Defensive Notebook: OSU Looking To Tame PSU

Ohio State's defense will be facing a Penn State offense that is explosive, but struggled against Notre Dame two weeks ago. The Buckeyes are doing a good job of forcing turnovers and keeping points off the board, but feel they can play a lot better. Today, we check in with linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive back Antonio Smith and defensive tackles/captains David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock.

Coming into the season, Ohio State's inexperienced defense was expected to struggle at times. And while the Buckeyes have endured their share of peaks and valleys through the first three weeks, two things they've done especially well are keep points off the board and create turnovers.

Last season, OSU had a great defense, but somehow managed to force just 12 turnovers all season.

This year, the Buckeyes have already recorded six turnovers (five interceptions, one fumble). But more importantly, they are keeping teams off the scoreboard. Ohio State is ranked 10th in the country and second in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 8.7 points allowed per game (Wisconsin is seventh nationally at 8.0).

"That's the most important goal of any defense, keeping points off the board," OSU middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. "But at the same time, we need to do a better job of limiting teams in terms of yardage and things like that. Our goal is to keep points off the board and get off the field fast."

Top-ranked Ohio State enters Saturday's Big Ten opener against visiting Penn State (3:30 p.m., ABC) with the No. 43 total defense in the country, allowing 293.6 yards per game. The Buckeyes are equally stingy against the run and pass. They are 50th nationally against the run (106.3 yards per game) and 55th against the pass (187.3 yards per game).

Ohio State (3-0) will be facing a Penn State (2-1) team that is 25th in the country in total offense at 411 yards per game. The No. 24 Nittany Lions have a first-year starting quarterback in junior Anthony Morelli and he has struggled at times early this season. But he is a talented player that will get better with time.

"Morelli has a cannon for an arm," Laurinaitis said. "He has a really big arm. He's hit some deep balls this year and we think he's improving every week. So, it's one of those things where we have to be ready for anything. If he gets rolling, it could be a long day. We'll try and affect him and confuse him because he is a new quarterback."

Thus far in 2006, Morelli is 48-of-92 (52.2 percent) for 549 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception. He threw just 20 passes last year and just 13 as a true freshman in 2004 and it's a little puzzling that PSU didn't redshirt him one of those seasons.

Penn State has one of the top running backs in the conference in senior Tony Hunt. He has rushed for 253 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns this season. Last year, he had 1,047 yards (6.0 yards per carry) and six scores.

"Hunt is a big back, powerful back," Laurinaitis said. "Definitely can't arm tackle him because he's a big guy (6-2, 230) and he will run right through arm tackles. You've got to stay low and keep hitting him and you never quit. He's one of those typical Penn State running backs. He'll pound you all game."

The Nittany Lions have just one returning starter on the offensive line this season, but he's a good one. Senior tackle Levi Brown will likely be a first-day NFL draft pick.

Penn State's receiving corps is led by sophomore Derrick Williams, who was on his way to a big season in 2005 before suffering a broken arm against Michigan.

"What stands out about him is that he's a playmaker," Laurinaitis said. "He's definitely one of those guys that can hit you on the edges and stretch you defense out. We've got to be prepared for anything with him."

Laurinaitis has quickly established himself as not only one of the leaders on Ohio State's defense, but one of the best players in the conference. He is a playmaker with two interceptions and a forced fumble, and also leads the Buckeyes in tackles with 26 (15 solos).

But don't look for any complacency out of this young man. Even when he was told that PSU's legendary coach Joe Paterno singled him out as one of the Buckeyes' stars this week, Laurinaitis just gave it a humble shrug.

"I definitely don't feel that I've arrived yet," he said. "It's one of those things where… obviously it's an honor to have people think of you like that, but we've got a lot of work to do. We had a solid practice (Tuesday) and we have to get a lot better. It's one of those things where you can never be satisfied. Jerry Rice once said that and I really took that to heart. The minute you are satisfied is when you should quit playing."

Laurinaitis is looking forward to the physical play of the Big Ten. Texas was a physical game, but week in and week out players know what they're getting in the Big Ten. Ohio State's players think that last year's 17-10 loss at Penn State was the most physical game of the year.

"The coaches have been saying it all week that this is going to be more physical and once you get to the Big Ten you have to take it to another level," Laurinaitis said. "So, I think they are going to try and come out and punch us in the mouth like they did last year – they were really physical with us last year. It's an Ohio State-Penn State game, so whatever they have over there we have to expect the very best. Obviously they have great skilled guys and they have a quarterback who has a rocket for an arm and they have a tremendous back. We have to be ready for it."

Laurinaitis is playing the majority of snaps, but the rest of OSU's linebackers are part of a rotation. Ross Homan and John Kerr are splitting time at the weakside spot, and Marcus Freeman and Curtis Terry are battling on the strongside. Even Laurinaitis is sharing time with junior Larry Grant to a certain extent, but if there is one LB position that seems locked down, it's in the middle. Grant might have to move to the outside to see more time, but the coaches seem content to leave him in the middle for now.

Laurinaitis thinks there are short-term and long-term benefits in playing several guys.

"I think that it's definitely a good thing when you have depth," Laurinaitis said. "Anytime you have depth you can put new guys in and keep guys fresh. You can put in guys that are so-called twos, when they're really not twos, they could be ones on other teams. You know when they come in you're going to be on the same level you were before.

"And those guys will be even more ready to play later in the season because they got the reps early. If guys go down, other guys will be ready to step in and not miss a beat."

Laurinaitis has been known as "Animal Jr." to many fans since signing with OSU (his father is WWE wrestler Animal). But lately, "Little Animal" has also been used. So, which does Laurinaitis prefer?

"It doesn't matter to me," he said with a laugh. "I like them both. Little Animal will do fine."

Smith Continues To Impress

When Antonio Smith was listed as a starting cornerback in the spring, a lot of people might have wrote it off as head coach Jim Tressel giving respect to a fifth-year senior. And while redshirt freshman Donald Washington is now playing the majority of snaps at cornerback, opposite Malcolm Jenkins, Smith is still a huge part of the team. He plays corner, safety, nickelback, and of course chips in on special teams.

"My role, I play a little corner, when we go nickel with five DBs on the field I play some of that position, and I play special teams," Smith said. "I'm just trying to fulfill my role the best I can and whatever the coaches ask me to do, try and do it."

Smith says last year's 17-10 loss to Penn State is fresh in his memory.

"We're definitely not going to forget it," he said. "It's always in the back of your mind. But this is a new team with new guys and a new attitude. We're just practicing extremely hard this week and getting ready for Saturday. We have to win the turnover battle and bring all three components together: offense, defense and special teams."

There are a lot of players vying for time in OSU's secondary and at least nine players have been rotating through.

"Yeah, that's a big key for this defense this year," Smith said. "A lot of guys are playing in the secondary and the linebacker position and the defensive line. We have a lot of good young guys going in there and they talk about our defense being inexperienced and young, but we're gelling together. We're coming together as a unit and a lot of guys are getting experience and we're playing well."

Top Tandem In The Country?

In the spring, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said that senior defensive tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson had the chance to be one of the best tandems in the country. And after three games, they are proving their coach might have been correct. Pitcock has four sacks, Patterson has two and they are a load to handle each week.

Patterson was a player that really turned the corner in 2005 and finished the year especially strong. And that was as a defensive end. He moved to his more natural position of tackle this year and he likes it.

"Yeah, I prefer playing defensive tackle because I feel that I can use my quickness more and if you look at my body I'm built for defensive tackle," he said. "I'm not real tall and I can use my leverage and try and get under guys. I just like the physical nature of defensive tackle. You're going to get some contact every play and you don't have to worry about checking for the reverse, or the quarterback coming out or losing containment. I definitely like it more inside."

Patterson was asked if he was motivated by all the talk in the offseason that OSU was going to struggle defensively with so many young players in the back seven.

"Well, we didn't really pay much attention to that because we knew we had guys that can play football," he said. "It's just good to see guys getting better every week. Sometimes we make mistakes in one game, but we make improvements for the next game. If we can keep improving every week, that's our goal."

Patterson is happy with the six turnovers that the Buckeyes have forced thus far, but he wants to see it continue.

"Well, I think it's the coaches," Patterson said. "They put a big emphasis on turnovers and Coach Tressel is always talking about winning the turnover margin. In practice, we're making more of a focus on stripping the ball and making our defensive backs know and our linebackers know that it is just as much our ball as theirs."

Patterson knows that Penn State struggled offensively against Notre Dame, but he has still been impressed with what he has seen out of the Nittany Lions on film.

"I just think they have some great playmakers," he said. "They have great team speed all-around on offense. Derrick Williams is an explosive playmaker. They have a freshman kid (A.J. Wallace) who ran a reverse last week and he's an awesome player. That guy is fast. And their running back, Tony Hunt, is a great back, 1,000-yard rusher, hard-nosed and they do a good job of blocking for him. I just think that they have a great offense and it's going to be a great challenge for this defense."

Patterson is not surprised that his good friend Pitcock leads the team in sacks. Pitcock is known more as a run-stopper, but he also has outstanding quickness and is proving to be a good pass-rusher as well.

"Quinn is an amazing player," Patterson said. "I see Quinn every day in one-on-one pass rush and Quinn is a beast. People might slot you as a certain kind of player, but I knew that Quinn was capable of these kind of things. It didn't surprise me at all to see him get three sacks against Cincinnati last week. He's a guy that can definitely get pressure on the passer. So, when people say he's a run-stopper, he's actually an all-around good player."

Patterson thinks OSU can be a very good pass-rushing team if it continues to work well together as a unit.

"Well, one thing about a sack that some people don't realize is that a sack is really a total team effort," he said. "You can come and beat your man clean up the middle, but if the defensive end loses contain the quarterback might see it and run to the outside. Or if an end beats his guy off the edge, but the defensive tackle got beat at the line, the quarterback can step up in the pocket. So, really when you get a sack, it has to be the other three guys on the defensive line getting push and that's the easiest way to get a sack."

As for Pitcock, he's not buying any of the talk from his buddy Patterson. Pitcock thinks that Patterson is the best pass rusher out of the tackles.

"He's talking me up," Pitcock said. "I still feel he is a better pass-rusher than me. Maybe it's one of those things that we look up to each other and have that little competition that we don't talk about."

Pitcock was asked to reflect on his three-sack performance against UC, but just shook his head.

"I really don't know. I don't know what came over me," he said. "I was just able to get off the blocks and react to the pass and get in the backfield."

Pitcock enjoys working on pass-rush moves and refining his skills. He likes being known as a complete defensive tackle.

"We work on pass moves all the time," Pitcock said. "This summer with the offense we did a little one-step, two-step, just kind of get the hands off. All during camp we worked with our offense and we're always working on new moves."

Ohio State's defensive line was expected to be one of the best units in the Big Ten. And so far, it has been. But Pitcock is especially pleased with the way the young back seven is coming along.

"Yes, I'm very proud of the back end," he said. "We're still not doing as well as we want as far as stopping the run on first down and second down, but we're getting off the field on third down and we're able to keep points off the board and we're able to win games that way."

Against Penn State on Saturday, one might think that OSU will have a different defensive game plan than last year. Penn State's 2005 quarterback, Michael Robinson, was more of a running quarterback, while Morelli is a pocket passer. But Pitcock is too smart as a fifth-year senior to give any hints away.

"I don't think there's really any change of game plan," he said. "We'll probably use the same game plan as last year. Robinson, he was a good pocket passer. He did run some. But percentage-wise, they still stuck to the same Penn State. They are more of a spread team this year, but they're not opposed to running."




Buckeye Sports Top Stories

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","mobileBody":"Coming into the season, Ohio State's inexperienced defense was expected to struggle at times. And while the Buckeyes have endured their share of peaks and valleys through the first three weeks, two things they've done especially well are keep points off the board and create turnovers.

Last season, OSU had a great defense, but somehow managed to force just 12 turnovers all season.

This year, the Buckeyes have already recorded six turnovers (five interceptions, one fumble). But more importantly, they are keeping teams off the scoreboard. Ohio State is ranked 10th in the country and second in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 8.7 points allowed per game (Wisconsin is seventh nationally at 8.0).

\"That's the most important goal of any defense, keeping points off the board,\" OSU middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. \"But at the same time, we need to do a better job of limiting teams in terms of yardage and things like that. Our goal is to keep points off the board and get off the field fast.\"

Top-ranked Ohio State enters Saturday's Big Ten opener against visiting Penn State (3:30 p.m., ABC) with the No. 43 total defense in the country, allowing 293.6 yards per game. The Buckeyes are equally stingy against the run and pass. They are 50th nationally against the run (106.3 yards per game) and 55th against the pass (187.3 yards per game).

Ohio State (3-0) will be facing a Penn State (2-1) team that is 25th in the country in total offense at 411 yards per game. The No. 24 Nittany Lions have a first-year starting quarterback in junior Anthony Morelli and he has struggled at times early this season. But he is a talented player that will get better with time.

\"Morelli has a cannon for an arm,\" Laurinaitis said. \"He has a really big arm. He's hit some deep balls this year and we think he's improving every week. So, it's one of those things where we have to be ready for anything. If he gets rolling, it could be a long day. We'll try and affect him and confuse him because he is a new quarterback.\"

Thus far in 2006, Morelli is 48-of-92 (52.2 percent) for 549 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception. He threw just 20 passes last year and just 13 as a true freshman in 2004 and it's a little puzzling that PSU didn't redshirt him one of those seasons.

Penn State has one of the top running backs in the conference in senior Tony Hunt. He has rushed for 253 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and two touchdowns this season. Last year, he had 1,047 yards (6.0 yards per carry) and six scores.

\"Hunt is a big back, powerful back,\" Laurinaitis said. \"Definitely can't arm tackle him because he's a big guy (6-2, 230) and he will run right through arm tackles. You've got to stay low and keep hitting him and you never quit. He's one of those typical Penn State running backs. He'll pound you all game.\"

The Nittany Lions have just one returning starter on the offensive line this season, but he's a good one. Senior tackle Levi Brown will likely be a first-day NFL draft pick.

Penn State's receiving corps is led by sophomore Derrick Williams, who was on his way to a big season in 2005 before suffering a broken arm against Michigan.

\"What stands out about him is that he's a playmaker,\" Laurinaitis said. \"He's definitely one of those guys that can hit you on the edges and stretch you defense out. We've got to be prepared for anything with him.\"

Laurinaitis has quickly established himself as not only one of the leaders on Ohio State's defense, but one of the best players in the conference. He is a playmaker with two interceptions and a forced fumble, and also leads the Buckeyes in tackles with 26 (15 solos).

But don't look for any complacency out of this young man. Even when he was told that PSU's legendary coach Joe Paterno singled him out as one of the Buckeyes' stars this week, Laurinaitis just gave it a humble shrug.

\"I definitely don't feel that I've arrived yet,\" he said. \"It's one of those things where… obviously it's an honor to have people think of you like that, but we've got a lot of work to do. We had a solid practice (Tuesday) and we have to get a lot better. It's one of those things where you can never be satisfied. Jerry Rice once said that and I really took that to heart. The minute you are satisfied is when you should quit playing.\"

Laurinaitis is looking forward to the physical play of the Big Ten. Texas was a physical game, but week in and week out players know what they're getting in the Big Ten. Ohio State's players think that last year's 17-10 loss at Penn State was the most physical game of the year.

\"The coaches have been saying it all week that this is going to be more physical and once you get to the Big Ten you have to take it to another level,\" Laurinaitis said. \"So, I think they are going to try and come out and punch us in the mouth like they did last year – they were really physical with us last year. It's an Ohio State-Penn State game, so whatever they have over there we have to expect the very best. Obviously they have great skilled guys and they have a quarterback who has a rocket for an arm and they have a tremendous back. We have to be ready for it.\"

Laurinaitis is playing the majority of snaps, but the rest of OSU's linebackers are part of a rotation. Ross Homan and John Kerr are splitting time at the weakside spot, and Marcus Freeman and Curtis Terry are battling on the strongside. Even Laurinaitis is sharing time with junior Larry Grant to a certain extent, but if there is one LB position that seems locked down, it's in the middle. Grant might have to move to the outside to see more time, but the coaches seem content to leave him in the middle for now.

Laurinaitis thinks there are short-term and long-term benefits in playing several guys.

\"I think that it's definitely a good thing when you have depth,\" Laurinaitis said. \"Anytime you have depth you can put new guys in and keep guys fresh. You can put in guys that are so-called twos, when they're really not twos, they could be ones on other teams. You know when they come in you're going to be on the same level you were before.

\"And those guys will be even more ready to play later in the season because they got the reps early. If guys go down, other guys will be ready to step in and not miss a beat.\"

Laurinaitis has been known as \"Animal Jr.\" to many fans since signing with OSU (his father is WWE wrestler Animal). But lately, \"Little Animal\" has also been used. So, which does Laurinaitis prefer?

\"It doesn't matter to me,\" he said with a laugh. \"I like them both. Little Animal will do fine.\"

When Antonio Smith was listed as a starting cornerback in the spring, a lot of people might have wrote it off as head coach Jim Tressel giving respect to a fifth-year senior. And while redshirt freshman Donald Washington is now playing the majority of snaps at cornerback, opposite Malcolm Jenkins, Smith is still a huge part of the team. He plays corner, safety, nickelback, and of course chips in on special teams.

\"My role, I play a little corner, when we go nickel with five DBs on the field I play some of that position, and I play special teams,\" Smith said. \"I'm just trying to fulfill my role the best I can and whatever the coaches ask me to do, try and do it.\"

Smith says last year's 17-10 loss to Penn State is fresh in his memory.

\"We're definitely not going to forget it,\" he said. \"It's always in the back of your mind. But this is a new team with new guys and a new attitude. We're just practicing extremely hard this week and getting ready for Saturday. We have to win the turnover battle and bring all three components together: offense, defense and special teams.\"

There are a lot of players vying for time in OSU's secondary and at least nine players have been rotating through.

\"Yeah, that's a big key for this defense this year,\" Smith said. \"A lot of guys are playing in the secondary and the linebacker position and the defensive line. We have a lot of good young guys going in there and they talk about our defense being inexperienced and young, but we're gelling together. We're coming together as a unit and a lot of guys are getting experience and we're playing well.\"

In the spring, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said that senior defensive tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson had the chance to be one of the best tandems in the country. And after three games, they are proving their coach might have been correct. Pitcock has four sacks, Patterson has two and they are a load to handle each week.

Patterson was a player that really turned the corner in 2005 and finished the year especially strong. And that was as a defensive end. He moved to his more natural position of tackle this year and he likes it.

\"Yeah, I prefer playing defensive tackle because I feel that I can use my quickness more and if you look at my body I'm built for defensive tackle,\" he said. \"I'm not real tall and I can use my leverage and try and get under guys. I just like the physical nature of defensive tackle. You're going to get some contact every play and you don't have to worry about checking for the reverse, or the quarterback coming out or losing containment. I definitely like it more inside.\"

Patterson was asked if he was motivated by all the talk in the offseason that OSU was going to struggle defensively with so many young players in the back seven.

\"Well, we didn't really pay much attention to that because we knew we had guys that can play football,\" he said. \"It's just good to see guys getting better every week. Sometimes we make mistakes in one game, but we make improvements for the next game. If we can keep improving every week, that's our goal.\"

Patterson is happy with the six turnovers that the Buckeyes have forced thus far, but he wants to see it continue.

\"Well, I think it's the coaches,\" Patterson said. \"They put a big emphasis on turnovers and Coach Tressel is always talking about winning the turnover margin. In practice, we're making more of a focus on stripping the ball and making our defensive backs know and our linebackers know that it is just as much our ball as theirs.\"

Patterson knows that Penn State struggled offensively against Notre Dame, but he has still been impressed with what he has seen out of the Nittany Lions on film.

\"I just think they have some great playmakers,\" he said. \"They have great team speed all-around on offense. Derrick Williams is an explosive playmaker. They have a freshman kid (A.J. Wallace) who ran a reverse last week and he's an awesome player. That guy is fast. And their running back, Tony Hunt, is a great back, 1,000-yard rusher, hard-nosed and they do a good job of blocking for him. I just think that they have a great offense and it's going to be a great challenge for this defense.\"

Patterson is not surprised that his good friend Pitcock leads the team in sacks. Pitcock is known more as a run-stopper, but he also has outstanding quickness and is proving to be a good pass-rusher as well.

\"Quinn is an amazing player,\" Patterson said. \"I see Quinn every day in one-on-one pass rush and Quinn is a beast. People might slot you as a certain kind of player, but I knew that Quinn was capable of these kind of things. It didn't surprise me at all to see him get three sacks against Cincinnati last week. He's a guy that can definitely get pressure on the passer. So, when people say he's a run-stopper, he's actually an all-around good player.\"

Patterson thinks OSU can be a very good pass-rushing team if it continues to work well together as a unit.

\"Well, one thing about a sack that some people don't realize is that a sack is really a total team effort,\" he said. \"You can come and beat your man clean up the middle, but if the defensive end loses contain the quarterback might see it and run to the outside. Or if an end beats his guy off the edge, but the defensive tackle got beat at the line, the quarterback can step up in the pocket. So, really when you get a sack, it has to be the other three guys on the defensive line getting push and that's the easiest way to get a sack.\"

As for Pitcock, he's not buying any of the talk from his buddy Patterson. Pitcock thinks that Patterson is the best pass rusher out of the tackles.

\"He's talking me up,\" Pitcock said. \"I still feel he is a better pass-rusher than me. Maybe it's one of those things that we look up to each other and have that little competition that we don't talk about.\"

Pitcock was asked to reflect on his three-sack performance against UC, but just shook his head.

\"I really don't know. I don't know what came over me,\" he said. \"I was just able to get off the blocks and react to the pass and get in the backfield.\"

Pitcock enjoys working on pass-rush moves and refining his skills. He likes being known as a complete defensive tackle.

\"We work on pass moves all the time,\" Pitcock said. \"This summer with the offense we did a little one-step, two-step, just kind of get the hands off. All during camp we worked with our offense and we're always working on new moves.\"

Ohio State's defensive line was expected to be one of the best units in the Big Ten. And so far, it has been. But Pitcock is especially pleased with the way the young back seven is coming along.

\"Yes, I'm very proud of the back end,\" he said. \"We're still not doing as well as we want as far as stopping the run on first down and second down, but we're getting off the field on third down and we're able to keep points off the board and we're able to win games that way.\"

Against Penn State on Saturday, one might think that OSU will have a different defensive game plan than last year. Penn State's 2005 quarterback, Michael Robinson, was more of a running quarterback, while Morelli is a pocket passer. But Pitcock is too smart as a fifth-year senior to give any hints away.

\"I don't think there's really any change of game plan,\" he said. \"We'll probably use the same game plan as last year. Robinson, he was a good pocket passer. He did run some. But percentage-wise, they still stuck to the same Penn State. They are more of a spread team this year, but they're not opposed to running.\"

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