OSU defense under scrutiny again
A week ago, Ohio State defenders were coming off a 26-6 win at Michigan State and were being asked whether they had finally put an end to the leaks that had troubled their unit all season.
This week, those questions are back after a 52-51 overtime win at Maryland in which a rupture of big plays kept the Terrapins’ upset hopes alive.
Now, check the calendar; the Buckeyes are running out of weeks. The regular season ends Saturday at Ohio Stadium against Michigan.
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“I’d say this is one of our last shots,” defensive tackle Davon Hamilton said Tuesday. “I mean, if we end up winning this game, we’ve still got a Big Ten championship game to go to, so we can also prove ourselves there.”
Without a win this week, the Buckeyes won’t play for the Big Ten title next week against Northwestern. And they will lose any hope of moving on to the College Football Playoff. Michigan will retain both of those opportunities.
The oddsmakers favor Michigan. For first time since the first College Football Playoff championship game in January 2015 against Oregon — 51 games ago — Ohio State is an underdog, with Michigan a 4-point favorite.
That has added motivation, defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said.
“That, and the fact that we’re playing THEM. This is The Game, not an ordinary game, even though we say it is,” Jones said. “The truth behind it is this is the game of the year; this is another playoff game. We’ve got to go out there and perform.”
Although some fans disappointed in the defense might think that wholesale changes in one week could fix the problems, that’s not practical, or the focus.
“Just understanding your job and making sure you do it, that’s the only thing you can really focus on,” Hamilton said.
The last time out as an underdog, OSU dominated Oregon and won the national title, but that might have little bearing on the current situation. The 2014 team had a defense that got better as the season progressed.
This one has a defense that, by the measure of points allowed, has played its two worst games in the past four, including a 49-20 loss at Purdue on Oct. 20. Last week at Maryland, the defense gave up 44 of the 51 points.
“We’ve just got to find a way to just get guys down,” Jones said. “I think our biggest issue this year is that we’ve been in the right positions but we don’t make the tackles. So we’ve got to be focused on just finishing plays.”
They will go against a Michigan offense that has proved to be the most competent in Jim Harbaugh's four seasons as coach. The offense has transfer quarterback Shea Patterson, who has offered a playmaking quality that his predecessors couldn’t provide, augmented by steady play from running back Karan Higdon and operating behind a massive line.
“I see a very huge O-line that plays aggressive,” Jones said. “They’re not looking to finish us but to get us out of position so they can open up holes for their backs. We’ve just got to be stout on the run, be super-disciplined, even more disciplined than last week.”
And about last week?
“It’s behind us. We really can’t control it anymore,” middle linebacker Tuf Borland said. “We’re looking forward to Saturday.”