COLUMBUS — 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 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 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 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.
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, setting the Ohio Stadium record for an opponent with an 82-yard run. Twice during that play he put his hand on the turf for balance and 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 they’re going to face a lot of loud yelling and hard drills this week.
Bryant was a game-saver at the end, but he also missed an open-field tackle on one of Bigelow’s big runs.
“People are just taking for granted somebody already making the play and everybody’s not flying to the ball,” Bryant said when asked to pinpoint the problem. “But, like coach Meyer said, we’re going to work on tackling all this week.”
While the defensive unit is trying to cut down on big plays, the offense will be trying to create even more. Ohio State has racked up seven rushing plays of more than 20 yards and nine pass completions going at least that far.
Against Cal, Miller broke a tackle in the backfield and juked two defenders on a 55-yard run, plus also hit on five big-gainers through the air — including the game-winning 72-yarder to Devin Smith that provided the margin of victory with just 3:26 left.
Miller, selected as the Big Ten’s offensive player of the week Monday, has been virtually unstoppable when running the ball. But the Buckeyes still need to find other alternatives on offense.
Jordan Hall (87 yards on 17 carries in his season debut after recovering from an injury) showed signs of being an extra option at running back. Smith (five catches, 145 yards, two TDs vs. Cal), Jake Stoneburner (two TDs) and Corey Brown all are becoming more reliable targets for Miller.
“The best thing that’s happened in the first few weeks is we’ve identified a ‘go-get-it’ guy on the outside that we did not have a year ago,” Meyer said, referring to Smith, Brown and Stoneburner. “(Opponents) are defending the run. Braxton’s going to do what he does: He makes guys miss and he’s one of the most dynamic runners in college football.”