Buckeyes Lack Sacks, But Stats Misleading

Ohio State's defense struggled getting to the quarterback as many times as in years past, but that doesn't mean the Buckeyes were dissatisfied with their ability to fulfill their goal of affecting the quarterback in 2010. Opposing signal callers struggled in the passing game despite OSU's down sack numbers, and the Buckeyes think they had success getting to QBs.

Ohio State football head coach Jim Tressel has often talked about football being a game of pressure; whoever is exerting it has the upper hand.

Along those lines, it's up for debate just how much pressure – or at least what kind – the Ohio State defense has put on opposing quarterbacks in 2010.

Statistics can show anything they want, and the numbers go both ways in this debate. The Buckeyes made only 19 regular-season sacks, easily the fewest in defensive coordinator Jim Heacock's six seasons in his current post. The previous low was 24 in 2008, the Buckeyes were kept without a sack during the lone loss at Wisconsin, and leading sack man Nathan Williams had only 4.5 on the year.

On the other hand, the Buckeyes have kept opposing quarterbacks to conference-low marks of 156.2 yards passing per game, a completion percentage of 54.1 and a passing efficiency of 96.9. Perhaps that's why the Silver Bullets have been happy with the pressure put on opposing quarterbacks in the 2010 season.

"I feel it's been great," safety Jermale Hines said. "A lot of teams that play us, our defensive line has been so crazy the past couple of years that everybody wants to throw quick. Being a safety back there, sometimes I get bored when the ball isn't thrown, but those guys are just doing their job and doing a very good job."

It is still quite a surprise, though, to see the numbers in their stark reality. In Heacock's first three seasons as the defensive coordinator from 2005-07, the Buckeyes averaged 39.3 sacks per regular season. Adding in the bowl game in 2005 – a season in which the team played only 11 regular-season contests – ups the number to 41.0, including a high-water mark of 44 that season.

The past three years, the numbers have fallen dramatically. Ohio State had only 24 sacks in 2008 while grooming a young line before seeing last year's deep unit registered 29 in the regular season.

Even Heacock wasn't sure what to think at different points of the season. After the Buckeyes made two sacks vs. Eastern Michigan but fell just short of a few more that turned into big gainers, the defensive coordinator was displeased by the near misses.

"I think what we'll see is we probably hit the quarterback 10 to 15 times," Heacock said. "I thought we hit him on all the long passes, but it's a fraction of a second and you have to get there. We're there and we're hitting him, but what good does that do when the ball is already gone?"

On the other hand, the Buckeyes didn't register a sack vs. Indiana during a blowout win two weeks later, but standout IU senior Ben Chappell had noticeable happy feet during that contest. But when asked if he was worried about his team registering a goose egg on the sack board, Heacock was more defensive.

"(The front four gets) a little frustrated sometimes because they're just a foot short, but at least they were forcing the ball out quick," he said. "I just felt like we've been getting some pretty good pressure and didn't get a sack. I think if you'd ask the quarterbacks that we've played, that would probably be the best way to see if we're doing a good job of getting pressure."

Indeed, there were some notable instances in which the team got pressure in big games during the second half of the season. After making a season-high five sacks at Minnesota – one of which ended with a fumble that Johnny Simon returned for a touchdown – the Buckeyes put pressure on Penn State walk-on Matt McGloin in the second half during a big comeback win.

A week later, the Buckeyes got two big fourth-quarter sacks from Simon and Cameron Heyward as part of the win vs. Iowa. In the finale against Michigan, the Buckeyes got only one sack, but a third-quarter pressure of Tate Forcier resulted in an interception by Travis Howard.

"We're not getting the sacks we want, but we got a couple of sacks when we needed to," Heyward said. "I think that's a big thing for us."

As many players agreed, one of the reasons the Buckeyes have fallen short of a higher number of sacks has been the fact that opposing teams have put a preponderance of short passes in their passing attacks.

That was particularly true in the early part of the season when the Buckeyes faced such spread teams as Marshall, Ohio and Indiana, while Wisconsin also threw quickly but had more success. Either way, it was clear that teams – perhaps looking at Ohio State's sack numbers in previous seasons – chose to fire the ball after short drops.

Add in the excellent turnover numbers – including 18 picks thrown by opponents vs. only seven touchdowns – and it's clear that the Buckeyes did a good job of at least keeping signal callers off balance.

"I think our guys, we're forcing the quarterback into tough situations, and I think our defensive backs and linebackers play really well off of it and are able to get a bunch of interceptions," Heyward said. "If we're getting interceptions, fumbles and all these different things, we're turning over the ball and getting it right back as opposed to a sack being just one play and (them) having three other chances."

What's for sure going into the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl vs. No. 8 Arkansas is that pressure will be key. Razorbacks quarterback Ryan Mallett is one of the most proficient passers in both Arkansas history and the nation this year. Arkansas allowed 24 sacks, an average of 2.0 per game, and had a plus-13 margin for the year in the stat.

"It's going to be crucial to get pressure on him," senior tackle Dexter Larimore said of Mallett. "If he sits back there and just throws the ball whenever he wants, I don't think you can really beat this team. If you let him sit back there and throw the ball well, it's going to be a long day for the Buckeyes. A long, long day.

"So I think the biggest thing is to be able to try and get pressure, try to throw different things at him, try to get different coverages on him, and just try to get after him."

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