By Bill Rabinowitz
COLUMBUS: The word Urban Meyer used was conversation.
The exact tone and content of those conversations with defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and the other defensive coaches wasn’t revealed. Given the Ohio State coach’s direct personality, he probably didn’t do much tap-dancing.
Meyer was tired of the passivity from his team’s defense. He wanted it to attack.
And so the Buckeyes did in their 63-14 rout of Penn State on Saturday. Gone was the defense that looked content to amble sideways against Iowa.
With an offense that’s humming and a solid kicking game, solidifying the defense is the final piece of the puzzle for a Buckeyes team that appears to be peaking at the right time.
With so many new starters on defense, it figured to take time for that unit to find its identity. That process took a hit with the loss of senior safety Christian Bryant to a broken ankle on Sept. 28.
But Meyer was tired of the excuses. He wanted results, even if it put some coaches on the hot seat.
He called linebacker Ryan Shazier one of the best blitzers in the country. He wanted to see him turned loose, which hadn’t been done often this season.
“We had that conversation,” Meyer said. “I’m an offensive guy. Disruptive defenses are very hard to work against. And I thought Luke and [co-defensive coordinator] Everett [Withers] did a very good job of mixing in some pressures.”
The Buckeyes knew that Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is talented enough to pick apart a defense if given time. They also knew he was a freshman who could get rattled under pressure.
“To let that guy sit back and throw, I don’t know if we’d lose a game, but we certainly wouldn’t have held them to 14 points,” Meyer said.
Fickell said he welcomed Meyer’s extra input — not that he exactly had a say in the matter, of course.
“I think it brings a lot to us,” he said. “The more ideas and minds in the room [is good], especially when it comes from someone with a different perspective. Sometimes, coming from the offensive perspective gives you some real insight.
“It’s tough at times when they come in and say, ‘I think you should do this’ and ‘This hurts us,’ but the reality is, it elicits conversation. In this business, if you take a day off, you’re losing ground. You’re looking for new ways and new ideas and things that are difficult. So we want it and really enjoy it. Sometimes it’s tough, but the reality is, it makes us better.”
Whether it was Meyer’s input or the players’ determination to learn from the Iowa game, the Buckeyes looked like a different defense on Saturday.
“Everybody got to the ball pretty fast,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “That’s what we worked on.”
No one took more of a jump than Noah Spence.
The headliner of Ohio State’s 2012 recruiting class, the defensive end had only three sacks in the first seven games. Against Penn State, he had two sacks, forcing a fumble on one, two other tackles for loss and five quarterback pressures.
“Noah Spence played by far his best game,” Meyer said. “When we recruited Noah, that’s kind of what we expected to have.”
The Buckeyes still have concerns at linebacker, Meyer said. Fickell called it “a daily grind” trying to get that unit up to Ohio State standards.
“All you can do is continue to battle through,” he said.
But this looks to be an ideal time to make progress. The Buckeyes’ next two opponents — Purdue and Illinois — are winless in Big Ten play. Meyer mentioned the Boilermakers only once in passing until he was asked about them in the final question of his 19-minute news conference.
Besides, the Buckeyes’ offensive production can liberate the defense, allowing it to take a chance at a big play and knowing that one score shouldn’t cost it the game.
“That gives you a lot of confidence,” Fickell said.