Anyone who has paid attention to the Ohio State football team in the last three years under coach Urban Meyer is likely aware of the scrutiny the Buckeye defense has undergone.
The 2014 edition of the OSU defense has improved statistically from last season as the Buckeyes, which ranked 47th in total defense last season, now fall in at 15.
The pass defense, which finished the 2013 season ranked 112th overall (out of 125 teams) has made the jump to No. 16 in the country.
While the numbers show drastic improvement, junior linebacker Joshua Perry said the Buckeyes can play even better than they have to this point.
“We all know that we are not as good as we could be right now,” Perry said Monday. “That’s the kind of interesting thing is we have been playing really well and we have been beating teams by a lot, but we still have a way to go.”
The Buckeyes will likely be tested through the air early and often Saturday as they are scheduled to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions, who currently second in the Big Ten standings in passing yards per game.
Leading the way for the Nittany Lions is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who is averaging 272.8 yards passing per game.
Meyer acknowledged that if the Buckeyes are to come out of State College, Pa., with a win, they will have to slow down Hackenberg.
“Obviously we got a lot of respect for that big quarterback, Hackenberg,” Meyer said Monday. “Tremendous player. Statistically came out of the chute high, high completion percentage. (Has recently) struggled a little bit. But he’s playing very well.”
The struggles for Hackenberg have come in his last four games, as he has thrown just one touchdown in that span and the Nittany Lions have stumbled to a 4-2 (1-2) start.
In his last game against Michigan, Hackenberg was sacked six times, finishing the game with -34 rushing yards on the night.
Perry said continuing to get pressure on Hackenberg will be key if the Buckeyes are to slow him down.
“That is going to be a big priority,” Perry said. “We saw how that worked out last year, we got after him a little bit and we had some success there so we are going to see what we can do against them. I know our D-line is pretty hungry so we will get after it.”
OSU defensive line coach and long time Penn State assistant Larry Johnson said Monday that his unit, which has undergone losses this season with the suspension of junior Noah Spence and a recent injury to redshirt-senior Rashad Frazier, has seen less rotation because of that loss of personnel.
“We’re playing six, seven guys. I am used to eight, nine,” Johnson said Monday. “It depends on the game, too. We have some young players that have to get ready. When you have good players, it’s tough to take those guys out.”
In last year’s 63-14 win against the Nittany Lions, the Buckeye defensive line accounted for three of the four sacks on Hackenberg and brought pressure for most of the night as the Penn State quarterback completed just 12-of-23 passes, including two interceptions.
Despite OSU’s success against Hackenberg in the past and his recent struggles, Perry said Hackenberg might be the best quarterback the Buckeyes will face all season.
“He is a really good quarterback. He is up there at the top and he has done a pretty good job, especially being a young player stepping in there when he had to and taking the reins of the team,” Perry said. “I know that their coach and their team has a lot of confidence in him so he will be a challenge.”
With so much emphasis being put on shutting down the Nittany Lions, Meyer said he is not worried about his players looking ahead two weeks to a matchup with No. 8 Michigan State.
“I think if you play a really bad team, that happens. You try not to let that happen,” Meyer said. “Going on the road in front of 110,000 people, knowing we didn’t play great on Saturday (against Rutgers), we expect to play great.”
Perry echoed his coach’s comments and added the mix of maturity and youth on the team is paying dividends.
“We keep the focus because like I said before, we’ve got young guys who are hungry and they got something to prove so they want to play in every game and every situation and take advantage of it,” Perry said. “Our older guys are mature enough that we know that you can’t overlook any game and you can’t take winning for granted.”
The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are scheduled to square off in State College, Pa., Saturday at 8 p.m. at Beaver Stadium.