Ohio State Football: Will OSU Struggle Defending the Spread This Season?

David Regimbal@davidreg412Featured ColumnistJune 5, 2013

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Denard Robinson #16 of the Michigan Wolverines breaks through tackle attempts from Travis Howard #7 and Christian Bryant #2, both of the Ohio State Buckeyes for a 67-yard touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 24, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio State is one of a handful of teams projected to contend for a national championship this fall, but if the Buckeyes haven't fixed their issues defending the spread, they could be out of the title race by mid-October.

That may seem like a dramatic statement now, especially for a team with the nation's longest active winning streak and 13 starters returning, including Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller at quarterback.

Ohio State, though, is coming off a 2012 season when more than half of its opponents spread out the Buckeyes' defense with an enormous amount of success.

In fact, it wasn't until Ohio State faced some of the more traditional offenses in the Big Ten that the defense started performing at the level Buckeyes fans are used to seeing.

The start of the season was something completely different.

All but one of Ohio State's first seven opponents (Michigan State) ran some version of a spread offense, and during that stretch, the Buckeyes gave up an average of 400 total yards per game.

Cal, which managed to win just three games last year, scored 28 points against the Buckeyes, and Big Ten teams Nebraska (38 points) and Indiana (49 points) ran through and around Ohio State.

The Buckeyes' last game of the season against Michigan was the perfect snapshot of how the defense performed throughout the year.

In the first half, Brady Hoke and his coaching staff used Denard Robinson in a number of creative ways to get him space and spread out Ohio State. That strategy put 21 points on the board and helped the Wolverines pile up 240 yards of total offense.

In the second half, Michigan tightened up and ran a conservative offense that played right into Ohio State's hands. The Wolverines were shut out in the final 30 minutes, failing to even cross midfield once as the Buckeyes held Michigan's offense to 39 yards.

Ohio State achieved perfection in 2012 despite these issues, but will things be different in 2013?

With last year's coaching staff still intact, the scheme likely won't change much.

In most of Ohio State's nickel and dime defenses, the cornerbacks give receivers a 10-yard cushion at the line of scrimmage. The strategy behind this is to give the cornerbacks a better vantage point from which to judge whether to break on the ball on short passes or drop back in coverage on deeper routes.

This usually gives cornerbacks a better chance to pick off a pass, which was the case for Ohio State, which led the Big Ten with 1.17 interceptions per game (via cfbstats.com).

But if a team that tackles poorly uses this strategy, the results are almost always disastrous. That was also the case for Ohio State last year.

Giving offensive playmakers that much space requires strong pursuit of the football and fundamental tackling. Ohio State lacked much of both, especially during that dreadful seven-game stretch to start the year, which resulted in a number of plays like the one in the video here.

It won't be known if Ohio State has solved these issues until the season kicks off, when a defense with seven new starters takes the field against a team looking to spread it out.

The Buckeyes will face an up-tempo, pass-oriented Cal team in Week 3 and take on one of the Big Ten's best offensive teams in Northwestern three weeks later.

Both of those opponents will provide answers as to whether Ohio State has fixed its issues defending the spread. If it hasn't, the Buckeyes' dream of hoisting that crystal trophy at the end of the year could be shattered.


David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.