It was easy to discount Ohio State’s defensive effort in last week’s win over Akron, but the same cannot be said about Saturday’s blowout of Rutgers, especially with so many expecting it to be competitive well into the second half.
The Buckeyes were clearly well-prepared after seeing numerous trick plays in their last meeting, as evidenced by the stop on a fake punt near midfield on the first drive of the game.
Now, it might sound foolish in a 39-point win, but the Scarlet Knights could have very easily carried the momentum from a successful conversion into an early lead. But the defense set the tone in that moment, and Ohio State never looked back.
The key to the Buckeyes’ improved defense, in my opinion, is that they’re not overthinking things. It also doesn’t feel like all 11 players are rotating in and out on every play, and that – in turn – makes those on the field more comfortable with their assignments.
That’s a credit to Matt Barnes, who has allowed the defenders to play more freely and not focus so much on schematics, and you can see the defensive line and defensive backs getting more confident with each play.
Barnes seems to be getting the best out of safety Ronnie Hickman, as well, and he’s developing into the type of leader the Buckeyes need on the back end – a la Jordan Fuller. The same goes for safety Cameron Martinez and cornerback Denzel Burke, who are developing into players the Buckeyes need to have on the field as much as possible.
Each of those defensive backs have returned an interception for a touchdown over the last three weeks, and the ability to turn a turnover into points is not something that should be overlooked.
That said, the biggest concern I have for the defense coming out of Saturday’s victory is the lack of depth at linebacker. With Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope no longer on the team and Palaie Gaoteote out for an undisclosed reason, the Buckeyes had just five scholarship linebackers available against Rutgers.
Now, I must say that Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg played really well on Saturday. I’m sure Reid Carrico could make an impact if his number was called, too.
But when Simon went down for the second consecutive game with an injury, it made me hold my breath. The Buckeyes can’t afford to be without any players from that unit, and the upcoming open week in the middle of October is going to be much-needed for the linebackers.
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