With Orange Bowl Looming, Ohio State Defense has Issues

By Kyle Rowland on December 31, 2013 at 8:00a

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – At full strength, Ohio State’s defense was lit up like a Christmas tree. Imagine what would happen if it lost three starters against one of the nation’s best offenses. Might the Buckeye defense resemble the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square?

Noah Spence, Bradley Roby and Curtis Grant all remain questionable. Roby is the lone member of that trio to practice this week. Spence, Ohio State’s sack leader, isn’t even with the team and Grant is only stretching and jogging lightly at the Buckeyes’ practices in South Florida.

Head coach Urban Meyer said Roby is suffering from a bone bruise in his knee, which occurred in the Big Ten Championship Game. Grant’s injury, according to defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, stems from a bad back.

Excuse Chad Morris, Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins for their excitement. Clemson averages 40 points per game, 502 total yards of offense and 329 passing yards.

“We’ve got to move on. These guys know that,” Fickell said. The coaches have preached a “next man up” mantra throughout the season. But Ohio State is dealing with its most significant lineup issues of the year now.

Just three weeks after a national championship looked possible, the Buckeyes are a one-loss team that doesn’t look like the unit that won 24 games in a row. Piece No. 1 in the reconstruction project is Jamal Marcus. He would fill – or attempt to fill – the shoes of Spence.

“It will be a huge loss if Noah can’t play,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’ll need some guys to step up if he won’t be able to. He’s one of the tops in the Big Ten and gets consistent pressure on the quarterback.”

Pressuring Boyd is a must for Ohio State, and Spence’s absence would leave a major void in the ability to harass the quarterback. Marcus’ past includes sacks and tackles for loss, but nowhere near the rate of Spence, who was an All-Big Ten selection. Junior Steve Miller is another possibility at defensive end. Combined, the backups have 27 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks and a forced fumble this season.

“Steve’s been around for a while,” Fickell said. “The thing for Steve is he hasn't really been playing that spot throughout the year. He’s been playing more of the end spot. He’s going to have to be thrust into a situation where he’s going to have to go over there and learn. He’s done it before, but he’s going to have a little bit of baptism by fire.”

“We’ve got to move on. These guys know that.” —Luke Fickell

Vonn Bell is another Buckeye who will do something new – start a game. Meyer’s been clamoring for more Bell – not cowbell – throughout the secondary’s struggles. In the Orange Bowl, the head coach’s wish is granted. Bell will play nickel with Tyvis Powell occupying a spot at strong safety. The odd man out becomes Pitt Brown, and it happen for his final college game.

A five-star recruit, Bell was expected to be a significant piece in the defense’s arsenal this season, But the true freshman hit a snag and his playing time never materialized, much to the chagrin of Meyer. The pressure will be ratcheted up with his appearance and the possible disappearance of Spence and Roby. Fair or not, the onus will fall on the offense as well. 

“[Vonn’s] been there all year. He just hasn’t had an opportunity to play as much," Fickell said. “It’s just a matter of time before that guy continues to get more and more playing time for us. I think this will probably be the first time you’ll see him get as much playing time as we’d like.”

Consider senior safety C.J. Barnett a charter member of the Bell and Powell fan clubs.

“Vonn brings a little something different. He’s like a little jackrabbit. He’s a little different,” Barnett said. “And Tyvis, he has a lot of range as a safety.”

Against the Tigers’ potent offense, he’ll need to do his best centerfielder impersonation. Boyd has thrown for 3,472 yards, Watkins has 1,237 yards receiving, Martavis Bryant has 800 yards receiving and Roderick McDowell has rushed for 956 yards.

Oh, and the triumvirate has accounted for 58 touchdowns. They also don’t lack any confidence – at least as far as Watkins is concerned.

“I think I’m the best receiver in the nation and I think cornerbacks should have their chance,” Watkins said. “Overall, I think I can’t be guarded. That’s just my mindset. But it’s definitely fun going against great cornerbacks.”

He would have that opportunity if Roby, a possible first- or second-round draft pick, played. If not, it’s Armani Reeves’ job to stop or limit the dynamic Watkins. Reeves struggled mightily in place of Roby on multiple occasions this season. He tallied one interception, seven pass breakups, eight passes defended and a forced fumble. But there was also a litany of touchdowns.

The secondary allowed 341 yards passing during the regular season. Perhaps the biggest shot they took all year was among themselves, not Devin Gardner or Connor Cook. When senior safety Christian Bryant went down with a broken ankle in late September, the impact wasn’t fully thought through.

Now, it is.

Before the team departed Columbus, Meyer said Ohio State filed paperwork to get Bryant a medical redshirt. But on Monday, Fickell said there’s a possibility Bryant could play in the in Orange Bowl in what would be his final college game.

“Maybe in a small box,” Fickell said. “I heard him say yesterday, ‘If they get the ball inside the 5-yard line, I think I can do it, guys.’ You love that attitude. But he would do nothing but probably hurt himself at some point.”

At this point, could it get any worse for the Buckeyes?

“It’s a part of the game,” Fickell said “We’ve got to deal with it. We can't dwell on it. We can't whine and complain about it. Next man up.”


Comments Show All Comments

Hovenaut's picture

For me, at this point, it's not just next man up - I'm ready to see the next generation on defense altogether.
I'll remember the unit as part of the winning streak, but not all the faces. Eager to see some of the youngsters step up and begin their journey.
Oddly not too alarmed about what Ohio State will be able to do defensively against Clemson, but that may just say more about how unfortunately accustomed I've grown to the, uh, results over the past couple of years.
Appreciate the updates on Christian Bryant. Even if he weren't able to take the field, maybe having him in uniform (if possible) could provide a boost.

GabrielBuckeye's picture

""For me, at this point, it's not just next man up - I'm ready to see the next generation on defense altogether."
Couldn't agree more. Reeves is burnt toast, time to let Burrows, apple and others step up. They cannot do any worse than horrible Pitt Brown and Reeves

SHAKENBAKE68's picture

Is there any way we can get 7 or 8 of our non-starters over to play a little scrimmage with their starting O? Maybe they will let them out of quarantine for that. :)
Go Bucks!!

There is no such thing as "friendly fire"..

AndyVance's picture

Vonn Bell is another Buckeye who will do something new – start a game. Meyer’s been clamoring for more Bell – not cowbell – throughout the secondary’s struggles. In the Orange Bowl, the head coach’s wish is granted.

This seems like a good place to reuse an image from a previous thread:

Spikebone's picture

Does anyone know what exactly is keeping Spence from flying down to be with the team?  Has anyone heard real info or any rumours? 

Stuck in Ann Arbor for work, I can confirm she is indeed a whore.

Olemissbuckeye's picture

Don't ask. Don't even wonder aloud.

actionstanleyjackson's picture

Seems to have a bit of Fight Club to it...

Stay golden, Ponyboy.

Crimson's picture

I heard it was a problem with a zipper, if you know what I mean.
That's gotta hurt!

Run_Fido_Run's picture

It would definitely hurt to lose Spence, Roby, and/or Grant.
That said, the defense can't play much worse than they did in the Michigan game. And if some of the guys have been making a stride or two in the bowl practices - not just the new starter(s) like Bell, Marcus, or Powell, but also guys like Perry, D. Grant, Bosa - maybe the improvements will partly make up for the losses. Heck, if they just get better at being "on the same page," that should help. 

osu07asu10's picture

Hate for me saying it, I get the feeling Roby doesn't want to play because he would get roasted by Watkins and his draft stock would go up in smoke.
A convenient bone bruise is just enough to keep him out of the game, but have him back up and running full speed for the combine and pro workouts.

CJDPHoS Board of Directors // Best friends with Homey Hache

The 0 is silent.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

The implication of what you're saying is that Roby, himself, believes that he's not really 1st/2nd NFL draft material and that he won't actually play in the league, but if he can trick teams into picking him early in the draft, he can cash a big signing bonus. 
Because if Roby believes that he's among the best corners in college football and he's healthy and in shape, he'll be dying to take on Watkins - that's the mentality of elite athletes. 

osu07asu10's picture

that's the mentality of elite athletes.

However, Roby has also admitted losing focus/interest this season and having to rededicate himself. That's not the mentality of elite athletes.
I could be jumping the gun, Roby is a great B1G corner and has been a great buckeye. I certainly want him on the field Friday night.

CJDPHoS Board of Directors // Best friends with Homey Hache

The 0 is silent.

chirobuck's picture

so frustrating......I would have Grant ready to go......


^ best post ever ^

Bamabucknut's picture

The problem of being one of the worst Buckeye defenses has existed ,most recently, over the last three years.Coach Meyer said yesterday that how a team plays is determined by either personnel...the development of the players( by the coaches), or the scheme  employed by the coaches.
Has the defensive performance over the last three years been up to the usual OHIO STATE standards ? No. Coach Meyer said the defense hasn't measured up to OHIO STATE standards "for a while". Can that be attributed to personnel for all three years ?  I don't think so.Thats why I am so concerned about Fridays game.Yes we have some player personnel we would like to have, that we may not have.Those who develop of the players  and  those who determine the scheme...we have had for a number of years.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Keep in mind, please, that we're measuring the defense against the very high standards of a Silver Bullet defense. For all the struggles on defense, this Ohio State defense is not actually bad; it just seems like that after the last two games. Ohio State is 7th in rushing defense, 29th in total defense, and 21st in scoring defense.
So, it's not like the Buckeyes defense must bridge a huge gap to get back to the Silver Bullets standard. Between 2013 and 2014, for examples, Louisville jumped from 23 in total defense to 2; VT from 18 to 4; Iowa from 49 to 7; Cincy from 54 to 9; Oklahoma from 64 to 13; and USC from 60 to 16.
Now, we all understand that somethings probably need to change for the Buckeyes to make a positive jump of their own in 2014 - no one understands this better than Urbz. Given recent shifts on staff, don't you think that Urbz is working on this problem? Or should they hire you as a consultant?

osu07asu10's picture

Post of the season!

CJDPHoS Board of Directors // Best friends with Homey Hache

The 0 is silent.

brylee's picture

Wait...so the sky isn't falling?

nm_buck's picture

Fire Urban Meyer!!

"The future is bright at Ohio State."  - Urban Meyer 1/1/15

buckeyepastor's picture

Inspiring to hear Bryant wanting to get in the action, even if in a very limited way.   Knowing the guy would risk so much just to get a few more snaps with the scarlet and gray, I hope, is not lost on the other players in terms of motivation.   
Really disappointed where things stand with the defense.   The one thing, THE ONE THING, I was looking forward to with the bowl game was that with a few weeks to rest up and with the extra practice time, we might be somewhere near fully healthy, which the defense especially hasn't really been most of the year.   Was hoping to watch the bowl game and be able to say, "OK, now we will see what we are really capable of and what Urban Meyer can do with a few weeks to prepare."   Between the guys down with the flu and the others injured or otherwise not available, it's a mess.   Hoping for the best, but not looking good for us.  

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I agree - it would be really nice to see Ohio State's embattled defense fully healthy for this game and able to go out on a high note.
At the same time, I'm also looking forward to what Hov mentions above - the chance for some young talents like Bell and Marcus to get lots of playing time.
Honestly, my feelings/expectations for this Orange Bowl are kind of straddled between the 2013 team (2014 Orange Bowl) and already looking forward to next year's team. 

actionstanleyjackson's picture

This will not be pretty to watch. Not a lot of faith in fickell to put together a solid gameplan vs Clemson and no faith in him making any adjustments in the game. He is in over his head playing DC. 
They finally get the right guys on the field and then go with reeves at corner. The guy just is not good enough to play big time corner. Just tired of seeing wide open guys, no pass rush and mass confusion in the secondary

Stay golden, Ponyboy.

chirobuck's picture

Hasn't Fickell been "playing DC" for several years now, including some years when the defense was pretty darn good.....is it possible that withers was more to blame


^ best post ever ^

actionstanleyjackson's picture

I thought Heacock was the lead dog until Meyer came on...The last 2 years have been Luke ...and the last 2 years the d has been pretty below standard
I was under the notion that Luke called the defense

Stay golden, Ponyboy.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

I have the upmost faith in Urban Meyer's ability to take a month to game plan for a team and beat them senseless with it!!!  His record in bowl games speaks for itself and I'm not going to worry about it one iota!  I have faith in these players that they will step up and give the maximum effort +2 for 60 minutes and in the end, that is all I can ask!!!
Enough of the doom and gloom fellas - we're in another BCS game against a team we should easily move the ball against!  I am thoroughly excited to see the Buckeyes come out and beat the ever living shit out of the Tigers!!!

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

D-Day0043's picture

Thank you for your optimism. I need it. I have been feeling uneasy.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

ziplock007's picture

OSU's Defense has more issues than Time Magazine

Urban Nation Army's picture

"I think this will probably be the first time you’ll see him get as much playing time as we’d like.”

I think negative hints have been flying about Withers for a while now...

Bet you can't say "Bert Bielma is a bumbling buffoon" five times fast.