When the historians look back on the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes, they will have a lot to talk about. But the dearth of winning performances early in the Meyer reign will be one of the major topics. This can be chalked up to a number of things - players getting used to a new system, a team coming together under a new staff, the necessity of a 19 year old to act like a "grown ass man" - but perhaps the most surprising unit in terms of struggle early in the season was the Buckeye defense.
Against Miami University, they allowed yards in bunches, and despite limiting the
Redskins RedHawks to just 10 points, there were some significant holes in the secondary. The UCF game was a little cleaner for the unit, but any steps forward were immediately undone by steps back against Cal, where the defense would surrender touchdown plays of 19, 59 and 81 yards. Not drives, plays for scores.
Much maligned by these early season woes was the Buckeye defense, so much so that the coordinator, Luke Fickell, was taken to task by anyone with a mouth in the 614 - most notably a pizza boy with no knowledge of how to succeed in a service industry. A great deal of this can be put on the shoulders of a defense completely ravaged by injury, so much so that a former fullback actually led the team in tackles while playing in the linebacker position at Indiana.
But on Saturday at Wisconsin, with an undefeated season on the line, the defense stepped up like they hadn't all year.
One of the biggest forces in the game was John Simon, who was incredibly hard to miss especially if you were the Wisconsin quarterback. You almost had to pity Curt Phillips, who despite bringing Wisconsin level with the Buckeyes in the game's waning seconds, was slowly devoured by Simon all afternoon, to the tune of a record-tying four sacks. Simon was perhaps the biggest factor in slowing Wisconsin's passing attack all day. Now you may be thinking that this isn't a huge deal with a third string QB in for the Badgers, but Phillips had plenty of talent around him to catch his passes, and Simon was there with a necessary sack whenever the defense needed it most.
Another exemplary performance was handed in by Ryan Shazier, who should be shooting up every published defensive player of the year list, both in the conference and in the nation. Not since James Laurinaitis has Ohio State had a linebacker so able to takeover a game with his play. He is the one defensive player every offense needs to account for on every play, because he literally has a nose for the ball. A lot of national pundits love the play (but more importantly the narrative) of a player like Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. But Shazier has played a much more pivotal role on his team's defense. If he doesn't knock Montee Ball's ball on the goal line stand, the Buckeyes probably lose in Madison.
Those two superb efforts overshadowed a comeback that Fickell and the rest of the defense had been waiting four games for. While Shazier and battery-mate Zack Boren combined for 24 total tackles on Saturday, a less glossy but incredibly important role was filled by Etienne Sabino, finally returning from a leg injury suffered against Nebraska. With Sabino in the game, it marked the first time that the "A-team" of linebackers, Shazier-Sabino-Boren, would play at the same time. And despite giving up a staggering 191 yards to Ball on the afternoon, they would only allow one score - and that made all the difference.
Sabino is a senior in his fifth year at Ohio State. When he came into the program, he was heralded as being the next great Buckeye defender, the number one inside linebacker prospect in the country. His addition to that recruiting class was a huge get for the Buckeyes, and he played in all 13 games as a freshman, including scoring a touchdown against Purdue that year. Many fans, myself included, were positively giddy at the prospect of finding a capable, if not better replacement for Laurinaitis, and Sabino was the guy to do it.
But some things just don't work out that way. Sabino battled injury and his teammates, sitting out his junior year (2010) and redshirting, the result of a hand injury and a more talented Andrew Sweat and Brian Rolle ahead of him on the depth chart. That year off did wonders for Sabino, and now he's one of his coach's favorite players. Ohio State's website lists Sabino as a "fifth year leader" and it's an appropriate title. Even while lacking the productivity of Shazier, or the national attention of Simon, the Buckeye defense was off kilter without him, giving up too man garbage points to Nebraska and Indiana, and almost losing to Purdue in his absence.
Sabino is one of the players who is probably hurt the most by the NCAA sanctions levied on Ohio State, and when he finishes his run with the Buckeyes on Saturday, his career will likely be looked at less positively than he (and most) intended. But Sabino will have one more chance to take the field as a Buckeye, with a chance to go undefeated and beat Michigan, all in one game. He may not be the most flashy player on the defense, but he is the glue that makes the defense as powerful a unit as any in the conference or country.
Ohio State will need that defensive glue this week, too. Brady Hoke and Al Borges are adding wrinkles to their offense, and it worked wonders against lowly Iowa, to the tune of six Devin Gardner touchdowns. And with Fitz Toussaint done for the year, the new feature back is Denard Robinson, he of the 170 yards and two scores on the ground in last year's Game.
But there isn't a defense more ready for that challenge than Ohio State's. And Simon, Shazier, and a healthy Sabino are primed to give the fans one more winning performance.