On a day when Ohio Stadium welcomed Big Ten football for the first time in 2014, when the weather was the age-old mixture of cold and gray, it was the familiar sight of redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State offense lighting up the scoreboard.
But for all the firepower the Buckeyes produced on offense in a 56-17 win against Rutgers, the team’s defense continued to improve during a season that is proving more and more exciting for OSU fans.
The same defense that couldn’t get off the field against Virginia Tech over a month ago held Rutgers to 156 offensive yards in the first half and 17 total points.
“Our defense, you credit that, you can take the first half and that’s a credit to our defense,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “They took a team that threw 400 plus yards against our rivals and really played well, creating turnovers once again and getting the ball to the offense rather quickly.”
Meyer’s assessment might be an understatement. Rutgers averaged a time of possession of just two and a half minutes on its seven first-half drives. Four of those drives ended in punts, two in turnovers, and only one in a touchdown.
Senior cornerback Doran Grant said for all the growth OSU’s offense is doing, the defensive corps are also improving each week.
“It’s been steady. Each week we’re getting better,” Grant said. “I think we’re playing pretty good, I still think we haven’t reached our full potential.”
Two weeks prior to Saturday, Grant and the rest of the unit gave up 310 yards to Maryland, the lowest total surrendered by the Buckeyes other than the 126 yards against Kent State on Sept. 13.
The Scarlet Knights produced 345 yards, but 122 of those came in a third quarter when the Buckeyes were already comfortably in front. Even so, junior linebacker Joshua Perry said the defense needs to be at its best for the entire duration of a game.
“That’s the good thing about some of the guys we have is that we can win by as much as we did but we’re not going to be satisfied if we don’t close out the game and if we give up some plays in the second half,” Perry said. “And that just comes with maturity over time and being able to lock in and execute for a full game.”
The defense did provide a spark in the first half when redshirt-senior defensive lineman Rashad Frazier forced a fumble out of Rutgers’ sophomore wide receiver Janarion Grant before redshirt-freshman cornerback Eli Apple picked up the ball and ran it in for a score.
Perry stressed the effect a defensive score has on the team’s mentality.
“We need one of those every game,” Perry said. “That’s one of those things, it’s big momentum, it takes a little pressure off the offense and it gives us something to work for.”
Frazier was able to knock the ball loose after redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee stopped the Rutgers wide receiver from getting around him. OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said he enjoyed seeing each part of the defense — linebackers, linemen and defensive backs — get involved on the big play.
“That’s what we call team defense. We stress it, we talk about it,” Fickell said. “We want to take the name off the back of the jersey and just worry about the one on the front, and we do those kinds of things, good things happen.”
Grant tied with Perry for the team lead in total tackles with seven, along with securing OSU’s only interception of the day. But the Buckeyes’ co-captain said the defense’s strength comes from the entire unit, and how when one part of the unit excels, they all do.
“That’s team defense. Of course it makes it easier for (the defensive backs), and us covering makes it easier for the linebackers blitzing and also the D-line,” Grant said. “So we just play a team game.”
While sophomore Joey Bosa added another two sacks to his season total, his fellow defensive lineman — senior Steve Miller — made a career-high four total tackles. He and his fellow linemen helped to hold the Scarlet Knights to only 34 rushing yards in the first half, but Miller echoed Perry’s claim that they need to execute for an entire game.
“I think our run defense is pretty good, we just gotta be consistent,” Miller said.
Lee had one of the team’s four sacks, and after the game he said he was pleased with the way the defense came out and dictated the flow of play.
“We played great. We knew we had to bring pressure and stop their run,” Lee said. “We knew we had to execute and this was something coach Meyer emphasized the past few weeks.”
Those points of emphasis are set to be put into use once again next week, when the Buckeyes travel to State College, Pa., to face Penn State at 8 p.m. on Oct. 25. Penn State’s sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was placed on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s best player, and OSU sophomore safety Vonn Bell said he’s excited to go up against him next week.
“It’s a big game,” Bell said. “They put up points, we put up points, too.”