By Doug Lesmerises
The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
For much of this season, Ohio State has been lucky to come up with two reliable linebackers. Against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes will need three. For the first time this season, they may have them.
Senior Etienne Sabino practiced with the first team both days this week, coach Urban Meyer said Wednesday, putting the captain on track to return against the Badgers on Nov. 17 after Ohio State finishes its bye week. Sabino has missed the last four games after breaking a bone in his leg against Nebraska. Senior and former fullback Zach Boren is staying on defense, and with sophomore and two-time conference defensive player of the week Ryan Shazier, the Buckeyes might have the trio to match up with the Badgers’ ground game.
“That’s our plan,” Meyer said after the Buckeyes practiced on Wednesday. “Those are our three top guys right now. The next two games, you’ll need them all, all three of those guys.”
With senior Storm Klein limited by a back injury, Sabino is especially needed, because the other linebacker options are inexperienced youngsters or using defensive end Nathan Williams out of position.
In most other games this season, Ohio State needed just two linebackers, playing a nickel defense for all of most of the time against offenses that spread the field. Wisconsin is the opposite of that. With Boren reading plays at middle linebacker, Shazier chasing down ballcarriers on the weak side and Sabino holding the edge of the line as the strongside linebacker, the Buckeyes should be able to hold their own. They’ve seen their linebackers run over by Wisconsin in the past.
“You have to have your weight up to tackle Montee Ball,” said Shazier, who has had trouble keeping weight on at times. “And they have one of the best lines in college football.”
But Boren was made for this type of game, Shazier has improved all season and Sabino was playing some of his best football before his injury.
“It’s great having him out there,” Shazier said of Sabino. “It’s great to have another dude that we can trust. I feel that he’s going to help out a lot. At the line of scrimmage, he knows what to do at that SAM position. He’ll be able to keep leverage and help us keep their linemen from getting a push.”
Boren moved from offense when the situation grew desperate after the injury suffered by Sabino was added to some other bumps and bruises at linebacker. Sabino had been the clear leader of that group, and Boren filled that emotional role. But the two captains have never played together on the same side of the ball.
“It’s good to see No. 6 out there, he’s a captain, he’s a leader, and to see him back healthy and see him happy is huge for us and the morale of this team,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said.
Wisconsin should go right at the Buckeyes. It will be a challenge for the defensive line, one difficult to pass without three linebackers who can be trusted.