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Football: Ohio State defense strives for consistency against Washington

LOS ANGELES — On paper, the Ohio State defense is nothing new to Washington.

The Buckeyes allow 25.7 points per game, which would be ranked as the seventh-best scoring defense in the Pac-12. The 400.3 yards given up per game would put the Ohio State defense near the bottom of the conference, along with teams like Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State, who the Buckeyes beat 77-31 in the first game of the season.

But Washington senior running back Myles Gaskin said the best defense the Huskies have faced this season is not Utah, who allows 19.3 points per game and gave up 10 points in its Pac-12 Championship loss to Washington. It’s not Cal who recorded an NCAA-leading 21 interceptions and led the conference with five defensive touchdowns.

It’s Ohio State. The No. 67 defense in the country. The defense that has allowed 38 plays of 30-plus yards through 13 games.

For Gaskin, it’s more than just numbers or yards given up. It’s not the makeup of the defense as a whole, even though he said that’s a part of it, saying Ohio State “probably has some of the “most athletic dudes in the country.”  

It’s about how the defense plays as a whole.

“They play no downs off,” Gaskin said. “Any defense that runs to the ball, all 11 guys run ot the ball, I think that’s the most important thing. A scheme is a scheme, but it takes effort to play defense, to play offense too, but especially to play defense.”  

That’s the style of defense familiar to Washington, facing co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Alex Grinch before when he was the defensive coordinator at Washington State.

“They ask their corners to do a lot in pressing all the time and a lot of man coverage, so you are playing high risk, high reward,” Washington senior quarterback Jake Browning said. “It will force a lot of negative plays, but you will also give up some big plays here and there.”

It’s the big plays that people remember. The 93-yard touchdown run by junior running back Darius Anderson in the TCU game. The 81 and 75-yard touchdown runs by freshman running back Anthony McFarland in the Maryland game.

These plays have seemed to define a defense that heads into the Rose Bowl game winning 12 of 13 games and are conference champions.

“We have the game controlled and the next thing you know big play there, big play, and now the game looks even. When you take away those plays, there’s not much they can really say,” redshirt junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said. “You’ve got to look at the results. Most of the time, about 95 percent of the time we won. So it’s okay.”

It’s no secret. Washington is going to try and exploit the mistakes Jones said Ohio State makes five percent of the time.

It could be what Indiana redshirt freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey tried to do — stepping back and testing the Ohio State cornerbacks in man coverage compared to the speed of junior wide receiver Nick Westbrook and the rest of the Hoosiers receivers.

For Washington junior offensive lineman Nick Harris, it’s the focus up front, combating the use of hands that Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson has been known to preach.

It’s finding a mistake to exploit.

“Just making sure every snap that we are playing with technique and we are trying to take advantage if they happen to mess up,” Harris said. “That could be the difference in the game is that one play, that one play they don’t use their hands right and we do, it could be a touchdown.”

When those plays do come, even if it is as infrequent as Jones said it is, Washington will have to exploit.

Because Gaskin said Ohio State, more importantly than the big plays allowed by the defense, learns from its mistakes and moves on quickly.

“I mean, everybody’s going to have their plays and just seeing that the defense is always ready to bounce back, play better from that play or learning from what happened in that play just in a separate series,” Gaskin said. “Not the whole, oh we learn next week, like they learn not to give that play up again.

“That’s huge. That’s what we have to be ready for.”

Even through the other storylines the Rose Bowl brings, from the retirement of head coach Urban Meyer to the Huskies and what Ohio State needs to do to cap off an eventful season on and off the field, redshirt sophomore linebacker Tuf Borland is still asked about the big plays.

He’s still asked about the improvement of the linebackers, what the group is working on fundamentally after a season that saw peaks and valleys from the unit as a whole.

For Borland, it’s not about erasing the big plays or making a statement. It’s the gradual improvement, it’s continuing the process.

It’s extending the 95 percent.

“I don’t think we’re worried about proving anything to anybody. We need it play and we need to play well,” Borland said. “We definitely need to keep improving. I’m just saying like we don’t feel the need to prove, like ourselves, to others.”

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