There are a slew of statistics by which a defense can measure
itself after a game, from takeaways to yardage allowed to the
opponent's third-down conversion percentage. But the Ohio State D
can accurately gauge its performance by the number of
up-and-downs that defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio makes
players do at the following week's practices. "He hasn't been on
our backs so much lately, so we're doing something right," says
senior defensive tackle Darrion Scott. "You mess up, you pay."
With their team's offense ranked 98th in the nation (327.1 yards
per game), the Buckeyes' defense has little room for error. That
was evident in Ohio State's 16-13 overtime win against Purdue
last Saturday, during which All-America Mike Nugent kicked three
field goals, including the game-winner, and the Buckeyes went
without an offensive touchdown for the third time this season.
Ohio State's most electric play occurred with 11:23 left in the
fourth quarter, when defensive linemen Tim Anderson and Will
Smith sandwiched Boilermakers quarterback Kyle Orton, knocking
the ball loose, and Mike Kudla pounced on it in the end zone to
give the Buckeyes a 13-6 lead. "It was one more time when we
looked at each other and said, 'This is on us,'" says sophomore
safety Nate Salley.
The win boosted Ohio State's national title hopes and set up a
showdown for the Big Ten crown with Michigan on Saturday. Last
Monday the Buckeyes (10-1) moved past USC into the No. 2 spot in
the BCS rankings and are a virtual lock to play in the title game
with a win in Ann Arbor.
When it comes to carrying the load, Ohio State's seven returning
defensive players are old hands. In winning the national title
last season, the Buckeyes were 70th in total offense (364.5 yards
per game) but second in scoring defense (13.1 points per game).
The decision of players like Scott and Smith to come back for
their senior years has resulted in "same defense, new year," says
Scott. Yielding just 15.1 points per game, they are the main
reason why Ohio State is again winning close games. When asked
whether this defense could be better than last year's, Dantonio
refuses to give an answer yet. "There are more games to be
played," he says.
None will be bigger than the 100th game with Michigan. The
defense has seen sneak previews of its archrival all season while
viewing footage of upcoming opponents; not by accident, tape was
frequently drawn from opponents' games against the Wolverines.
"[We take it] game by game and all that, but this is Michigan,"
says Scott. "We've been preparing for this all year."