||Sunday, December 29
Updated: January 1, 5:40 PM ET
Buckeyes' D now 'full of big plays'
By Ivan Maisel
PHOENIX -- One year and 13 victories ago, the Ohio State defense made fewer stops than an express elevator. There's a reason the Buckeyes lost four games in which they led or were tied in the fourth quarter. Opponents unwrapped tackles the way kids unwrap Christmas presents. On the most important play -- third down -- and in the most important section of the field -- the red zone -- the Buckeyes failed as often as they succeeded. They had a 7-5 record to show for it, too.
The statistical definition of defensive success is holding an offense to a third-down conversion rate of 33 percent. In the red zone (inside the 20), the defense wants to limit an offense to one touchdown for every three trips. Last year, Ohio State allowed a third-down conversion rate of 46 percent and a touchdown rate in the red zone of 48 percent.
"That helped out a lot," strong safety Mike Doss said. "We watched every game from last season and saw what we could do different."
"It's going to take a little bit more to compete for a national championship," middle linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "If that's what it takes, to watch film in the morning, that's what we had to do."
Dantonio eased up on press man coverage and installed more zone. The bigger change, he insisted, came in his players' attitude. "I really think it's more of an issue of not getting down when something bad happens," he said. "It's easier to do when you've been there. Last year, we had 12 football games and we lost five times. In four of those games, if one person had made a play on the last play of the game, we win."
That's a fancy way of saying that only Illinois beat Ohio State by more than seven points. But the point Dantonio stressed has been taken to heart. A lot of players made the one play that the Buckeyes needed to win. "I can't point to one guy and say, 'He's the reason we're playing well,'" Dantonio said.
Let the evidence bear out that all the Buckeyes are playing well. This season, two of the seniors, Wilhelm and Doss, are All-Americans. Eight players made the coaches' first or second All-Big Ten team. More to the point, look at the statistics. Opponents converted only 36 percent of their third downs. They scored only nine touchdowns in 35 trips into the red zone. That's a rate of 26 percent.
And how about this? None of those touchdowns came in the fourth quarter. The same team that let one game after another slip away in the final minutes became as miserly as a banker at a dot-com convention.
"This team was full of big plays," Dantonio said. "We've (given up) 11 runs over 15 yards this year. Four of them came in the first half against Wisconsin. That's a credit to how our players tackle. We're very, very proud of that. What you see (Willis) McGahee do is cut back, break a tackle, shake a guy down and (whistle noise, arm moving forward). We can't allow that to happen."
Dantonio is not a humorless man but he is as serious as a parent after curfew. He came into the media interviews Sunday demanding that his team be taken seriously. The point is made only because he got the inevitable questions about how fast Miami is, how deep Miami is, how successful Miami is.
"We expect to play well," Dantonio said, measuring each word with laser-like exactitude, "and we expect to win. Play with confidence. You need to be able to handle adversity. How we respond to that will be critical."
If Miami offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a Toledo native, didn't know how good Ohio State is on defense, he wouldn't have to wait long to find out. Most of the family members who have asked him for tickets would be wearing scarlet and gray to the game. Chudzinski, who turned down Ohio State to play tight end for Miami on the 1989 national championship team, called the Buckeyes "the best defense in the country. . .They're like the old Dolphin defenses, the No-Name and the Killer B's. They are a dominant defense. Everyone is doing his job. They are that consistent."
A year ago, the only thing consistent about the Ohio State defense was its inconsistency. With these Buckeyes pushing the buttons, the elevator makes every stop.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.