Mike D'Andrea came to Columbus with high expectations last year. With one season under his belt, the middle linebacker is beginning to feel comfortable in Ohio State's scheme.
In Saturday's 16-13 escape over San Diego State, D'Andrea had two solo tackles and a forced fumble. Not incredible statistics by any means, but he just looks more fluid out there.
"Yeah, I feel a lot better this year than last year," D'Andrea said. "I didn't really read as well as I wanted to (against SDSU), but when certain people on the defense had to step up, they did, and made big plays."
Players like to say that the game "slows down" for them as they become more comfortable. That is what is beginning to happen for the 6-foot-3, 240-pound D'Andrea.
"Yeah, it's basically reacting instead of thinking," he said. "It's more of a flow. It just feels more natural for me this year."
Overall, OSU's linebacking corps is also making strides. The Buckeyes are using a five-man rotation, including starters Rob Reynolds, Fred Pagac and AJ Hawk, as well as backups Bobby Carpenter and D'Andrea. And it looks like a matter of time before D'Andrea moves into the starting lineup.
"I think we're pretty good," D'Andrea said of the unit. "We've got a lot of depth and everyone is coming along pretty well. I feel good about the situation at linebacker right now."
What D'Andrea doesn't feel good about is OSU's close call against the Aztecs. He knows his team could have played much better, but gave credit to the visitors.
"I've got to hand it to them – they came in and played hard from the start," D'Andrea said.
The Aztecs were hurting the Buckeyes with a bevy of short passes.
"The inside screen is what was hurting us," D'Andrea said. "At halftime, coach (Mark) Dantonio came in, drew up all the plays they were trying on us. What formation they were in and what play they would run out of it. So, we got used to that and we started to do a little better in the second half."
It looked like the middle of the field was available to San Diego State for most of the afternoon.
"Yeah, they were hitting that second receiver out there," he said. "He'd be coming in and they'd be doing a lot of screens across the middle and draws. And we just had to adjust to it in the second half. Earlier in the game, there were some times when we blitzed up the middle – linebackers would blitz – and the middle would be wide open."
But it was nothing that the Buckeyes hadn't seen before. Michigan is notorious for their screens and D'Andrea also pointed to a couple other games from last year.
At halftime, with the Buckeyes leading 13-7, a few of the team's leaders verbally laid into the defense.
"A lot of the seniors – Will Smith, Will Allen – a lot of them were yelling at halftime, but in a positive and a good way," D'Andrea said. "They were just telling us, ‘We've got to get our (rear ends) going. We're better than this. We've got to play a little smarter out there.' I mean, we had a lot of penalties. I think it was like nine in the first half."
Ohio State obviously didn't come out with the same fire that it did against Washington. Much of that is expected. You're going from a night-game opener against a ranked opponent, to a noon start against a supposed cupcake. D'Andrea was asked if it was obvious to him that the team didn't come out fired up and ready to play.
"It's hard to tell," he said. "There are always a few guys that are more pumped up than others. It could have even been the fact that (Craig) Krenzel threw an interception the first play. That kind of got us down. But I think he responded good off that. Last week, he might have had a better game, but he's the leader of this team and he showed that. Just going back and sustaining things in the second half the way he did."
D'Andrea thinks the close call could end up benefiting the Bucks in the long run. They needed to be humbled a little bit.
"I don't think it's a real big deal," he said. "The same thing happened with Cincinnati last year. Almost the same time of the year too. If anything, I think it's good for us to give us a wake-up call. We can't go into any game the rest of the year like that, or we'll have a chance to lose. So, I think if anything, it might have been better for us than if we would have blown them out."
NC State is next up for the Buckeyes. The Wolfpack were expected to be a top-10 team by the time they made the trip to the Horseshoe, but they were hammered 38-24 by Wake Forest on Saturday. Does that take some of the luster off of next week's game?
"No, not at all," D'Andrea said. "They're still one of the top teams in the nation. We know they are a great team coming in here and they are going to give us their best shot. We've got to be ready for them whether they're 2-0, or 0-2."
D'Andrea expects that NC State will try a lot of the same plays that SDSU used affectively.
"I'm sure NC State will look at the film and see a couple weaknesses we had," he said. "But you've got to also remember that as the week goes on in our practice, we're going to be getting stronger at the things we were weak at (against SDSU)."
One of the most alarming things about the close call against the Aztecs is the fact that they were playing without starting quarterback Adam Hall. Matt Dlugolecki filled in admirably, but could the Buckeyes have been in even more trouble if Hall had suited up?
"I don't know – we've faced a lot of quarterbacks," D'Andrea said. "We faced Miami last year; we faced Washington State last year; we faced Cody Pickett last week. I think no matter what, our defense is going to adjust to whatever we have to adjust to. Especially with the defensive line we've got; they are just unbelievable."
D'Andrea showed his playmaking ability when he forced a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Bucks cashed it in for a field goal and a 16-10 lead.
"I was actually playing man coverage on the back that play," D'Andrea said. "The back came out towards me, so I went to him and then the quarterback threw the ball, so I just turned and tried to make the tackle and my helmet hit the ball out."
It looked like OSU was finally going to wake up after D'Andrea's big hit, but it didn't happen. The Atzecs would not go away.
Afterwards, Jim Tressel said that there are going to be times you slip, but the key is to make sure you don't fall. D'Andrea looks at it the same way.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I think a lot of people could have played better today. I don't think I played as well as I could have. But, we got it done and that's all that counts."
D'Andrea was asked if he was a little ticked off, even though the Buckeyes got the win.
"A win is a win," he said. "We're 2-0. It doesn't say 2-0 with not good stats the second game. A win is a win and you learn from each game. We'll learn from all of our mistakes we made this game."
But was he relieved to escape with a win?
"I guess you could say relieved," D'Andrea said. "Anytime you win, you're happy. And when it's a close game, yeah, you're relieved.
"My high school coach used to say that there's one game a year when things don't feel right. It's like Cincinnati last year. So, I'm just hoping we've got this behind us now and now we're ready to go."
Like the UC game, the Buckeyes had several close games last year. Winning those games gave them confidence that carried into this season. When things get tight, the Bucks don't worry.
"I was actually thinking about that at halftime and in the third quarter," D'Andrea said. "I think what it does is that it gives you the confidence. It's like, look at Michael Jordan. Every time the game was tight, give him the ball and they knew he was going to win the game.
"Every time we got close last year – and we've got a lot of the same players back – I think we had the confidence and it just builds. I think we had the confidence over them and I think that's what we saw at the end."