Look, it’s hard to find room for improvement for a defense that didn’t allow a touchdown until its third game of the season. The Ohio State Buckeyes have been suffocating their opponents, full stop.
But this young defense can get better, at least according to the advanced stats. That’s great news for Buckeye fans, and should be terrifying for everyone else. They’re already forcing turnovers at an astonishing clip, they’ve got a ballhawking secondary without much to be afraid of, and they’re stocked with blue-chip talent from top to bottom.
The Buckeyes get Rutgers this week, which is just about the best-case scenario for a Big Ten team coming off a bye. Ohio State should roll to an easy win here—they’re favored by a slim 37-point margin—but in order to do that, the defense is going to have to keep up the relentless pace they’ve been working at. And that could all start with one man.
Name: Sam Hubbard
Position: Defensive end
One of the linchpins of Ohio State’s defense is second-year defensive end Sam Hubbard. The Buckeyes are so loaded on the edges that Hubbard, who would definitively start on just about every team in the country, has gotten an “OR” designation on the depth chart alongside junior Jayln Holmes all season. Hubbard and Holmes have Nick Bosa playing behind them as well, so it’s a position that gets a good deal of rotation for the Buckeyes. Hubbard is no stranger to this. He backed up Nick’s brother Joey last season, starting for the elder Bosa during a short suspension and then appearing down the line from him whenever the Buckeyes switched into their “Rushmen” package.
Despite not being an every-down player, Hubbard’s stat line is rock-solid through three games. He’s sixth on the team in tackles, and has recorded 2.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks. If QB hurries were an effectively recorded NCAA stat, you can bet he’d be near the top of the list there, too.
So what makes Hubbard an especially important component of the Ohio State game plan against Rutgers?
Chris Ash’s Scarlet Knights suffered some serious blows this past week, losing star players Janarion Grant and Quanzell Lambert for the season thanks to injury. Grant, in particular, is a heavy loss. He’s been the most effective and explosive playmaker on this otherwise-middling Rutgers team, and without him, the Knights lose much of their ability to take the top off of defenses and use misdirection to take advantage of Grant’s speed on running plays designed for the WR. He’s an incredible special teams player, to boot.
#Rutgers Tweets: Janarion Grant strikes again. #RFootball #TheHunt pic.twitter.com/VECnZaDP5I https://t.co/cFLj8Mp3GH— Rutgers Press (@rutgerspress) September 11, 2016
Here’s where Hubbard comes in. If there’s any category in which the Buckeye defense lacks, it’s stopping the run on passing downs, defined as second-and-8 or greater, third-and-5 or greater, and fourth-and-5 or greater. Offenses typically throw about 2⁄3 of the time on these downs; it’s the other third where the Buckeyes struggle, ranking a paltry 126th nationally against the run in these situations.
With their best wide receiver gone, it seems likely that the Scarlet Knights will look to make hay early on the ground in down-and-distance situations in which they might otherwise have elected to pass. More rushing attempts give Hubbard more opportunities to use his superior athleticism and skill set to make tackles. The former Notre Dame Lacrosse commit* and his line mates are uniquely positioned to be the ones doing the damage in this game, after taking a backseat to the incredible secondary in the early going this year.
*You are legally obligated to mention this bit of trivia in any conversation about Hubbard.
What to watch for
The advanced stats give Ohio State a 99% chance to win this game, if only because there are, technically, no absolute certainties in this world beyond death and taxes. That’s not really the issue here. The manner in which Ohio State wins this game—and the margin on the scoreboard when the clock hits all zeroes—is a far more important matter.
The Buckeyes have a firm hold on the No. 2 national ranking, sitting behind No. 1 Alabama (the next closest thing to death and taxes, reliability-wise). A huge win here is just about the only thing that will fend off the winner of No. 3 Louisville and No. 5 Clemson. The victor in that game will have five wins, including one versus another top five opponent; Ohio State’s best so far was a thorough drubbing of now-unranked Oklahoma. (Being a trendy preseason playoff pick can only get you—and the teams that beat you—so far.)
That all just might start with Hubbard. If the Buckeyes can dominate on the defensive front and keep Chris Ash’s squad off the board, and if the offense gets over the bye-week hump and keeps humming at the pace it was two weeks ago, there’s no reason this couldn’t or shouldn’t happen. Chris Laviano is an experienced QB, and it’ll be up to Hubbard and co. to make life miserable for him and junior RB Robert Martin all day.