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Rob Oller | Late start could help Ohio State tackle national plague of anemic defense

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Mississippi running back Snoop Conner steps through tackle attempts by Alabama's Will Anderson Jr. (31) and Dylan Moses (32) to score a touchdown against the Crimson Tide last Saturday. Ole Miss gained 647 yards in its 63-48 loss, the highest total against an Alabama defense.

Ohio State is preparing for its Oct. 24 season opener against Nebraska by watching horror movies. Among the not-so-classics are Nightmare for Nick Saban and Dan Mullen is Psycho. 

“We’ve shown clips of different teams,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Hopefully, we can learn from things that have happened the last few weeks in college football.”

Or in this case what has not happened. Tackling has taken a timeout this season as defenses practice social distancing. A lack of live hitting in pads, combined with stop-start practice schedules, both attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, have turned tackle football into two-hand touch.

Alabama and Ole Miss combined for 1,370 yards on Saturday, the most ever in a Southeastern Conference game. The Rebels scored 48 points against the Crimson Tide to become the first unranked team since the Associated Poll began in 1936 to score that many against 'Bama. They also rolled up 647 yards, the highest total against an Alabama defense.

Alabama coach Nick Saban was none too pleased. And that was before revealing on Wednesday that he tested positive for COVID-19. It is second nature for Saban to fuss and fume. Except this time he had good reason, despite his No. 2-ranked team winning 63-48.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is not smiling under that mask as he speaks to defensive back Josh Hobe during Saturday's shootout with Ole Miss.

“When everybody gives, ‘my bad’ one time, that’s 11 mistakes,” Saban huffed. “Well, that can be a lot of yards.”

Mullen’s crazy comments following Florida’s 41-38 loss at Texas A&M included wanting 90,000 fans to fill The Swamp for Saturday’s game against LSU, which on Wednesday was postponed due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases at Florida, confirming that the UF coach is a clueless meathead.

Mullen eventually got around to his team’s porous defense, explaining the key is to move players into the right spots to make plays. Left unsaid was that those players still need to bring down ball carriers even when positioned correctly. Florida is allowing nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns a game. Against A&M the Gators gave up 543 yards and saw the Aggies score on seven of nine possessions. Alligator arms, indeed.

Florida coach Dan Mullen has seen a few things this season that has him gritting his teeth, especially during a defensive meltdown last week in a loss to Texas A&M.

Lazy tackling techniques are nothing new, but are more pronounced this season due to limited spring drills, unsupervised summer conditioning and a reduction of practicing in pads. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo accepted blame for his team’s 14 missed tackles in an embarrassing 55-3 loss to Brigham Young in the season opener. The Midshipmen had bypassed full-contact drills during fall camp out of concern for spreading the coronavirus.

Oklahoma’s defense will never be mistaken for the 1985 Chicago Bears (maybe, however, the Bad News Bears). Still, it was startling that in back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State the Sooners allowed 293 yards in just 21½ minutes against the Wildcats and 7.4 yards per play against the Cyclones. Sing it with me: “Ohhh-klahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain … as arms flail at jerseys.”

What can Ohio State learn from watching commercials of defenses hiding in chainsaw sheds? If the Buckeyes can stomach watching the gruesome carnage, they should benefit from the Big Ten’s controversial initial decision to postpone the fall season. The nearly two-month delay is a silver lining playbook that enables OSU to focus on tackling fundamentals even when only practicing in shorts.

“Nothing takes the place of having pads on … but there is more to it than just tackling,” Day said. “There is running to the football and being in great shape.”

Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner has stressed that tackling is just the final act in a play that opens with reading and reacting to where the ball is going.

“There actually is more than you think you can do to help tackling, and that is tracking,” Werner said. “That’s almost 80% of how to get a guy down.”

As for the other 20% … eyes up, feet on the ground, wrap and drive through the body.

The SEC, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference began their seasons a month ago and have had to juggle practicing basic tackling techniques while game-planning for opponents. Something has to give, and so far it is defense.

Ohio State hopes to put a positive spin on “He who hesitates … ” While waiting to play the Buckeyes get to watch what other conferences are doing wrong.

“It has given us something to learn from,” Day said. “Hopefully, we can identify what is going on in college football and get in front of it.”

Then tackle it.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

Rob Oller