Urban Meyer has been hesitant to publicly heap praise on his defense this season.
It may just be rooted in his competitive nature while constantly striving for perfection, but his main point of contention is the lack of depth – hindered by Noah Spence's absence – on an otherwise outstanding defensive line.
"We put a lot of pressure on them," Meyer said, prior to the Big Ten Championship Game. "[Defensive line] Coach [Larry] Johnson has put a lot of pressure to keep developing that depth, but we're not where we need to be. That's not our strength right now and it should be because we have bodies there. The bodies have to get better."
The Virginia Tech game is mainly used as a reference point for the growth of J.T. Barrett and the offensive line. Ohio State's defense, however, allowed the Hokies to convert nine of their 17 third down attempts.
Against Cincinnati, the Buckeyes proved there was work to be done in the secondary. Vonn Bell lost a one-on-one battle with Chris Moore, leading to a 60-yard touchdown. Moore scored two more long touchdowns – one on a well-executed call by the Bearcats and the other due to a coverage breakdown.
Since then, the secondary only truly struggled against Michigan State in the fourth quarter. Meyer was asked about their progress on defense after their win in East Lansing.
"I think when you get ahead by a couple of scores, what happens you start playing that bend but don't break which I can't stand it," he said. "I'm not in a panic. I think our defensive coaches are a little upset with the way things transpired that we've got to get fixed."
Ohio State allowed several long touchdown runs towards the end of the season, the most notable of which was a 90-yard sideline dash by Indiana running back Tevin Coleman. Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Tyvis Powell all played roles in that play's defensive break down.
Grant, more than anyone on the team, receives the brunt of criticism whenever the defense struggles. He was steadily losing snaps to freshman five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who turned into a fan favorite partially because he is the heir apparent to Grant's middle linebacker spot.
"I tell everybody I’ve been through hell and back with this program. Seen the goods, seen the bads," Grant said, prior to the Sugar Bowl. "Started off doing good then get in a bad place, got to a place where I didn’t want to even play football anymore, especially after losing my dad because that was the one who got me started playing football."
Grant went on to lead the team in total tackles against Alabama with 10. His leadership, particularly in mentoring McMillan, has been valuable all year. Grant was instrumental in preventing the Tide from converting third downs, particularly in short-yardage situations.
In the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State had its most dominant defensive performance in years. En route to shutting out Wisconsin, OSU held Melvin Gordon to 76 yards rushing. Explosive touchdown runs were of no concern, as Gordon's longest gain on the ground was only 13 yards.
"Best effort we had since we've been here," Meyer said, after the game. "There's always been games where the D-line played well, maybe the back end was giving up some plays. This was a complete, thorough effort by our defense. Everybody was waiting for the silver bullets to come back, including the head coach."
The Buckeye secondary was heavily maligned a year ago and a work in progress throughout the season. Thanks to three interceptions against the Crimson Tide, OSU is fulfilling their potential in pass coverage. They produced a positive grade in that area during the Sugar Bowl, according to Pro Football Focus.
Like Alabama, Oregon will likely put up high yardage totals against Ohio State. The Ducks' tempo can cause problems for the most talented of defenses. Still, there's little reason to believe the "Silver Bullets" won't come up big with a national championship on the line.
"We heard a lot about SEC speed, you guys can’t compete, you guys don’t have this guy, you don’t have that guy. You guys lost this, you lost that." Perry said, after beating Alabama. "But to be able to get up here and take the guys that we have and the guys that we bust our balls for, it means a lot for us.”