Despite big plays allowed, Ohio State committed to aggressive defensive style

To press or not to press, that is the question.

Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of an offense methodically driving the length of the field for scores, or take arms against a sea of troubles by challenging every throw and, by opposing, end them.

That is the dilemma Ohio State faces defensively as the second month of the season begins.

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Of course, no less a talent than Shakespeare might be needed to make the Buckeyes’ first month sound like a tragedy.

The third-ranked Buckeyes are 5-0, after all, and coach Urban Meyer again has one of the top offenses in college football.

His defense has been average, ranking 27th in the country in points per game and 52nd in yards allowed but having been susceptible to giving up big plays. Ohio State has allowed eight runs of 20 yards or more and 15 such passes this season, including two and six, respectively, last week at Penn State.

Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley had a 23-yard run and a 51-yard scamper. He also connected on a 93-yard catch-and-run that went for a touchdown late in the second quarter.

As painful as those plays were, though, the bottom line is Penn State entered the game leading the nation in scoring (55.5 point per game), and Ohio State allowed less than half that while escaping Happy Valley with a dramatic 27-26 win.

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PSU’s 93-yard score offers a microcosm of the choices defensive coordinator Greg Schiano faces from play to play. He could have told his defensive backs to play off and rally to make a tackle short of the first down marker if there were a catch, but he had his cornerbacks press at the line of scrimmage.

Penn State appeared to audible after seeing that look. McSorley went to slot receiver K.J. Hamler, who got a step on nickel back Shaun Wade and made a catch for the first down. The play would have ended there if Wade had gotten an assist from free safety Isaiah Pryor, but Pryor took a bad angle and failed to even make Hamler break stride, allowing the Nittany Lions to raced to the end zone for six points.

“When one breaks you’ve got to get him down,” Meyer said. “We’ve had a history of getting guys down. It’s not been perfect all the time. We’re a very aggressive coverage team. And there’s been examples, those are things we’re working on.”

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The Buckeyes have deployed multiple flavors of defense while dominating the Big Ten since the turn of the century.

Jim Tressel’s defensive coordinators often embraced the zone blitz, bringing pressure when possible but preferring to force teams to march the length of the field on long drives, figuring they would break down somewhere along the way.

Meyer’s first two teams continued that bend-but-don’t-break style before an embarrassing finish to the 2013 season forced him to change things up.

That started with Chris Ash’s hiring in 2014, but things have more or less come full circle since Schiano took over the the defense. Ohio State’s aggressive, man-to-man heavy scheme isn’t as blitz happy as the Buckeye stop units of the late ‘90s, but they do resemble the original “Silver Bullets” more than the units of the Tressel era.

That is the way Meyer wants it.

“We changed the whole philosophy — bend-but-don’t-break, we don’t do that,” Meyer said. “With that comes some risk. We want to challenge every throw, and that’s what we do.”

The next player to complain will be the first.

Representing the defense Wednesday night, linebacker Pete Werner calmly shot down questions that made it sound like Ohio State was facing an existential crisis on defense.

“Last week it was just a simple error in man coverage that led to that,” the sophomore from Indianapolis said. “We had people spying the quarterback, just not enough people in space. It shouldn’t have been a 93-yard touchdown. It should have been a tackle at the next level, but it was a simple error that led to a big play.”

He also pointed out the Nittany Lions only converted two of their other 16 third downs on the night.

“We played a great offense that averaged 55 points a game,” Werner said. “I think we played great team defense except big plays like that. Small assignments were what made that play happen, but you really put a lot of focus on it but then it’s something that’s not a big teaching moment other than it’s man to man coverage so you’ve got to be in the right place. There’s not much to be said about it. That’s just something we’re going to have to take another step.”


Indiana at Ohio State, 4 p.m., Fox, 1410

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