The Ohio State defense was full of new faces for the football team’s season-opening victory over Buffalo Saturday.
With redshirt junior cornerback Bradley Roby suspended for Saturday’s game and redshirt senior safety C.J. Barnett out with a lower leg injury, the Buckeyes came into the game with only two returning starters from last season on their defense: junior linebacker Ryan Shazier and senior safety Christian Bryant.
For part of the game, that number dropped to just one returning starter. Shazier left the game in the middle of the second quarter due to cramps.
Shazier eventually returned to the field in the third quarter, while Bryant was consistently on the field throughout the game at strong safety. Still, the Buckeyes had to overcome the adversity of having new players in starting roles at all three levels of their defense.
OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the inexperienced Buckeyes defense needed to face that adversity.
“Any adversity’s a good situation,” Fickell said. “If you fear it, that’s not how you get better.”
Even with all the new players on defense, OSU was able to hold the Buffalo offense to only two scoring drives and 13 points in 12 offensive possessions. The Bulls finished the day with 20 points in their loss to OSU, but seven of those points came from an interception return touchdown.
Fickell said he was a “little bit disappointed” with the performance of his defense, but admitted that he is “never satisfied.”
“What we’re ultimately going to look at in this whole situation is that we’ll nitpick and find a way to get better at a lot of different things,” Fickell said. “I think there’s a lot of situations that we can get better at, but also know that there’s going to be a lot of growth from some of the situations that we’re put in.”
Shazier said he thought the defense could have done a “whole lot better.”
“I see the framework of a good defense, but I’m still disappointed,” Shazier said. “(Buffalo’s) a really good team, but my expectations, I didn’t want anybody to score that many points … we’re not trying to allow more than 13, 14 points, even seven.”
The Buckeyes’ defense allowed the Bulls to gain 258 total yards of offense, but an average of only 3.9 yards on 67 total plays. They only allowed three Buffalo drives into OSU territory.
The Buckeyes started the game in a nickel formation with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs.
While the Buckeyes had one returning starter on the field among the linebackers and secondary, the defensive line was all new. Sophomore defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence and junior defensive tackles Joel Hale and Michael Bennett made up the starting defensive line.
Spence had the Buckeyes’ only sack of the game and led the team with two tackles for loss. He said after the game, however, that he and his fellow defensive linemen were not pleased with their performance in the season opener.
“We’re not happy. We still need to get a lot better,” Spence said. “I don’t think there was anybody on the defense that was happy with our performance. I feel like we got to keep grinding and make this week better.”
Shazier and junior Curtis Grant started at linebacker, and when OSU switched to their base 4-3 defensive scheme, sophomore Joshua Perry entered the game as the team’s third linebacker.
When Shazier went down with cramps, freshman Trey Johnson took his spot in the defensive lineup, even in the nickel package. When Perry left the game in the third quarter with what also appeared to be cramps, sophomore CamrenWilliams got on the field.
With the other starting linebackers battling injuries, Fickell said Grant was one of the players who stepped up most Saturday.
“That was great to see Curtis Grant kind of step up and take a freshman under his wing, and know that he had to make some other calls and kind of get him lined up and kind of clear the air with him,” Fickell said.
Grant said Saturday’s game was a challenge, as it was his first time playing a full game since high school, and he also had to deal with Shazier missing part of the game.
“We learned that we can just always stick together, but we need to just push forward more, when the crowd is down we need to bring the energy back instead of taking our time and just keep our foot on the gas pedal.”
The secondary was made up of Bryant and redshirt senior Corey Brown at safety, with junior Doran Grant and sophomore Armani Reeves as the outside cornerbacks and redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell as the starting nickel defensive back.
Redshirt sophomore Ron Tanner also saw significant playing time in the secondary. He rotated in for Brown at safety, and also played as an extra defensive back in dime packages. He had the Buckeyes’ only takeaway of the game on an interception off a deflected pass in the second quarter.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said it was a “game-time decision” not to play Barnett after he sprained his ankle on Tuesday, but did not indicate whether Barnett will be back for the Buckeyes’ next game on Saturday versus San Diego State. Roby, however, is expected to be back after his one-game suspension.
Both Shazier and Fickell acknowledged that the defense missedRoby, who was a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist and second-team All-American last season, on Saturday.
“Bradley will definitely make a big difference,” Fickell said. “Not just with his play out there but his confidence, his little bit of that swagger that he has, and we’re excited to get him back.”
In Roby’s place, Shazier felt Doran Grant and Reeves “did what they had to do.”
“We missed (Roby) a little bit,” Shazier said. “If anybody makes mistakes on that defense, we’re not holding any names or anybody accountable for it, we’re just going to fix it.”
Fickell said that Doran Grant and Reeves did not “duck their heads.”
“They weren’t on the sidelines scared, worried, pouting in any of those situations,” Fickell said. “That to me is what you really want to see, a guy that can grow through some situations and gain confidence in what it is that they do.”
The Buckeyes’ defense may lack experience as a whole, and Shazier acknowledged that he has had to take on a greater leadership role to make up for that. He added, however, that he is “100 percent positive” that the new starters can play as well as the Buckeyes need them to.
“I trust all them guys out there on the field,” Shazier said. “I know the coach is not going to put anybody there that don’t know what they’re doing, and I feel like this defense is going to be great. Me and Christian being the only returning starters from last year, I don’t really feel like that’s going to make that big of a difference when we have a bunch of guys that (are) really working together.”
If Roby and Barnett are back on the field versus San Diego State, the Buckeyes will be back to having four returning starters from last season on their defense. Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.