OSU's title hopes hinge on shoring up defense
With its running game fixed, at least temporarily, it’s easy to see Ohio State as a championship-caliber team on one side of the ball.
J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber combined for 254 yards in the Buckeyes’ 36-31 victory Saturday over Nebraska. It was the most the duo had rushed for since the season opener against Oregon State. They had combined for more than 150 yards only one other time this season.
Their success was the product of feverish work by Ohio State in the two weeks after the 49-20 loss to Purdue. Fixing the run game was the top priority. That Dwayne Haskins Jr. and the passing game had a pedestrian game against Nebraska was understandable.
“You get what you emphasize,” coach Urban Meyer said in his weekly news conference. “We spent a lot of time on some other facets of our offense.”
Ohio State’s offensive linemen — Thayer Munford, Malcolm Pridgeon, Michael Jordan, Demetrius Knox and Isaiah Prince — shared offensive player of the game honors.
Now the question is: Can that success on the ground be sustained?
“It has to be,” Meyer said.
This week’s game at Michigan State will be a stiff test. The Spartans (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) have the top-ranked run defense in the country. They yield only 71.7 rushing yards per game and 2.53 per carry.
Because of their struggles, the Buckeyes (8-1, 5-1) might not feel like a team with all its preseason aspirations still within reach. That is their situation, even if their showdown against Michigan looks ever tougher.
But the Ohio State defense has to find consistency that has eluded it. At times, the defense against Nebraska was stout. The Buckeyes forced six three-and-outs.
Other times, it was a sieve. They gave up four touchdowns and Nebraska botched several more scoring opportunities.
Asked how close he believed his defense was to being at a championship level, Meyer replied, “It's getting closer, but it's nowhere near the standard we want.”
Part of the reason is injuries. Losing Nick Bosa was huge, and other injuries have forced a lot of juggling.
“I think we’ve got to stop shuffling lineups,” Meyer said.
On the other hand, maybe change is needed. Brendon White replaced Jordan Fuller after the safety was ejected for targeting and was a revelation. The sophomore had 13 tackles in less than three quarters of action and earned defensive player of the game honors.
It would be a surprise if he and Fuller aren’t the safeties against Michigan State.
“He's certainly going to play (more),” Meyer said. “He's earned that right.”
But the team’s linebacker play remains shaky.
“I'm seeing improvement, but we still have far too many missed tackles,” Meyer said of that position. “We had six or seven tackles for losses that we missed.”
The Buckeyes have several backups who have considerable experience and/or potential at linebacker. Dante Booker started at the beginning of last year. Justin Hilliard, Baron Browning and Keandre Jones were highly touted recruits. Jones earned special teams player of the game honors for blocking a Nebraska punt for a safety.
“That's constant conversation,” Meyer said of making changes at linebacker. “Missed tackles was the alarming thing this weekend. We'll put the best players out there that we think can help us win the game.”
Ohio State’s defense will be facing a Michigan State offense ravaged by injuries. But Meyer didn’t need to be reminded that the Spartans have given the Buckeyes as much trouble as any other Big Ten team during his seven years as OSU coach.
“Obviously, it’s a big one this week against Michigan State,” Meyer said. “Very strong rivalry, and we have a lot of respect for that team.”