A week after allowing 260 rushing yards to Illinois Nov. 10 – the worst performance in that category during head coach Jim Tressel's tenure – the Ohio State defense surrendered just 15 yards on 24 carries against archrival Michigan on the 17th.
So what the heck happened over that week's time that changed the fortunes of OSU's stop troops?
"It was just a different scheme because of the different styles of offense," defensive tackle Todd Denlinger said. "It was a different philosophy we had to bring in, facing a running quarterback like Juice Williams compared to a pocket passer like Chad Henne."
Indeed, there was quite the difference between the Illinois spread option offense, which includes multiple potential ball-handlers and fakes, spearheaded by Williams, and Henne's more conventional Michigan offense featuring zone run blocking. Whether that alone proved to be the reason why OSU struggled against one team and dominated the other could be questioned, but even linebacker James Laurinaitis agreed that it played a major part in what transpired.
"You knew (Michigan) was going to run zone and you had to get penetration, and when your defense can just not think and just run and go, then your true talent comes out," Laurinaitis said. "Illinois' offense is more of, ‘Well when they fake the dive, this guy has to sit down and play this, and the other guy has to run over here,' because you have to be that way. It makes you think, ‘Wait, am I doing the right thing here, am I not?' We were just running around against Michigan and it was fun."
Against the Fighting Illini, that unpredictable option attack left the Buckeyes vulnerable. In addition to allowing the 260 yards on the ground, the Buckeyes earned just one sack of Williams and had just seven tackles for loss on 73 plays despite UI's ground-oriented attack.
The defensive line, which about half of the time employed just three members thanks to OSU's decision to have more linebackers and defensive backs on the field to counteract Illinois four-wide sets and also was bothered by injuries to Denlinger and Robert Rose, appeared to get pushed around at times by an Illinois front with three players who would earn All-Big Ten honors by the league coaches.
"We didn't play our best game, but they may have," Denlinger said. "It's one of those games where it's hard to say. We didn't play terribly but there were times if one person or this person would have made a play it could have changed the outcome of the game."
The story was quite different against the Wolverines. After Michigan bulled for 49 yards and a field goal on its second drive – a possession that often saw the Buckeye defensive line pushed backwards 5-10 yards on each play – the Wolverines had little success. The Maize and Blue finished with just 91 total yards, and OSU defenders made four sacks – three by Vernon Gholston – and 11 tackles for loss.
"I think overall as a defensive line that was one of our better games, even for the defense as a whole," Denlinger said. "We executed what we had to do and we did our job and things fell like we wanted to."
The sophomore from Troy, Ohio, admitted that the numerous injuries up front did submarine some of Ohio State's effectiveness. The Buckeyes lost touted defensive end Lawrence Wilson during the first game to a broken leg, then Denlinger (thigh/knee bruise) and Rose (undisclosed) each missed time during the second half of the season. Against Illinois, Denlinger and Rose played sparingly, leaving the Buckeyes with essentially a five-man rotation.
"It makes it difficult just not knowing who is going to be in there, and you can't really get a feel for everybody," Denlinger said. "Yeah, we lost Lawrence early, and that hurt because he's … a great player. With Rob and I kind of being thrown in and out of there with injuries, it makes things difficult not only in games but in practices. Guys have to take more reps and that will beat guys down that much more."
Against the Wolverines, the Buckeyes appeared to be the healthiest up front they had been in a while. Denlinger joined redshirt freshman Dexter Larimore to join one tackle pair that rotated each series with Nader Abdallah and Doug Worthington, while Gholston and true frosh Cameron Heyward held down the end spots with some help from Rose, who played sparingly during the first half.
"Finally, against Michigan we were all mostly healthy, and it proved that it was beneficial," Denlinger said.
Just the kind of beneficial event that could prompt a big turnaround in the span of seven days.