Final Exams: The OSU Defense, Special Teams

We look back on the regular season and provide analysis and letter grades for each unit of the Ohio State defense and the special teams. Led by All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk, the Buckeyes closed with four wins in their last five games.

In keeping with the theme of this Ohio State football season, 2004 was a transitional year for the defense.

The Buckeyes lost their coordinator, Mark Dantonio, to the head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati at the end of last season. Linebackers coach Mark Snyder stepped into the role as the coordinator, while secondary coach Mel Tucker became the co-coordinator.

There were some growing pains early in the year as the young defense – primarily the young defensive front – had problems stopping the run and containing mobile quarterbacks (see Basanez, Brett; Stocco, John; and Tate, Drew).

But Snyder and the defense grew into their roles down the stretch and were as much responsible for the team's 4-1 finish as anybody.

Over those last five games, OSU allowed its opponents modest averages of 16.2 points and 335.6 points.

Of course, those numbers reflect command performances against outmanned Big Ten bottom feeders Indiana and Penn State. But they also include OSU's strong showings against Michigan State and Michigan, two of the league's best offenses this year.

The MSU performance, where OSU held the Spartans to 19 points and intercepted three passes, gets a small asterisk because quarterback Drew Stanton was injured and did not play.

The Michigan performance, though, needs no qualifiers. Consider that none of UM's five previous opponents had held the Wolverines under 190 yards rushing. But against the Buckeyes, UM managed just 71 yards on the ground. The Buckeyes also picked off a pair of passes from UM freshman QB Chad Henne.

"I think we played our best ball against Michigan," Snyder said. "Coach Tressel always talks about playing your best ball in November. I don't know that we did that the whole month and we had some injuries. But I know coming into the last game, these kids played extremely well."

The only black mark against the OSU defense in the second half of the year would be the loss at Purdue, where the Buckeyes allowed the Boilers to mount touchdown drives of 78, 75 and 80 yards. QBs Brandon Kirsch and Kyle Orton did a number on the Buckeyes on that day in West Lafayette.

But, again, Snyder believes the lumps the Buckeyes took this year should steel them for the future. After all, as many as nine defensive starters should return in 2005.

"Youth plays into it," Snyder said. "We hope we have learned from our mistakes. The lessons we have learned have been good ones. I think we have some things to build on. The best teams learn from their mistakes."

Statistically speaking, Ohio State's defense took a small step back after back-to-back top-10 performances overall and against the run. The numbers saw OSU finish:

* 36th against the rush at 128.7 yards per game;

* 52nd against the pass at 207.5 ypg;

* 37th in total defense at 336.2 ypg; and

* 21st in scoring defense at 19.3 points per game.

All of those totals ranked between fourth and sixth in the Big Ten rankings.

After the first seven games, we provided midterm grades for each unit of the OSU defense and special teams. Today, we are back with our second half and final grades for each unit. Here goes:

Defensive Line

OSU replaced three starters on the defensive line and it showed. The Buckeyes struggled most of the year in getting first hits on ball carriers at the line of scrimmage or with putting pressure on and sacking opposing quarterbacks.

But the line gradually got better. One of the bright spots was sophomore DT Quinn Pitcock, who led the linemen with 44 tackles and 6-1/2 tackles for loss.

More was expected out of senior DE Simon Fraser, who finished with 2-1/2 sacks and five tackles for loss. But Fraser did at least provide a number of key hurries and quarterback hits throughout the year.

The rest of this group showed flashes at times, but mainstays like DT Marcus Green and ends Mike Kudla and Jay Richardson all missed time due to injuries. That group as well as DT David Patterson really need to step it up during the off-season.

First Half Grade: C

Second Half Grade: B

Final Grade: B-


If there was a better three-man group at linebacker by the end of the season, I would like to see it.

WLB A.J. Hawk earned consensus All-American honors after tallying 136 tackles and eight tackles for loss.

"I feel for him that he didn't get into the final three of the Butkus Award," Snyder said. "I think A.J. is one of the top three linebackers in the country."

His mates in that unit weren't half bad, either. SLB Bobby Carpenter was second on the team with 89 stops. MLB Anthony Schlegel stepped in after Mike D'Andrea was injured in Week 4 and ended up third on the team in tackles with 79. His 3-1/2 sacks and 10-1/2 tackles for loss were team highs.

"I think we built a really good foundation," said Schlegel, a transfer from Air Force who tasted his first action with the Buckeyes. "I think I got to help do that a little bit. I kind of got to step in and show some of my character of how I like to play and just practice hard and be a good example for everybody in how you play and practice."

The even better news here is that all of these guys are juniors and – along with D'Andrea and Indiana transfer John Kerr, who sat out the season for unspecified reasons – will be in the fold again next year.

First Half Grade: B+

Second Half Grade: A-

Final Grade: A-

Defensive Backs

This group was also solid. There were some breakdowns in the loss at Purdue, but otherwise this unit kept it between the lines most of the way. Over the last five games, the defense snagged nine interceptions.

The one guy who made the most progress was sophomore cornerback Ashton Youboty, who ended up with a team-high four interceptions.

This unit was beset by injuries as senior cornerback Dustin Fox missed four games (three with a broken arm) and OSU lost three of those games (Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue). Also, safeties Nate Salley and Donte Whitner also missed time late in the year with injuries.

But others like E.J. Underwood at corner and Tyler Everett and Brandon Mitchell at safety stepped into the void and performed reasonably well.

"A lot of guys stepped up," Salley said. "Everybody knows going into a game that anything can happen and you have to be ready. I think we were ready so when their time came everybody played to the best of their abilities."

With most every team on the schedule now favoring the spread, the Buckeyes were forced into nickel alignments quite a bit. And, unlike earlier in the year, the secondary stood up to the test in the second half.

"The teams we play and the caliber of talent we go against every week, it's a challenge for us," Tucker said. "I feel if we play well, we have a chance to win the game. I preach that to those guys: `Give the football team a chance to win the game by playing well.' "

First Half Grade: B-

Second Half Grade: B+

Final Grade: B

Defensive Coaching

Other than the loss at Purdue, the OSU defense was properly deployed to stop offensive juggernauts like Michigan State and Michigan.

Where it seemed like OSU struggled with halftime adjustments early in the season, the Buckeyes did a stronger job in the second half down the stretch.

The staff also had to work through a number of injury situations. They played at Purdue against three of their starting DBs (Fox, Salley and Whitner). If you think that might have been the difference between a 7-4 season and an 8-3 year, you might be right.

They coached up the defensive line, and they came up big by stopping Michigan cold in the season finale.

The final numbers are not in line with what OSU has come to expect in recent years. But they are figures the coaches will use to inspire the team during the long off-season ahead. This defense, with nine starters back, could be lights out in 2005.

First Half Grade: B-

Second Half Grade: B+

Final Grade: B

Special Teams

If there was any team in the nation with better special teams play, I'd like to see it.

Kicker Mike Nugent was 20 of 23 on field goals and won the Lou Groza Award. He made 8 of 9 field goals with the only miss from 49 yards over the last five games.

Punter Kyle Turano helped OSU finish first in the Big Ten in net punting (39.1 yards per punt).

OSU was second nationally in punt returns (17.2 yards per return) with five touchdown returns (four by Ted Ginn Jr. and one by Santonio Holmes). Ginn tied the NCAA single-season record with four returns and can set a new mark with a fifth one in the Alamo Bowl.

The Buckeyes were third in the Big Ten and 12th nationally in kick returns at over 23 yards an attempt, led by the school's career kick return yardage leader Maurice Hall.

A lot of the credit for the return game improvement – OSU was in the bottom third nationally in both categories just one year ago – goes to first-year assistant Darrell Hazell, who simplified the schemes. The decision to put both Holmes and Ginn back on punts was also probably worth two wins in and of itself.

Overall, nobody did special teams better. The only disconcerting thought is that Nugent and Turano will be gone next year. It appeared that Josh Huston, hopeful of a sixth year of eligibility, had the inside track at kicker and redshirted freshman A.J. Trapasso would draw in as the punter.

First Half Grade: A-

Second Half Grade: A

Final Grade: A

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