Final Exams: Grading The Defense, Special Teams

All-American safety Will Allen helped lead an OSU defense that ended the year ranked No. 1 nationally against the run, ninth in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. We wrap up the 2003 regular season with our letter grades for each unit of the defense as well as the special teams.

Yesterday, we shared our grades for the offensive side of the ball for the 2003 OSU football season. Now we are back today with a look at the defense and special teams. Obviously, for OSU to finish the year ranked No. 1 nationally against the run as well as ninth in total defense, some special things have happened.

As noted yesterday, OSU was 5-1 in both halves of the 2003 season. The lone loss in the second half was the 35-21 loss at Michigan, where the defense failed to contain the Wolverines on the ground or through the air. Other than that – and I think most rationale OSU supporters would acknowledge that The Game is a pretty big that – the defense was on top of things throughout the second half of the year.

So, with all of that in mind, we will grade each facet of the defense and special teams. We will share the first-half grade, then give the second-half grade and average them for the season. Here goes:

Defensive Line -- As you read this, you will see a pretty consistent theme. It goes something like this, "In the second half of the year, they dominated the competition. But against Michigan, they did …" In the case of the defensive line, they ruled the roost over the second half of the year up until the Michigan game. Only one team (Purdue) managed 100 yards rushing against OSU between games 7-11. But it hurts that Michigan reeled off 170 yards rushing, including 154 by Chris Perry. It doubly hurts that the Buckeyes never sacked UM quarterback John Navarre, either. One game does not a season – or even half a season – make. But as we know, that was the difference between returning to the national title game and hoping you make a BCS bowl. Still, you can't downrate these guys too much. Defensive end Will Smith was the Big Ten defensive player of the year, while defensive tackle Tim Anderson joined him on the coaches' first team. Smith, in fact, may have had the best year ever for an OSU end with 10-1/2 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss. Defensive tackle Darrion Scott came back from injury problems in the first half and delivered big time down the stretch. And, the Michigan game means nothing – or comparatively nothing – if Smith and Anderson don't force a fumble by Purdue's Kyle Orton, which teammate Mike Kudla recovered for OSU's only touchdown in the win over the Boilers. First-Half Grade: A-, Second-Half Grade: B+, Final Grade: A-.

Linebackers -- This was a weird year for the OSU linebacking corps, to say the least. At midseason, we were ready to build a shrine for outside man A.J. Hawk. His numbers dropped off a little bit in the second half, when he had just 38 of his team-high 96 tackles. But he was still a nice factor and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. Robert Reynolds missed a game for choking Wisconsin's Jim Sorgi, then split some time between the middle LB spot and an outside spot he almost came to share with emerging sophomore Bobby Carpenter. Fred Pagac Jr. did the best he could to man the middle as well, especially after Mike D'Andrea went down with a late-season shoulder injury. The LBs had a huge hand in helping slam the door on opponents 7-11, but, like the line, did not help impact the outcome in a positive manner at Michigan. It was just a weird year for the LBs. First-Half Grade: B, Second-Half Grade: C+, Final Grade: B-.

Defensive Backs -- During the second half of the year, OSU gave up 249 or more yards through the air in four of their six games. Other than the Michigan game, though, the passing game was just about the opponent's only offensive means. It was good to see safety Will Allen make the coaches All-Big Ten first team and the Football Writers All-American team. He ended up second on the team in tackles with 79, including 14 against Michigan. Likewise, safety Nate Salley proved he is ready for a full-time role. The media voted Chris Gamble as a first-team All-Big Ten pick, although some might say that was on reputation alone. He did have an interception at Michigan, almost making up for looking lost on one of Braylon Edwards' TD grabs. From where I sit, Gamble did not make the same kind of game changing plays OSU fans were used to last year, but other than a play here or there, he was a solid if not spectacular cover man. The other corner, Dustin Fox, is just a competitor. You wouldn't call him a great cover man. But he is adequate and still has not gotten Ohio State beat because of his efforts. Plus, he's a great tackler (73 tackles) to boot. Just a solid competitor. Nickel backs Donte Whitner and Tyler Everett show promise for the future. Brandon Mitchell, who had the role at the start of the year, will start fresh in the spring. First-Half Grade: B+, Second-Half Grade: B+, Final Grade: B+.

Defensive Coaching – At the midway point of the year, we heaped praise on defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio and his staff for being "as good as they get." We still believe that, although the staff seemed to make few of their signature adjustments at halftime of the Michigan game – at least none that worked, as UM regained control of the game with a quick five-play, 62-yard scoring march to go back up 28-7. But in terms of the second half of the year, they were rewarded for their patience and for preaching mental and physical toughness to their troops as, in order, they survived tough tests from Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue before running into the buzz saw in Ann Arbor. If they can somehow keep this group together for two more years, you may just have another national title on your hands. First-Half Grade: A-, Second-Half Grade: B+, Final Grade: A-.

Special Teams -- This is a mixed bag as OSU fielded, perhaps, the best kicker/punter tandem in the country with Mike Nugent and B.J. Sander, a Ray Guy Award candidate. OSU was fourth nationally in net punting at 41.2 yards per punt. In keeping with Jim Tressel's mantra that the punt is the most important play in football, OSU didn't have any games changed by a blocked punt or a punt returned for a score. However, don't get all excited and think that OSU's special teams were some kind of smash hit in 2003. When you end up 107th nationally in punt returns and 106th in kick returns, you've got a serious problem. There seemed to be a philosophical decision by the staff to put sure-handed athletes back to field those kicks and not worry about the returns. Over the course of the season, however, OSU left far too much yardage on the table with this approach. If I could just give the feet men a grade, it would be A- or thereabouts. The rest of the special teams merit nothing more than a C. This is not a knock on Luke Fickell, who is dubbed the special teams coordinator, because the staff splits all of these duties. They need to get back to work this off-season on studying what successful teams do in the return game. This year was atrocious in that regard. First-Half Grade: B, Second-Half Grade: B-, Final Grade: B-.

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