When Ohio State faced off against Michigan State last Saturday, it was the first time all season that the Buckeyes put together a quality defensive performance.
It has been a strange year for an Ohio State team that was supposed to be anchored by one of the stingiest defenses in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes were anything but stingy against their first four opponents, giving up an average of 395 yards per game— good for dead last in the conference.
But against the Spartans, Ohio State dominated.
Michigan State came into the week averaging 176 yards rushing per game, led by dark-horse Heisman candidate Le'Veon Bell. Against Ohio State, the running back who had rushed for over 200 yards twice already this year managed just 45 yards on 17 carries. Three other Michigan State ball carriers lost 11 yards on five carries.
Can Ohio State fans expect a similar performance against Nebraska? Has the Buckeyes' defense turned a corner?
Defending the Cornhuskers is a much taller task for Everett Withers, Luke Fickell and the rest of Ohio State's defensive staff.
Nebraska's three-headed moster in the backfield—quarterback Taylor Martinez, running back Rex Burkhead and running back Ameer Abdullah—have given opposing teams fits so far this season. Despite Burkhead suffering a sprained MCL (the same injury that sidelined Carlos Hyde for two weeks), Nebraska has averaged running for 305 yards per game (fifth best in the country).
Stopping Nebraska's rushing attack is particularly tough this year because Taylor Martinez has drastically improved as a quarterback.
Coming off a sophomore season where he completed just 56 percent of his passes with a 13/8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Martinez has lit it up through the air in 2012. The junior comes into Week 6 completing nearly 68 percent of his passes to go along with 11 touchdowns against just one interception (the best ratio in the conference). His QB rating—169.6—is also the highest among Big Ten quarterbacks.
Opposing defenses have tried to limit Nebraska's rushing attack—an effective strategy last year—but Martinez is making defenses pay with his improved play in the passing game.
So what defense will we see from Ohio State this Saturday? The one that looked lost and undisciplined the first four games, or the one that shut down Michigan State last week?
Part of that depends on how well Ohio State plays. Against non-conference opponents, poor pursuit and even worse tackling plagued the Buckeyes. To make things worse, Ohio State's secondary struggled to grasp the new coverage scheme Kerry Combs installed this spring. With the cornerbacks giving opposing receivers more of a cushion, Ohio State's opponents have had success attacking the perimeter.
Against the Spartans, that wasn't much of an issue. Michigan State's offense is built to run straight at you, which worked right into Ohio State's strength as a defense. Despite that, the Buckeyes showed vast improvement with their tackling, aside from one glaring and embarrassing exception.
Nebraska doesn't operate like Michigan State, though. The Cornhuskers use Martinez and their running backs to attack the edge of a defensive line as much as the middle of it. The Cornhuskers' offense also has the ability to attack Ohio State's pass defense.
Frankly, if the Buckeyes have gotten past their tackling woes and really gelled as a team like Urban Meyer suggested this past weekend, then the Nebraska offense could have a hard time moving the ball.
On the other hand, if Ohio State's standout defensive performance against Michigan State was just the result of a good matchup, it could be a long game for the Buckeyes this Saturday night.
Is Ohio State up to the task of stopping Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or continue the conversation with me on twitter.
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