COLUMBUS: There seems to be some confusion in the Horseshoe. The coach has spotted significant issues with Ohio State’s defense, but his coordinator and players don’t seem to agree.
Urban Meyer sees a team that didn’t progress — on offense, defense or special teams — as much as he would’ve liked through the nonconference schedule. Nathan Williams, one of his defensive leaders, and Everett Withers, his co-defensive coordinator, don’t want to hear it.
By nature, coaches always tend to view their teams through a critical lens. It’s much easier to motivate a 4-0 team by dissecting what went wrong rather than overindulging in what went right. But Meyer has legitimate complaints following the Buckeyes’ 29-15 victory Saturday over Alabama-Birmingham.
“The fact is, we’re a bend-but-[don’t]-break defense,” Meyer said. “Which is painful to watch.”
“I don’t think it’s a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy,” he said. “When they spread you from sideline to sideline and they dink and dunk, you’ve got to eventually say, ‘That’s not going to beat you.’ And it didn’t.”
No, the Blazers’ array of short passes and bubble screens didn’t beat the Buckeyes, but it made an anemic attack look awfully impressive.
The Blazers began the day ranked 114th in the nation in rushing, then nearly doubled their season average of 80 yards with 144 on the ground. They ran more plays than the Buckeyes, gained more yards and held the ball longer.
Withers bristled when asked about a defense that surrendered 915 yards the last two weeks.
“We gave up 15 points,” he said. “That’s all I give a [expletive] about.”
That’s fine, and it’s worth noting the Blazers’ only touchdown Saturday came on special teams, but Withers’ boss cares about more. Meyer cares that the Blazers, who entered as 37-point underdogs and began competing in Division I-A just 16 years ago, produced 22 first downs. He cares the Blazers converted half of their third-down attempts in the second half, including a third-and-16 and a third-and-17. He cares the Blazers sustained four drives of at least 10 plays and were within a touchdown of taking the lead early in the fourth quarter.
“We seem like a very passive team,” Meyer said.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Williams countered minutes later, even though his coach just did.
Meyer: “We gave up a lot of yardage. That hurts. I’m pained watching it.”
Williams: “If we won by 50, he’d be mad. He’s never satisfied.”
In that regard, Williams is right. Great coaches are never happy. But as the Buckeyes enter Little Ten play next week, Meyer has plenty of reasons to be genuinely concerned.
Collectively, this might be the worst group of linebackers at Ohio State in at least 20 years. The Buckeyes have struggled tackling all year and still seem baffled by one of the fundamental principles to the game of football.
Linebackers and defensive backs seem to be gearing up for big shots rather than striving to simply get guys on the ground.
“Guys these days are really hard to tackle,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said, so I asked him if the Blazers, with one of the worst offenses in the country, were hard to tackle.
“I’m not going to lie, a few of them were hard to tackle,” he said. “But I’m not going to use that as an excuse.”
A Big Ten linebacker complaining that Conference USA players are hard to tackle? Ohio State’s problems run deeper than even Meyer thought.
Despite their problems, 4-0 is still a perfect record. And given the staggering blows dealt to the Little Ten over the last few weeks — Wisconsin losing at Oregon State, Nebraska getting blistered defensively by UCLA and Iowa losing Saturday to Central Michigan — the Buckeyes might still be the prettiest pick in a conference uglier than Lady Gaga.
But there has been an erosion of talent over the last few years in Columbus, dating back to Jim Tressel’s final few recruiting classes, that is more apparent now than ever. Even Meyer is admitting it, too.
“This is not a finely tuned machine right now,” Meyer said. “It hasn’t been for a while, on both sides of the ball.”
On the bright side, this is the perfect time to give the program an oil change. With a bowl game already stripped away, Meyer can retool.
Forget for a moment about the Little Ten. If the Buckeyes want to compete again nationally, they have a long way to go.
They have one playmaker on offense — one — and their defense as a whole is overrated. There is no one on this defensive line the caliber of Will Smith or even Vernon Gholston. It’s difficult to predict even a single one of these linebackers playing regularly in the NFL and the secondary is filled with big hitters who consistently fail to do the little things.
Of course, Williams and Withers would surely disagree.