At Ohio State, a win against Michigan is reason for celebration. But this week, there was less time than normal for celebration.
The Buckeyes topped the Wolverines, 42-28, on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, and coach Urban Meyer typically says he’ll give his team 24 hours to celebrate after a win. But during the postgame press conference, Meyer stressed the need to get back to work with the Big Ten Championship Game on the horizon.
“We’re going to enjoy that,” Meyer said Saturday. “We’re going to get to work. Twenty-four hours, yeah, I’ll probably give them 22.”
At the time, Meyer was still waiting to find out who OSU is set to play next Saturday in Indianapolis, but later that evening, he learned the Wisconsin Badgers would be next on the slate.
After redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett fractured his right ankle against the Wolverines and was ruled out for the rest of the season, the Buckeyes are set to go up against a Heisman Trophy candidate in Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon while without the services of their own Heisman hopeful. Barrett’s injury marked the second time OSU has lost a Heisman contender this season after senior quarterback Braxton Miller tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder during fall camp.
Gordon — a redshirt-junior running back — has already amassed 2,260 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground, helping the Badgers to a 10-2 overall record and a 7-1 mark in Big Ten play.
With Barrett out and the free-running Gordon up next, OSU redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee said it’s time for the Buckeye defense to take the lead, just as it had to after Miller was injured.
“Personally I feel like the defense is gonna have to step up tremendously,” Lee said after the Michigan game. “We had to step up even with the loss of Braxton, but we really have to step up now and then there’s some stuff that I can do to help even more.”
As an individual player, Lee said he’ll do whatever he can to help the team pick up the slack.
“I’m gonna do everything I can, so if that means I gotta do a little extra, then so be it,” he said.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said he has faith in redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones — who is set to start in place of Barrett — but added the defense can do things to help the quarterback out.
“If anything, defense can give him a little bit of a cushion and we can step up like we need to,” Bennett said after the game.
The time for the defense to rise to the occasion comes during a difficult stretch of games for the unit. The Buckeyes gave up 372 total yards to the Wolverines after allowing individuals to rush for 100 yards or more in their three previous games.
While he noted that his team isn’t where it needs to be when it comes to pass defense, Meyer stressed that the Buckeyes will have to put extra emphasis on run defense against the Badgers.
“At times what we want to do is be flexible to do both,” Meyer said during a Sunday teleconference. “Obviously Wisconsin is as good a rushing team as there is in the country, so we’re gonna have to devote some more personnel to us stopping the run.”
The Buckeyes gave up 121 rushing yards to Michigan, but the Wolverine’s starting running back — redshirt-sophomore Drake Johnson — averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Michigan redshirt-senior quarterback Devin Gardner ended up with just 21 rushing yards, but that was partially because of five sacks from OSU as he also broke off more than one significant run.
OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the defense has to improve, but noted it’s a good sign that Michigan wasn’t breaking off big runs like Indiana had the week before.
“We gotta do a better job,” Fickell said after the game. “They weren’t the big chunk ones, it’s not like something that you’ve gotta go fix on the sideline big time as opposed to just getting off of blocks and building a wall.”
On Sunday, Meyer said he agreed that some of OSU’s defensive problems stem from shedding blocks and other technique-related issues.
“I think we gotta tighten that one down,” Meyer said. “We’ve been — up until a couple weeks ago — one of the best tackling teams in America.”
Meyer added that OSU has to come ready to play against Wisconsin, especially when it comes to stopping the Badgers’ high-powered rushing attack.
“We’re still not a complete defense, and obviously you get exposed in a game like this with this tailback (Gordon) and this offensive line if you’re not ready,” he said.
Part of OSU’s problem in recent weeks has been coupling fast starts on defense with extended periods of poor play.
Bennett said the same happened against Michigan when the Buckeyes came out firing from the start as sophomore safety Vonn Bell picked off Gardner on the second play of the game.
“We came out really strong,” he said. “I think guys really had a lot of energy when we came out. We got that interception and then another stop and we felt like we were untouchable.”
But after OSU jumped out to a 7-0 lead, the momentum swung as the Wolverines took a 14-7 lead late in the first half.
Lee — who helped seal the win with a late fumble return for a touchdown — said in the future, the Buckeyes have to come out going strong and continue that effort throughout the game, especially as Jones takes over as the starting quarterback in arguably the biggest game of the year.
“We gotta look around at everybody else and (say) ‘hey,’ just kind of pick our game up,” Lee said. “You can’t really have slow starts anymore.”
The Buckeyes also learned of a teammate’s death Sunday, when Columbus Division of Police said OSU redshirt-senior defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge’s body had been found after he was reported missing on Wednesday. Police said Karageorge appeared to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
OSU’s Department of Athletics issued a statement after Karageorge was identified, saying the department was “shocked and saddened” to learn of his death.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Karageorge family, and those who knew him, during this most difficult time,” the statement read.
The Buckeyes and the Badgers are scheduled to play Saturday at 8:17 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.