Struggling Pass Rush A Focus For OSU

During the past few years, Ohio State's defensive motto has been "affect the quarterback." That mission failed against USC when signal caller Matt Sanchez often wasn't pressured and ended up sacked just once. The Buckeyes are left knowing they have to do more during upcoming games.

During the spring, one of the big questions around the Ohio State team was centered on whether the Buckeyes would be able to replace the school-record 14 sacks accumulated last year by first-round NFL draft pick Vernon Gholston.

So far, the Buckeyes as a team are barely on pace for 14 sacks for the whole season.

Through three games, Ohio State has just four sacks – two against Youngstown State, one vs. Ohio and another during Saturday's 35-3 drubbing at the hands of No. 1 USC. The squad is on pace for just 16 sacks in the regular season.

When asked about the biggest disappointment his defense had against USC, linebacker James Laurinaitis didn't hesitate before pointing at the lack of pass rush on Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez.

"Whether that was a four-man rush, whether we were blitzing with safeties or linebackers or corners, we just didn't get to the quarterback," he said with disappointment. "We always talk about trying to affect the quarterback, and we didn't do any of that."

On a second glance, the numbers might be even worse than they first appear. The only sacks from the ends this season came against Youngstown State, a Division I Football Championship Subdivision foe, in the form of stops by Lawrence Wilson and Thaddeus Gibson. The Buckeyes constantly let Ohio's quarterbacks off the hook, and the only sack against the Bobcats was registered when Dexter Larimore took down a wide receiver on an attempted trick play. The one sack against USC was on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter with the game decided.

When everything is added up, the numbers are hard to believe. Ohio State hasn't had a meaningful sack against a Division I quarterback since Gholston was credited with one for forcing LSU quarterback Matt Flynn into an intentional grounding call during last year's national title game. The last time an OSU defensive tackle sacked a quarterback came when Larimore got to Chad Henne in the first quarter of the Michigan game. Larimore's fellow tackles Todd Denlinger, Nader Abdallah and Doug Worthington have each gone six straight games without a sack; Cameron Heyward has gone seven.

Before the season, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock had hoped to see a player or two from that group step up to help replace Gholston's production.

"We're losing one great player, 14 sacks, and what we've talked to (the linemen) about, we have to make sure four of the guys make up 14 sacks," Heacock said before the season. "I don't know if we're going to have one guy come in and be a 14-sack guy, but we need three of them to be four-sack guys."

Instead, just four players have made single sacks through three games.

A number of theories exist as to how the team can improve on the disappointing numbers. Laurinaitis, who occasionally was tasked with blitzing to get to Sanchez, pointed toward desire and execution as two major problems against the Trojans.

"I think our mentality is if you're one-on-one on a guy, we expect to win," he said. "We just feel like that we have the talent that if we're just blocked by one person, we should win that battle. And to be honest with you, we weren't winning those battles. We didn't get there. They were winning battles like that. I think that's the thing that's disappointing."

For Worthington, who has a different perspective on the defensive line, getting to the quarterback is more an issue of using a variety of weapons to shed the offensive linemen who immediately attempt to engage their opposite numbers from the snap. That requires many different skills and qualities.

"Really, heart, using your hands, being smart and just knowing that you can't give up," he said. "A lot of the time we want to just use brute strength, and that doesn't happen. They're 310 pounds and they do what they do as well. We have to be able to take one side of them and use more hands and get off the ball quick."

Ohio State also has seen different styles of offense during each week. Youngstown State's spread offense often left its linemen one-on-one with the Buckeye linemen, and the squad responded with a solid day of pressure – especially considering the Penguins ran just 39 plays – against the overmatched YSU front. Ohio also ran a spread offense that allowed the Buckeye defensive line to get pressure, but quarterbacks Boo Jackson and Theo Scott were able to duck out of the pocket and make plays.

Against USC, however, Sanchez rarely was pressured while putting together a solid four-touchdown evening. Head coach Jim Tressel credited USC's game plan with helping keep Sanchez's shirt clean.

"They had maximum seven-man protection probably 75 percent of the throws, and the times where they used drop-back protection was when they emptied out and the ball was thrown (quickly), whether it was thrown away or thrown completed," Tressel said. "That's the way you try to combat to keep the sacks at a minimum."

Tressel seemed to think some sacks will be available later in the year. Last year, Ohio State was able to bunch its pressure against some Big Ten foes, notching 10 sacks against Wisconsin, five against Northwestern and four against Michigan and Michigan State.

"Our defense is quite often going to see maximum protection or quick throws," Tressel said. "Now, some people get hard-headed and say, ‘Hey, we're going to block you up.' That's the days we get sacks, because we've got pretty decent guys out there on the edge."

Whether that will help more than a continued emphasis on technique and determination is up for debate, but the players in the meantime know they have to continue to do what they can to get better.

"There's so much you have to do, but at the same token, that's why we're at Ohio State," Worthington said. "You have to be able to beat a guy one-on-one. The ends have to get pressure and the tackles have to close the pocket. It's a lot of things you have to do but it can be done."

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