Ohio State is chasing two goals right now. Winning the Big Ten Championship and staying in the hunt for the BCS National Championship game. Both are predicated on remaining unbeaten.
To accomplish these goals, Ohio State will need to test the philosophy that defense wins championships. The Buckeyes defense may rank No. 13 in scoring defense, allowing just 18.8 points per game, but it is noticeably flawed.
Last week, the defense yielded 420 yards to a hapless Illinois team. Fans are openly wondering if this unit is the weak link in the Buckeyes’ pursuit of perfection.
Seeing any significant improvement on this side of the ball seems unlikely. Injuries have depleted the depth at linebacker, and the secondary is still reeling from the loss of Christian Bryant. The best outcome is to continue to bend but not break.
There’s little doubt that the defense will play a role in how this team finishes the season. It just won’t play the pivotal role. Coach Urban Meyer will have to focus on the team’s strengths to earn the hardware. Here are the two keys Ohio State must continue doing to end the season undefeated.
The Buckeyes have a lot of Jekyll and Hyde in their DNA. They typically come out of the gate on fire, jumping out to sizable leads early in games. Whether from a lack of focus or boredom kicking in, the Buckeyes also have a tendency to lay off the pedal, letting inferior teams stay in the game much longer than needed.
Against Cal, Ohio State took a commanding 21-0 lead early only to let it slide to 31-20 by halftime. In the game against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes led 31-14 heading into the fourth quarter but had to hang on to win 31-24. A 35-7 lead against Illinois turned into a 47-35 score midway through the fourth quarter.
The close games are causing the misconception that the Buckeyes are not as good as their record indicates.
Like any great champion, Ohio State knows how to counterpunch when needed. This resolve shows that the team has the ability to work through adversity and take command when the game is tight.
In the Wisconsin game, quarterback Braxton Miller’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Philly Brown with one second remaining in the first half against Wisconsin giving the Buckeyes a 24-14 lead and confidence heading into the locker room.
With minutes left in the fourth quarter, clinging to a 31-24 lead and the Badger offense rolling with momentum, the defense refused to yield and clamped down to seal the win.
A month ago, nothing was going right for the Buckeyes in the first half against the Hawkeyes, and the winning streak appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Down seven at the half, the Buckeyes scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to apparently seize control of the game. Then Mr. Hyde showed up again.
The defense immediately allowed the Hawkeyes to score on an 85-yard touchdown pass, tying the game at 24. Ohio State scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Even though the entire game was a slugfest, the Buckeyes fought through the challenges to earn the victory.
The hope is the lessons learned in these close games will pay dividends the rest of the year.
With so much at stake over the next few weeks, it is hard to imagine the offense not taking over games and continuing to save its best for when the things are not going well. If it does, Ohio State looks good to extend its winning streak to 26.
From making a key field goal to pinning an opponent deep in their own territory, the performance of special teams often plays a critical role in the outcome of big games. Meyer’s fingerprints are all over this unit, and as expected, there is no glaring weakness in any phase of this part of the game.
Ohio State’s weapons on special teams have been great all year. They play with tremendous discipline and will be an essential component in keeping the team undefeated.
Punter Cameron Johnson is averaging 43.9 yards per punt. His supporting cast has been stellar, allowing just six punt returns all season. They did give up a touchdown against Illinois, but this unit has been stout.
The Buckeyes are equally strong on kickoff returns, allowing just 17.87 per attempt.
Senior Drew Basil is a reliable field-goal kicker. On the season, he is 8-of-9 in field-goal attempts and 59-of-60 on extra-point attempts. Meyer does not call on Basil very often, but he is pretty much a lock from 40 yards or less.
On returns, freshman Dontre Wilson is ranked No. 27 in kickoff returns, averaging 25.8 yards per attempt, and senior Corey Brown is currently ranked No. 35 in punt returns, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. They ensure that the Buckeyes begin each drive with good field position.
Meyer is in the middle of every special teams huddle before they take the field. Like his predecessor, he understands that momentum shifts often occur in this phase of the game. A big return or a blocked punt can energize a team, and this is why he places so much emphasis on execution.
If the Buckeyes win out and make it to either the Rose Bowl or the BCS National Championship, staying unbeaten won’t be easy. Alabama definitely has enough firepower to take down the Ohio State. Florida State and Baylor can score at will just like the Buckeyes. Oregon may have lost to Stanford, but the Ducks would give Ohio State everything it could handle.
The Buckeyes are capable of beating all of these teams, though. The keys will be the offense’s ability to take over a close game and special teams continuing to dominate. If Meyer can get his team to the bowl game undefeated, odds are he’ll find a way to extend the winning streak to 26.