While Ohio State carries several playmakers on offense, the bread and butter of the defending champions has been its defense.
Only one team — Big Ten foe Wisconsin — has allowed fewer than the 13.8 points the 10-0 Buckeyes have allowed per game.
“I think our personnel is very good,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “I think the coordination between the front seven and back seven is exceptional right now, and that’s not easy to do.”
As Meyer alluded to, the three major units of the defense — defensive line, linebacker corps and secondary — have each been clicking in recent weeks. That includes holding its past two opponents to a combined rushing total of 53 yards. Those two performances helped elevate the Buckeyes’ rushing defense to 24th in the nation, joining the eighth-ranked pass defense.
“I think overall defensively, all 11 guys and even some of the backups are playing at a very high level,” said co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash.
Against Illinois on Saturday, all 11 starters on the defense graded out as “champions” postgame, along with two backups.
Ash said it has been a full-squad effort in recent weeks, with each unit carrying the other.
The Buckeyes’ defense is anchored by the front four, which has excelled both at pressuring the quarterback and stuffing the run in recent weeks.
“I think every defensive coach out there, if you’re going to build a defense, you’re going to build it from the inside out with the defensive line being first,” Ash said. “Fortunately in my two years here, we’ve had a pretty decent defensive line, and it’s getting better.”
Junior defensive end Joey Bosa has been a force this season, even if the numbers don’t necessarily show it. His four sacks are well off the pace of the 13.5 he registered a season ago, but the constant double teams — and, in recent weeks, triple teams — he attracts have been huge for the rest of the line.
“It obviously says a lot about what I’m doing, which is nice, any time they’ve got to scheme to put two or more guys on me,” Bosa said. “But more importantly, it’s opening up opportunities for other guys on the defense to make plays, so that’s always good.”
Sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan took his praise of Bosa to the highest level.
“I think he’s the best player in the nation,” McMillan said. “A few weeks ago I said ‘one of the best,’ but I really think he’s the best player in the nation. A guy that attracts triple teams on plays, double teams on every play, and a guy you just have to account for on every play on offense.”
Splitting time to the right of Bosa have been redshirt sophomore Tyquan Lewis and redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard. The two have combined for 11 sacks, with Lewis’ 6.5 leading the team and Hubbard’s 4.5 coming in second.
Sandwiched between the two defensive end spots are seniors Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, who have six and five tackles for loss, respectively.
“You see the front getting better every week as we move forward through the season. You see a front that’s developing more and more depth, also,” Ash said. “That’s very critical to our success as we go down the stretch here, but they are disruptive, they’re making plays both in the run and pass game, and that makes everyone’s job easier.”
OSU’s three starting linebackers — McMillan, senior Joshua Perry and redshirt sophomore Darron Lee — have played as well as any linebacker corps in the nation.
The three have combined for 215 total tackles, with McMillan’s 97 putting him in the nation’s top 20.
“He’s a completely different player (from last year),” Ash said of McMillan. “Much more confident player, a faster player, understands our defense a lot more, getting to the ball a lot quicker, so to compare him to last year, it’s not even the same kid.”
The linebacking unit has played a big role in stopping both the rushing and passing games. Bosa said the faith the defensive line has in the players behind it makes a huge difference.
“We trust all our linebackers to make open-field tackles one-on-one, so we’re never worried they won’t make the play,” Bosa said.
What the linebacker unit lacks in playmakers, it makes up for in steady, consistent play, with players staying in the right spots and making the tackles they need to.
In contrast to the linebackers, OSU’s secondary is filled with playmakers.
OSU’s safeties, junior Vonn Bell and redshirt junior Tyvis Powell, have two interceptions apiece, and the starting cornerbacks, redshirt sophomores Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, have seemingly gotten better each week.
“It’s just experience, going through games and learning, watching each other on film, we’re always very critical of our performances and we like to critique ourselves very closely,” Apple said on the improvement of the unit.
McMillan said the faith that the front seven has in the secondary has allowed it to play closer to the line, creating more havoc for the offensive line.
“Eli and Gareon do a great job locking down receivers, so that’s just one less thing we have to worry about,” McMillan said. “We know that if we go man coverage, that those receivers are going to be taken out of the play. Their level of competitiveness really raises the level of competitiveness of the whole defense.”
The Achilles’ heel of the OSU defense has been the depth of the secondary, which took hits from its already-thin availability when sophomore Erick Smith and junior Cam Burrows were lost for the season with injuries.
However, some relief came in the form of sophomore cornerback Damon Webb, who returned to the team two games ago after a six-game absence for undisclosed reasons.
Apple said Webb, who often is used as a nickel corner in passing situations, has presented important relief.
“We’re very comfortable with Damon,” Apple said. “Damon’s a guy, since Day One he’s been here, he’s always had great coverage, he’s always had great technique, and he’s somebody that we’re very confident that he’s going to play well for sure.”
While OSU has struggled at times against mobile quarterbacks who can leave the pocket, it has shown to be lockdown against pocket passers. In games against immobile quarterbacks such as Hawaii’s Max Wittek and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, OSU limited the opponent to just 85 and 120 passing yards, respectively.
The three units have been the difference for OSU this season, and will need to keep that up in the meat of OSU’s season. The Buckeyes’ final two regular-season games — plus any postseason games — feature some of the better teams in the nation.
That slate is set to begin with a game against Michigan State on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.