Defensive Notebook: Battle of No. 1's

Ohio State owns the best rushing defense in the country -- and by far the best overall defense in the Big Ten. Minnesota counters with the nation's best rushing offense and the No. 10 total offense in the country. It is shaping up as an old-fashioned, smash-mouth Big Ten slugfest. We have comments from OSU's A.J. Hawk, Anthony Schlegel, Mike Kudla and safeties coach Paul Haynes.

When Ohio State and Minnesota face off in Minneapolis on Saturday (noon, ABC) it will mark the battle of the nation's No. 1 rushing defense versus the nation's No. 1 rushing offense.

The stingy Buckeyes are giving up just 62.7 yards per game on the ground. The Golden Gophers are averaging a robust 299.1 rushing yards per game.

Something has to give on Saturday.

If you enjoy statistics – if you're a numbers cruncher – it doesn't get much better than Ohio State's defense this season.

Impressively, the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in all four major statistical categories: total defense (254.8 yards per game), passing defense (192.1), rushing defense, and scoring defense (14.6).

They are third in the county in total defense, 31st in passing defense and eighth in scoring defense.

Minnesota averages 490.2 yards per game offensively. Believe it or not, that ranks just third in the Big Ten, behind Michigan State and Northwestern. The Golden Gophers are 10th in the country in total offense. (Yes, three of nation's top 10 offenses reside in the Big Ten.)

Minnesota is fourth in the conference in scoring offense (36.5) and 18th in the country. Passing the ball is where the Gophers struggle. They are last in the Big Ten in passing offense (191.1) and 89th in the country.

Junior quarterback Bryan Cupito missed Minnesota's last game (a 38-34 loss to Wisconsin) but is expected to play against OSU. The Cincinnati-native has thrown for 1,208 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.

Minnesota's offensive attack is led by junior tailback Laurence Maroney, who already has 1133 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this year. He is as fine a back as there is in the country and is likely to be a first round NFL draft pick next spring if he decides to forego his final year of eligibility.

The Gophers also have a solid No. 2 tailback in Columbus-native Gary Russell, who has 644 rushing yards and 10 scores.

As explosive as Minnesota has been this year, it hasn't faced a defense as good as Ohio State's.

Senior linebacker A.J. Hawk seems headed for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award territory. He has racked up 75 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks.

Senior outside linebacker/defensive end Bobby Carpenter has eight of OSU's conference-leading 35 sacks. Senior defensive end Mike Kudla is second on the team with 5.5 sacks.

Under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, the Buckeyes are back to earning their "Silver Bullets" reputation. Indiana head coach Terry Hoeppner might have said it best when he called OSU's defense a "blitz-o-rama."

Ohio State knows it will be challenged by the nation's best rushing offense, but after playing so many spread teams, the Buckeyes seem excited to play an old-fashioned Big Ten contest.

"Yeah, I think so," Hawk said. "Any linebacker will tell you they like to face teams that run the ball and Minnesota has been running the ball really well on pretty much everyone they've played. So, as a defensive guy, I think you have to enjoy facing teams like this. It's a huge challenge, but that's what makes it fun."

Senior middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel agreed.

"If you're a linebacker you love playing against the run," he said. "They've got a great offense. What really hits me is that their running backs are tough, physical guys. They just keep pounding you all game. Even if they get stopped, they just keep pounding and pounding all game and keep doing what they do. And their offensive line really attacks. They're really getting out there and cutting people at the second level. It's going to be a good game."

Although the Buckeyes are the best in the country at stopping the run, Minnesota is not going to get away from what it does best. The Gophers might mix in a little more pass than usual, but they will still hang their hat on the running game.

"They're not going to get away from their game plan," Hawk said. "They're a great offense and they've shown that this year and I think their stats show that they've ran the ball really well. They're not going to change anything for us. They've ran the ball really well at home and I don't think they're going to change anything. Like I said, it will be a huge test."

The Buckeyes know they have to guard against the play action passes this week. Minnesota likes to pound, pound, pound… then throw it deep off play action.

"We always prepare for everything that they've thrown at teams," Hawk said. "But they've had two weeks to prepare for us and I'm sure there will always be something new. We say it all the time that a lot of teams break tendencies playing against us. So, I mean, there's always something new a team will throw at you, but obviously I would say – as always – our goal is to stop the run and then we have to react to everything else. The play action passes, bootlegs and stuff like that."

Hawk thinks that Cupito is a solid quarterback. He's more of a game-manager than anything else, but he can throw the ball effectively when he needs to.

"Their quarterback, I played with him in the North-South game (in 2002) and I know he's a good quarterback," Hawk said. "He can play. His numbers aren't huge because obviously they don't have to throw the ball very much because they run the ball so well. So, I know they can if they need to. They can be a balanced offense if they need to, but when you run the ball like that there's no need to try and throw the ball 40 times."

Hawk says Minnesota is good at wearing defenses down late in the game.

"You really have to play four quarters against a team like Minnesota because you can watch them on film and there will be teams that hang with them for the first half and stop them for the most part," he said. "But then once that second half comes, they start wearing on people and they'll throw three running backs at you – change of pace guys. Then the linemen are always playing hard. They're a team that is going to keep doing what they're doing and try and wear you down. You just have to make sure that you're fundamentally sound. If you have one guy mess up, he might break it for 90 yards."

The one team that has been able to shut down Minnesota's offense this season was Penn State. The Nittany Lions broke out to an early lead and did not let up en route to a 44-14 romp.

"I think obviously they took away their running game," Hawk said. "They didn't have a special defense to stop it. We say it all the time. It's playing on fundamentals, having guys in each gap and everyone doing their own job. Don't try and do someone else's job, just do what you do and trust your other teammates. And that's the way to stop good running teams. But we know they are going to have some plays against us, like all great offenses do, and we just have to react to them."

After facing teams like Texas and Michigan State that like to spread it out, Schlegel could not be happier to be playing against a smash-mouth team. The Air Force Academy transfer came to the Big Ten thinking he would be involved in games like this almost every week.

"Well, it's a totally different type of scheme," Schlegel said, comparing Minnesota to Texas and MSU. "It's a completely different mindset. Every game we've played has been a physical battle, but this one is just 50-some carries a game. They average 350 (rushing) yards at home. It's just going to be a physical challenge all game long. There is going to be no letup on both sides and those games are fun. They're not spreading it out and throwing it. It's going to be up the middle, around the outside, getting pullers and people hitting people. And those games are just fun. They're fun to be a part of because it's just like who has the tougher guys, and who is going to keep battling for four quarters on the field."

But Schlegel is not writing off Minnesota' aerial attack.

"They're a good team passing the ball too," he said. "They just set it up off their run game. I haven't watched the Penn State game, but I have watched them against Wisconsin and Purdue and they're dangerous and it's going to be a fun challenge for us."

Some people might say that the game will boil down to Minnesota's abilty to run, versus Ohio State's ability to stop the run.

"I wouldn't say it starts and ends there, but that's going to be a big factor," Kudla said. "You definitely know they want to run and stopping the run is our goal, but how can you really stop a team that rushes for 300 yards a game? For us, it's going to be, ‘Let's limit their big plays.' They're a great offense so you know they're going to get some yards. For us, we've got to limit what they can do."

Ohio State safeties coach Paul Haynes says the Buckeyes needs to focus on the basics. Making sound tackles will be one of the keys against the Gophers.

"The big thing is just fundamentals," Haynes said. "You've got to be able to get off blocks and make tackles. You've got to keep coming, just like they're going to keep coming at you. They're not going to change their offense. They're going to run what they run and they're going keep running it. Even if you stuff it in the first quarter, they're going to come back and run the same thing because, eventually, they're hoping that you will be undisciplined in one phase of it that they can break it. And they can break it at any time."

Like Hawk mentioned, Minnesota is relentless and it has done a good job of wearing down its opponents.

"You watch team after team play these guys and you say, ‘Man, they're stuffing them.' But then in the third and fourth quarter, they're breaking," Haynes said. "It's the same thing over and over again. You have to play 60 minutes of fundamental sound football."

Ohio State's defense includes seven senior starters (including defensive back Tyler Everett who is questionable for the Minnesota game with a neck injury). It's hard to believe that guys like Hawk, Schlegel, Carpenter, Kudla, Marcus Green, Nate Salley and Everett only have five games left in their OSU careers. They want to go down as one of the best defenses in the history of the school and they would like nothing more than to make a statement in Minneapolis on Saturday.

"Yeah, the season has gone quick so far and obviously my career here has gone fast, but we try and not think about it," Hawk said. "We have a huge test this week against Minnesota and I'm trying not to worry about the games ahead of me. I'll let my mom do that. She's already worried about Senior Day. We'll see what happens when it comes."

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