Even without clear superstar, Ohio State's defensive line showing dominance

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett pressures Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. The Buckeyes hounded Clifford all game Saturday, sacking him five times.

The Ohio State football team has gotten used to having superstars on its defensive line.

Defensive ends Joey and Nick Bosa became third and second overall NFL draft picks, respectively. Chase Young went second to Washington this year.

The Buckeyes didn’t have a defensive lineman projected at the start of this season to be drafted in the first round in 2021. When tackle Haskell Garrett was the only one who really stood out against Nebraska in the season opener, it looked like Ohio State might have only a solid defensive line this year rather than a consistently dominating one.

Saturday night’s performance in the 38-25 victory at Penn State went a long way in changing that perception.

“One of the concerns going in (to the season) was the interior defensive line, replacing guys like Chase on the outside and DaVon Hamilton (inside),” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said in his Tuesday news conference as the Buckeyes prepare for visiting Rutgers this week. “So to see those guys play the way they did, that was big.

“I felt we really played well on both sides of the ball up front. The defensive line really created a lot of disruption, and that was the difference, I think, in the game defensively.”

Penn State has an experienced offensive line, but it kept getting pushed backward. Ohio State sacked quarterback Sean Clifford five times.

When asked to assess Clifford’s play, Penn State coach James Franklin replied, “Tonight was hard to judge based on having people in his face all night long.”

Clifford had occasional success on keepers, but other than one 23-yard carry, Devyn Ford gained 13 yards on seven runs.

It was a group effort by coach Larry Johnson’s unit. Nose tackle Tommy Togiai had three sacks to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Defensive end Jonathon Cooper was a constant presence in the backfield. He had the initial pressure before linebacker Pete Werner hit Clifford on a fourth-down incompletion from the Penn State 45-yard line on the Nittany Lions’ first drive to set the tone.

Garrett, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Antwuan Jackson and Tyler Friday all made plays.

“We did not win the line of scrimmage tonight,” Franklin said.

Cooper said the defensive ends’ just-OK performance against Nebraska added motivation.

“We went back and watched the film, saw what we can get better at and went out there and proved it,” he said. “I feel our defensive end group is one of the best in the country, if not the best. I'm really proud of those guys today.”

The same went for the tackles, Garrett and Togiai. Garrett’s status before the season was uncertain after he was shot in the face Aug. 30. Togiai was the third man in last year’s rotation with DaVon Hamilton and Robert Landers. The interior of the defensive line was a major question entering the season.

“They're amazing,” Cooper said. “I think they have been playing the best football of their careers, honestly, just with their effort, how focused they are, their leadership. They've been doing great. I have nothing but good things to say about them.”

The tackle spot also got a boost with the return of Taron Vincent, who missed last week with a shoulder injury.

The line’s performance had to be particularly gratifying for Johnson, who coached Penn State’s defensive line for 18 years.

“We definitely know coach Johnson’s history with Penn State,” Cooper said. “We said earlier this week he was coming back to enemy territory.

"This isn’t his home (anymore). We're his home now and we want to make sure we put on a good performance just because of his history with Penn State.”

That they did.

“I think that this group is a little bit different,” Day said. “We've got a lot of guys who can play, and when Larry is sending in different guys and keeping them fresh and keeping that snap count in that 30-40 range, it really shows.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai sacks Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, one of three sacks for Togiai in the game.
Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper has Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford on the run yet again.

Next game 

Ohio State vs. Rutgers

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)