Ohio State’s pass defense in recent years is not exactly where Buckeye Nation is used to seeing it.
In the final three seasons before coach Urban Meyer’s arrival in 2012, OSU’s defensive numbers in the passing game were among the best in the country. In 2009, the Buckeyes ranked 13th in the nation in pass yards per game given up (171.5 yards), were eighth in 2010 (165.5 yards) and were even 14th nationally during a 6-7 season (182 yards) in 2011.
But things have been different since Meyer took over in 2012, as OSU ranked 78th nationally after giving up an average 243.5 yards per game last year, and is an abysmal 104th overall this season, letting up 259.5 yards per game through the air.
Although the pass defense has brought its share of critics recently, that doesn’t seem to bother senior safety C.J. Barnett much.
“There’s critics for everything. I think LeBron James is criticized a lot, too,” Barnett said Wednesday after practice.
OSU’s last two games were arguable the worst of the bunch this year, as the unit gave up 451 yards and four touchdowns through the air to archrival Michigan Nov. 30 and 304 yards and another three scores to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 7.
“Obviously, we didn’t play very well (the) last two games,” Meyer said Wednesday, when asked what needs to be fixed in the passing game. “Tweaks might be an appropriate word, we’re still working through that. Working at the changes.”
Although No. 7 OSU (12-1, 8-1) fell to the Spartans (12-1, 9-0), 34-24, to miss out on a chance to play for the BCS National Championship, a date with No. 12 Clemson (10-2, 7-1) in the Discover Orange Bowl is set to serve as an consolation prize Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. The Tigers sport the nation’s 12th best passing offense at 329.2 yards per game, and are led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in redshirt-senior Tajh Boyd.
“We play against a quarterback like (Boyd) every day in practice. Obviously he’s a good quarterback and we gotta respect his arm and his feet,” junior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said Wednesday. “We have great preparation with it, we’ve had a lot of practice with it, and I think the coaches will be ready with schemes and the guys will be ready to play it.”
Meyer has not been shy this season about mentioning how the loss of senior safety Christian Bryant — who broke his ankle late in OSU’s 31-24 win against Wisconsin Sept. 28 — has affected the defense this season. Bryant’s replacement, redshirt-senior Corey “Pitt” Brown, struggled against both Michigan schools late in the season, notably getting beat on a 72-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter against the Spartans.
Meyer has left open the possibility of replacing Brown against the Tigers with a younger player like freshman safety Vonn Bell, who was the crown jewel of OSU’s most recent recruiting class. The coach said Bell will see the field more, but did not specifically say where.
“He’ll play more in this game … he’s doing a really, really good job,” Meyer said. “He’s earned it. He’s earned it on special teams. He’s a guy that we’re real excited about his future.”
Barnett also did not mention how exactly Bell could see more playing time against Clemson, but believes what Bell can bring to the table could help.
“I think we could see him a lot in the bowl game. I think he would be able to go out there, match up with some of their guys and be able to make plays,” Barnett said. “He’s a very instinctive player … I think he can just bring a playmaking ability. I think he has the ability to make plays and he has a nose for the ball.”
A change in personnel “might” be on the horizon, Meyer said, but in order to fix the problems on the defensive side of the ball, OSU’s been keeping it simple during bowl practice.
“We have been working on our fundamentals a lot lately. I think that’s the main thing that we really have to work on,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said Wednesday. “I think we was getting away from that during the season.”
Those basic lapses are what can cost OSU against such a high-powered air attack like Clemson, Bennett said.
“We just can’t have breakdowns. We can’t have our guys having good coverage and then D-linemen not winning one-on-one (battles),” Bennett said. “We can’t have guys winning one-on-one and then a breakdown of coverage. We just have to have 11 guys doing their job every play. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
No matter how you look at the problems the Buckeyes have had defending the pass in 2013, there’s not just one thing that will fix them all, Meyer said.
“It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage, it’s all the above,” Meyer said. “The pass rush, the time to call the blitzes, make sure the blitzes match the coverage. It’s just, we gotta play better.”