When Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano met with reporters during the Buckeyes’ bye week last week, he said he thought the defense was “making progress in all areas,” and that it was “getting close” to being able to “play really good defense down the stretch.”
That progress didn’t stand out in Saturday’s game against Nebraska, however, and it still looked like the Buckeyes have a long way to go on that side of the ball to play at the level they will need to continue winning down the stretch.
Ohio State gave up 31 points on Saturday, marking the fourth time in nine games this season that its opponent has scored four or more touchdowns, and 450 total yards, marking the fifth straight game in which Ohio State’s opponent has gained 396 yards or more.
The Buckeyes gave up five plays of 20 yards or more to Nebraska’s offense, including two 40-plus-yard plays. And while they did play better for most of the second half than they did in the first half, forcing Nebraska to punt on its first five possessions of the third and fourth quarters, they faded on their final two defensive series, allowing the Cornhuskers to drive all the way to the 1-yard line on their second-to-last possession (though Ohio State did hold them to a field goal) and then allowing a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the final series.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer acknowledged after the game that the Buckeyes defense does still have a long way to go. But he did feel as though there was some improvement on Saturday and was pleased that while they did give up some long plays, they did not give up the big-play touchdowns that they did in previous weeks.
“There's defensively still some things, but we didn't give up a big hit. We had a couple of hits, but not the big hit,” Meyer said. “If we didn't have those three turnovers, obviously, you don't put your defense in bad situations. So I thought our defense improved. Obviously nowhere near we need to be, but they improved. We're still stop-gapping. That means the lineups keep continuously changing because of injuries. But I think we should have everybody back next week if we don't get a guy hurt in practice.”
As Meyer noted, the Buckeyes were without three of their regular contributors in their secondary for most of Saturday’s game. Jeffrey Okudah, one of the three cornerbacks in Ohio State’s primary rotation outside, did not play after suffering a groin injury in practice on Tuesday, while starting safety Isaiah Pryor suffered what Meyer described as an “impingement of the shoulder.” Ohio State’s other starting safety, Jordan Fuller, was ejected from the game in the second quarter after being penalized for targeting.
Fuller will be eligible to play next week, though, because his ejection came in the first half, and Meyer said he expects Pryor and Okudah to both be available next week.
Regardless of which players were on the field, the fact remains that Ohio State’s defensive play has been an issue all season, and in a game that the Buckeyes won by only five points, it came dangerously close to costing them again. The defensive mistakes that allowed Nebraska to keep the game competitive were some of the same that have hurt them in previous weeks, including starting slow before making halftime adjustments – Nebraska gained 256 of its yards and scored three of its touchdowns in the first half – and missed tackles.
“The first half, we missed a lot of tackles,” Ohio State safety Brendon White said after the game. “That was the biggest thing going into halftime.”
There were some bright spots for the defense in Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes’ pass rush noticeably stepped up for most of the second half, forcing Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez into more incompletions. After allowing Martinez to rush for 46 yards on seven carries on Nebraska’s opening possession of the game, the Buckeyes held him to 26 yards on 13 carries for the remainder of the contest. And there was no bigger bright spot than the play of Brendon White, who took over alongside Shaun Wade at safety after Fuller’s ejection in the second quarter and finished the game with 13 total tackles, tied with Malik Harrison for the team lead.
“Brendon White came in and did a hell of a job,” Meyer said. “He's been working very hard in practice to earn the trust of the coaches to get on the field ... he's getting better, he's getting better, he's getting better, and then obviously he proved it today.”
While Nebraska is just 2-7 this season, the Cornhuskers’ offense is better than their record indicates – they entered the game ranked 19th in the country in yards per game (471.3), and their 450 total yards were actually their least in their last six games – and Meyer didn’t want that to go unrecognized, too.
“I get it that that was a two-win team, but that's a two-win team that people don't want to play right now,” Meyer said. “On videotape, I wasn't expecting to see what I saw. Very good players, very good scheme and guys that are going to get very good.”
If Ohio State’s defense doesn’t look drastically better next week against Michigan State, though, there will be even more reason for concern. The Spartans entered Saturday ranked 106th in the nation in total offense (360.9 yards per game) and 108th in scoring offense (23.4 points per game), and had similar numbers on Saturday (24 points on 356 yards) against Maryland.
For the Buckeyes to make that happen, Harrison said the key is to “just eliminate the mistakes.”
“That’s all,” Harrison said. “That’s the big thing for us. If somebody mess up one little thing, it turns into something real big. So we just got to eliminate the mistakes.”