The unofficial low point for the Ohio State defense this season came when it gave up an 85-yard touchdown to a back-up tight end from Iowa three games ago.
Defensive end Noah Spence had dropped into coverage, and he had trouble shadowing Jake Duzey, who hauled in a long sideline pass and raced untouched to the end zone.
But the Buckeyes are less likely to have a breakdown like that again. Not only are they pressuring quarterbacks more and putting them under duress, but they’re also starting to allow their defenders to stick with what they do best.
For the 6-foot-3, 252-pound Spence, that means tapping into his quick burst to beat offensive linemen rather than backpedaling into pass defense.
“We’ve got to do the things these guys do well and put guys in situations where they can be successful,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “We know what Noah can do, and we’re getting him coming off on some edges and doing some things.
“He’s a sophomore, and you can now see that growth. He’s not just a young kid anymore. He’s really growing into what we expect from him.”
In the last two games, the former five-star recruit from Harrisburg, Pa., has had 3.5 sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
He’s tied for the Big Ten lead with 6.5 sacks and is fourth in tackles for loss with 10.5.
Asked about his surge, Spence said: “I’m not thinking as much before or during a game. I’m just playing.”
Other Buckeyes also are thriving since the defense adopted a more aggressive mindset after the Iowa game. They had a combined 15 tackles for losses while beating Purdue 56-0 and Penn State 63-14 after notching just one against the Hawkeyes.
“We know our assignments, and we’re just going out there and playing,” Spence said.
After some early-season doldrums, All-Big Ten linebacker Ryan Shazier is flourishing in the more blitz-oriented attack. He had two sacks and three tackles for loss against Purdue last week and is tied for the conference lead with 11 TFLs.
“He is really fast and instinctual,” Fickell said. “When he plays as hard as he is, good things are going to happen. I’ve had some good ones. I’ve been around some really good ones. And he’s right there in that category.”
The best of the bunch was A.J. Hawk, who was the fifth pick in the NFL draft in 2006. Asked if Shazier has Hawk-like speed, Fickell said: “Just put a clock on him, and he’s going to time as well as anybody around. But the name of the game is, when the ball is snapped, you play that fast. And I think that’s what you’re starting to see from him.”
Coach Urban Meyer believes Shazier compares favorably to Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland in their ability to hound quarterbacks.
“I think (Borland) is one of the best blitzing linebackers I’ve ever seen, and I think our guy has some of the same characteristics, which is (being) relentless and a great athlete,” Meyer said. “Both those kids, you can’t stop them. At some point, they’ll come off a block.”
The Buckeyes rank fourth nationally against the rush, allowing 88 yards per game. They’re ninth in scoring (17.0), ninth in total yards (311) and 50th against the pass (223).
“I think the defense continues to get better,” Meyer said. “Pass defense, we’ve been much better, but we’re not where we need to be. We’re going to grind on that.”
The unit took a hit when senior safety Christian Bryant suffered a fractured ankle against Wisconsin on Sept. 28 and was lost for the season. But Meyer credits another senior safety, C.J. Barnett, with providing stability in the secondary.
“He’s one of our best tacklers. As far as leadership, he’s always been a fairly vocal guy. I think Christian Bryant was such a dominant face and voice in our locker room, but C.J. has always been very valuable,” Meyer said.
“He’s always been my right hand man as far as any player situations or practice situations or for anything (such as) team dress. Any situation, he’s one of the top two guys I go to. We’ve always had a lot of respect for him.”
Fifth-year senior Corey “Pittsburgh” Brown has replaced Bryant in the starting lineup, but the Buckeyes also are starting to work some freshmen into the DB mix, including Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.
“They’re our future,” Meyer said. “Those are guys we have to get ready.”
Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) at Illinois (3-5, 0-4), Nov. 16, TBA