Ohio State Defense Eager To Bounce Back

It's a question not often asked for the past few years at Ohio State: What's up with the Buckeye defense? Fresh off allowing 28 straight points in a loss to Nebraska, the Silver Bullets are looking to make improvements at Illinois. The plan? Equal parts looking back and moving on.

Members of the Ohio State defense might have expected a tongue-lashing after giving up four unanswered touchdowns in the team's 34-27 loss to Nebraska on Saturday.

Instead, the misfiring Silver Bullets got the football equivalent of the silent treatment.

The defensive coaches decided to eschew watching film of the collapse as a team, instead trusting the players would go back and look at it on their own. In the place of a team review, the Buckeyes got started preparing for Saturday's upcoming meeting with No. 16 Illinois.

The message to the players was simple: Get the collapse against the Huskers out of your mind as quickly as possible.

"We know really what happened, so we didn't want to waste time and go all over that," cornerback Bradley Roby said. "(The coaches) knew a lot of people were thinking about it because everybody was mad we didn't win that game. I think they really wanted us to get past that and move on."

Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock stresses improvement every day, and it appears that's what his team will need. After six straight seasons of finishing in the top six in the nation in scoring defense, the Buckeyes are tied for 17th in the country in that stat this year at 17.8 points per game. OSU is also 22nd in yardage allowed (308.2).

Both numbers place fifth in the Big Ten at the halfway pole, and while they certainly aren't bad, they aren't up to snuff at a place that prides itself on stifling defense like Ohio State.

Perhaps worse than the overall numbers are the problems that have popped up in each game. Against Toledo and Michigan State, the Buckeyes were beaten through the air as both Eric Page of the Rockets and B.J. Cunningham of the Spartans topped 140 yards. Miami (Fla.) and Nebraska, meanwhile, shredded OSU on the ground to the tune of more than 230 rushing yards allowed, giving the teams the chance to grind the Buckeyes down in the fourth quarter.

The Nebraska game was a particular low point. Ohio State allowed six rushes of 10-plus yards in the last 25 minutes and gave up three scoring drives of more than 70 yards, all of which lasted fewer than eight plays and three minutes.

"You know, I've not been a part of something like that, a little bit of an unbelievable snowball effect, but it comes down to tackling," head coach Luke Fickell said. "I think that's ultimately the biggest thing is in the first half we were as lights out as we've been and sound, and in the second half you're going to a play here. The first touchdown, there was kind of a little bit of a miscue and a new formation, something they hit us on, and we just never regrouped again.

"I guess we got a little bit frantic and our tackling went down the drain, and I think that's ultimately when you look back at it, defensively usually when things aren't happening, when things are bad, it starts with your tackling, and that's where we're going to point a finger."

There were some high-profile missed tackles – including one by Christian Bryant in the flat that resulted in Rex Burkhead's tying 30-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Martinez – and tackling has been an issue since early in the season for the young defense. Pursuit was also called into question earlier in the season as Heacock stressed a team effort was required to make up for the missed tackles.

But even more worrying was the fact that the Buckeyes were straight up blocked on a number of the Huskers' gashing runs in the late going. Many of the home team's big gains went exactly as they were drawn up.

"We just didn't execute," senior linebacker Andrew Sweat said. "It seems simple and maybe it seems bland, but that's what it came down to."

Fickell had another idea why the team might be struggling in some situations: fatigue. Given the injuries and inexperience in the front seven, the Buckeyes haven't done as much rotation as perhaps anticipated, even by a coaching staff that had talked about getting more players into the game.

While the time of possession for the entire game was fairly even against the Cornhuskers, the defense spent more than 10 minutes of the fourth quarter on the field and had to keep up with the Huskers' hurry-up offense.

"Whether it's conditioning, whether we got tired, whether we got mentally drained, all of those things factor into it, but ultimately we didn't get the job done," Fickell said.

The Fighting Illini will provide a new challenge as it boasts a mobile quarterback, a solid group of tailbacks and a game-breaking receiver, all things that have given the Buckeyes trouble this year.

Anticipating the challenge, team members were in watching film on their own even without prompting by the coaches, and new linebackers coach Mike Vrabel said the team believes it will show improvement against the Illini.

"We're looking forward to going out there and showing ourselves that we've gotten better," Vrabel said.

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