Playoff hopes may rest on defense

Tim May
Ohio State Buckeyes safety Jordan Fuller (4) returns an interception past Michigan Wolverines tight end Sean McKeon (84) during the third quarter of the NCAA football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Nov. 24, 2018. [Adam Cairns]

The College Football Playoff selection committee can call it anything it wants, but No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Ohio State for the fourth playoff spot — should No. 1 Alabama take care of No. 4 Georgia on Saturday — will boil down to a beauty contest.

That is, of course, if Oklahoma takes cares of business at noon Saturday in the Big 12 title game vs. Texas and Ohio State follows up at 8 p.m. by beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.

Join the conversation at and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra

When the committee sits down late Saturday and early Sunday, it already will know that Oklahoma and Ohio State have the top two offenses in the nation, respectively, and also two of the more questionable defenses among the top six teams in the playoff rankings.

Strange as it sounds, it could come down to which defense looks better in its conference title game.

“We definitely understand,” Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller said. “But really, we just do it for the guys to our left and our right, just try to do our job to our capability, and if we do that, we’ll look pretty good.”

While reporters asked what about the pressure of trying to look good, Fuller said the focus was just trying to gain a bead on Northwestern’s balanced, methodic offense led by quarterback Clayton Thorson.

“In terms of the playoffs, we know if we don’t win this game we’re not in the playoffs,” Fuller said. “So that’s all the motivation you really need.”

Defensive end Jonathon Cooper concurred.

“With the committee … we know they’re dealing with a lot of stuff,” Cooper said. “They’re looking at teams here and there. But I guess the only thing me and the team are focused on is Northwestern, and what we have to do is go out this Saturday and be just as dominating as we were last week.”

The demeanor of the defenders coming off a 62-39 win over Michigan is noticeably different than the week before, when they dodged an upset at Maryland with a 52-51 overtime win. Although the Buckeyes still gave up 39 points to the Wolverines, there was a sense they found their swagger, with Fuller and safety Brendon White making interceptions and the group coming up with critical stops.

“We have momentum on our side,” defensive tackle Davon Hamilton said. “We played a really good game of football (against Michigan), and we’re just looking forward to working hard this week to try to win another game.”

Five pass-interference penalties against the Buckeyes helped keep the Wolverines in the game, something they can’t afford again.

“We definitely want to tighten those up, because we feel like if we didn’t have those, a lot of their drives would have come up with a different result,” Fuller said. “If guys are being aggressive, that kind of stuff is going to happen. But obviously as much as they happened this past week we don’t want to have happen, so really it’s just focusing on your technique.”

If the Buckeyes do, and stay aggressive against the Wildcats, they can go a long way toward changing the narrative of this being one of Ohio State’s weaker defenses in recent years — and that’s despite the team sitting at 11-1 and a win away from a second straight Big Ten title.

The win over Michigan “gives us a lot of motivation seeing that, wow, this defense is what we set out to be,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “All the goals that we set out we still have, but we have to take them one step at a time.”


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: