In week one, the Buckeye defenders looked like they might perform as well as previous seasons. Cincinnati's rushing game was limited to just 76 yards on 26 carries. Richard Hall, a quality back, had just 41 yards on the afternoon.
Since then however, the Buckeye defense seemingly could not stop a senior citizen. Marshall and NC State both had over 150 yards on the ground while Northwestern (166) and Wisconsin (184) simply ran at will – bleeding out the clock and the life from the Buckeyes.
Head football coach Jim Tressel knows it and commented Saturday evening at his postgame press conference, "Someone mentioned, I guess it was the radio I was just on, the key to the game was that they ran the ball well, and you know, when you give it to Anthony Davis 40 times, he's going to get close to four yards a carry and that's about what he got. I thought the difference for them offensively was the fact that they were efficient in their pass game and came up with some spectacular catches and some key third-down catches, a couple -- they were just well done. And when you're efficient in your pass game and still can just pound it in there, that makes for pretty good offense."
All of this comes on the heels of news Friday that starting middle linebacker Mike D'Andrea is once again out for the season. It was widely believed that D'Andrea suffered a knee injury.
Said A.J. Hawk, "That's a bad thing. He got his shoulder hurt last year and went down. Now he's going to be out this year. It's a big loss for us as a defense. He was a good leader and had a lot of talent. Anthony Schlegel is definitely a great player to come in and play too though – so we feel bad losing Mike but comfortable with Anthony in there also."
Fellow linebacker Bobby Carpenter, clearly disappointed with the loss added, "Losing a guy like Mike D'Andrea hurts. We had a lot of depth at linebacker, and now we really only have 3 guys with a lot of game experience. That's tough. Mike's a great competitor…He was injured in the Northwestern game. He played 15 plays with that and fought hard. I give him all the respect in the world."
The linebackers are not the only defensive players ruing his loss.
Defensive end Jay Richardson believes he will be missed, "D'Andrea's a great player. We really need him. Unfortunately he had an injury. We have tons of linebackers, tons of guys who can fill in. We just have to play better defense."
"It's a big hurt. Schlegel's a great player, but a lot of times we even have them both in," noted Quinn Pitcock, "We utilize both of them. They're both great players. I feel really bad for Mike. He's had three tough years. It's going to be another tough year for him. He's not been able to get out and shine and do what he can do. He's a great player. He works hard and watches so much film. He does everything right but things aren't working out for him."
When a defense is struggling as much as this one, the loss of any starters hurts, especially one who studies their opponents.
Pitcock continued, "He's always watching film. I'll get home about 7 or 7:30 and wonder where he is at. He doesn't walk in until 9 o'clock. He's been watching film the whole time. He understands the game and loves to learn about it."
The best solution for Mike D'Andrea at this point is a to apply for a redshirt in 2004 based on a medial hardship waiver.
According the NCAA website, an athlete injured in the first half of the season could be eligible under certain conditions. "184.108.40.206.3 First-Half-of-Season Calculation. In determining if an injury or illness occurs in the first half of the season that concludes with the NCAA championship in a sport with an odd number of scheduled contests or dates of competition, the injury or illness must have occurred prior to the beginning of the scheduled varsity contest or date of competition that starts the second half of the season that concludes with the NCAA championship (e.g., an injury or illness occurring at any time after the beginning of the scheduled sixth game of an 11-game football schedule would be considered to be after the first half of the institution's season and would not qualify the student-athlete for a hardship waiver)."
The tricky part about this calculation however is that an athlete seeking a redshirt cannot have appeared in more than 20% of the team's games (or 3 games in a 12 game college football season). By playing against Northwestern, D'Andrea competed in 4 games.
Similar cases have recently arisen. In 2002, Ahmaad Galloway, a senior tailback at Alabama, tore ligaments in his knee during a game against Southern Mississippi. He was ineligible for a redshirt under current NCAA rules because it was the fourth game of the season. Unlike D'Andrea, this was his final season, and his career ended with no hope of a hardship waiver.
In other words, it probably does not look very promising for D'Andrea to be granted a medical hardship.
Carpenter believes the coaches are still going to try. "His injury happened before the (Northwestern) game. I know they're going to fight for a medical for him, but as far as if they will get it – I don't know."
In the meantime, the remaining nine starters from opening day and the coaching staff must find a way to stop the run.
Richardson commented, "I thought early on we were stopping the run and doing a lot of good things, and then we would go one play stop the run, one play stop the run, and they would come out and pass and complete passes. That's kind of heartbreaking for a defense to be getting the momentum, doing so well, and they complete an easy pass for a first down. A lot of that is on me as a pass rusher, and a lot of that is on our secondary. As a team defense we just have to take care of our assignments better."
Quinn Pitcock believes at least part of the problem is missed tackles, a rarity for Buckeye defensive units the past few seasons. "A lot of times on a missed tackle, that's another 5-6 yards," he said. "I think that is probably the biggest (reason). I think it's execution. We're (also) not doing as well as we should be."
Hawk seems to agree with that assessment; "Tonight we didn't do as good as we should have. It's usually tackling and certain adjustments we make to how you are attacking you, which tonight I think we did that well. You have to give some credit to Anthony Davis. He's a great back."
With Ohio State sitting at 3-2, time is running out for this team to correct their weekly mistakes. The last time the program started with such a record was 1999 – a disappointing year for the Buckeyes and their fans and one that ended with three consecutive losses to Michigan State, Illinois, and Michigan. With games at Iowa, at Purdue, and at home against Michigan still remaining, three more losses are not out of the question. In fact, most might say at least three more losses should be expected if this team does not change something quickly.
"I think a lot guys have to look in the mirror and take a long, hard look," Carpenter earnestly stated. "If we have to practice 5-6 hours a day to get the job done, then we have to do that. I don't care what it takes. (We have) to find a way to find a way to win the game…We're not getting those big plays we need right now. On third down we have to try and get a pick or a sack and get off the field. We need to get off the field and find some way to get it down."
At times like this the team will be looking to its senior leaders – one of whom is Simon Fraser. Fraser believes it is, "Something we have to keep working on. I think last week and this week in the first half we did what we needed to do. In the second half they started making plays, and at the end of the game they drove down the field."
Even without D'Andrea – Fraser believes this team can succeed. "We're pretty deep at linebacker. We'll be able to get the job done. It will come down to what kind of character we have and how hard we are willing to work."
If that is the case, then this team better put their nose to the grindstone because their next exam comes in just 6 days at Iowa City.