LB Unit Stocked And Ready For Badgers

Injuries have hurt the Ohio State football team throughout the 2012 season, but the Buckeyes appear to be getting a crucial break at the right time. The return of senior Etienne Sabino from a leg injury could give Ohio State the dependable corps of linebackers it needs going up against Wisconsin's power offense.

For perhaps the first time all season, the Ohio State football team will need to play its base three-linebacker defense on more than half the plays Saturday when it faces Wisconsin.

And in a case of fortuitous timing, the game might also double as the first time all year the Buckeyes have three linebackers they believe can excel in such a format.

The return of senior captain Etienne Sabino and the emergence of Zach Boren on the defensive side of the ball should provide a solid compliment to budding star Ryan Shazier as the Buckeyes attempt to stop a Wisconsin running game coming off a school-record 563-yard ground performance against Indiana.

"That would be the perfect base defense for Wisconsin," Shazier said after the Buckeyes' last win vs. Illinois. "We have Zach Boren and he's like the hammer in there. Sabino has a combination of speed and power. It just lets me run around, I guess.

"We just have to do whatever we can to slow their momentum down and get the ball to our offense."

If the Buckeyes are indeed able to get Sabino back, as expected, it would be the culmination of a long, strange year for the linebacker corps.

Ohio State started with Shazier manning the weak side, Sabino on the strong side and sophomore Curtis Grant in the middle of the field, with Shazier and Sabino serving as the nickel linebackers when teams spread the field – which happened more often than not in the first 10 weeks. Only Cal and Michigan State spent a fair amount of time in power running sets of the first 10 opponents.

But Grant struggled, forcing the Buckeyes to turn to senior Storm Klein upon his return from a two-game suspension to start the campaign. Then Sabino suffered a broken tibia in week six against Nebraska, leading to the Buckeyes moving Boren over from his fullback spot.

The move of Boren has been a bit of a revelation, as the high school linebacker hasn't needed much time to remember how to play the position since head coach Urban Meyer tabbed him for the switch. Getting more and more playing time as the team's middle LB thanks to Klein fighting a back injury, Boren has made 28 tackles – including three stops for loss – in the last four games.

More than that, though, Boren has brought stability to the middle of the field, providing the Buckeyes with a solid tackler and physical presence who always seems to be in the right place. Since Boren's move to the defense, OSU has jumped from fifth in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed to second.

This week, he also seems ticketed for a foe that can bring out his best, as the Badgers' no-frills offense should give the senior from Pickerington a chance to shine.

"It probably fits his style a little bit," Meyer said. "He's been a stabling force for our defense after the one debacle in Bloomington. Our defense is not a Silver Bullet (defense) yet, but they're playing much better, playing with much more confidence and leadership. One of the most undervalued characteristics of a football team is leadership, and that's what No. 44 gives you."

That's one reason he is ticketed to stay on defense even with the return of Sabino, whose injury created the void that led to Boren's move. Sabino was starting to play some of his best football at the time of his injury, making 38 tackles in five-plus games and stepping up when necessary in key situations. He is also a solid, physical presence against run offenses.

"I feel that he's going to help out a lot because he has a lot of experience," Shazier said. "He knows what he's doing at the position. He's going to be able to keep leverage and help us stop their linemen from getting the push. He's a great linebacker. He's going to be able to stop them from getting where they want to go and just keep us running."

The Wisconsin game will give the three the opportunity to all be on the field for the first time ever at Ohio State, but the newest member of the linebacker corps said he doesn't anticipate communication being an issue.

"We're excited," Boren said. "We had a great week of practice last week. We're just trying to build on what we established last week and Sabino coming in, so we're trying to get in the flow of one another. I think it's just taken off. I think Ryan's and my play has been elevated because of what Sabino brings to the table. I would say after five periods of practice we were good (with communication)."

With so much on the line this weekend, everything has to be in working order. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Boren and the team's starters are well aware of that fact.

"We have to be perfect," Boren said. "The way that their offensive line is able to double team defensive tackles and get up on to the 'backers, and the way they're able to make inverted seams and let Montee Ball and (James) White run around, we have to play a perfect game.

"A lot of the weight is on our shoulders, but we're excited for it."

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