The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (7-0, 4-0) might sit atop the Big Ten eight weeks into the season, but the team enters its primetime matchup with Penn State (4-2, 1-1) with a wide array of questions — particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
As OSU prepares to go for its 20th consecutive win, coach Urban Meyer was less than pleased with how the Buckeye defense handled adversity in Saturday’s win over Iowa, even though it did so without one of its best players on the field.
“The adjustments need to be made quicker when they give us something we have not seen (on defense),” Meyer said in a Monday press conference. “The first three drives (of the game) were very alarming. I don’t think our defensive line played very well.”
Iowa scored each of its first three drives and dominated time of possession in the first half, holding the ball for more than 18 minutes. The Hawkeyes drove 80, 67, and 69 yards, respectively, coupling a power rushing attack with play-action passes to a multitude of tight ends on their way to a 17-10 halftime lead.
“Call it what it was. (Iowa) beat the shit out of us,” defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. “We didn’t do a good job of playing physical with our hands, getting off blocks, shedding off blocks, walking away from blocks. When you do this against a good offensive line, they’re going to continue to push you and move the pile.”
Meyer said he was very disappointed in the lack of production from the unit during those drives, mainly because he felt like no one stepped up as a leader when OSU struggled to stop the Hawkeyes.
“What happened was you have some good emotion in that stadium and you (give up a) 13-play drive and you let the air out of the stadium and the emotion, and that’s where (injured senior safety) Christian Bryant, our great leadership, overcomes a little adversity and we didn’t have that,” Meyer said. “That’s got to come from our coaches and players … Can it be fixed? Absolutely.”
Bryant broke his ankle in OSU’s 31-24 win over Wisconsin Sept. 28.
OSU gave up 375 yards of total offense in the Iowa game, but only seven points in the second half, on its way to the 34-24 victory. Junior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said the difference in the latter half of the game wasn’t about adjustments, but effort.
“We came out in the second half with a chip on our shoulder like we need (to), but we can’t start a game like that again,” Bennett said. “I don’t know what the deal was, but especially on the D-line … we were doing something different than we usually do.”
The defensive performance during the first three drives of Saturday’s game was something Bennett said he’s never seen out of them before.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been manhandled like that … allowed ourselves to be manhandled like that,” Bennett said. “That’s disappointing to me personally because I feel like I let that happen in the first half with the whole D-line.”
Beyond the defensive line, the Buckeye secondary was also depleted after redshirt-junior cornerback Bradley Roby was ejected from the game for targeting late in the first quarter. It was the first time an OSU player has been disqualified for targeting, a rule that was added to the rulebook prior the 2013 season.
“I think the NCAA and everybody is going to want to re-look at that rule,” Meyer said. “Ohio State is very concerned about player safety. We have gone to the Nth degree with adjusting practice … However, (Roby’s ejection) was a game changer. To take one of our better players out of the game, that impacted that game.”
Junior cornerback Doran Grant said the rule change is something that all players have to get used to.
“We just gotta be aware of the new rule. It was frustrating, Roby getting ejected from the game,” Grant said. “It’s just different for the defense now, you gotta be smarter in the way you hit.”
Vrabel offered a simpler answer when he asked about the call.
“Obviously, you better stay away from the head,” Vrabel said. “Anything that looks close, that’s what they’re told to call.”
Roby and the rest of the defense figure to have their hands full with freshman Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg Saturday, who is ranked 17th in the country with 278.7 passing yards per game. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.