Maybe it’s just coincidence that since Brendon White trotted onto the field to fill in for the suspended Jordan Fuller two games ago, the Ohio State defense has played much tighter.
Not squeaky tight, but last week in the win at Michigan State, the defense had just three missed tackles, coming off 20 in the loss at Purdue and 15 against Nebraska. White started for the first time last week and was in the same secondary with Fuller, who has been one of the stalwarts all season on a defense that struggled at times.
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Two safeties being where they’re supposed to be, then making tackles when they get the chance — maybe White was the missing piece.
“I think certainly he had something to do with it,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “We’ve had some breakdowns in the secondary in the tackling area. Brendon came in and I thought tackled well coming out of the middle of the field and coming out of the quarters. And I think (nickel back) Shaun Wade as well is getting better each week. It took longer than we’d like (for the secondary), but it’s starting to click.”
He knows a truer test is coming Saturday at Maryland, when the No. 10 Buckeyes take on the shifty Terrapins and their spread running game. Maryland (5-5, 3-4) is ranked just 98th nationally in total offense (366.3 yards per game), but it’s 19th in rushing (234.9).
Plus the Terps don't use a power running game like Michigan State. Theirs is more a magic act that Schiano considers still dangerous in the hands of Tyrrell Pigrome, now the starting quarterback in place of the injured Kasim Hill.
“This week, they’re going to put us in positions where we have to make tackles in space,” Schiano said. “They do an incredible amount of trading, shifting, motioning, and then they hand the ball to speed sweep guys who are going laterally. So there are going to be times in open space where we have to make one-on-one tackles.”
Which circles back White. He had watched as the Buckeyes tried Isaiah Pryor and Jahsen Wint at safety, and had even promoted Wade to start the Nebraska game before fate took over. White, who the coaches said had not played consistently enough in practice to deserve a start, suddenly was thrust into playing against the Cornhuskers when Fuller missed the second half because of a targeting penalty.
“I think he’s a guy that’s really a gamer,” Fuller said. “You’ve definitely seen in practice his ability and stuff. He can do a lot of things a lot of us can’t do. So yeah, it was putting it all together, and when he got his chance, it was time.”
Now that he is a starter, “seeing his role increase you can see his film study has gone up,” Fuller said. “It’s a different look in his eye now.”
But Fuller sensed the whole defense has been on an upward track, especially since the fourth-quarter collapse at Purdue.
“I think we’ve been getting a little better each week,” Fuller said. “I know our practice habits have been great. And I know just on the game field it’s probably lagged a little bit, the progress and stuff like that, but I’m just excited to get out there and play again.”