Defense Can Rest After 2012 Rebound

Discussing what was going wrong for the Ohio State defense was a common thing around Columbus in the 2012 season, but that talk started to take a backseat in the second half of the campaign. By the time the season was over, head coach Urban Meyer said the group had turned into a championship unit.

For much of the season, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer spent his time telling reporters just what his team needed to get better at.

Sure, there was praise for the areas of the team that were doing well, but the phrases, "We're not there yet," and, "We have a long way to go," often escaped Meyer's lips.

Much of those sentiments were directed toward the team's defense, and Meyer had a point as the Buckeyes gave up big plays, struggled in tackling and ceded yards at a clip not seen in Columbus in quite some time.

But in the final five weeks of the season, Meyer started to like what he saw out of his stop troops. In fact, after the 26-21 win to end the undefeated season against Michigan, the head coach pointed to the defense as the reason why he felt his first Ohio State team could compete with the top teams in the country.

"There's a common denominator right there for the top five teams in America," Meyer said. "The denominator was not part of our system, and that's a great defense. You see the top teams getting ready to go play for championships. I've been blessed to be a couple of teams of championships, and the common denominator is not rushing yardage, passing yardage, blocked punts, whatever it is, it's great defense.

"And I'd say at this point in time Ohio State could go play with anybody in America. I wouldn't say that five weeks ago. But I think you've seen the growth, what we did today and the growth of our defense."

While Meyer might have been exaggerating a bit – top-five squads Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida all are allowing less than 13 points per game, a mark the Buckeyes hit only in the season opener against Miami – he did have a strong point that his defense got better as the season went on.

The team's opus might have come in the second half of the Michigan game. After being sliced for 219 yards in the opening stanza, the Buckeyes put the clamps down after halftime, keeping Michigan to 60 total yards, including negative yardage on the ground. The Wolverines didn't run a single play in Ohio State territory in six drives, while the Buckeyes forced three turnovers and allowed only four first downs.

"We've got great leaders on the defensive side of the ball," senior safety Orhian Johnson said after his final game. "We're lead by a great group of coaches, and we really just bought in to what they were preaching and telling us. Coach Meyer gave us a game plan on how to go out there and stop it, and we went out there and we executed."

That performance – which also included holding elusive star quarterback Denard Robinson to minus-2 yards, a lost fumble and a fourth-down stop on four carries – was typical of the way the Buckeyes performed in the last five games of the season.

Games six and seven were problematic, though, as Nebraska and Indiana combined for 87 points and 918 yards. At that point, Meyer took the issues into his own hands, identifying three key issues the Buckeyes needed to work on – tackling, leveraging the ball and giving four to six seconds of relentless effort.

Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell agrees. To that point, the Buckeyes had has issues with all three and as a result had given up repeated big plays. That certainly changed; in the month of November, the Buckeyes gave up only six plays of 20 or more yards in three games, third in the nation behind only TCU and Wisconsin.

"There was a big difference from the beginning of the season, even from midway through the season to our last three or four games," safety C.J. Barnett said. "I think the biggest thing was they really stressed the fundamentals, leveraging the ball, making tackles. Even (the Michigan) game, we did a bad job of that in the first half, but I just think guys got back to the fundamentals.

"Guys were going four to six seconds, point A to point B as hard as we can. At the beginning, I know we missed a lot of plays … but when you make the plays and you play hard, good things will happen."

Ohio State also moved up from 69th in the country in yards allowed with 400.0 per game after the Indiana game to 34th at the end of the campaign. The Buckeyes gave up 303.0 yards per game in the last five contests, including a season-low 170 vs. Illinois.

In addition, the team's points per game mark dropped to 20.4 in the last five games, and even that was higher than it should have been given the non-offensive touchdowns posted by Purdue, Penn State and Illinois.

"I would say we're a lot more fundamentally sound in what we do," senior Nathan Williams said. "We went back to the basics of tackling. I think at the beginning of the year, I wouldn't say we were freelancing, but we were going for the big plays, the kill shots, the mentality of Coach Meyer, just smack them in the throat every single time.

"I think that once we got used to everybody's role on the team, we had to take a step back and knew that we had to do. That was work on your fundamentals, and I think we did a great job with that."

Finally, by the end of the season, Meyer agreed.

"I had the same concerns as probably every person in America watching our team play (defense)," Meyer said. "But I'm one of those guys that's concerned about everything. You could see the steady growth of our defensive staff. I'm very pleased with how the last half of the season went."

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