So last week, I asked this question: What's plaguing the OSU defense?
For one week, nothing was wrong with the defense. And it was wonderful to watch.
Kind of lost in the shuffle and kerfuffle of yet another offensive fireworks display was a dramatic turnaround of a defense that had been maligned for being ‘just okay', and not ‘national championship caliber' up until Saturday night.
Last week, I threw out a bunch of stats that showed improvement is some areas, and regression in others. The most notable regression was in the Buckeyes pass defense. In comparison to last season, they were giving up more passing yards, more yards per attempt, more yards per completion, and opponents had thrown almost as many TD passes in seven games as they did all of last year.
This past Saturday, one of the more prolific QB-WR tandems in the conference entered the Horsehoe with an extra week of preparation, bent on pulling one of the biggest upsets of the college football season. For OSU fans, there was reason for concern, as less accomplished tandems had done a fair amount of damage against the suspect OSU secondary. Instead, what we saw was a defense that systematically eviscerated a good Penn State offense, although it started out like most every other game.
When OSU opened the game with a 75 yard scoring drive, fans were happy, obviously, but the question my buddies were texting me was ‘well, how will this go?' as the defense came out on the field. It started off rather inauspiciously, as freshman Christian Hackenberg lead the Nittany Lions methodically down the field, and Penn State did a masterful job of mixing the run and the pass. Ohio State, once again playing a soft zone, allowed easy completions and Bill Belton ran six times for 27 yards. The drive went 11 plays, 69 yards, and there was an air of unease coming through the TV and my texts.
But then on the 12th play, OSU got something it desperately needed from the defense, and that was a turnover. Pitt Brown stayed with his guy on a seam route, made a beautiful pick in the end zone, and it seemed to change the entire tone of the defense. When the offense went three and out, the defense forced a three and out, and then on the next Penn State drive, the Buckeye defense went full HAM and set the tone for the rest of the game.
On first down, Hackenberg went back to pass, and Noah Spence flew in from the outside, forcing a fumble that Penn State somehow managed to recover. On second down, he was intercepted again, this time by C.J. Barnett.
At the time the scoreboard read 14-0 good guys, but for all intents and purposes the game was over. In the first half, Penn State had seven possessions. Five of them ended in a three and out of turnover, one was a touchdown drive to close the gap to 28-7, and the final one stalled at midfield.
Coming into the game, the Buckeyes had been giving up 240 yards passing a game. Against Penn State, they gave up 237. And yes, every yard counts, but some don't count as much as others sometimes. Take Allen Robinson's 65 yard catch and run in the fourth quarter, for example. Yeah, it was a 65 yard TD catch, but it made the score 63-14, and it came when guys were playing for OSU that wouldn't normally be seeing the field. So take that play away, and we're looking at well under 200 yards passing. Penn State also had 120 yards rushing...but that was on 40 attempts, an average of only 3 yards per carry. Outside of the first drive, Ohio State did a very good job bottling up Bill Belden, for the most part. He really didn't get untracked until the lone Nittany Lion scoring drive of the first half, and by then it was 28-0 OSU.
OSU also put near relentless pressure on the Penn State quarterbacks all night, and knocked Hackenberg out of the game. They registered four sacks, matching their season high for a single game, and Noah Spence was a force from the outside. But for me, I go back to the term I'm really beginning to dislike, and that's the ‘eye test' (and hey, if you have a better term, please let me know. I'll listen to anything within reason).
The Ohio State defense passed the eye test with flying colors Saturday night. Where they had been docile and willing to give up short completions playing a soft zone, on Saturday the Buckeyes were aggressive. Where they normally just rushed the down linemen, they blitzed and had Penn State on their heels all night. Where OSU defenders normally seemed to let the play come to them and react to what was going on around them, they were attacking the gaps, forcing the action, and making plays.
It was a performance we all thought the Ohio State defense was capable of, and hopefully, it was a turning point as opposed to an anomaly. If it was an anomaly, well, then OSU still has a very good team, one that can win the Big Ten and go onto the BCS Championship Game or Rose Bowl, depending on how things fall out with other teams and voters.
But if this was a turning point, and we can use some empirical evidence from Ohio State's defense doing this last year to suggest that it might be, this changes the game. This is not only a team that's good enough to go to a BCS game, this is a team that's good enough to win said BCS game.
As I've watched this season unfold, I've always felt OSU was pretty good, but against the other top undefeated teams in the top 25, they'd have trouble beating teams like Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon. If this defense has things figured out and what we saw is the ‘new normal', this team is as good as any in the country.
Only time will tell, but for one week we saw a glimpse of what a truly dominant team looks like. Let's hope it was more than a glimpse.