Buckeyes’ defense finishes strong
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Found, just in time for the final month of the Big Ten schedule: the Ohio State defense.
Yes, that same team that looked lost defensively after giving up 49 points to Indiana two weeks ago, and nearly lost at home last week to Purdue.
After stalling Penn State’s up-tempo “NASCAR” offense in a 35-23 win Saturday night, the Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) stayed unbeaten to proclaim themselves the class of the conference. Ohio State moved up three spots to No. 6 in the latest AP poll Sunday.
“It does feel great, but we know we can do better,” safety Bradley Roby said when asked about criticism of the Buckeyes D. “We have a great set of schemes, and (we’re) looking forward to getting better.”
Until Saturday, close calls were the hallmarks of Ohio State’s unlikely run to perfection. They’ve held off California, then-No. 20 Michigan State and Indiana. Last week, the Buckeyes pulled off their greatest escape yet after getting a tying touchdown and 2-point conversion with 3 seconds left against the Boilermakers before winning in overtime.
No such heroics needed against the Nittany Lions (5-3, 3-1), on the road no less in front of a hostile sellout crowd of 107,818.
“The one thing about coming on the road, you find out about your team because it’s a gladiator-type mentality that it’s us against the world,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “Our guys seem to thrive on that.”
What makes the win even more impressive is the defense contained a Penn State offense that had been gaining traction during its five-game winning streak.
After three straight game with a 100-yard rusher, Penn State’s one-two punch of Zach Zwinak (12 carries for 42 yards) and Bill Belton (10 for 26) were held in check. The defensive line pushed around a Penn State front five that had been playing well, disrupting Matt McGloin, the Big Ten’s top passer.
McGloin did end up with a career-best 327 yards and two touchdowns on 27 of 45 passing, but 126 yards came in the fourth quarter on 14 of 21 passing with the Nittany Lions trying to close double-digit deficits. The Penn State tight ends, such a big part of the new-look offense, were limited until the fourth quarter.
Tight end Garry Gilliam said he thought the Nittany Lions blocked the Buckeyes edge rushers as well as they could. “But I think what we should’ve done more in the first half was establish our game a little more and open up our passing,” Gilliam said. “But we learn from what happened and just progress to Purdue” next week.
The biggest question mark for the Buckeyes defense, the injury-ravaged linebacking unit, turned out to be a position of strength. It’s the same position that Meyer earlier this week said had been “smacked” by injuries, including Etienne Sabino’s broken leg.
Zach Boren, the former starting fullback, moved across the line of scrimmage for the third straight game and tied Ryan Shazier for a team-high seven tackles. Boren seemed to relish playing at raucous Beaver Stadium, raising his arms furiously on the sideline and cupping a hand against his ear in response to the frenzied crowd.
As usual, quarterback Braxton Miller (two rushing touchdowns, one passing) provided the offensive highlights. But Shazier was just as important after a sack and interception return for a touchdown on back-to-back plays that swung momentum in Ohio State’s favor at the start of the third quarter.
The Buckeyes took the lead for good on Shazier’s touchdown, 14-7, and didn’t let up the rest of the way.
“It feels great, but it is going to feel better to even continue that, and keep getting better,” Roby said.
Despite the loss, Penn State remains in decent shape to finish with a winning record — an accomplishment that some college football observers doubted could happen following landmark NCAA sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the defection of about 10 players including tailback Silas Redd and kicker Anthony Fera. The Nittany Lions finish out with Purdue and Nebraska on the road before hosting Indiana and Wisconsin to finish the season.
“We just didn’t have it. We cannot focus on that loss,” McGloin said. “We have four games left.”
But they can’t go to a bowl game because of the sanctions, just like Ohio State, which is banned from the postseason for the tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal.
Ohio State also can’t go to the Big Ten title game, but can still win the Leaders Division title. And with a remaining schedule of a trip to Wisconsin sandwiched by home games against Illinois and Michigan, an undefeated season isn’t out of the question for the Buckeyes.
A strong finish at Penn State could be the spark for a memorable stretch run.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP