His stats weren’t gaudy. There were no interceptions or sacks, and Bradley Roby didn’t earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors. But he did grade out as a champion, according to Ohio State’s coaches. Most importantly for Roby, though, was the simple act of stepping back on the football field in Ohio State’s 63-14 win over Penn State.
“This was definitely a statement game,” he said a his five-tackle, two-pass break up performance. Not just for the team, but for himself.
All-Americans aren’t supposed to go through these types of growing pains, especially in their junior season after shunning the NFL’s fame and fortune. Roby’s return for Year 3 was supposed to cap an exemplary career, continuing the tradition of star-studded defensive backs at Ohio State – Antoine Winfield, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Gamble, Shawn Springs, etc.
Instead, what is presumed to be Roby’s final season in Scarlet and Gray has hit potholes, guard rails and narrowly avoided a head-on collision. First came a summer arrest that brought along a one-game suspension from head coach Urban Meyer. Roby didn’t start until the third game and dealt with uncharacteristic sloppy play. Cal, Wisconsin and Northwestern all picked on him and won the battles. The explanations – or excuses – came in droves. Roby was put on an island because Ohio State put all its eggs in the stop-the-run basket, coaches said.
Then came the Iowa game, a low moment in Roby’s career. The secondary was staggered already in the first quarter, as the Hawkeyes moved up and down the field. But just then, Roby delivered a punishing hit to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. It drew a flag and the first targeting ejection for a Buckeye. Suddenly, Roby’s week of preparation was down the drain as he walked full of anger to the locker room.
“It was very tough, especially considering after I watched the replay and still didn’t think there was anything wrong with that hit,” Roby said. “If that’s a penalty, I just don’t know how to play football. But that’s in the past. I’m over it and I’m moving on.”
Fairness of the rule was not only called into question by Roby but also his head coach. Meyer said the play Roby was involved in wasn’t what the targeting rule was intended for. Roby called it unfair because he worked his “tail off” an entire week only to see the preparation result in time wasted.
“Before the season I was already thinking, ‘Man, to get kicked out of a game, that’s very harsh,’” he said. “I feel like after this season they’ll revisit it and things will change.”
Roby hit CTRL-ALT-DEL on the Iowa game – and much of his junior season – and began anew last Saturday. Under the stars and Musco lighting in Ohio Stadium, Roby, with the help of fellow secondary mates, limited Allen Robinson to 48 receiving yards. Once the starters were removed from the game, that number jumped to a game-high 173 yards.
The impact was still felt, though. After weeks of disparagement to the point where it became venomous, the defensive backfield was out to prove it can still be the reliable unit spoken of throughout the summer. Rendering an All-Big Ten receiver irrelevant was the proof.
“I just really focused on how I approached the game last year,” Roby. “The first half of the season I was worried about too many other things. I forgot that doing my job is what got me here. I got back to the basics and the small things that are going to get you far. I tried to live up to the hype. If you’re a good player, you’re going to make the plays.
“As the season goes on, you’re supposed to get better. It’s not about what happens in the first half of the season. It’s how you finish.”
The Silver Bullets proved that a year ago after an imbalanced first half of the season gave way to one of the top defenses in the country. The final result was an undefeated season. One year later, the belief is the Penn State game signaled that sea change for the 2013 season.
Tired of being labeled underachieving performers, the defense, and in large part the secondary, swung momentum in their favor both on game day and for future considerations. Pittsburgh Brown and C.J. Barnett both snared first-quarter interception that prevented Penn State from grabbing momentum, setting the tone for Christian Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions’ long night.
“The most impressive part of the game to me was we caused turnovers and we hit the quarterback a little bit,” Meyer said. “We haven’t been doing that.”
Said Roby: “It was an important game for me. I knew going into the game they had good receiver and a lot of people would be watching our matchup.”
When Brown and Barnett walked into the postgame interview room, they weren’t rushed by the media. No, the rushing came when Roby opened the door. It wasn’t diminishing what Brown and Barnett had accomplished on the field. Rather, indicating that the defense is still Roby’s unit.
“He really had a great week of practice,” Meyer said. “That’s his whole issue, his practice. When he practices well, he usually plays well.”
He’s not leading the nation in passes defended like last season or even his team in interceptions. Roby hasn’t started every game and didn’t get to finish one. But he remains an unwavering force on the field, in the locker room and in meeting rooms.
Vocal and to the point, Roby’s leadership and attitude doesn’t center on regret. He looks to the future – the next practice, the next game – as an opportunity for a testimonial, as to say ‘Don’t forget about me, don’t leave us behind.’
“That’s the attitude we carried into [the Penn State] game, that we were going to make a statement in primetime while everybody was watching,” Roby said.
“And that’s what we did.”