Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Informed that his defense had given up 403 total yards to the 118th-ranked scoring offense in the nation, Everett Withers abruptly had one thing to say.
“I think we gave up 15 points – that’s all I give a s— about,” Withers said.
The total yards the No. 14 Buckeyes (4-0) gave up to the unranked and winless University of Alabama at Birmingham was likely something Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach was well aware of.
Withers, likely, was cognizant of all of the day’s shortcomings, despite his defense’s refusal to give up a touchdown all afternoon long.
But it didn’t change the course of events that had happened just some 30 minutes earlier. It didn’t change the fact that the 37-point favorites were fortunate to escape with a 29-15 win against, at least statistically, one of the worst teams in the country.
It’s why the typical relief of a two-touchdown victory seemed to feel absent during OSU’s postgame interviews-especially with the year’s first Big Ten contest looming on the road against No. 20 Michigan State next Saturday.
In its place, perhaps, frustration had found a way to mount itself for the undefeated – but arguably untested – Buckeyes.
In a day that featured a struggles in all three phases of the game, OSU’s defensive deficiencies seemed to stand out as much as anything – especially for a team so hell-bent on returning to its “Silver Bullet” ways under the guidance of first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Despite extra emphasis on the fundamental skill of tackling during the week leading up to their contest against the Blazers, Meyer said it was still something that ailed the Buckeyes on Saturday.
“I still see guys flailing across and missing tackles. Far too many third-down conversions on defense. And it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that we have to get better at,” Meyer said.
Wrapping up opponents, Meyer said, is something they’ll continue to work on.
“That’s the fundamental – that’s the essence of tackle football,” he started, “and we’ve got to continue to improve.”
And if they don’t, it could spell disaster when against the Spartans.
It’s a fundamental key that sophomore outside linebacker Ryan Shazier said needs to be fixed.
“It’s part of the game. We can’t miss tackles that lead to first downs, touchdowns, points,” he said. “So they’re saying that we need to stop missing tackles. We need to stop missing tackles.”
Shazier, who led the Buckeyes with 13 stops, said he “probably missed like three of four” tackles.
Part of it, he said, might be because some players are more focused on leveling crushing blows to the ball carrier rather than securing the tackle.
“A lot of guys, we know we have each other’s backs pretty much, so a lot of guys are going in and taking a shot instead of just wrapping up and trying to get the tackle because we’re trying to make a big hit or get a turnover or whatever,” Shazier said.
Fellow linebacker and redshirt senior captain Etienne Sabino said the missed tackles are due to technical failures.
“Personally, we’re in a great position, we’re just not running our feet, we’re not wrapping, we’re going for the big hits or we’re lunging with our heads – myself included,” he said. “We’re all doing it and I can’t say why it is or whatnot but we need to stop that. We need to tackle better.”
The consensus among some players, though, was that Saturday’s tackling efforts had improved from their previous outings.
Senior captain and defensive lineman John Simon noted the defense had still missed some tackles, but said some are the result of a swarming defense.
“That’s just guys being aggressive going to the football knowing that they got other guys flying there, too,” he said. “So even though we missed a few today, we had guys there to make the play also.”
In fact, a more assertive defense might be key to ending what’s ailing OSU’s defense.
Redshirt senior cornerback Travis Howard said part of the reason for the Buckeyes’ missed tackles is the innate difficulty of tackling in space, especially against teams that opt to use spread formations.
And since the Buckeyes’ corners have been playing looser coverage schemes and lining up 10 yards off from opposing wide receivers, the challenge of making stops in the open field seems to magnify.
“It’s definitely difficult and coach Meyer told us that he’s definitely going to shoot for us to play more man and press more so we can get up on guys instead of playing off,” Howard said. “As you can see, we gave them a lot of cushion to run a lot of screen plays and couple bubbles so that’s something that we’re definitely going to work on and I’m excited to see this upcoming week.”
The change in philosophy might be because OSU, Meyer said, seems “like a very passive team.”
“We’re on defense, we give up little screens, little bubbles. They didn’t score a touchdown on our defense but we gave up a lot of yardage,” he said. “That hurts. I sit there, I’m pained watching it. But we’ve got to be more aggressive on defense and play a little snuggler coverage. If our corners are as good as we think they are, we have to go play a little man coverage on people.”
While OSU’s defensive woes weren’t disastrous enough to do them in against an overmatched Blazers squad, Sabino said the Buckeyes need to “step it up” against the Spartans.
“You know, we’re not going to win many games missing a lot of tackles and giving up third-and-21’s,” he said. “It’s not gonna happen.”