Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
EAST LANSING, Mich. – For about five weeks, the Ohio State football defense heard almost nothing but criticism. For the majority of OSU’s game Saturday against Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ defense heard almost nothing at all.
Playing against an MSU team that features one of the nation’s most prolific running backs, OSU, time after time, sent the Spartans’ offense back to its sideline and the bulk of the 76,000-plus screaming fans at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., into their seats with not much to cheer for.
A week removed from giving up 403 yards of offense to a now 0-4 Alabama-Birmingham team, the Buckeyes allowed just 303 yards.
The Spartans were 4-for-15 on third down, averaged a mere 1.5 yards per carry, and completed only 52 percent of their passes.
The stat the Buckeyes are likely most proud of, though, is the 45 yards MSU junior tailback Le’Veon Bell totaled on the ground. Coming into Saturday’s contest, Bell was the nation’s third leading rusher, averaging 153 yards per game.
“That’s a good back. He won’t be held to (such low yardage). I’m venturing to say that won’t happen again to that guy. He’s a good player,” said OSU first-year coach Urban Meyer.
OSU players agreed with their coach.
“It’s amazing, ain’t it?” said OSU redshirt senior defensive end Nathan Williams of the Buckeyes’ bottling up Bell. “It’s incredible. We played our butts off up front.”
Saturday’s defensive performance was needed by OSU, and not just to pave the way for a win against a Big Ten foe.
Coming into its game against the Spartans, OSU ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in defense, and it was something that shocked Buckeye players.
“Somebody sent us a text last week showing us we were last in defense, and we were just like, ‘Dang,'” said redshirt sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby.
Williams said he took the criticism aimed at OSU’s defense to heart.
“We take things personal, and we showed it (Saturday),” Williams said.
Prior to kickoff Saturday, MSU’s defense ranked best in the Big Ten. But by 7:40 p.m., it was the Buckeyes’ defense that looked better, as now No. 12-ranked OSU (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) held on for a 17-16 victory against then No. 20-ranked Spartans (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten).
“We have a lot of confidence in this defense. I have a lot of confidence in this defense. I think (Saturday) we finally played to our potential,” said senior linebacker Etienne Sabino, who all but sealed the win with a third-down hit on MSU junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell late in the fourth quarter that stalled a possible game-winning drive.
The potential for the defense, according to OSU players, is to be the best in the conference and one of the best in the country.
“Michigan State’s supposed to have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, so we just wanted to come out here (Saturday) and show that we’re the best defense in the Big Ten,” Roby said.
The players the OSU defense employed Saturday are mostly the same players that have been playing, and struggling, throughout the first month of the season. Those players’ muscles were not any bigger and their legs were not any quicker Saturday against the Spartans.
The difference between OSU’s defensive performance against MSU versus its output during the first month of the season was, according to Buckeye players, the game plan.
OSU had nine players in the box most of the game and had its defensive backs play one-on-one coverage. They forced Maxwell to throw and did not let Bell, a 6-foot-2, 244-pound bruiser, gain yards up the middle.
Williams, who has been a part of the OSU program since 2008, said the game plan was the best he’s ever been a part of in his career as a Buckeye.
“We’ve seen (Bell) get going on tape, and it’s all bad news once he gets running downhill. So we didn’t give him the opportunity to get going downhill. We closed the gaps, and played great defense,” Williams said.
As bad as OSU had been on defense heading into its game against MSU, Meyer said he was confident the Buckeyes were capable of the performance they turned in Saturday.
“Absolutely I thought (we were good enough to win). I thought our defense was good enough to play better the first four games; that’s how much confidence I’ve got in our players and coaches,” Meyer said.
Meyer and his players said they know the strong defensive outings will have to continue for the remainder of the season.
This upcoming Saturday, OSU faces No. 21 Nebraska. The Huskers average 44.8 points per game and more than 300 yards per game on the ground.
It will be another major test for the Buckeyes’ defense, but Williams said he hopes OSU’s performance against MSU will give OSU a leg up.
“I hope Nebraska looks at this tape and realizes they can’t run on us,” Williams said.
Whether or not the Huskers hear Williams warning will be proven Saturday, as OSU takes on Nebraska at 8:00 p.m. in Ohio Stadium.