That is what everyone says of course, and normally it is true. It is what Minnesota believed – at least until they met up with the Ohio State defense. Only then did Brian Cupito and the Golden Gopher offense realize they had no answers.
A running team that had moved the ball fairly well on Michigan's defense, they made fans and pundits a little nervous in some respects, but it turned out to be yet another false alarm. Ohio State dominated from the first whistle until time expired. The team that managed 18 first downs, 14 points, and 323 yards against the Wolverines left Ohio Stadium with 10, 0, and 182 respectively against the Buckeyes. Worse, they couldn't even score when Ohio State turned over the football deep in their own territory or put in their second and third string players.
Marcus Freeman said, "We have been getting better each week. Our goal at the end of the season is to be the No. 1 defense in the nation. For now, we just keep trying to get better every day."
They are on their way, and their next test will come this week on the road against Illinois.
Once thought to be a complete laugher of a team, the Illini turned heads last week with a near upset of Wisconsin in Madison. Behind the breath-taking athleticism of their true freshman quarterback, Juice Williams, they led the Badgers 21-3 in the second quarter and 24-10 at half before stumbling in the last thirty minutes of play to lose 30-24.
Williams displayed a cannon of an arm and fleet feet as he led the team in passing rushing and passing. He is ‘all of that and a bag of chips' and presents perhaps the greatest challenge from a defensive standpoint of any individual player this season aside from Garrett Wolfe for the Buckeyes.
"Juice Williams, looking at him he is a playmaker; he keeps plays alive with his feet," said an obviously impressed Marcus Freeman. "We just have to be prepared. That's the key – stop Juice Williams and hopefully we can stop the offense."
OSU defenders are more than aware of not only Williams but the rest of the Illini according to senior safety Brandon Mitchell, "Any time a team comes out to play us, they are going to give us a good game. Wisconsin was ranked pretty high when they played them and they gave them a good game. When you look at them on film, they do not look like a 2-7 team."
Coupled with a budding quarterback, the Illini offensive line, wideouts, and tailbacks are improving as well. Pierre Thomas, Jr., a 5'11", 210 lb. tailback has tallied 100+ yards three times this season with a 5.2 yards per carry mark, and his partner in crime, Rashard Mendenhall adds another 100 yard game and a 7.7 yard per carry average.
This kind of three headed monster creates real headaches for defenses and defensive coordinators, and Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel noted, "I think when you have to account for the quarterback as a runner. That always has a huge impact on your run game. If you took our run numbers over the years and extracted the quarterback yards, it wouldn't be nearly as good as it was and I don't know if it was extraordinary, but it was okay. So, yeah, whenever you have to account (for the quarterback) – especially in those offenses where they have the little spread and all that stuff – you better account for them. I think they have good backs and they have a good offensive line, so I just think they're solid at what they do and it's evolving and they have the runs and the passes that complement one another, they do a good job."
"This team can beat anybody," summed up Freeman. "Just because their record might not be the best we have seen all year, you have to be prepared and take them seriously."
Even so, this Buckeye defense is not the same one that took the field the first weekend in September. Their yards allowed per rush is dropping by the week and may soon dip under 2.0 for conference play if trends continue. They stand first in the nation in points allowed per game, allow just 31 percent conversion on third downs, and they have 30 sacks to go with their 18 interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
"We're going out there and holding teams to not as many yards. I think that helps boost your confidence as a defense. We're getting better and better each week. Our ultimate goal is to be the best defense in the nation," Freeman explained.
Holding teams to fewer yards helps, but a shut out and coming up with turnovers does wonders for confidence.
Improved linebacker play has been a big part of this transition from being a ‘good' to possibly a ‘great' defense. After rotating constantly for over half a season, the back seven has seemingly settled to a starting group of Curtis Terry, Freeman, and James Laurinaitis at linebacker with Antonio Smith, Brandon Mitchell, Jamario O'Neal, and Malcolm Jenkins at defensive back.
Then there is the play of the front four – whichever front four the Buckeye coaches seem to think should play. Even without one or the other of Pitcock or Patterson for the last several weeks, Ohio State has dominated via sacks, tipped passes, tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and even simply pressuring the passer.
As Freeman noted in the absence of Pitcock, "Quinn is a huge factor on our defense, but I think we have the utmost confidence in Joel Penton or whoever else they put in there."
When that group plays as they have been, everyone else looks better in his mind, "I think our defensive line is doing an excellent job getting a lot of penetration, a lot of pressure on the quarterback which makes the back seven have a lot easier job."
This week that penetration will have to be tempered; the best recipe to burn an overly aggressive line is a quarterback who can run as well as an incredibly gifted tight end in Jeff Cumberland, an Ohio player the Buckeyes might have taken were it not for academic concerns.
In short, rush the quarterback too much, and he will flush from the pocket. If you don't rush him enough, then he will find a way to allow his tight end to get free from the linebackers for a first down pitch and catch.
According to Mitchell then, the defense is going to try and "disguise our plan. This is key - especially when we will be playing against a young quarterback (at Illinois). We just have to keep up with the fundamentals, like making sound tackles and playing low - and we will be alright."
How this will Play Out:
Ohio State will fence with Illinois for a bit in the first quarter. Their first game on the road since they faced a crumbling Michigan State team, the Buckeyes might have to shake off a bit of rust and jitters. Illinois isn't the most pleasant place to play, and the cold weather won't help the passing attack.
Williams will get his yards; that is a given. He will scramble and put pressure on the edges of the Buckeye defense which may open up the middle of the field a bit more for his tailbacks and receivers. The biggest question is one of – can he hit them?
Meanwhile, the Ohio State defense will try and confuse Williams. They will throw more looks at him than a flirtatious 16 year old, and he probably will (like most freshmen) make a couple of critical mistakes and toss at least one and possibly several interceptions.
The Buckeyes will use their versatility in this regard, dropping defensive end Vernon Gholston into coverage, bringing Curtis Terry to be a down lineman, and even switching the role of Marcus Freeman (who has played no less than three positions on this defense) as needed.
Eventually Williams will struggle to determine if he should trust what his eyes are telling him and will either hesitate before he throws (resulting in sacks) or simply wing the ball (resulting in interceptions). This is of course exactly what the Buckeye defense is hoping for, especially considering the good natured contest currently going on between the linebackers and defensive backs. Freeman for his part would likely love to snag another pick if for no other reason than to quiet the effusive Jenkins.
By the end of the first half, the Buckeyes should be up by a comfortable but not insurmountable margin, but in the second half they will bury the Illini. The rotation which has been so strong all season will give the Buckeyes greater depth and fresh legs at virtually every position, and Illinois simply will not be able to match the speed or intensity of the 2006 edition of The Ohio State Buckeyes.
Give credit to Ron Zook for his work thus far, but Ohio State wins fairly easily.
Ohio State 37 – Illinois 12