Michigan week opens with defense still hot topic

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer signals to an official during the first quarter of a NCAA college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

After 11 games, Ohio State is still searching for answers to questions that should have been settled long ago.

The Buckeyes survived an upset bid against Maryland on Saturday, prevailing 52-51 when Terrapins quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome's pass missed an open receiver on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime.

Ohio State has walked the high wire all season. Only once have the Buckeyes fallen off, and that, at Purdue, was a doozy. Now they await their biggest challenge, and it will define their season.

Urban Meyer is 6-0 against Michigan. But these are not the same Wolverines the Buckeyes have vanquished in most of those victories. Michigan has the country’s top-ranked defense and an offense that has steadily improved.

The last two years, Michigan likely would have beaten the Buckeyes with decent quarterback play. The Wolverines now have a good one in transfer Shea Patterson.

Michigan has been on what it has called its “Revenge Tour” against teams that had made Jim Harbaugh’s first three years as coach a disappointment. This is the ultimate stop.

Ohio State will be the underdog in this game because the Buckeyes’ defense remains an enigma. Ohio State believed it had found answers for its bewildering play following victories over Nebraska and Michigan State.

Maryland blew that out of the water. Freshman Anthony McFarland’s second and third carries went for touchdowns of 81 and 75 yards. Pigrome completed only 6 of 13 passes, but the average reception was more for 30 yards.

Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano didn’t deny the obvious when asked if he was happy about the state of his defense.

“No,” he said. “We’ve had some really good defensive play at times, but not consistently. I said that after the first quarter of the season, I said that at the midway (point). It’s frustrating that we’re not a consistent defense right now. But rest assured, every waking minute we have, we’re going to try to get that fixed.”

Meyer said there was plenty of blame to share for the defensive problems, though he was still mystified about the cause.

“It’s players and coaching together,” he said. “If it’s a missed tackle, then we’re not teaching tackling enough. If it’s a scheme issue, then it’s a coaching issue. I can’t give you the answer. I can probably give you a little more of an answer on Monday. It’s very alarming.”

Meyer said the obvious — that Ohio State won’t beat Michigan if it doesn’t play better on defense.

This Buckeyes team may be exasperating to its fans, but that’s not the adjective Meyer would use.

“Exasperating? It’s not at all,” he said. “I’ve done this a long time. We’ve had situations where one side is not playing very well. Last week against Michigan State, the offense was hanging on by a thread, and the defense kept us in it and the kicking game saved the day. We were talking about (punter) Drue Chrisman last week.

“Is it where we need to be? It’s not. But we’re 10-1, and we’re going to try to find a way to get to 11-1.”

Ohio State’s offense did get back on track against Maryland, racking up 688 yards against a defense that ranked 30th in yardage allowed. Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw for 405 yards after a couple of subpar games, and his willingness to run provided crucial assistance to a running game led by J.K. Dobbins’ career-high 203 yards.

For all of the teeth-gnashing about how flawed the Buckeyes are, escaping with a victory kept Ohio State’s Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes alive.

“If we’d lost that game, pretty much everything is over,” defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said.

The Buckeyes got a reprieve. Next week will show whether it was temporary.