Notebook: To Press, or Not To Press?

Press coverage was the hottest topic on the Ohio State football beat this week with the Spartans planning to bring it and Buckeye fans hoping their favorite team will follow suit when Michigan State has the ball. We cover that and more in this week's premium notebook.

Striking a balance between pressure and coverage was a hot topic at Ohio State this week as the Buckeyes prepared for a trip to Michigan State on Saturday.

That is nothing new as many fans have spent close to a decade longing for a return of the press defenses run so successfully by Fred Pagac Sr. in the 1990s, but it got a new twist this week with a couple of new faces on the OSU coaching staff weighing in on the topic.

Head coach Urban Meyer, whose specialty is offense despite being a defensive back in his playing days at Cincinnati, expressed frustration with the bend-don't-break nature of his team's defense in a 29-15 win over UAB last weekend.

The Blazers piled up 404 yards but needed 80 plays to do so, and the performance was a noted improvement over the week before when Cal gashed the Buckeyes for 28 points and a plethora of big plays. The Golden Bears went long distances by land and by air, and they did so against both basic defensive looks and pressure packages.

"I used the word ‘painful' because I know it was painful for people to watch," Meyer said. "It was painful for me to watch, too. However, at the end of the day keep them out of the end zone. We did."

Meyer stressed he has no concerns about the scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, and he acknowledged personnel is an issue that has to be considered when drawing up a defense.

"When we get the personnel in there I believe we have to stress our corners a little more," Meyer said. "The problem is when you stress corners, that means a linebacker has to play man coverage on someone. That's what we did a couple times against Cal. And that was a problem. So make the corners play man, but there's three other receivers somewhere you have to cover as well."

Withers, who has been a defensive coordinator at three previous stops and has a pair of stints in the NFL on his resume, conceded the Buckeyes are still developing an identity on defense.

"I think we have to find out what we want to hang our hat on," he said. "I think it's an on-going process each week. As long as we continue to win, that helps. The mission is to win the next game. Hopefully eventually we find out exactly who we are on defense. I think this week will really give us a pretty good idea."

This week the Buckeyes face Michigan State, a pro-style offense that will often feature multiple backs and a tight end on the field together. That represents a contrast from the variety of spread formations Ohio State's previous opponents have used often so far this season, and it could present a new opportunity for the coaching staff to utilize the talent it believes it has at cornerback.

"We've been spread from sideline to sideline and if you press all the time, you're up in everybody's face, there's not enough in the box to stop the run, OK? You've got to be man-to-man on every guy on the field," Withers said. "I like it, but can you do it every snap? No. We need to start working to do it more? Yes, we do. I think we've got three corners that are capable. They can walk up and press guys."

While how much that happens in East Lansing remains to be seen, Meyer seems to expect it to become more of the norm going forward.

When asked a second time in the same press conference about his team falling back on a "bend-but-don't-break" strategy, he replied, "Personally that's not how I want Ohio State defense to be played for our careers. However, I do understand injury issues. I do understand when a team comes rolling in here with good athletes at receiver and they're not going to systematically beat Ohio State. So there's a lot of reasons. But your question is I think that's a question of a lot of people. A lot of coaches have that same discussion. And at the end of the day keep them out of the end zone. That's where we're at right now."

Better Blocking Buckeyes
The offensive line could also fall into the category of areas of the team Meyer hopes to see improve through his years in Columbus, but he sounded cautiously optimistic about the play of his starters so far in his inaugural campaign.

"Getting better," he replied when asked about the line this week. "Nowhere where we expect. That's the message I had for the team yesterday was that a lot of things are going to change as we continue to grow."

With only left guard Andrew Norwell starting in the same place he ended last season, the Buckeye front line has allowed seven sacks in four games and is helping the team rush for 229.3 yards per game. The latter figure is second-best in the Big Ten and 24th nationally. With the 96th-ranked passing offense holding it back to an extent, the club is 52nd in the country in total offense (427 yards per game).

"One thing that will not change is the expectation level, and that's to lead the Big Ten in offense and eventually lead the country in offense," Meyer said. "That's our goal. I'm not saying that will happen, but our expectation level won't change.

"Our offensive lines are the apex or the part that controls that, and right now we're not playing at that level."

Particularly pleasing to Meyer following the win over the Blazers was the play of Reid Fragel, the senior right tackle who was a tight end for the first three years of his Ohio State career.

"So am I disappointed? Absolutely," Meyer said in regards to the line as a whole after saying Fragel played the best game of his career against UAB. "Do I understand the growth, that a tight end has just been moved and three returning starters and all the other excuses I've heard and will continue to hopefully not hear? Yes, but they're much improved. Especially that fifth guy. Once we get that fifth guy playing, Reid, we only got him for eight more games or whatever it is, but it's nice to see him make that improvement."

Saban Similarities?
With a pair of national championships in the past three seasons as head coach at Alabama and three overall in a decade, Nick Saban is considered by many to be at the top of his profession.

As such, it came as little surprise when someone asked Meyer, who went against Saban head to head during Meyer's days as Florida head coach, if Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio bears any resemblance as a program leader to Saban, his former boss at Michigan State from 1995-99.

"Commitment to stop the run," Meyer said. "I think from coaching against Coach Saban, he's a little more complicated in the pass defense. But very similar pro style, pound you on offense. I didn't think about it, but very similar type mentality. Very sound kicking game."

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