For two years, The Ohio State Buckeyes knew one thing: Nobody could push their defense around. Miami, Michigan (2002), Purdue, Penn State, N.C. State, and other top offenses all entered the arena with the defense of OSU only to leave in tatters. No team had managed more than 24 points in regulation since January 1, 2002.
Yet, it was the defense that let the Buckeyes down in Ann Arbor. A dubious display of poor tackling, missed assignments, and occasional poor pass coverage ended with a painful loss, likely costing OSU a shot at defending their national title in the Sugar Bowl. Michigan hung 35 on the Buckeyes and probably could have scored even more had Carr not mysteriously ceased using the successful formula after his team charged to a 21 point lead.
"It's hard to let go," said senior defensive tackle and team captain Tim Anderson. "For me to go in there and play the way I did, it's very hard for me to deal with. I think about it a lot, wondering why I did this and did that. Yeah, I still think about it. It was definitely one of the worst games I ever played."
Now, the Scarlet and Gray face perhaps their stiffest challenge yet.
They must not only rebound from the bitter defeat at Michigan, they must stop a Kansas State offense with perhaps the greatest 1-2 punch of any backfield in the nation - Darren Sproles and Ell Roberson.
The Buckeyes are well aware of the situation and are raring to redeem themselves according to Craig Krenzel. "The biggest thing is that we lost our last regular season game against Michigan. The last thing that this senior class, the last thing that I want to do is to go out losing two in a row. We would like to go out on a good note. We have a great team that we are going to play, a great bowl game, it's going to be a great experience, and to make it perfect we want to go out victorious."
What the defense must do to go out victorious…
* First, the Buckeyes must make Kansas State one-dimensional.
The Scarlet and Gray must either take away the threat of the passing or the running game for the Wildcat offense. KSU's greatest strength and primary mode of moving the football is on the ground. They average 238.9 yards rushing per game (6th in the nation behind only Rice, Navy, Minnesota, Air Force, and Texas). So, expect Ohio State to try and force Roberson to beat them "left handed" with the passing game.
However, that is easier said than done.
Looking at the dual rushing threats of Roberson and Sproles, defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio remarked, "I look at them, and they have 500 caries between the two of them and 3,000 yards rushing. So I would say they are both a very big concern of ours because they're both a very big part of their offense. I'm sure as the game progresses they'll both have their moments because they're very good football players."
Saying those two are good football players is akin to noticing that the Matterhorn is a pretty big hill or the Pacific Ocean is a tad larger than your average puddle. Between just the two of them, they accounted for over 5,000 yards of total offense and 31 touchdowns this season. To put that in proper perspective, consider that Ohio State's leading rusher in Lydell Ross and leading passer in Krenzel totaled just 2,800 yards with 24 touchdowns.
Yet stop them is what the Buckeyes must do if they are to win. Oklahoma, with all of its' defensive hype and hardware could not. Ohio State's less highly touted defense has to find a way.
As safety Will Allen noted, "Just stopping the run, that's the key. If you stop the run, you make a team one-dimensional. That's going to be extremely difficult because it's almost like they have two good tailbacks back there."
Nor is this coming as a surprise to the Wildcats. After all, Oklahoma's defense surely went into the Big 12 Championship game talking about the need to stop the running game and had even successfully done so earlier in the season.
Kansas State offensive guard Ryan Lilja knows about the Buckeye rush defense, "They are pretty good. They are only giving up about 60 yards rushing in the Big Ten, and that is a conference where they run a lot. It's a challenge. It's kind of like playing Oklahoma and going up to Nebraska, it's just another challenge for us. I think we are ready. We've been practicing well and I think Sproles feels like he has a little bit to prove."
* Second, the Buckeyes must be patient and play fundamentally sound assignment football.
Zone blitz schemes can be highly susceptible to athletically gifted quarterbacks that can scramble. Over the past two seasons, both Ohio State and Oklahoma have been burned by dual threat quarterbacks Brad Smith, Josh Harris, and Ell Roberson. So, according to Allen, the way to victory will be found by the defensive players remembering, "We have to read our keys, be disciplined and not give up any big pass plays."
Outside linebacker Bobby Carpenter agrees; "Their offense is based on a lot of misdirection, and they've got guys to do it. They have a fast running back and a fast quarterback. So, they can do a lot of things with that… It is just knowing their formations, reading your keys. You have to be patient. You can' jump things. What they want you to do is make a quick decision and then usually it will be a bad one."
* Third, Ohio State's secondary must play effective pass defense.
It is useless to take away the rushing attack if a defense simply turns around and lets their opponent drive the field and score at will via the air. Chris Gamble and Dustin Fox must play their best game of the season. While Kansas State does not have the talent at wideout of a Michigan or N.C. State, but they are not bereft of ability at the position either. In fact, their leading receiver, James Terry, is coming off of a career year with nearly 1,200 yards, 13 touchdowns, and an average per catch of 19.6 yards.
Along these same lines, tight end Thomas Hill believes the emphasis on the run will play into the hands of Kansas State if OSU is not careful; ""It gives Ell (Roberson) his opportunities to work. He watches so much film and understands what the defense looks like and we're blessed to have Ell and Sproles that can counter their defense. Looking at all the blitzing they do shows that we are going to rely a lot on our receivers to get open and try to open things up down the field. Sproles and Roberson are going to do what they always do, which is run hard, so I think a lot of our success is going to come down to our receivers and what we can do on the outside."
Key Match-up For Kansas State
The critical cog in the Kansas State offensive machine is Darren Sproles. Sproles led the nation in all-purpose yards from scrimmage this season and plays much larger than his diminutive stature.
Ohio State's defense must hem him in much like they did Fred Banks of Iowa. It is not about who is able to make the tackle. It is about clogging running lanes and closing possible routes of escape. Coach Dantonio has seen enough on film that he has concerns; "When you've had a 3-4 week layoff, you need to be able to get back in tune with being able to tackle a skilled player like Sproles. He's a spin runner and does a great job jump cutting. He's a tremendous player for them."
Shut down Sproles and all of the pressure is suddenly on Roberson. Too much pressure on a quarterback is never a good thing for an offense because the defense can key on that single player and methodically disrupt the entire offense.
The Two Horsemen
This Kansas State offense starts and ends with two names. They are names that every Kansas State, every Oklahoma, and now every Ohio State fan are undoubtedly familiar with. Junior running back Darren Sproles and senior quarterback Ell Roberson power the Wildcat attack. Within days of the announcement of which Ohio State would play, the Buckeye players all knew it as well.
"They have a great team," said Bobby Carpenter. He added, "Good running back, good quarterback. Their defense has played well. They stopped Oklahoma, the best offense in the country. They shredded their defense for the most part. They are a fast team. I think they are a little underrated. Their three losses came at the beginning of the year, and they really pulled off a bunch of wins in a row against quality teams."
Sproles and Roberson also have the full attention of Will Smith; "We must stop the run and force them to pass. Darren Sproles is very fast and can turn a five-yard gain into a 10 to 20-yard gain. Ell Roberson makes plays, they have good receivers, and their line is solid. I'd say that Sproles is more dangerous than Roberson. Plus they do some things we're not used to seeing. We want to win this last game for the seniors."
So who is this guy Sproles? Think Fred Russell with a bit less size for those who are Big Ten aficionados, or perhaps Quentin Griffin for those who watch more of the Big 12. Sproles is a topsy-turvy back who just when defenses think they have him hemmed in, he squirts out of the morass to gain another 5 yards. Not only can he line up from the formation and beat his opponent, but he also can torch the enemy with his special teams return plays. In a word, he is explosive.
Ohio State's defense is going to have to treat him like they would any other bomb. Surround it, clear out the area, and then move in and take him out. Otherwise, Sproles is likely to go off in a big, big way.
On the season, Sproles had 1,948 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game, he ran only 22 times but ended with 235 yards. Do the math. That is better than 10 yards a carry against a Sooner defense that had been in the top 10 in the nation against rushing.
In recent weeks, Sproles has been gaining recognition for his accomplishments. "It's really well-deserved," said Bill Snyder. "I know he feels the same way. It's very appropriate. He's a humble young man who I'm sure will deflect the acclaim to his teammates, and rightfully so. I think the honor is a tribute to his teammates."
For his part, Sproles proved his coach to be right. When asked how he nearly gained 2,000 yards rushing, he replied, "Mainly because my O-line was blocking for me, that's how I got it." When named first team All American, his reacted by saying, "I was surprised." Hmmm… A certain former Ohio State running back might be able to learn a thing or two from this young man about humility and giving credit to others who have paved the way for success.
What about Ell Roberson?
All Roberson did this season is rush for 1,082 yards, pass for another 2251, and scored 37 total touchdowns. I don't care what level of football one is playing, that is impressive. However, to finish with those sorts of numbers in division I-A is just mind-boggling. Roberson can beat a team with his arm or his feet, and though the plan for Ohio State will undoubtedly be to force Roberson to do the former, Roberson has better passing numbers than either Buckeye quarterback.
Like Sproles, Roberson excels when the play begins to break down. He finds holes in the defense, lanes in which to run, and then he burns them. What looks like a sack one moment ends up a 15-yard game altering run for the Wildcats. However, if the defensive backs charge the line of scrimmage, Roberson will do his best Vick impression and drop a deep pass over the secondary to his receiving corps.
Two others to watch…
Wide Receiver James Terry is no slouch. He has height at 6'5" and speed at 4.4. Ohio State fans should think Michael Jenkins with just a bit less size. Terry finished the season with 1,174 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Wildcats will undoubtedly try to match Terry against Dustin Fox whenever possible. Ohio State, for their part will try to super-glue Chris Gamble on him and hope Gamble does not give up the big play at a critical moment.
The other critical player for Kansas State is starting fullback Travis Wilson. At 6-4, 240, Wilson has incredible size for the position and a mean streak that has been lacking at fullback for Ohio State since the departure of Jamar Martin. With only 10 carries and 4 catches in 12 games, his role is to be a glorified battering ram and keep defenders away from the diminutive Darren Sproles.
Key Match-up For Ohio State
Fred Pagac/Robert Reynolds/A.J. Hawk/Bobby Carpenter vs. Roberson/Sproles.
The Ohio State defense must contain Roberson and Sproles, and in order to accomplish that feat, the linebackers must play their best game of the season. They must not bite on fakes only to watch as Roberson or Sproles streak by them toward the end zone. The outside backers must also play smart, disciplined assignment football and man their zone on the field. The Ohio State linebackers must force plays back inside instead of allowing the two Wildcat weapons to get open in space and with blockers in front of them.
Who will win?
The bottom line is that this is not going to be rocket science. Ohio State knows Kansas State is going to try and ride Sproles and Roberson to the victory. Kansas State knows that Ohio State is going to try and take away the rushing attack.
The Buckeyes want to ride their defense to the win. "We believe we are one of the best defenses in the nation, and we're going to set out to prove that again against Kansas State," said Will Allen. "We always have something to prove and we just have to go out against Kansas State and prove it again."
Whoever is more successful in proving they can do what they want, in forcing their will upon the other will win. Irresistible force – allow me to introduce you to immovable object. Immovable object, allow me to introduce you to irresistible force.
Kansas State is excited to play in this football game while several Buckeye players have poor-mouthed a return to the Fiesta Bowl, admitting a good number of others feel the same but have just not said a word publicly. Ohio State has had serious difficulties (as has Oklahoma and other zone-blitz defenses) containing athletic quarterbacks, and Kansas State has not only a fantastic signal-caller but also an all American running back that makes Chris Perry look positively ordinary at times.
Kansas State 32 – Ohio State 24