Almost every year at this time — the debacle of 2018 excluded — Ohio State’s defense shows signs of becoming the school’s best. Then the Big Ten season fully kicks in and the Buckeyes can’t quite reach the high bar established by more elite predecessors.
The current defense views itself no differently than past groups. With good reason. Ohio State ranks fourth nationally in run defense, allowing only 1.74 yards per attempt and 57 yards per game. The Buckeyes also rank 10th in scoring defense (10.3) and 12th in total defense (252.7).
“It’s crazy,” defensive lineman Robert Landers said this week. “Because we could be a lot better.”
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Could they? Doubtful. But they should at least get better before they get worse, because Miami University is coming to town. Shut out the RedHawks, then continue to muzzle opponents whose talent level more closely matches their own, and who knows?
No easy task, but the midseason schedule sets up nicely. Hold Nebraska to fewer than 14 points next week in Lincoln, and then comes a Michigan State offense that copied its playbook from cave drawings. A bye week to heal and then off to Northwestern, which is to dynamic offense what the Weather Channel is to must-see action TV.
Sounds promising, but seldom do dominating defenses lock down every opponent. Even the 1985 Chicago Bears gave up 28 points to the Tampa Bay Blech-aneers, who finished 2-14.
A list of best Ohio State defenses over the past 50 years begins with the 1973 Platinum Bullets. That defense, featuring the likes of Randy Gradishar, Pete Cusick and Neal Colzie, limited teams to 5.8 points per game (4.3 during the regular season) and 223.8 yards total offense with four shutouts. To match that scoring stoppage, the current Buckeyes would need to limit their nine remaining regular-season opponents to an average of 2.3 points a game. Good luck with that.
The 1973 defense also scored 30 points, including three punt returns for touchdowns, nearly half of what opponents scored on offense.
“When you look back, yeah, it was quite an accomplishment,” said Cusick, who played defensive tackle in 1973. “George Hill was a genius.”
Hill, the defensive coordinator under Woody Hayes, recruited smaller linemen who could move faster than the huge hogs across from them.
“We were the smallest defense out there,” said Cusick, who was among the biggest Buckeyes at 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds.
The defense also benefited from practicing against one of the best offensive lines in college football, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up John Hicks.
“We got really good at run defense because we practiced against it every day,” Cusick said. “And most Big Ten teams were run-oriented.”
Offenses have become more pass-oriented since 1973, making for an apples-to-oranges comparison of eras. Better to evaluate the current Buckeyes against a more recent example of a lockdown defense: the 2005 team that began the season with a bang.
Through its first four games, the ’05 defense allowed an average of 41 rushing yards per game (1.6 per carry). The current Buckeyes are not far off (57 and 1.7) and are about to face a Miami offense ranked 116th out of 130 teams in rushing, one spot ahead of Indiana, which gained 42 yards last Saturday in a 51-10 loss to Ohio State.
But staying impenetrable against the run often proves problematic as more Big Ten talent arrives on the scene; the 2005 team finished No. 1 nationally, but the numbers by the end slipped from an average of 41 yards allowed on the ground to 73.4.
Former Ohio State safety Brandon Mitchell cited several factors that contributed to the success in 2005.
“It was a year after we went 8-4 and got embarrassed,” Mitchell said, explaining that the defense had a chip on its shoulder. “But the bigger piece is we had a great scheme. Very simplified.”
Sound familiar? Ohio State’s defense last season got shredded for 25.5 points per game, most in school history. The Buckeyes seemingly have turned things around by simplifying the scheme and playing with the embarrassment of 2018 still burning inside. Last season, OSU allowed 12 chunk plays (gains of 20 yards or more) in the first three games, including three runs of more than 75 yards. The Buckeyes have allowed one fewer chunk plays this season but have not surrendered a run of more than 21 yards.
Cusick is not convinced the current defense deserves to be heralded until it holds up through another month’s worth of games, if then. He has a point. Ohio State’s 2006 defense finished fifth in scoring defense (12.7 points per game), but in the last two games Michigan burned the Buckeyes for 39 points and Florida torched them for 41.
“This year’s team has to prove it can tackle in space,” Cusick said.
A goose egg against Miami would offer more evidence.