Big Ten Championship Game: Close W vs Michigan will sharpen Ohio State's focus

Gregory Shamus

Never mind what the media says about Ohio State's close victory over That Team Up North. It may be the best thing that possibly could have happened to the Buckeyes at that point in the season.

Ohio State pulled out a thrilling, down-to-the-wire win over their archrival last Saturday. While there's a certain elation that comes with seeing That Team Up North snatch defeat from the jaws of a possible victory, the win was too close for comfort for many fans, and pretty much everyone else.

As the Buckeyes moved up to second in the BCS rankings thanks to a thrilling, down-to-the-wire Auburn win over top-ranked Alabama, SEC fans and media folks--who often seem to be one and the same, honestly--started questioning in earnest whether Auburn should be ranked second in the nation in place of the Buckeyes. Auburn, with one loss on their record, over the Buckeyes, whose last loss came in 2011.

You hear all of the same old arguments in support of their position. Ohio State hasn't played anyone, they barely beat Michigan, etcetera, etcetera. The reality is, while it didn't help Ohio State's position in the public eye, the close victory over That Team Up North should galvanize a Buckeyes team that very desperately needs to win against Michigan State, and their top-ranked defense, on Saturday.

You see, Ohio State's pass defense was atrocious against That Team Up North. They allowed a staggering 451 passing yards and four passing touchdowns for Devin Gardner. The Buckeyes won simply because Brady Hoke was afraid to take it to overtime, knowing how his defense had been worn down by Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller on the ground. It all came down to the one play the Buckeyes defense executed perfectly, as opposed to the many plays they didn't execute well. The deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball need to be addressed before heading into the Big Ten Championship this weekend.

The Buckeyes' pass defense was described as "alarming" by Urban Meyer following Ohio State's win over Iowa, after allowing quarterback Jake Rudock to pass for 245 yards and three touchdowns. It would be Rudock's, who averaged 200.4 yards per game, second-highest passing yards total of the season, and a season high for Rudock for single-game passing touchdowns. Ohio State came away with the victory, but Meyer and the rest of the coaching staff were displeased by the breakdown of the pass defense.

The following week, with a renewed focus on defense, Ohio State took on Penn State, and absolutely dominated the Nittany Lions for a 63-14 finish. Penn State averaged 259.2 passing yards per game during the 2013 season, and the Buckeyes' "alarming" pass offense held them under that average, allowing 237 yards. A week after the coaching staff said that the pass defense deficiencies would be addressed, they were. Interestingly enough, Iowa finished the regular season ranked ninth in the Big Ten for passing offense. Penn State finished third in the conference in passing offense.

And, of course, when Ohio State took on the most prolific passing offense in the Big Ten, the Indiana Hoosiers, they limited the Hoosiers to well under their average of 306.7 yards per game and three passing touchdowns per game. The Buckeyes held Nick Sudfeld to 224 passing yards and two passing touchdowns, the only touchdowns Indiana would score on the day.

Run defense hasn't been a huge concern for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes are ranked second in the Big Ten, behind Michigan State, allowing just 100 rushing yards per game. Their prowess against the run is very likely part of the problem with giving up big passing plays, as the zone that is successful in limiting opponents' success on the ground isn't conducive to excellent pass coverage. Michigan State's rushing offense has been pretty middling. They're ranked seventh in the Big Ten, averaging 186.2 yards per game, with 21 rushing touchdowns on the season.

And it's not as if the Spartans are some kind of passing powerhouse, either. They're next-to-last in the Big Ten for passing offense, averaging 194 passing yards per game, with 18 passing touchdowns on the season. While the Buckeyes obviously don't have an outstanding pass defense, it won't be surprising if the Buckeyes can contain Michigan State through the air, given the Spartans' relative weakness in that area.

That Team Up North exposed the Buckeyes' defensive weaknesses last week in a way that very nearly cost Ohio State the game. The Buckeyes won't be lulled into complacency by Michigan State's offensive numbers this season. The players and coaches are fully aware of how costly any mistakes against the Spartans could be.

Urban Meyer has established that the Buckeyes defense will "play better; we have to," and players have elaborated on their focus on cleaning up missed tackles, eliminating big plays, pressuring the quarterback and tightening up coverage while remaining stout against the run. It's a tall order. But Meyer is right--the Buckeyes must play better on defense, because the whole season comes down to Saturday's game. Fans may find themselves grateful after Saturday for the way the close win over That Team Up North sharpened the Buckeyes' focus on their defensive efforts for this week's crucial matchup.

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