As the No. 15 Buckeyes get ready to face No. 11 Penn State on Saturday in Happy Valley, they'll do so behind the strength of a defense that is fine letting teams cross midfield if only so they can turn the opposition away in a crucial situation.
Forty-five times opposing teams have gotten to midfield to run a play against the Silver Bullets in nine games. On 28 of those 45 (62.2 percent) trips into Buckeye territory or to the 50, the opposing team has come up without points on the possession; take out the Purdue loss and the number swells to 70.3 percent (26 of 37).
In other words, when the chips are down, there are few units in the country that you'd rather have than Ohio State's.
"I think the intensity definitely rises, knowing that our backs are against the wall," said middle linebacker Brian Rolle. "That's where you see the true self of a defense, the true identity of a defense. When their backs are against the wall, how do they perform?"
Those stops have helped Ohio State turn a relatively inexperienced group that lost stars James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Malcolm Jenkins into the typical feared unit that the Buckeyes put on the field. The Buckeyes sit sixth in the country and second in the Big Ten in both yardage (260.0) and points (11.7) allowed per game.
For that, the Buckeyes can thank their ability to make plays when they have to. Ohio State's defense has been known for years as a bend-but-don't-break unit, a squad that plays a lot of zone defense and doesn't blitz a ton, forcing the opposition to nickel and dime their way down the field rather than make big plays.
With a strong front four and an opportunistic back seven, this year's group is perhaps the most proficient at making life difficult as opponents try to march down the field and then stiffening when necessary, a fact defensive coordinator Jim Heacock attributed to the team's attitude.
"You just hope it's an attitude," Heacock said. "I'm going to continue to say that I think it's just they're a team. I think they believe in each other and I think they have a lot of confidence in each other. I think they get along well and I think they just feel like they need to tighten up."
Heacock also pointed to the veteran nature of the unit, which is shining now after some individuals have had a rough go of it in the last few years. The OSU defensive line was maligned in some past years when it was young and sometimes pushed around. Meanwhile, linebackers like Rolle and Austin Spitler and secondary members like Devon Torrence and Andre Amos had to wait patiently for playing time.
"I think they're battlers," Heacock said. "Look at a guy like Austin Spitler, he's been here so long and now he's got his chance. I think he's a battler. He wants to get out there and prove himself. You've got Brian Rolle, who was a backup. All those guys up front have taken a beating here. A lot of those guys played in the LSU game and they got berated. A lot of these guys have not had it the easy way."
The result, in Heacock's mind, is a group that doesn't cripple when the going gets tough, a theory supported by Spitler.
"It's all about mind-set – never buckling, understanding that they're not in the end zone yet," Spitler said. "If they're on the 1-yard line, we have every opportunity to stop them."
That will be crucial this week against a Penn State team that has converted its last 26 red-zone chances into 19 touchdowns and seven field goals. Keeping the Nittany Lions short of the red zone will be critical, but the Buckeyes have excelled in that regard.
Of the 45 drives that have gotten to the 50-yard line, 21 have stalled short of the 30-yard line and three others were pushed back across midfield. Eight of those 24 drives were ended by turnovers – five times by interception, twice on fumbles and once on downs – while 11 times the other team was forced to punt and twice it has missed field goals. (The other three drives ended on long made field goals).
"We try not to let teams into the red zone," Rolle said. "If you don't let them into the red zone, it's kind of hard for them to score at the 30-, 40-yard line. I think the defense does a great job of knowing that we're in critical positions to make plays."
As a result, Ohio State has allowed teams into the red zone only 15 times in nine games, six better than the next-best Big Ten team, Penn State, and almost half of the league average of 28.6. In addition, six of the opposing drives that actually did pass the 30 have ended without points thanks to two picks, two missed field goals, one fumble and one loss of downs.
The result is some annoyed offenses, a list to which Ohio State would love to add the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
"I would assume getting that close to scoring and not being able to (would be frustrating)," said end Thaddeus Gibson. "I would think it would upset an offense, but we're just doing our job."