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Tough Nuts to Crack

In a time of spread offenses, complicated schemes, and the rule of thumb that “speed kills,” the apparent emphasis on fundamentals and toughness has kept Ohio State’s defense among the nation’s best year after year.

After losing 2008 All-Americans James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins to the pros, as well as fellow NFL draft pick Marcus Freeman, it looked as if the Buckeyes’ offense, led by preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Terrell Pryor, would be carrying the team. As it turns out, the opposite seems to be happening. While the offense averages a lukewarm 29.7 points per game, the defense surrenders only 12.0 every Saturday. And with several new starters and contributors, the defense has been doing it with a hard-hitting, fundamentally sound style of play.

Fundamentals usually do not make headlines or highlight reels, but facets like sure-tackling, pursuit to the ball, and each player’s dedication to his own assignment make highlight-worthy plays possible.

With Wisconsin coming to town this past week, Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock and his boys were facing perhaps the toughest, most traditional offense in the Big Ten. The Badgers’ objective has generally been to use an enormous offensive line to pound the football on the ground (200 ypg.), thus wearing down defenses and controlling the clock. Facing this style of play, the Buckeye defense needed to strap their equipment up tight and prepare for an afternoon of rock-em, sock-em, smash-mouth football.

The result was a 31-13 victory over previously undefeated Wisconsin, a game in which the toughness and big-play ability of Ohio State’s defense was prominently on display. Pryor struggled, completing only five of 13 passes, but the defense more than made up for the lack of offensive ball movement. Despite being outgained in yardage 368-184, the Buckeyes yielded just 13 points to a team that came into the game leading the conference in scoring (35 ppg). Badger RB John Clay entered the horseshoe with intent to take a bite out of the Buckeye defense, but left with a sore body and a bad taste in his mouth. Averaging 119.4 yards per game prior to Saturday, Clay finished with 59 yards on 20 carries, zero touchdowns, and a long gain of eight yards. In addition to stopping the run, Ohio State defensive backs Kurt Coleman (89 yards) and Jermale Hines (32 yards) both returned interceptions for touchdowns.

Fundamentals and solid football have lead to big plays for the Scarlet and Grey’s defense this season, as they have combined for 10 interceptions and four recovered fumbles in six games. With Big Ten contenders Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa still ahead, Ohio State’s defenders will continue to be tested, but after what they have shown so far, I wouldn’t bet against them.