Ohio State’s defense is no longer team’s weakest link
DALLAS (AP) A year ago, Urban Meyer had no faith whatsoever in his own defense.
A lot has changed heading into Monday night’s national championship game against Oregon, including the Ohio State coach’s confidence in his ball stoppers.
”We played good defense throughout the year, sometimes great defense and other times not as good,” Meyer said Sunday. ”We gave up some big hits. (But) I obviously think it’s the players. The approach and practice has also been extraordinary.”
Meyer sees the rebuilt unit as one of the keys for the Buckeyes as they try to put the clamps on Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and Co.
A year ago, that certainly wasn’t the case. Meyer was so upset by his defense’s play after back-to-back losses to close the season that he chose to destroy the underpinnings of a unit that surrendered lots of big plays but still helped Ohio State to 24 consecutive wins.
At times, it was a porous, dysfunctional group. There were schisms between the linemen, linebackers and secondary, mistakes and missed tackles were common, players blamed their teammates and no one took responsibility for anything that went wrong.
”It starts becoming a blame game,” tackle Michael Bennett recalled of what was taking place with the Buckeyes. ”If you’re selfish, then instead of taking it upon yourself and saying, `Well, I need to change something’ or looking at your teammate and going, `Hey, we’ve got to do better,’ you’re looking at them and you’re saying, `This is your fault. I’m doing my job, do your job because you’re screwing it over, boys.”’
Now, in what seems like much longer than 12 months later, the Buckeyes are in the ultimate college game with a defense that has done pretty much everything it has needed when games were teetering on the brink.
Most people thought the problem was the secondary a year ago. In the final three games – a 42-41 victory at rival Michigan, a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and a 40-35 defeat to Clemson in the Orange Bowl – the defense surrendered an average of 38.3 points and 539 yards.
Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas to come in and tear down the defense and start fresh. He designed a unit that isolated the cornerbacks one-on-one in press coverage and then unleashed a talented, veteran line to exert more pressure on quarterbacks. The players loved it because it downplayed reacting and rewarded being more aggressive.
Now the defense is coming off two of its best games of the season – a 59-0 shellacking of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship and a 42-35 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The shutout speaks for itself. Against the Crimson Tide, the secondary that was such a question mark not so long ago intercepted three passes.
”The big thing is, yes, we have changed,” said co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who should have worn an asbestos suit around Columbus amid all the heat from fans during the offseason. ”When you play your best ball at the end of the year, that means you’ve shown consistency, you’ve continued to grow, your team has continued to come together and you believe in what you’re doing.”
Meyer marvels at the difference in the total defense, and also the incredible turnaround of several individuals.
Darron Lee was a high school quarterback recruited as a generic ”athlete” who was switched to linebacker during a redshirt year and showed up this spring as a quick, hard-hitting coverage linebacker in Ash’s grand plan. First-year starters Eli Apple and Doran Grant played like shutdown corners all season. Senior Curtis Grant, a top recruit who had never lived up to his high school rep, had his best college season. And linemen Joey Bosa and Bennett led a rejuvenated pass rush.
Still, most of the change came between the ears, not from a playbook or in the weight room.
”We challenged each other. We knew we could be great. We knew it,” said safety Vonn Bell. ”Coach Ash challenged us when he first got here. We always bought into what he brought, we bought into the culture. Now we hold each other accountable.”
Of course, Meyer credits Fickell, Ash, new hire but old hand Larry Johnson (coming off 18 years as Penn State’s line coach) and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs, who helped make the changes in the secondary in the face of withering criticism from the public.
”That’s why I think we’re doing so well on defense now: Four good coaches in that room and obviously the players are being developed,” Meyer said.
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