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How Ohio State’s defense went from its worst to its best in two weeks

Ohio State sophomore defensive lineman Nick Bosa (97) attempts to sack Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke in the first half of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 11. Ohio State won 48-3. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Brian Lewerke did nothing right. Ohio State’s defense would not let him.

The Michigan State quarterback threw for 400-plus yards against both Northwestern and Penn State the past two weeks and entered the game with a 61 percent completion rating and a 16-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

But against the Buckeyes’ defense, a unit that allowed Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley to complete 20-of-31 passes for 226 yards and five touchdowns a week ago, Lewerke had no success. He completed 18-of-36 passes for 131 yards with two interceptions Saturday. He also had 10 rushes for just two yards in the 48-3 loss to Ohio State Saturday afternoon.

“I think that we just did a great job from the jump getting after him,” redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “Once you get in a guy’s face like that, they’re always thinking about it the rest of the game. We were just coming in waves, winning one-on-ones. We knew that’s what we had to do if we wanted to shut down — first shut down the run, then get after him early. And we did a great job executing that.”

On Michigan State’s fourth offensive play of the game, sophomore linebacker Malik Harrison beat redshirt senior running back Gerald Holmes’ block and sacked Lewerke for a 12-yard loss. Two plays after a miraculous 16-yard run by Lewerke on third-and-18 and a 4-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-2, the Spartans were once again pinned in a third-and-7 situation.

Ohio State senior linebacker Chris Worley (35) sacks in the second half of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 11. Ohio State won 48-3. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

This time, Lewerke could not escape for the first down as sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa sacked him for a 12-yard loss. It was a microcosm for how Lewerke’s game went.

“He decided to hold onto it a little in the beginning, and then he smartened up and got rid of it,” Bosa said.

Ohio State brought down Lewerke four times for sacks, and he looked flustered when dropping back for the remainder game, and the Spartans were forced to abandon having the quarterback sit in the pocket for long periods of time.

“As soon as they started shuffling around linemen to find ways to match up and block us, we knew we had them on the ropes,” Hubbard said.

Even when Michigan State wanted to get the ball out of Lewerke’s hands and run, the offense was unable to find space to operate. The Spartans averaged just 1.9 yards per carry on 34 rushes and starting running back L.J. Scott managed 30 yards on eight carries, including a 20-yard rush on his first touch of the game.

Everything that went right Saturday seemed to starkly contrast last week’s disaster in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hawkeyes averaged more than two times as many yards per play as the Spartans (7.8 to 2.8), and more than three times as many yards per carry (6.4 to 1.9). The Spartans turned the ball over three times and the Hawkeyes did not have a turnover.

“I knew last week we kind of laid an egg, came out flat,” Bosa said. “The attitude was completely different this week and we knew that. I knew this wasn’t going to be a close one, we were going to come out strong.”

The process did not change much, Bosa said, but the results were completely different. The defensive line, which struggled to pressure Stanley, made an early impact and kept Lewerke constantly off-kilter.

Ohio State freshman defensive end Chase Young (2) attempts to take down Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (10) in the second half of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 11. Ohio State won 48-3. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

“I think it was just all around focus,” Hubbard said. “There was guys playing for each other. There was no talk of anything but, ‘We need to win this game.’ There was literally nothing else but that. That’s all that mattered to us and that’s obviously what we did.”

Bosa said game day felt “a little different” because the team was more engaged and focused.

“Sometimes you just don’t even know and you realize it into the game and you can’t really go back at that point,” Bosa said.

Ohio State’s loss to Iowa pushed them out of the playoff discussion. Had the Buckeyes lost a second game in a row, they would not have even had a chance to win the conference title. Hubbard said the team had a meeting earlier this week and discussed Saturday’s game being a battle for First Place in the Big Ten East.

“I think that our backs were just really against the wall here and we had no choice but to keep swinging,” Hubbard said. “If we didn’t win this game, we don’t want to think about where we would’ve been, so we’re glad we won it.”

Hubbard won’t have to worry about that potential worst case scenario. The Buckeyes swung early, connected and kept swinging until the whistles blew and the game ended with Ohio State giving up its second-lowest point total of the season.

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