Bands, tailgating, organized cheers – they are all great college football traditions. Another is second-guessing and naysayers. It was already taking place before No. 2 Ohio State put the finishing touches on a season-opening victory over Buffalo.
The Bulls, you see, are a MAC opponent. They are paid – in this case $1 million – to come to Ohio Stadium, lie down and leave after a dominating Buckeye performance. But it didn’t go to script on Saturday.
Ohio State jumped out to a 23-0 lead in the first quarter before Buffalo outscored them 20-17 the rest of the game. Cue the hysteria. A closer examination, however, shows the sky is not falling. At least not yet.
The final score shows a close game that should have the nation – particularly Buckeye Nation – on watch. If Ohio State can’t hang half a hundred on the Bulls – and allows 20 points – how can it possibly be in the same breath as Alabama?
One look at the box score reveals the Silver Bullets weren’t all that bad. Buffalo only mustered 258 total yards and 13 points on offense. The Buckeyes also limited the Bulls to 3-of-14 on third down. They averaged less than four yards per play and just 2.1 yards per rush, finishing with 73 yards on 35 attempts.
“I see the framework of a good defense,” said junior linebacker Ryan Shazier. “But I'm still disappointed. My expectations, I didn’t want anybody to score. We’re not trying to allow more than 13, 14 points. I feel like we’re going to get a whole lot better by next week.”
As it turns out, they may not have to after San Diego State’s humiliating 40-19 loss to lowly Eastern Illinois. But Ohio State is still in the early stages of replacing seven defensive starters from an undefeated team, including six of the front seven and the entire defensive line. A rollercoaster-like performance was inevitable.
The Buckeyes pitched a first-quarter shutout in 90-degree weather while being on the field most of the 15 minutes because the offense’s efficiency and fast-paced nature. The weather caught up to them later in the game with cramping, as Shazier missed much of the second and third quarters.
The humidity got to him so bad that he had to be carted the locker room where he received fluids. And Shazier wasn’t the only Buckeye battling the elements. Braxton Miller and Evan Spencer also succumbed to cramps. Interestingly, the pandemic didn’t reach the Buffalo sideline.
“It's a concern,” said head coach Urban Meyer. “I know our strength staff and training staff work hard on the hydration. And I'm not sure if Buffalo cramped. That's the thing that I keep asking myself.”
Shazier said Ohio State prepared for the weather but still had difficulty adjusting.
“I see the framework of a good defense.” -Ryan Shazier
“Us cramping up and everything, that’s not really acceptable,” he said. “We’re supposed to have our bodies ready for the game. Some guys didn’t do the part we’re supposed to. I feel like I didn’t hydrate enough.”
It was obvious when Shazier was off the field, because he wasn’t making tackles, of which he had a team-high tying seven, and it coincided with Buffalo’s offense moving the football. The Buckeyes only had the services of two returning starters from a year ago: Shazier and Safety Christian Bryant.
Fellow safety C.J. Barnett was out with a sprained ankle – Meyer said he “probably” could have played – while All-American cornerback Bradley Roby served a one-game suspension. Depth and tackling remain the concerns with the defense.
Armani Reeves, who got his first career start in place of Roby, was picked on early and often. Reeves finished with three pass breakups, including one near interception, but he also missed several tackles and had a crucial late-hit penalty.
“It was a lot of throwing at me, a lot of everything,” Reeves said. “I just have to work on my fundamentals. I feel like I’m a great tackler. I just have to not get nervous and not put my head down. I’ve done this since I was in fifth grade.
“I would throw at me too. I feel pretty good. If [Roby] or Doran is out, I can step in. I know the defense inside and out. I just have to do my business.”
Roby was missed in more ways than one. His on-field presence clearly changed Buffalo’s strategy. Even more valuable at times is Roby’s leadership. Because he was absent from the stadium, the team couldn’t feed of his contagious attitude.
“Bradley will definitely make a difference,” said defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. “Not just with his play out there but with his confidence and that little bit of swagger he has. We’re excited to get him back. I know this was a hard day for him. This was part of the growing process for all us.”
The secondary finished with five pass breakups and an interception, by Ron Tanner. Of the seven Buckeyes who played in the defensive backfield, four were underclassmen.
“I think you saw some of the youth out there today,” Fickell said. “[We] started off pretty well and kind of get that little lull in the action. I think we got tested a little bit. We had to react and respond. I'm happy to see that a lot of those young guys kept battling, came back and didn't panic.”
Three true freshmen played on defense – Joey Bosa, Trey Johnson and Michael Hill – as did sophomores Chris Carter and Cam Williams. Bosa, Johnson and Carter each recorded one tackle.
Michael Bennett said he thought the defense attacked well. The unit wants to be perceived as intimidating. With veterans like John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Zach Boren, Etienne Sabino and Travis Howard heading up the group a year ago, it wasn’t difficult to gain the upper hand before kickoff.
In 2013, they’ll have to earn that recognition. With Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence anchoring the line, it could happen sooner rather than later.
Curtis Grant took a step forward to becoming a contributor at linebacker, finishing with four tackles and showing flashes of being a ball hawk, despite a blown coverage that led to a touchdown.
The bright spot for the defense was a fourth-quarter goal-line stand. The Silver Bullets were determined to keep Buffalo out of the end zone, and did exactly that. The Bulls had three chances to score from the three – twice from the one – and couldn’t manage to break the plane.
It provided a boost for a young unit that is still becoming cohesive on the field.
“We just kept saying, ‘They’re not going to get into the end zone,’” Bennett said. “I think we created some leaders on the defense. We’ve been playing together since spring. We’re starting to jell and respect the guy next to us and know he is going to do his job so we can do ours.”
If mistakes are made, you’ll see the entire defense hold themselves accountable, not one person left out to take the blame.
"We talk about no worries, no names, no blame,” Fickell said. “We’re not a finger-pointing crew. We know that we’ve got some growing to do. We’ve got some situations that we gotta get better at, and it doesn’t matter who’s on the field.”