COLUMBUS: Until Saturday night, the defense had done little more than go along for the ride in the Buckeyes’ undefeated season, not unlike a biker chick holding on for dear life to her guy’s tattoos, as he pilots a Harley through a mountain pass at 80 miles per hour.
Even the diehards in Buckeye Nation were beginning to understand that a chance to play for a national championship was passing Ohio State by, not only because of a weak schedule — in and out of the Big Ten conference — but because of a porous defense that had allowed 20 points a game before the 63-14 beating the Buckeyes put on Penn State in Ohio Stadium.
The offense stole the show. What else can you say about a unit that scores at will against an opponent for which a staunch defense is a living tradition. Of course, these days the Nittany Lions are reeling from NCAA penalties stemming from the scandal created by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for molesting children, at times on the Penn State campus.
Nevertheless, Nittany Lions are still Nittany Lions. That is, Penn State came into the game with a 4-2 record, a win over Michigan plus freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and wideout Allen Robinson, who have become the objects of increasing praise.
Though thanks to the OSU defense, these tributes will be somewhat muted until at least next Saturday, when the Lions play Illinois.
In the first half, when the game was theoretically still within Penn State’s reach, Hackenberg through the air was 9-for-19 for 95 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Robinson caught three passes for 35 yards and was something of a forgotten man when the marching bands (Penn State’s, too) took the field. By that time, the Buckeyes led 42-7.
Altogether, the Nittany Lions amassed 158 yards in the first two quarters, averaging 3.6 yards per play. Their longest gain was a 16-yard pass from Hackenberg to Robinson and an 11-yard rush by elusive running back Bill Belton.
Ohio State’s pass rush was modestly successful. That is, Hackenberg did not spend the evening running for his life, but he was sacked four times and occasionally was forced to hurry his throws.
“Our biggest concern was the pass rush,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “They are a very good throwing team. I thought our defensive line was challenged and did a nice job.
“I like where we’re at right now. We needed to see a pass rush. That was the most impressive part to me.”
By the middle of the third quarter, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien took out his white flag by replacing Hackenberg with Tyler Ferguson, a sophomore backup.
Most of the complaints about the Buckeyes defense have centered around the play of the secondary. Christian Bryant, a leader of the unit, was removed from the equation long ago because of a season-ending injury. Star cover back Bradley Roby has had a fitful season, and nobody seems to know why.
But none of that was apparent against Penn State. Midway through the first quarter, free safety Corey Brown claimed the first interception in the end zone to stop a Nittany Lions drive that had carried to the OSU 12.
Strong safety C.J. Barnett picked off a Hackenberg pass at the Ohio State 48 with less than a minute to play in the first quarter. The interception triggered a drive that ended with Braxton Miller’s six-yard touchdown run to put the Buckeyes in the lead 21-0.
One strong performance by the OSU defense does not erase its prior sins. Nor does it ensure that some sort of corner has been turned. But maybe it has.
The distinguishing characteristic of this defense at the outset of the season was its inexperience. Maybe after eight games, inexperience is evolving into maturity.
Will that impress those who vote in the various polls that feed into the BCS standings? Probably not. After all, the Buckeyes’ remaining schedule is not likely to win plaudits from the voters, even if Ohio State shuts out its final four opponents, including the Wolverines.
Asked if routing Penn State would enhance the Buckeyes’ stature in the eyes of the voters, Meyer said, “I think it helps. But that [running up the score] is not our mindset. Our mindset was to figure out how to win a game.”
The Buckeyes’ hopes for a national title shot still rest on two of the three teams ahead of them losing. But look at it this way: If Ohio State gets there, the defense might turn into an asset instead of a liability.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Buckeyes blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/buckeye-blogging. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.