Among the many reasons why Ohio State suffered a 55-24 loss to Iowa two games ago, one of the biggest reasons why was the poor play of the Buckeyes’ linebackers in that game.
Even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who felt his team’s linebackers had played "very solid" and "at times very good" leading up to that game, acknowledged last week that the linebackers’ performance in that game was a problem.
"They didn't play very well," Meyer said last week. "This past week was not good at all."
Considering the linebackers in question in that game were the Buckeyes’ regular starting trio of Jerome Baker, Dante Booker and Chris Worley, there was reason to be concerned that the Buckeyes’ linebackers would be even worse against Michigan State this past Saturday, when it became known just hours before kickoff that both Baker and Booker would miss the game due to injuries.
Yet despite being without two of their veteran players at the position, Ohio State’s linebackers played significantly better against the Spartans, as Ohio State’s defense stifled Michigan State’s offense – which seemingly should have, at least on paper, presented a tougher challenge than Iowa’s offense – en route to a 48-3 victory.
With Worley starting in place of Baker at weakside linebacker, Tuf Borland starting at Worley’s usual position of middle linebacker and Malik Harrison in place of Booker at strongside linebacker, Ohio State’s starting linebackers combined for 22 total tackles – including four tackles for loss and three sacks – and suffered none of the coverage issues that plagued the Buckeye linebackers in Iowa City and some of their other previous games this season.
Considering how well Ohio State’s linebackers played against Michigan State, and how poorly they played the week prior, should the Buckeyes make permanent changes to their linebacker lineup even when Baker and Booker are healthy?
It should be safe to assume that Baker, who leads all linebackers in snaps played this season by a wide margin, will return to the starting lineup as soon as he is healthy. He’s one of the most talented linebackers in the country, even if he hasn’t always played up to his ability this season. Meyer said Saturday that Baker was in line to be cleared this week and that he expects to play Saturday against Illinois.
Meyer said he anticipated Booker, though he had not been cleared yet as of Saturday, would be able to return this week too. But it might not be safe to assume that Booker, though he does have the most tackles for loss (five) among Buckeye linebackers this season, will get his starting job back.
That could depend on where the Buckeyes decide Worley should play going forward. An outside linebacker for the Buckeyes last year, Worley had what might have been his best game of the season to date after moving back outside on Saturday. Meyer confirmed Monday that the coaching staff has discussed the possibility of keeping Worley at outside linebacker because of how well he played Saturday.
"That's the conversation we're having right now," Meyer said Monday.
Should the Buckeyes keep Worley at outside linebacker, Borland – who led the Buckeyes with 11 total tackles on Saturday and was named as the team’s co-defensive player of the game – would move forward as the starting middle linebacker, the same role he played for four games earlier in the season when Worley was sidelined by injury.
Even if the Buckeyes decide to keep Worley in the middle linebacker spot, Booker could have competition for his starting job from Harrison, who played every one of Ohio State’s defensive snaps in his first career start on Saturday.
Meyer said he is still looking for improvement from Harrison, but also said the sophomore had "a very good game" on Saturday.
"He's certainly a guy that's earned more and more time," Meyer said.
Most of Harrison’s playing time before Saturday’s game came in the nickel defense, as one of two linebackers alongside Baker, so it’s likely he will continue in that role going forward. But the performances of both Harrison and Worley in their first full games of the year at outside linebacker, along with the continued impressive play of Borland, certainly appear to be giving Meyer and his defensive coaching staff something to think about as they prepare for the final stretch of their season and look to avoid any repeats of what happened at Iowa.