The important thing for Ohio State is that no matter how ugly it looked, they awoke Sunday morning to an unblemished record. North Carolina State (11), Virginia (15), Florida (18), Auburn (19), Purdue (20), Penn State (25) would clearly trade a putrid looking win for their losses. The Scarlet and Gray did what they had to do, and though they converted only one third down all afternoon, it was the only one that mattered. Michael Jenkins's Barnum and Bailey reception allowed Tressel's team to run out the clock and preserve the win.
Nor is it as if the Buckeyes did not have company in their Houdini-esque escape. Tennessee was nearly Rocky-Topped in Neyland by Marshall, a MAC squad. Miami decided to play football with about 20 minutes left, coming back to stun the Florida Gators. The Golden Domers used some of that infamous luck of the Irish to mount a comeback against Washington State. Colorado squeaked out a victory against UCLA with a late rally. Oklahoma escaped Tuscaloosa with a win by just seven points.
The offense of Ohio State, appearing so powerful just seven days ago, sputtered, coughed, and died. The numbers are appalling: 5 of 20 with one interception, one fumble (lost), and no touchdowns was the box score for Krenzel. As a team, the Buckeyes rushed 37 times for 120 yards and no touchdowns. For those who are not math wizards, that comes to just barely over 3 yards per carry. The offense converted only once out of 13 on third down plays.
So what about the defense? What did they do right? What did they do wrong?
In honor of Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times…
For starters, the defense won the football game. No matter what else happened, it should be remembered that 13 of Ohio State's points were either a direct result of a forced turnover (Will Allen's touchdown counted for six) or were an indirect result (seven of Nugent's points).
After the initial shock of the Aztecs' first touchdown, the Buckeye defense hunkered down and began to try and keep their team in the game. Much like 2002, when the Buckeyes intercepted passes in or near their end zone against Texas Tech, Wisconsin, Purdue, Cincinnati, and Michigan, just when it looked like a 14-3 deficit was imminent, Chris Gamble tipped a ball up into the air at the goal line.
"Chris Gamble had excellent coverage and he tipped the ball up," said Will Allen. "I was playing football and reacted to the ball and revved it up there, and I had four or five blockers in front of me and you have to score with that."
Score he did. With his 100-interception return for a touchdown, Will joined Marlin Kerner (Purdue 1993) and David Brown (Purdue 1986) in holding the Ohio State record.
For Ohio State defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, there was no question just how important that was.
"That was a great play by Chris and Will. That was a 14-point swing, a very big play in the course of the game."
After that, both sides seemed to recognize that this was going to be a dogfight matching San Diego State's passing game against Ohio State's defense. The winner would take all. While the speed and size of Ohio State up front hindered the Aztecs, the quick passing game of San Diego State nipped and tore at the Buckeye defense's underside.
Allen commented on the offense they faced.
"The quarterback just steps back and he throws it," he said. "We've got to be prepared. We've got to move fast and we've got to move to the ball. As the game went on, we started adjusting to it and moving to it and recognizing it. That helped us a lot."
Truth be told, it not only helped, it was probably the only thing that kept Ohio State in the game.
The defense began pressuring Dlugolecki and coming up with turnovers from their offensive personnel. First it was Robert Reynolds, picking off a pass right up the middle and returning it for 19 yards to set up another Nugent field goal. Then it was Will Allen striking again, forcing a fumble by wide receiver Devin Pitts. Thomas Mitchell recovered it to end the San Diego State drive. In the third quarter it was Mike D'Andrea forcing a fumble and David Patterson on the recovery.
From that key interception by Will Allen until the rest of the game, the San Diego offense mounted several drives, but scored only three points.
Said A.J. Hawk, ""We knew what to expect coming in. They ran a lot of draws and screens. That's what football is coming to -- tackling in space. We work on that all the time."
While that might not have looked like it was the case in the first half, in the second half the middle of the defense stiffened. They stuffed the draw plays and rushing attempts, which had earlier been so successful. After allowing 67 yards rushing in the first and second quarters, they cut that margin to just 15 in the third and fourth quarters. Even more important were the negative yardage plays forced that resulted in just 28 net yards (on 26 attempts) on the ground for the day. That means that the Aztecs in effect lost 39 yards rushing after coming out of the locker room at halftime.
In the end, defensive sacks, pressure, and increased intensity during the second half saved Ohio State from what might have been the upset of the year and maybe one of the largest in a decade.
It was the worst of times…
Most Buckeye fans thought they had seen the last of this kind of play. On the day, the defense of Ohio State handed San Diego State seven first downs from penalty yards. For the four turnovers forced, the defense in essence turned the ball over three times on their own with foolish penalties on third or fourth down. Particularly egregious violations came from OSU team captain Will Smith, whose play seemed so out of control that the coaching staff apparently had to pull him off of the field.
It was a personal foul that allowed San Diego State to go from the OSU 23 to the Ohio State 11 on their first drive. It was penalty yardage that allowed the Aztecs to maintain their second drive as well. Will Allen might never have had to intercept the ball in the Scarlet and Gray end zone had Smith and others not been flagged for infractions. 40 yards of that San Diego State came directly from well-deserved penalties.
FORTY YARDS…on just one drive, and 52 yards worth of penalties in the first two offensive possessions of the Aztecs.
Of course, those numbers pale in comparison with the fact that the defense handed the Aztecs 112 free yards during the afternoon. Further, it gets even worse when doing the math and discovering 87 of those 112 yards were awarded by referees on 15 yard penalties with a roughing the kicker, a roughing the passer, an illegal use of hands, a pass interference, and two personal fouls.
While it is true that the defense preserved the win, it must be noted that San Diego State did not have to bring out its punter until 6:19 remained in the second quarter. The Buckeyes did not force the San Diego offense into a three-and-out series until the start of the 3rd quarter. On the day, Ohio State forced San Diego State's offense off of the field just three times on a three-and-out series. The Reynolds interception and the Patterson fumble recovery (forced by D'Andrea) were the only two other occasions San Diego State ran four plays or less on a drive.
If you were wondering about the ability of Ohio State's front four to pressure the Aztecs, wonder no longer. The first sack by the Buckeye defense came with just over nine minutes left in the 3rd quarter. That means the two teams played 35 minutes before the much more talented Scarlet and Gray defenders were able to force San Diego State's quarterback to eat the football. Sure, much of that can be attributed to the design of the offense as Dantonio noted, "They got the ball off pretty quick. Conceptually, that's in their history."
Still, it seems indicative of the overall day for the defense that came out of the tunnel playing undisciplined only to recover itself in the nick of time.
Ohio State won. That is about the best that can be said for either side of the football. Yes, the defense did some things right – a good many things in fact, or Ohio State would have lost. Still, it was not exactly a virtuoso performance. The personal fouls, inability to pressure the San Diego State quarterback, and the lack of series where San Diego State was forced to go 3 and out left much to be desired.
One thing is clear: the Buckeyes better play with more discipline and focused intensity against the Wolfpack, or they will find themselves with a 2-1 record.