COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State defense has been where its offense is now, and in some ways it’s just repaying the offense for some help a year ago.
At this time last season, the Buckeyes were working through some issues with a revamped secondary, getting comfortable with two new assistants and looking grateful that there was a high-scoring offense on hand to help them survive the growing pains.
The roles have reversed completely thus far this season, which is surprising considering the amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball. There are two new assistants on offense and uncertainty at quarterback. Therefore, the Buckeyes are relying on a devastating, dominant defensive unit keeping opponents off the scoreboard until the power-spread offensive attack finds its footing again.
“It's cyclical,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “There are going to be good games and bad games for both sides of the ball. Again, fortunately we've got enough talent on each side of the ball that we can overcome those.
“It happened last year, just the opposite [way]. Right now our concern defensively is to go out and do the job we need to do, and that is to keep the opponent out of end zone and off the scoreboard.”
The Buckeyes are making that look relatively easy so far this season, holding opponents to just 12.3 points per game, which includes a shutout of Hawaii. And if that kind of support wasn’t enough on its own, the defense has also found the end zone itself in each of the last two games to spark the defending national champions to a pair of wins.
Those victories each came with scrutiny for an offense that came in with extremely high expectations but instead has struggled with consistency, turnovers and execution. But largely overlooked in both instances was the performance of the Silver Bullets on defense, who have more than picked up the slack and are giving Urban Meyer’s offense the largest margin for error he’s had since taking over at Ohio State.
The defensive line has found an emerging star in redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard to bookend with pass-rushing terror Joey Bosa, and the Buckeyes already have 12 sacks through three games. Linebacker Darron Lee continues to stamp himself as one of the most versatile playmakers at the position in the country, as he displayed with an eye-popping interception return for a touchdown Saturday. And there might not be a secondary with more talent than the one at Ohio State, where all four starters already have nabbed an interception and put the struggles of 2013 and early 2014 in the rearview mirror.
All the superlatives for the Buckeyes were supposed to focus on an explosive offense, and that might still be the case by the end of the season. But, for now, Ohio State is clearly leaning on its defense to carry the weight.
“We’ve got the mindset that if we have to win the game 3-0, that’s just how we’re going to win the game,” middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan said. “We can’t depend on anybody else, we just have to go out there and stop their offense, do our job and everything else will take care of itself.”
Everything took care of itself for the Buckeyes last season. By the time the College Football Playoff rolled around, the oft-overlooked defense had established itself as an equal partner with their high-scoring buddies, which is exactly why they were so dangerous on the way to the title.
The shoe is on the other foot right now. But if Ohio State has to be a defense-first program until an equilibrium is once again established, Meyer can certainly live with that.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m OK with winning games.”
So far, the Ohio State defense is doing everything it can to give Meyer what he wants.