In retrospect, it should have been anticipated.
All the signs were there.
Within an hour of their victory over Washington, multiple players and coaches talked about the need to "get better" and "improve" to win every week. Will Allen commented during the Tuesday Tressel luncheon that San Diego State was a better team than the Huskies and the Buckeyes would have to come ready to play. Coach Conley said, "San Diego State, I think the one thing about them that really stands out on film is that they are very good athletes. They can run, and they have tremendous speed. That athletic ability is something you have to contend against. You know, we had a dogfight for a long time a couple years ago when we played them here, so they will come in ready and focused…"
Indeed, they were a much more dangerous team than the fans, media, and seemingly even the Buckeye players and coaches bargained for Saturday.
While the Ohio State defense did limit the amount of damage done by the Aztecs' offense, they were still able to effectively gash them for yardage for much of the game. Coach Craft's schemes allowed his unit to rack up 20 first downs – more than Miami did during four quarters and two overtimes in the national championship game. The Buckeye defenders did not force a punt from the San Diego State offense until midway through the second quarter. Aside from the Reynolds interception, the Scarlet and Gray did not even force a "three and out" until the opening drive of the third quarter.
Appearing frustrated, unfocused, and even lackadaisical at times, the Buckeyes helped out San Diego State with late hits and personal fouls, and between the offensive turnovers and the defensive penalties, the Aztecs scored 10 points.
In a nutshell, "I think we are stepping up the intensity this week," said Joel Penton who might start in the place of Simon Fraser. "We are trying to get more focused. We didn't perform at our best last week, and hopefully that will push us to perform better…I think this past Saturday was a wake-up call."
The Buckeyes better not do their best Rip Van Winkle impression this Saturday, or they will awake to a loss Sunday.
Playing for the Buckeyes…
The defensive line will once again be the centerpiece and the position about which the Buckeyes will hang their hopes. Tim Anderson, Will Smith, and Darrion Scott will be working to penetrate on passing downs and hold the line on running plays. Whether or not Simon Fraser can start (or even play) will be a game day decision, but do not expect the Buckeyes to change what they do in his absence. Mike Kudla, one of the reserves that might see more playing time because of Fraser's knee injury remarked, "Every week I go in focused, 100% ready to go." In other words, the defenders are not panicked.
The game plan will be the same. They will attempt to stuff the run and go after Philip Rivers. Penton believes he is the key to the Wolfpack's hopes for a victory; "He is a big part of their offense. He's a great player, so I think that if we can apply pressure to him, I think it will affect their offense in a big way."
How do the defensive linemen plan to get after him?
"Get lined up and go," said Penton. "That is what the coaches are saying, and I agree with them completely…if we just get lined up and play our game we should be successful."
Robert Reynolds, who played both middle and outside linebacker depending upon the situation last week will be looked at to lead the corps as he did against NC State. The coaching staff seemed particularly impressed with his performance against the Aztecs, naming him Attack Force player of the week. Tressel praised him Tuesday.
"Robert Reynolds had eight or so tackles, had an interception, played the MIKE linebacker a little bit of the time when we were in our nickel situations and had to help get people lined up, which is the nature of that position," he said.
Other important contributors at the position will include AJ Hawk, Mike D'Andrea, Fred Pagac Jr., and Bobby Carpenter. Hawk, who leads the Buckeyes in total tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks, will stay at his outside spot, looking to disrupt and dismantle whenever and wherever possible. D'Andrea and Pagac will split time at the middle linebacker position. Depending on the down, distance, and defensive personnel package needed on the field, they will be rotated in and out by the coaching staff. Carpenter might occasionally spell Reynolds and/or Hawk if either needs a chance to catch their breath or is injured.
With the multiple offensive sets the Wolfpack are expected to show, the secondary will have its work cut out. Nate Salley, Brandon Mitchell, Chris Gamble, Dustin Fox, and Will Allen will be forced to use their wits and athletic abilities. With Rivers, who can check off a play at the line and use play action with deadly accuracy, and Amato, an avowed lover of trick plays, the Buckeyes might not know what is going on at times until the ball is already in the air.
"(With) some of their tricky formations, you just have to know where to line up, and what area we have in certain plays," said Salley. "They have some tricky formations we have never seen before – that I know I have never seen in my life before. So, there are some new things, and we are just looking forward to the challenge and going out and playing ball."
They better be careful for what they wish because Rivers and Cotchery are likely to provide more than a little challenge.
However, Allen believes that the Wake Forest game might be instructive.
"After watching the game -- I watched it last night -- Wake Forest, they schemed them up a little bit. They had them down like 28-3, and that was real surprising considering how explosive NC State is, and it kind of gave me an idea of what our defensive backs need to do and the intensity that we need to have. Because Wake Forest, they came in like San Diego State did against us."
The defense in action
This is not going to be a cakewalk for the Buckeye defense. Nor do they expect it to be. "I expect the atmosphere to be just tough, smash-mouth football," according to Will Smith. He further expects to see "a lot of guys out there working hard…everybody out there pumped up…a real physical game."
The defensive line will be going after Rivers from the opening whistle. The Wolfpack know this and will probably try to use three step drops or roll Rivers out of the pocket in order to combat this effort. Thus, it will be extremely important for the linebackers to be prepared and for the defensive linemen to get their hands up. And even though according to Will Smith, the Buckeyes always "try to bat down as many balls as possible; we practice it every day," it might be more important than usual. Rivers has a sidearm motion, and because of it, the ball is released at a lower trajectory coming off of the line of scrimmage. Factor in the possibility of three step drops where the ball does not have a great deal of arc, and the stage is set. Rivers will be looking for throwing lanes, and the defensive line will be attempting to thwart his efforts by sticking arms up in his face.
The Buckeyes will also be looking to improve the flaws exposed by NC State in the middle of the defense with draws and quick screen passes according to Mark Dantonio. "We've got to be prepared to work on that schematically. They got the ball off pretty quick. Conceptually, that's in their history."
It is also in the history of NC State, as Wake Forest can well attest after their game last week.
Finding the balance is difficult though. "I expect that they will come out and run draws because we have a pretty good defensive line that can get up the field after the quarterback," commented Smith. "By running draws and screens, it slows the defensive line, but we just can't – you can't play the draw. You can't play the run. You have to be a reaction player."
So, reaction, recognition of play calls, and getting their hands up are critical for Buckeye defensive linemen.
At linebacker, the Buckeyes absolutely must play with field awareness. When Rivers is pressured, he has an incredible knack for dumping off the football to either the tight end (#15 John Ritcher) or a running back (#21 Tramain Hall, #6 Richard Washington, #44 T.A. McClendon, or #25 Cotra Jackson). In fact, if McClendon is unable to go, the Wolfpack might frequently try to toss a quick lateral or swing pass to the wide side of the field to Hall or Washington in order to get them the football in space with wide receivers to block in front of them.
The secondary will also have to earn their keep. Jerricho Cotchery is particularly dangerous and has a 28 game streak with at least one catch. One missed tackle, and the next time the Buckeyes see him will be when he crosses the goal line, as the Demon Deacons discovered last Saturday. In particular, the young safeties will need the help of the veterans around them.
What will make the difference?
If Will Allen is to be believed, it will not be the speed of NC State, the athletes on their offense, or the relative youth at safety for Ohio State. "We have great athletes. I mean, this is Ohio State. We recruit guys just as well they do. We have fast guys, we have quick guys, we have guys that want to play and do their best, so I feel very comfortable."
Of greater importance will be improving from the last game when it comes to "the little things. Maybe a missed tackle here and there, maybe a little alignment one or two yards off where you just have to focus on the little things when you are on defense. That is what got us over the edge last year. We had guys really holding themselves accountable and working on the little things to be a complete defense."