Oklahoma Awaits as 1st True Test for Dominant Ohio State Defense

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 10, 2016

Sep 10, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Tulsa Golden Hurricane running back D'Angelo Brewer (4) makes a catch as he is tackle by Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) in the second half against at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won 48-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two games through the 2016 season, Ohio State's defense has been one of the most impressive in the country.

But if the Buckeyes defense is truly national contender-worthy, it's going to need to prove it in its next outing, against current No. 14 Oklahoma.

"Our defense is playing so well right now," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said on Saturday. "Obviously the challenge of challenges is coming next week."

Any concern about the No. 4 Buckeyes looking ahead to their prime-time showdown with the Sooners was put to rest in Ohio State's first two outings, which included a convincing defeat of Bowling Green to start the season and Saturday's lopsided 48-3 takedown of Tulsa.

The Buckeyes didn't allow a touchdown to either of the first two opposing offenses they faced—the Falcons' lone score last week came by way of a returned J.T. Barrett interception—and showcased a knack for making big plays when necessary against their first two undermanned opponents.

But against the Sooners, Ohio State could find itself part of a different story. Despite suffering a Week 1 loss to Houston, Oklahoma's offense remains one of the nation's most potent, with preseason All-American quarterback Baker Mayfield leading the charge.

It's just been two games against admittedly lesser competition, but it bodes well for the Buckeyes that one of the strengths that appears to have emerged on their defense over the course of the past two weeks has been the play of a seemingly stellar secondary.

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 10:  D'Angelo Brewer #4 of the Tulsa Hurricane is wrapped up for no gain by Michael Hill #77 of the Ohio State Buckeyes and Dre'Mont Jones #86 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the third quarterat Ohio Stadium on September 10, 2016 in
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Despite losing three of its four starters from a year ago to the NFL, the Ohio State defensive backs have hardly missed a beat, recording a combined seven interceptions in their first two games, including four on Saturday against the Golden Hurricanes—two of which were returned for touchdowns.

The star of the bunch thus far has been safety Malik Hooker, who has already picked off three passes in his first season as a starter, including a pick-six on Saturday that helped the Buckeyes—struggling offense and all—take a 20-3 lead into halftime.

"We weren't playing at the intensity level we were supposed to play," Hooker said after the game. "I just wanted to go out there and make a play for the team. It ended up working out."

Hooker's early emergence has served as a microcosm for a young Ohio State defense forced to replace eight starters from last season's unit, which looks, if anything, improved from a year ago. Up front, defensive end Sam Hubbard has applied consistent pressure while succeeding No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa, and even with defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle having been lost for the season due to injury, the "Silver Bullets" reputation has remained.

With this being the first roster Meyer has fully recruited since arriving in Columbus, this may be the deepest defense the Buckeyes have possessed in the past five years. They may not be household names just yet, but that very well could change against the likes of Oklahoma, which returns seven starters on offense from last season's playoff squad.

"We're definitely excited," Hooker said. "For it to be one of the bigger games of the season, we're definitely going to go out there and do what we're supposed to and come out with a lot of intensity. It's a prime-time game on national TV. I'm sure everybody on the team's going to be ready for it."

Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) in the pocket against the Houston Cougars in the second half at NRG Stadium. Houston Cougars won 33 to 23. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

And while that may be the case, achieving results similar to its first two outings will be easier said than done for a still-young Ohio State squad. A year ago, the Sooners ranked seventh nationally in total offense and fourth in scoring, with Mayfield accounting for 4,105 yards of total offense and 43 total touchdowns.

In addition to Mayfield, Bob Stoops' team brings back the two-headed monster of Samaje Perine (1,349 yards, 16 touchdowns in 2015) and Joe Mixon (753 yards and seven scores a year ago) at running back as well as talented wide receiver Dede Westbrook (46 catches, 743 yards, four touchdowns last season). In the first half of their second game this year, the Sooners tallied 459 yards and 42 points on UL-Monroe.

If there was going to be a letdown following last week's crushing loss to the Cougars, it's yet to have happened.

Oklahoma isn't just collecting a game check either—in fact, the Buckeyes are heading to Norman for the first road game of the year next Saturday. And for all the praise these young Bucks have received in the past two weeks, it can all go away with one letdown on a national stage against a Sooner squad now fighting to keep its season alive.

"We can't sit and keep talking about this. We just gotta get better," said Hooker. "We gotta get back in the lab tomorrow and start watching film on Oklahoma."

For now, however, all we can go off of is what we've seen, and what that's been is a defense that looks—and statistically ranks—as one of the nation's best.

Two games, 10 to go. And the next will be the one that defines just how dominant this Buckeyes defense is.

      

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.