OSU defense ready for the run

Tomorrow, OSU may be facing a team in Northwestern that will run the ball more than any team they've faced this year so far. The Buckeyes are ready for the challenge.

Ohio State's defense enters the Northwestern game as one of the top units in the country against the run.

The Buckeyes are yielding just 24 yards per game on the ground. That is an impressive statistic, no doubt about it, but it's also a bit misleading.

"Yeah, we're not giving up many rushing yards, but we've played so many teams that throw the ball three out of four times," OSU linebacker Rob Reynolds said. "Teams are throwing so much against us that we shouldn't be giving up rushing yards. So, we hope our run-stop defense will be prepared for (the Northwestern game) and the rest of the Big Ten season."

Last year, when Ohio State fielded arguably the best defense in the nation, the Buckeyes gave up 321 yards (243 passing; 78 rushing) and 13.1 points per game.

This year, they are allowing 295 yards (271 passing) and 19.2 points.

Obviously the Bucks lost five key starters from the national championship defense, but many were expecting the defense would not miss a beat this year.

So, is the 2003 defense not up to par with the '02 version? Is it better? About the same?

Head coach Jim Tressel was asked to compare the two groups.

"This one has only been in four battles," he said. "The tough thing about playing defense in college football is every week is so different. The group a year ago went through 14 battles. Every week, they seemed able to adapt and improve.

"We have the makings of an outstanding defense this year. I guess people can talk in the winter about which one is better. Right now, the 2003 one needs to get better."

Like most of the other offenses that OSU has faced this year, Northwestern runs a spread attack. But the Wildcats like to run the ball quite a bit out of it, which has some of the Buckeyes excited.

"This is Big Ten football," Reynolds said. "This is why I came to Ohio State. I didn't want to go to an SEC school that played those west coast offenses and all that stuff. We look forward to this type of game. We're prepared for it and we'll be ready to go."

Even when Ohio State plays predominantly passing teams, the defense comes into the games with the intention of stopping the run first. Now that Big Ten play has arrived, stopping the run will become an even bigger priority.

"It's something we pride ourselves on – stopping the run," Reynolds said. "That's one of our keys to victory. And if we stuff the run, we've got a good chance of winning the game.

"I hope they come in here and try and run the ball on us. We haven't played any teams where they try and run first. The linebackers, and I know our D-line, they're tired of pass rushing all the time. They're ready to get after some teams up front and try and stop the run."

On the flip side, Ohio State's defensive backs enjoy playing against spread teams. Safety Nate Salley has been getting a lot of playing time because both he and Brandon Mitchell are starters in the nickel defense.

"Oh yeah, it's fun playing passing teams," Salley said. "The more DBs we get in, the more fun it is for us. You know, more guys get a lot of playing time and get some good experience. So, it's been working out pretty well."

Against a Northwestern offense – led by quarterback Brett Basanez and tailback Jason Wright – the Buckeyes are preparing for a balanced attack.

"Northwestern runs the spread, but they also like to run the ball," OSU linebacker AJ Hawk said. "Hopefully, they will keep that up because we like that. We like being challenged."

Hawk leads the Buckeyes with 34 tackles and is tied for the team lead with 5.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two interceptions.

Even though he's just a sophomore, he already plays, and talks, like a veteran.

"I know the Big Ten is not a joke," Hawk said. "Any week you can lose in this conference. People may try and say Northwestern isn't as good as they've been in the past, but that's not true. They're 2-2 and they should be 3-1. They lost a close one to Air Force. We're not taking anything lightly in the Big Ten."

Although the Wildcats have tried to run a balanced offense so far this year, conventional wisdom says they will throw quite a bit more than usual against the Bucks.

"But they will also run it," Hawk said. "(Wright) has three 100-yard games. I'm sure that will be our first priority: to stop the run. I'm sure they will try and establish the run."

Nose guard Tim Anderson was asked if he's more concerned about stopping Northwestern's dink-and-dunk passing game, rather than its running game.

"I don't think so," Anderson said. "We're going to keep doing what we do and what happens, happens. We're not going to adjust and we're not going to change. We're going in trying to stop the run and obviously we are going to try and stop the pass too."

Defensive tackle Darrion Scott will miss the Northwestern game with a sprained ankle. In his place, Marcus Green will get the start and Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson will play a lot off the bench – much like they did last week.

"I think they did a great job against BG," Anderson said of the young DTs. "They did a real good job of stepping in and help making some big plays and doing a real good job."

As for defensive end Will Smith, many were expecting him to rack up some sacks this year. Through four games, he has just two, but Smith might be on the verge of living up to the high expectations.

"Will has done a great job leading," Tressel said. "He plays a lot of different things for us. He is a captain and a leader of our defense. The guys who play alongside him respect the way he plays."

The other Will – safety Will Allen – is enjoying a big year for the Bucks. He is tied for second on the team in tackles (with Reynolds) with 24 and is also tied with Hawk with two picks.  

His teammates have come to expect big plays at clutch moments from him. Call him the Michael Jenkins of the defense, if you will. 

"We know Will is always going to make the big play," Hawk said. "It's a good feeling knowing we have a senior back there who can do that."

While Allen has received praise, Ohio State's cornerbacks – Chris Gamble and Dustin Fox – have each taken some heat recently.

"I'm not sure why anyone would be down on them," Salley said. "They are great players. Teams have been passing a lot on us, so they've given up some catches, but they are real solid out there."

* So, what can we expect from the OSU-NU matchup on Saturday? Northwestern has a big offensive line, but chances are it will be overmatched against the Buckeyes' D-line, even with Scott out.

Look for Basanez and Wright to make a few nice plays, but for the most part, Ohio State's defense should have its way with the Wildcats. 

The key will be getting pressure on Basanez. The Bucks are known as an aggressive, attacking defense, but so far this year, they haven't been all that great at getting pressure.

Maybe this is the week that will change.


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