselves to a win.  My only concern is Abbbadarois...Abadaious...err # 4.

KeithByarsRightFoot's picture

The red-shirt on Mitchell is perplexing to me. He was a five-star recruit and really highly regarded. Does Meyer think he's a five-year type of player? Given the lack of depth at linebacker right now, I don't see the benefit of pushing his eligibility back into the 2014 class. Does anyone know if he's been injured or is otherwise underperforming?

Kyle Rowland's picture

Both. Suffered a concussion during fall camp and just wasn't progressing on the field like many believed he would. Somewhat comparable to situation Curtis Grant went through in Year 1.

jccavanaugh's picture

I get that, but I don't understand Meyer's statement that he's "ready to play," at least not in the context of all his previous statements that if you're ready, you play. We're only four games in to the season; if he has recovered from the concussion and progressed as a player, it's not so late in the season that it would be a waste to play him. If either the concussion or his play is still nagging him, then what does "ready to play" mean?

whobdis's picture

Seems kind of odd to me as well. I hear "we haven't developed any depth at linebacker" yet we are redshirting Mitchell. The only way to develop depth is to PLAY. Sure one has to learn the D..but Boren was able to grasp the position fundamentally in a week. I know one thing..we are getting to the point where we've had WAY to many LB recruits come in and not see the field. Is it ironic that Boren performed so well without any coaching?

d5k's picture

My interpretation is we are only redshirting him if he is not needed (i.e. if Curtis Grant stays healthy/productive all year).  It may have been possible to redshirt Trey Johnson had Shazier not had the minor injuries earlier in the year.  If he ends up not starting until his 3rd year I would rather him have an extra year of eligibility than 20 minutes of mop-up time even if he still goes to the NFL early.  
Redshirting is actually building our depth for future seasons due to a lack of sophomores and juniors after guys switching positions or leaving the program.

45has2's picture

Boren was a linebacker in high school and converted to fullback at TOSU so it wasn't as if he never played the position and instantly became a stud "without any coaching."

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes


If ever there was a game where we will miss Schutt it will be this one. I'm curious as to how effective Diesel will be. Farris has been a pleasant surprise and the fact Bosa is doing so well has been HUGE. One could argue he has been the defensive MVP for the first part of the season.
I refuse to think an Urban Meyer coached team is going to get run over. We're going to give up yards just because they're pretty good at what they do. But if we make them 1-dimensional and get pressure on Stave (remember Simon had 4 sacks last year) we should be ok. We let them tear open holes in our front 7? Dont even want to think about it. Bucks need to come out fired up and not back down. Ever.

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

d5k's picture

With these backs it will be more about not losing contain or completely whiffing by taking bad angles.  Even if the first guy doesn't make the tackle we need to properly force him back into the teeth of the defense.

Jonnferrell's picture

I think the defense is ready to make a statement against Wisconsin.  This is going to be a fun game.

"I miss Brady Hoke."

CharlieBuckeye's picture

Michael Bennett needs to be Jonathan Hankins of last.  Chris Carter and Chase Farris need to eat up space.  Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington need to be John Simon.  Bosa & Steve Miller need to provide the depth.
As far as the line backing core is concerned - There is only one way to play - Get to the runner with speed; break down the runner and bring mayhem every play. 
Corners and safeties stay disciplined or Aberderjus (Sic) will burn us deep. 
Other than those items, I don't think the Buckeyes have a thing to worry about.

"To have a great life simply follow this rule:  Do not bring undo conflict into your life..."

Charlie Baker - OSU - 1986

avail31678's picture

This seems to be the story every year.  We have to stop their run game.  Every year we seem to be up to the challenge.   Last year wasn't GREAT - we held them to 206 rushing - and Ball had a big game, but we still won with an offense lacking any real productivity from Braxton.  The year before they had 89 yards rushing. 
They're averaging less than 200 yds passing/game. 
I don't want to say I'm not worried.  It's nerve-racking watching Wisconsin run and seemingly get 4-5 yards every play.  Yet SOMEHOW we force punts every year we play them, and we find ways to win.
I think the difference this year will be:  they can't just sell out on containing Braxton and expose a mediocre offense with no playmakers.  Braxton and/or Guiton are perfectly capable of distributing the ball to a number of playmakers this year.  We will be able to spread them out more than we have in the past.  Our receivers are getting open a lot more this year, and our QB's will find them.

Nutinpa's picture

Every year except one year.....2010 when we were ranked # 1.  Of course it was in Camp Randall and one of the worst beatdowns of Buckeye team in recent memory whether the score indicated it or not.
This year....a different story.  No bruising RBs like Clay...but the two scatbacks they have could run all over the field if our D doesn't come out hungry and ready to play.  Over-running plays, like they have a tendency to do...would also be a very bad idea. 
Also....a cat and mouse game for our O.  I will leave it up to you X and O guys as to how Wisky's 3-4 alignment will put a wrinkle in our plans on Sat night.
Shaping up to be a great game.  BTN hyping it up like crazy.  Might as well...the national media is wetting their pants over the LSU - GA game. 

BuddhaBuck's picture

Equally important: Christian Bryant and CJ Barnett need to wrap up and not go for the ball-strip or the knockout...

Don't text while driving.

avail31678's picture

Also, COVER ABBREDERIS!!!!!!  He's their only receiver with any siginificant catches/yards!

RBuck's picture

No wonder. Seems like he's been there 10 years.,

Long live the southend.

buckz4evr's picture

I think what hurt Mitchell was not being on campus early.  It would be hard learning the defense in such a short time.  His best quality is his instincts but at the college level, you have to know your assignments, also. 

ScarletNGrey01's picture

Let's not forget the buckeyes have a pretty good stable of running backs also.  Would be sweet to outgain the badgers on the ground as well as in the air on the way to a comfortable win over them.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

buckeyepastor's picture

Groin injuries are tricky to come back from, and easily aggravated, but we could really use Adolphus Washington this Saturday.   Hoping that he can go for 25-30 plays or so

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Turtlebuster's picture

Control the ball with our stable of RBs...they have 2 very good backs, but I think we have the best RB on the field (Hyde) and the ones behind him arent too shabby...

sbentz4's picture

Does anyone else think this game should be a blowout?  We are almost back to full strength and the badgers have not looked very impressive in their one real game.  

ejoceans's picture

No! I don't see that happening. IDK why but if Brax is playing in basically his first game and its against whisky I just don't think it will be a cake walk. I think we will win but maybe by 10 or so.  We haven't played anyone so far and I'm nervous to see how we stack up against a half way good team

Lets do this Brutus

Nutinpa's picture

Many think it will be a blow-out - I sure as hell don't.
Toughest O line and best running game we will face all season.  
Luke wasn't just being nice to avoid a bulletin-board comment.  Just cuz we know what they will do, doesn't mean our D will stop it.  Add to that...Wisky shut down our O for the entire 2nd half last year and this sizes up to be a great game no matter what most S&G fans think.

Bamabucknut's picture

I think the heat on Luke Fickell will increase significantly after Saturdays game.I think it will be a game of who scores the most points  because our defense won't be able to stop Wisconsin. The offense won't have the luxury of running the ball since Wisconsin will know that is a very predictable strategy to shelter the defense.
My opinion  Fickell has "Bollmanitis".It's the only way he knows how to coach.Urban will have to get into the defense AGAIN...just like he had to do last year.

Ethos's picture

My hope is we score 3-4 TD's in the 1st 20 minutes of the game.  That will force Wisconsin to abandon the run-only game and have to pass.  Thus sealing our victory.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

ejoceans's picture

This isnt FA&M. These guys will test us for reals

Lets do this Brutus

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

I may get a ton of thumbs down for this but Luke Fickell gets a big pass from me!!!  He is a complete Buckeye, through and through and he gladly stepped into a horrendeous no win situation for himself as the interim head coach!  He handled the situation with dignity, class, and a no excuses attitude.  He has also torn up the recruiting trail as well.  There is no way in the world I will ever lob a negative comment towards this man!!!  He has earned that many many many times over, IMHO!

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

buckeyepastor's picture

This weekend will tell us a lot.  Most of this year, we will play offenses that put us in nickel most of the game, where there is less pressure on the LBs to make plays.  Saturday, the LBs must pursue and tackle very well.   If they do, hats off to Fickell and others for preparing them and coaching them up.   If they don't, we have work to do.   
Meyer has made it clear that there are very high expectations for his staff.   I trust that if he chooses to keep Fickell, and the other defensive coaches, it means they are doing a great job.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Ethos's picture

ehhhh yeah, but I wouldn't mind if he got "encouraged" to try head coaching an FCS school or further his career and such.
I like the coach, and I don't blame him for our defensive woes (the few that we have that is) as there are TWO coordinators so it's not all on him.  I think he's a great guy and everything, just think its a learning experience for him, and i'm not a fan of OHio STate paying top dollar to teach coaches anything, if you are at Ohio State as a D Coord, you should already know everything you need to know.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

Citrus's picture

I think the D preformed well last year. I think our D-Line is better than last year. I get the love for Big Hank and Simon but I think Spence, Diesel, and co are more talented. I think grant has a big game.  Very happy that Bennet is back. Those space eaters in the middle are vital. 

Qujo's picture

I am of the belief that the offenses we faced so far this year (other than SDSU) were where we had to play a lot of nickel and dime. So determining how we play against a downhill style was hard to get a read on. In many instances our LB's weren't even on the field. When the opponent did run we were many times still in nickel or dime, so we had a lot of db's coming in trying to make the stop where our only LB on the field (Shazier) was trying to rush from the outside. 
This will be a different test for our defense one where we will need to rely more heavily on our LB's (a truer test than in the past of our LB's) and where run support from our DB's will be very important. 
So perceptions of our LB's this year are relatively obscure since they haven't been on the field all that much nor in the type of package where traditional Buckeye defenses under Heacock have been known for. That changes this week and other than perhaps NW and IND will be the norm going forward. I am nervous and anxious to see how the young defense performs. 

Our arch rivals.... 11 National Championships, 10 before 1949 - eight of eleven shared. Trying to respect them... trying.... Ugh!

buckz4evr's picture

It gives me a degree of solace knowing Heacock is on this staff.  I'm sure his imprint will be felt.

Dougger's picture

Fickell is the co-defensive coordinator with Withers. Why doesn't Withers get a share of this criticism as well?

I like football

Nutinpa's picture

I wonder the same thing.
Without a least from a fan's perspective as I have no idea what goes on inside the WHAC, but Withers stays under the radar more than any Coordinator or "assistant head coach" I have ever seen or heard of.

okiebuck's picture

Load the box and put Roby mano y mano on Abberderis; let our All American lock him down. Kind of like the coach in Hoosiers; I want to know what gum he's chewing.

"Fate has cards that it don't want to show"