His team hasn’t lost and it has a quarterback who has stamped himself as one of the best in the nation.
Yet as No. 16 Ohio State readies for its final non-conference game on Saturday against UAB, coach Urban Meyer knows he and his staff still have a lot of items to clean up.
The very first thing, on the top of that list, is eliminating big plays on defense.
“That is the most alarming thing,” Meyer said on Monday. “I’ve watched Ohio State’s defense for a long time, and I can’t remember a defense I’ve been around that’s given up this many [big plays]. We’ve got to stop or we’ll lose a game.”
Ohio State’s opponents have racked up 13 plays from scrimmage that picked up at least 20 yards. In Saturday’s come-from-behind 35-28 win over California, the Buckeyes cruised to a 20-7 lead at the half then surrendered gains of 36, 81, 30, 16 and 15 yards on the Golden Bears’ next five possessions to fall behind 21-20.
After having no luck gaining yards or collecting first downs on their previous four possessions, behind quarterback Braxton Miller the Buckeyes marched 75 yards to regain the lead. Then it took just two plays for Cal to come right back and tie it. Brendan Bigelow, who gained 160 yards on just four carries, ran for 16 yards and then raced for 59 more, with the extra-point kick tying it at 28 with 8:10 left.
“That’s not acceptable,” Meyer said.
So this week, rest assured, the defense will be going over every detail to try to find a solution.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Bigelow made a couple of sensational runs, putting up the Ohio Stadium record for an opponent 82-yard run while twice putting his hand down on the turf for balance as he spun 360 degrees during contact before turning upfield and outrunning the defense.
Beyond that, it’s a series of dominoes falling the wrong way.
“Believe me, I laid awake Saturday night trying to watch that thing while everybody else in the house slept,” said defensive co-coordinator Luke Fickell, who served as interim head coach a year ago. “I couldn’t pinpoint one exact thing.”
In his head he went back and forth: His players converged quickly, but did they overreact? Was it just sloppy tackling on a single play, or was it endemic of a deeper problem which might require personnel or scheme changes?
“You can say guys had him, guys wrapped up, guys this, guys that — all I can see is that it’s not a lack of effort,” Fickell said. “Now, is it fundamentally sound in what we’re doing? No. When a guy slips out the back side for 81 yards, there’s nothing fundamentally sound about it. Did three guys have [a shot at] him? Yeah, but we’ve got to make sure we continue to stress the things that we’re supposed to do on those plays.”
The members of the defense — which did end up preserving the win on Christian Bryant’s late interception to thwart the final Cal possession — recognize that they are going to face a lot of loud yelling and hard drills this week.