OSU defense still isn't past the mishaps

Bill Rabinowitz
brabinow@dispatch.com

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — They believed they were close to turning the corner.

Ohio State’s defense, and its linebackers in particular, have taken considerable criticism this season. The Buckeyes have allowed numerous big plays, and their pass defense has often been shaky. They entered Saturday’s game against Purdue believing they were poised to become a more dominant unit.

“I think the unit is getting better and better every week,” linebackers coach Bill Davis said of his position group Wednesday. “I think it’s indicative of the whole defense. We still have our mistakes like everybody. You never have a perfect offense or defense. You’re always striving to get better.”

They defense will have to strive much harder after giving up 539 yards in a 49-20 loss to the Boilermakers.

The Buckeyes hoped to get a boost by the return of linebacker Malik Harrison from concussion protocol. Sophomore Pete Werner is one linebacker who has improved in his first year as a starter, and Davis believes his story could become representative of the whole defense.

“It’s reps,” Davis said. “When young guys get on the field for the first time, when you play at Ohio State in front of the crowds we play and the TV audiences we play, they’re always questioning, ‘Do I belong? Do I belong?’

“Then at some point they make enough plays and have enough reps where they say, ‘You know what? I do belong.’ And then you see a confidence about them. Our whole defense is right at that edge. Some of the guys are popping. They’re popping with the confidence.”

The Buckeyes don’t believe they’ve been manhandled. The issues have been more about missed assignments and the inability to finish plays.

“The thing that gets frustrating is that we have guys that know it and they’re there and then something will distract them sometimes,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “We can’t be distracted. We can’t make impulse moves and bite at something. Eleven guys doing their job is what defenses are made of. When you get that, it’s fun to watch.”

Justin Hilliard, who filled in last week for Harrison, said he and his fellow linebackers have heard the criticism. All they can do is take it constructively.

“Everyone talks about the linebackers right now, but we’re a tight-knit unit,” Hilliard said. “The last three weeks, it’s the most we’ve watched film. This is the most we’ve worked in practice with coach Davis, with coach Schiano, just to fix some of the stuff we’ve been having.”

Injuries on the defensive line, especially the season-ending one to All-American Nick Bosa, have taken a toll on the pass rush. That has put more pressure on the back seven.

Early in the season, the Buckeyes could use inexperience as a crutch. As the season enters its stretch run, that no longer can be used as an excuse.

“It’s frustrating for the players, the coaches and the fans equally,” Davis said. “It really is. We’re trying hard to stop those breakdowns. It’s not the same guy. It’s not the same position.

“We feel very confident as a group that’s about to be eliminated. The guys are mature enough and their reps are high enough that we’re real excited about the second half of the season defensively and correcting the mistakes we’ve made.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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