Ohio State’s struggling group of linebackers entered Saturday’s game against Michigan State battered.
Ohio State announced Saturday morning that neither Jerome Baker nor Dante Booker would be available for the game against the Spartans due to undisclosed injuries.
As a result of the injuries, the Buckeyes broke out a new starting trio of linebackers with Malik Harrison and Chris Worley playing outside and Tuf Borland manning the middle linebacker position.
The new corps not only filled in well for the absent starters. It thrived. Borland led the team with 11 total tackles including two for a loss, while Harrison and Worley finished third with six and fourth with five, respectively. Each one of the three recorded a sack.
After the game, head coach Urban Meyer said it was “awful” to have to quickly prepare for the loss of two starters, but had nothing but praise for linebackers coach Bill Davis and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano for preparing the new group on such short notice.
“There was a little anxiety because you had to start moving guys around at that position, and Keandre [Jones] is not full speed either,” Meyer said. “So that’s a really nice job by Worley and Malik Harrison. Tough to play the way they did. But very good week of practice.”
Though this was the first time this trio lined up on the field in that formation, it was not necessarily foreign to them. Last season, Worley played outside linebacker before transitioning to the middle this year. And while Worley was injured for several games earlier this year, Borland filled in admirably for the captain up the middle. Harrison had seen the bulk of his experience at special teams.
The versatility of Worley was a major factor in Ohio State’s ability to absorb the injuries to the two linebackers. Safety Damon Webb said he believes Worley is capable of playing each linebacker position.
“Last year he played [strong-side linebacker], had a good year. [Middle linebacker] this year, [weak-side linebacker] this game,” Webb said. “Chris can definitely play all the linebacker positions.”
The members of the linebacking unit were not necessarily heading into this game completely caught off guard by the lineup changes. Harrison said after the game that he was aware he would need to start during the middle of the week, and so the unit had time to prepare with the new-look lineup.
But right out of the gate, the unit looked shaky, as one might expect. Michigan State running back L.J. Scott rushed for 20 yards on the second offensive play of the game. And though two plays later Harrison collected his first collegiate sack, Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke scrambled for 16 yards up the middle, evading tackles from several linebackers before being brought down two yards shy of the first-down marker on a third-and-18.
“We just made little mistakes,” Harrison said about that first drive. “After that first drive when they got that 20-yard run, we just made adjustments and fixed it right there.”
After that drive, the linebackers and the rest of the defense tightened up. The Buckeyes allowed 27 yards on nine plays that drive. The next five drives, Michigan State gained only 5 yards on 18 plays.
The rest of the game was much of the same. The Buckeyes’ stifled the Spartans’ offensive efforts throughout the game, and the linebackers’ play was one of the reasons Michigan State’s offensive effort was futile.
The ability to stop the run proved crucial to Ohio State’s success. The Spartans combined for 64 yards on 34 rushing attempts, including two carries for 20 yards each and a 16-yard rush. Though a large portion of the credit is owed to the defensive line of the Buckeyes, Webb said the performance of Borland at middle linebacker helped shut down the rushing efforts.
“He’s a run-stopper,” Webb said. “That’s what he does. He fills the gap. He fills the hole. He’s not scared.”
The overall success of the new grouping of linebackers puts Meyer and the rest of the coaching staff in a challenging position moving forward. Baker and Booker were the starters to begin the season, but the inconsistency of the grouping prior to this week against mobile quarterbacks and tight ends shined a negative light on the group.
The line of Borland, Harrison and Worley did its job, and did it better than any group of linebackers has performed this season against one of Ohio State’s toughest opponents. The pair of injuries might have initially provided Meyer and his team with anxiety as to how the group would play against the Spartans. Instead, it opened up a window for a potential position battle in the lineup.