OSU Defense: More Bending, Less Breaking

Coming into the season, they were an unknown. Now they are rated as the No. 1 scoring defense in the country. The Ohio State defense has surpassed expectations so far, largely due to their ability to create key turnovers.

So far this season, the Ohio State defense has been much like a rubber band.  You can stretch it a lot and put a lot of tension on it, but it takes an awful lot to make it snap.

And more times than not, you try to stretch it, and instead of snapping, it cracks back and the rubber stings the flesh.

The Buckeyes have bent quite a bit in 2006, but to their credit, they have not broken.  In fact, with 14 turnovers including 12 interceptions through six games, opponents putting tension on the Ohio State defense have been getting stung quite a bit.

The barrage of turnovers is already two more than the 2005 defense created last season in 12 games.

"It's weird, it really is," said defensive coordinator Jim Heacock.  "I know we haven't emphasized it any more – we emphasize it every year."

Against Bowling Green on Saturday, Ohio State gave up 339 yards total offense but allowed just 7 points.  While Ohio State is allowing 300.7 yards a game – good for No. 36 nationally, they are now giving up just 9.3 points a game.  That's good for No. 1 in the country ahead of Florida's 9.5 points a game with Georgia giving up 51 points to Tennessee on Saturday night.

No one has scored more than two touchdowns against Ohio State this season.  Only Iowa and Northern Illinois have scored in double-figures.

"We were able to hold them to seven points," said defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock of Bowling Green, "which is always what we want to do."

Pitcock and Jim Tressel both noted that Ohio State made a lot of correctable mistakes this weekend against the Falcons.

That was due in part to younger guys learning on the job as well as Bowling Green's unique offense.

"They ran a lot of things we haven't seen before," said linebacker James Laurinaitis. 

Heacock said his defense is still learning on-the-job.

"We've just gotten younger and younger," he said, "especially with Anderson (Russell) out of there and now David (Patterson) out of there."

Although plenty of band-aids have been necessary for the rash of injuries, the rubber band is still cracking back and not snapping.

Ohio State is tied for the nation's lead with 12 interceptions.  Combined with the offense's ball protection, and the Buckeyes are third nationally in turnover margin.

The Buckeyes have neither been stellar in rush defense (No. 45) or pass defense (No. 41) but they rank No. 7 nationally in pass efficiency defense.

That means they're giving up some big plays, but not a lot of plays. 

Heacock thinks his secondary is getting to the right places.

"These guys are paying a lot of attention to what you say and getting to where you tell them to get to," he explained.  "I don't think last year's group was bad but they may have taken more chances and been a little bit out of character at times."

But the turnovers still perplex even him.

"I don't really have an answer but yet I just talked for five minutes," he joked.  "I have no idea.  I just like it and I hope it continues."

Ohio State now ranks tied for ninth in sacks, No. 7 in tackles-for-loss and No. 4 in third-down percentage defense.

In 2005, Ohio State gave up 15.2 points a game and 281.3 yards a game.  Halfway through the regular season, the Buckeyes are giving up just 19 yards more a game but six fewer points.

"During the spring we knew we had a lot of talent," said defensive end Vernon Gholston of the defense thus far.  "It was just a matter of us putting it all together.  But we still have a lot of room to improve."

Ball Hawk

Last year, Ohio State had a Hawk on the roster.  This year, it's got an animal.

That's little animal, son of former WWF Superstar Joe "The Animal" Laurinaitis.  James Laurinaits, the sophomore linebacker, leads Ohio State with 50 tackles, four interceptions and also has 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

"I've always said I'm very proud of what my dad has done and if they want to call me little animal," he explained, "then I'll be happy with that."

His stellar 2006 season combined with his father's heritage has created not only his catchy nickname, but also some creative behavior by fans.

Like for instance, several fans are showing up to games wearing replicas of his father's famous spiked football shoulder pads.

"I got an email from one of them," Laurinaitis said.  "They won Sports Illustrated fan of the week at Penn State two weeks ago or whatever.  It's creative.  You try to feel honored when you have guys dressing up like that."

The linebacker said his father knew this would happen. 

He recalled a conversation from before the season.

"He goes, ‘if you make a name for yourself this year you might have people dressing up in the spikes,' Laurinaitis remembered his father telling him in August.  "I go, ‘that would be sweet.'"

But ‘little animal' is also earning him a reputation of being a ball hawk.  That may be a fitting nickname given his knack for always being around the ball with four interceptions and also his father's late partner in wrestling being named, ‘Hawk.'

"That would work too," he said of the nickname, "but I didn't continue my streak today so that's out the window but hopefully if I get some more that would be pretty good."

But in reality, his streak did continue.

During the first quarter field goal block by Kurt Coleman, the ball dropped right into the hands of Laurinaitis.  He tried to advance the block but as he was being pulled to the ground by an opposing player, he contortioned his body to pitch the ball back to Jamario O'Neal, who was standing behind him.

"That was pretty nice," said Gholston.  "He pitched it back – he had great awareness."

His teammates were just stunned the ball again found it's way to him.

"They say I have a magnet in my chest or something," Laurinaitis added.  "The ball popped into my hands and I tried to get J.O. a touchdown there.  I'm going to give it to him and trust him to score over me."

Both names – little animal and ball hawk beat his high school nickname.

"In high school I was called Shrek because I was always bigger than the other players," Laurinaitis explained, "which I didn't really like because I didn't think of myself as a big, ugly ogre."

Defensive Notes

* Ohio State has intercepted a pass in all six games this season.

* The Buckeyes have only allowed one rushing touchdown this year.

* Opponents are now converting just 25 percent (19-of-74) on third downs.

* Vernon Gholston's interception was the first by an Ohio State defensive lineman since Quinn Pitcock had one against Purdue on November 13, 2004.

* Laurinaitis' nine tackles tied with Malcolm Jenkins for the team-high against Bowling Green.  He's led Ohio State in tackles four out of six games thus far this season.

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