EVANSTON, Ill. – The 2013 Ohio State football season has played out in predictable fashion thus far. The Buckeyes sport a 6-0 record, sit inside the top 5 of the rankings and remain poised to earn a spot in the national championship game.
But certain components of the team have not gone according to plan, namely the defense. The hope at the midway point of 2013 is that the unit has a similar second-half surge as last season’s group, because a continuation of the current product won’t result in an undefeated season.
On Saturday, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes won a close game on the road at night against the then-No. 16 team in the country. It’s not a win that should be scoffed at. Northwestern could very well be the second best team in the Big Ten. But the Wildcats exploited Ohio State’s secondary and defense as a whole, an event that’s occurred at an abnormal rate the past two seasons.
The past two weekends served as statements by the Buckeyes, most specifically to the Big Ten. Ohio State is back atop the conference with challengers virtually nonexistent. Wisconsin and Northwestern were supposed to provide answers, though, and instead there are more questions. Or the answer could just be that the defense still hasn’t reached the elite level of seasons past.
Already in 2013, red flags have been raised in wins over Cal, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Each team found tremendous success throwing the football against the Buckeyes. It’s come with such ease at times that some may have thought Ohio State was playing a prevent.
In mid-September, Cal torched the Buckeyes to the tune of 503 total yards – 371 passing – and 34 points. Coaches and players said after the game that yards and points were inevitable when considering the amount of plays Cal runs. But head coach Urban Meyer admitted he was concerned about peeved about the number of missed tackles.
Two weeks later, it was Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis that were efficient against the Silver Bullets. Stave threw for 295 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Abbrederis reeled in a career-high 207 receiving yards and a touchdown. Most surprising was that almost all of the yards came at the expense of All-American cornerback Bradley Roby.
Meyer took part of the blame, saying the coaches were so concerned about stopping the run, which they did, that it resulted in Roby being left on an island.
In the latest game that saw deficiencies in the defense, Ohio State allowed 437 total yards with 343 coming through the air. And it wasn’t just the openness of the receivers that is cause for concern, the inability to tackle in space became a critical downfall for the Buckeyes. Northwestern had what seemed to be 100 yards after contact.
It was the week before, following the win over the Badgers, that Meyer emphatically slammed his hand down on the podium when speaking about the season-ending injury senior safety and captain Christian Bryant had suffered just moments before. It was evident his leadership would be missed, but Bryant could also turn out to be the defense’s most irreplaceable player based on his on-field play.
“That man has a certain vibe about him and he has a certain swagger to him that he adds to the defense,” Roby said. “Without him, I feel like we did a good job stepping up. It’ll only get better from here.”
Starting in his place was Pittsburgh Brown, and the fifth-year senior struggled from the opening snap on. He was beaten by quarterback Kain Colter who lined up as a receiver on the Wildcats’ first touchdown. Brown gave up several long receptions, missed tackles and was run over by Northwestern running back Venric Mark.
Earlier in the week, Meyer said the development of true freshman Vonn Bell would be sped up. Now, that could include taking over the starting safety position that Bryant previously occupied.
But it wouldn’t be fair to just pick on the secondary. The defensive line failed to apply pressure on the Northwestern quarterbacks much of the game. However, when the defense was called upon, it delivered.
Doran Grant came up with a critical fourth-quarter interception, the unit held the Wildcats on 4th-and-1 late in the quarter, and other than one 80-yard drive, Ohio State limited Northwestern to 139 second-half yards.
Grant said adjustments made during halftime led to his timely interception.
“The defensive line committed themselves to us and we committed ourselves to the defensive line,” he said. “They got the pressure on the quarterback and I did what I had to do to make a play for the team.”
Third-down conversions was arguably the biggest stat of the game, a tale of that tape that told a significant story. The Wildcats entered Saturday night’s showdown converting more than half of their third-down attempts. But a bend-but-don’t-break gang of Silver Bullets held Northwestern to just 5-of-14 on third down. The Wildcats only converted two third downs in the second half.
Ohio State forced three Northwestern field goals, none longer than 32 yards. And while Mark finished with over 100 total yards, he was kept out of the end zone and came up shy on a huge third-and-short play on the possession Northwestern faltered on fourth down.
The Buckeyes were aware of the Wildcats’ third-down success and keyed on changing that trend.
“They were one of the top teams on third down and we were one of the top teams on defense stopping [third downs], so we knew something had to give,” Roby said. “We wanted to make sure we were the ones that won.”
In the end, Ohio State had to rely on its defense to come up with a stop. And they did exactly that on the season’s biggest play.