Rondale Moore’s final touchdown in Purdue’s 49-20 upset win against Ohio State was a microcosm of the issues the Buckeyes had getting Boilermaker players to the ground.
David Blough hit Moore in the flats where a diving Pete Werner didn’t slow him down, let alone get him to the ground. Moore then stuck Isaiah Pryor, who took on the wideout on the sideline, and ran right through the chest-to-chest tackle attempt, sending Pryor sliding off his back. The missed tackle prevented Jordan Fuller, Shaun Wade and Tuf Borland – all of whom were standing just a step or two away – from getting Moore to the ground. From there, Moore had enough space to avoid Kendall Sheffield and reach the end zone untouched from 43 yards out.
Given the opportunities to get Moore to the ground, the Buckeyes should never have allowed that to happen. And leading up to that game, they hadn’t.
“Up until last week, we’ve been one of the best tackling teams in America,” Greg Schiano said last week. “We missed 20 tackles last week. And we haven’t missed 20 tackles since we’ve been here.”
On Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference, Urban Meyer identified missed tackles and costly, poorly timed penalties as the two most important areas that got exposed a week-and-a-half ago that Ohio State needed to correct going forward.
Once the game began to get out of hand, the missed tackles piled up, including on Moore’s fourth-quarter touchdown.
“I would say the game was feeling bad and I think a lot of guys put a lot of pressure on themselves to try to go make plays and stuff like that, and I think that's where a lot of the missed tackles came from,” Jordan Fuller said on Tuesday. “I don't think it was anything about scheme or anything like that.
“You try to do too much sometimes.”
Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland lauded Purdue’s athletes and the team’s ability to get the ball in space, but said there wasn’t “anything in particular” that stood out in the poor tackling performance that needed to be shored up.
Fuller said Ohio State's defense worked on taking better angles, which he said was often the problem of the poor tackles, and noted the team worked “a lot” of tackling drills, including in the open field, during the off week.
“I think it comes with just experience, knowing where to be and stuff like that,” Fuller said. “This week, I see a big improvement.”
At a barebones level, tackling isn’t complicated. As Borland said, “at the end of the day, we've just got to make tackles.” But when a team is trying to take down Moore or someone of his ilk, missed tackles can pop up.
Meyer called the missed tackles “uncharacteristic,” and while that’s true, many thing that have happened to this defense thus far have been uncharacteristic compared to Ohio State teams in recent years, so it’s fair to wonder about whether this will be a one-time problem or whether it’ll happen again down the stretch.
Nebraska, the team the Buckeyes will take on at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, doesn’t have a particularly intimidating record. The Cornhuskers are 2-6 with wins coming in their past two games against Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman. Still, they put up at least 45 points in each of those victories and haven’t scored fewer than 24 points since a Week 4 loss to Michigan.
No one will be more pertinent for Ohio State to stop than JD Spielman, who leads the team with 53 catches for 686 yards and seven touchdowns. After spending last season’s game against Nebraska draped on him from the nickelback position, Fuller is intimately familiar with the speedy Spielman.
“I would say he enjoys space, so don't give it to him,” Fuller said.
Sound familiar? In Moore, the Buckeyes just matched up against a player who could be described the exact same way. And, what happened? Over and over, he slipped away from defenders and ended up with 11 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns.
It was important for Meyer to diagnose the problem of missed tackles, but now comes the challenge: ensuring that doesn’t crop up again. The defense already had enough areas to worry about.
“I think, as a defense, we're looking at the rest of the season as just a clean slate, just a four-game season,” Fuller said. “Really just taking it as that. We can't change the past, but we can definitely control our future.”