Looking back on Ohio State's first defensive play against Miami on Saturday night – a play in which Barnett missed a tackle, allowing Hurricanes running back Lamar Miller to rumble 54 yards to the OSU 9-yard line – the OSU safety gave a blunt assessment of the situation.
"We pride ourselves on not giving up big run gains," he said. "To be one of the reasons why that happened, that really sucked."
That play, of course, set off an early 14-0 run for Miami, all the points the Hurricanes would need on the way to a 24-6 victory that knocked the Buckeyes out of the top 25 for the first time since 2004.
"If we make a tackle, it's a gain of 8 or a gain of 12," OSU safeties coach Paul Haynes said. "It's just a matter of we just have to get him down. We have to tackle him. We had guys there and they didn't get it done."
But that play was also a microcosm of a surprising problem the Buckeyes have faced early in the 2011 season – the team is having issues bringing down ball carriers. Against Miami, the coaches determined the team missed 27 tackles. Defensive lineman John Simon said he's seen plenty of games in his career in which OSU was in single digits, while Haynes didn't hesitate when asked if that was a higher number than usual.
"Yeah – by far," the coach said.
Haynes was quick to point that the tackling issues against the 'Canes likely stemmed from players trying to do too much in an effort to make a spectacular play rather than using their fundamentals to make the simple stop. That was particularly true on the second drive – when Miami followed its first quick score with another – and late in the game as the Buckeyes were desperately trying to get a turnover to get the ball back.
"A lot of times when you go out and you get behind, you get a bunch of guys trying to run around and make more plays than what they really have to," Haynes said. "You lose sight of the fundamentals and technique, and that's what's going to get you back in the game. You just have to stay sound."
The issue seemingly first cropped up in the Buckeyes' narrow win against Toledo. The Rockets popped a few screen passes into long gains when OSU players either took poor angles to the ball or just flat-out missed a tackle after lining the ball carrier up in the open field.
Such struggles are largely foreign to an Ohio State team that has put together some of the best defenses in college football the past few years. Limiting big plays are a part of that, and poor tackling is a key cog in how 10-yard gains turn into 50-yarders.
"That's a point of emphasis that we have coming in, day one of camp," Barnett said of tackling. "We have a sign when we talk in here that one of the things that you have to do to play this game is tackle and if you can't, you can't play. I think we just lost a little bit of fundamentals because 27 missed tackles, that's very unacceptable."
It's safe to assume the coaches agreed. As the team broke down film of the Miami loss, the defensive staff pointed out where the team went wrong when it came to tackling before defensive coordinator Jim Heacock – a notorious quibbler when it comes to issues of tackling – delivered a lesson on form and technique. Those things can be hard to practice when the team is going less than all-out in practice sessions in an effort to stave off injury.
"We've got to make sure we're breaking down," defensive lineman Johnny Simon said. "Sometimes I think when we go thud (hitting without tackling) at practice, or just tapping off, we just have to make sure we're breaking down. Coach Heacock did a good job of explaining this week that we're going to break down, wrap up the running backs. That should be an easy fix for us."
Another possible reason for the struggles could be the relative youth of the defense's back seven. Of the 10 players seeing major playing time in the back seven – those players most likely to be put into the position of having to make an open-field stop – only Andrew Sweat, Orhian Johnson and Tyler Moeller had started more than two games in their careers coming into the season.
That inexperience could be leading to a few missed tackles as players are trying to play outside of themselves in an effort to make a splash.
"You'll never turn on the film and say, ‘Man, you're not trying,'" Haynes said. "It's almost to the point where you're overtrying. We have to make sure that it just goes back to the little things of football – bending your knees and stepping to contact and just the little things."