Missing The Man In The Middle

Ohio State lost a key cog from its defensive line while playing on the road against Indiana last weekend. Now with tackle Dexter Larimore sidelined for the Wisconsin game, a pair of faces will see increased playing time this weekend as one of the nation's top rushing teams comes to town in what should be another Big Ten slugfest.

This was not the week Austin Spitler would have chosen to lose teammate Dexter Larimore.

Granted, there are never good weeks for a starter to miss action, but with Ohio State set to host Wisconsin this weekend, the Buckeyes could use a player like Larimore. The fourth-year junior has been playing nose guard in OSU's defense this season and has proven himself to be a key reason why the Buckeyes have been so successful.

Now, after having suffered an injury to his right knee during last week's road win against Indiana, Larimore is out for the foreseeable future – a fact Spitler is not particularly happy about.

Asked if this will be a tough game to play without Larimore's services, Spitler said, "Oh, it is for sure. Dex is one of our most physical guys down there in the trenches. He gets under the big guys and they've got some big offensive linemen."

Listed at 6-2, 300 pounds, Larimore has grown into a dependable player in the trenches for the Buckeyes this season. Having started three games in his last two seasons, Larimore had started each of the team's five games this year and sat tied for fifth on the team in tackles with 17.

He might not have registered a single tackle for loss, but Larimore's impact was more often felt in ways not shown on the stat sheet. As the man in the middle for an OSU defense that typically only lines up with three down linemen, it was Larimore's duty to occupy at least one opposing offensive lineman.

In doing so, he freed up players such as Spitler and Brian Rolle to make more plays.

"That does wonders for the (line)backers," Spitler said. "We love those guys. We'll do anything for those guys to hold the doubles for us. They don't get recognized a lot but they're down there fighting against 700 pounds on them, holding guys for us so we can make a play. We're going to miss Dex this week."

Part of what has helped Larimore be successful in the trenches is his prep background. In addition to his skills on the gridiron, he put together a 160-15 career record as a heavyweight wrestler and captured a state title as a senior. That year, he was ranked No. 1 in the country.

"He's just an awesome wrestler," Spitler said. "He's got that low stance and he can really hold his ground in there. A lot of the guys are lighter than him and get moved back a little bit but Dex really holds the point real well. That was very beneficial to us."

Although Larimore's injury initially appeared to be serious, OSU head coach Jim Tressel said it is a simple sprain that will keep him out for a week or two.

Entering the game, the Buckeyes sit ninth in the country in total defense (252.60 yards per game) and 10th in rushing defense (83.40). The Badgers enter the game 14th in the country and first in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 217.20 yards per contest.

Tressel said it will likely add up to an old-fashioned Big Ten slugfest that will be decided between the trenches – one that will see the Buckeyes playing without one of their key players.

However, there is reason for optimism in Columbus. The Buckeyes have rotated liberally across the defensive line this season, meaning Larimore's primary understudies have seen their fair share of action.

Fifth-year senior tackle Todd Denlinger, who has seven career starts to his credit, is listed as the starter in Larimore's place. The 6-2, 292-pound Denlinger has eight tackles, four of which are for loss, as he has rebounded from an injury-plagued 2008 season.

The tackles for loss are a career high, while his single-season high-water mark for tackles sits at 13 from the 2007 campaign.

"It's a great opportunity for me, but at the same time I feel bad for Dex," Denlinger said. "He's a great loss to our defense and he's a great player inside for us. He's been a three-year player for us with a lot of experience, a lot of game time. He's just a physical player that in a game like this you'd like to have."

In addition, true freshman Johnny Simon has cracked the rotation and seen action in all five games this season while recording five tackles. He is listed at 6-3, 265 pounds.

"It's nice to have a D-line like we do this year," Denlinger said. "We have up to 10 guys rotating through, so if you do have an injury like this it's not so big of a factor whereas if we had just four guys playing all the time. Having guys rotating through, it helps us out a lot because you have guys like John Simon and other guys who have had reps."

How much those reps have helped will be shown Saturday.

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