By Rusty Miller
COLUMBUS: Asked after a recent Ohio State practice if he was concerned about Clemson’s passing attack in the Orange Bowl, coach Urban Meyer all but laughed out loud.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “You think?”
With less than two weeks left until the Buckeyes take on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl, Meyer knows that his defense has to get better. A lot better. And soon.
Clemson has one of the best passing games in the nation, with Tajh Boyd in control at quarterback and Sammy Watkins snagging receptions downfield.
The 12th-ranked Tigers (10-2) average 502 total yards, 329 through the air, and 40.2 points per game. Boyd is tied for 15th in major-college history with 102 touchdown passes. Watkins has 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Granted, No. 7 Ohio State (12-1) has a potent offense of its own, with Braxton Miller chewing up yards with his arm and legs and bruising tailback Carlos Hyde breaking big plays on the ground.
But there are troubling signs over the last month or so that the Buckeyes cannot stop even lesser passers from piling up stratospheric numbers.
“They have a lot of good athletes,” All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier said of the Tigers. “This might be the best passing team we’re going to face this whole season.”
If that’s true, then it’s no wonder that a lot of Buckeyes fans are more than a little queasy.
Callers to sports talk shows, letters to the editor and those posting on booster websites are calling for co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers to either be fired or demoted for what’s happened lately.
In the past four games — relatively easy wins over Illinois and Indiana, a one-point victory at Michigan and a crippling 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game — the average per game passing line for the opposition is: 31-of-48 for 341 yards and three touchdowns.
Michigan’s Devin Gardner, suffering through an otherwise erratic season, completed 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns. His 2-point conversion pass in the final minute was intercepted by Tyvis Powell at the goal line to preserve the Ohio State victory.
“Pass defense surfaced again and [we had a] lack of contact on the quarterback,” Meyer said after that rivalry game. “We just had some guys running open.”
Then with the Buckeyes riding a school-record 24-game winning streak and needing a win to lock up a berth against Florida State in the BCS National Championship game, Michigan State’s Connor Cook went off. He came in averaging 177 yards and 1.4 touchdown passes per game. Against the Buckeyes, he threw for a career-best 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett believes there’s plenty of blame to go around in the defensive huddle.
“Guys have to cover on the back end, but we can’t let the quarterback sit back in the pocket for five or six seconds because someone’s going to get open,” he said. “When stuff like that falls apart, it’s the whole team thing — it’s not [just] on the back end. The front guys have to do more and the back guys have to do more. It’s not a scheme issue; it’s just guys need to do their jobs better.”
There are hints that there might be personnel changes, possibly getting more time for Powell or freshman Vonn Bell in the secondary.
Meyer declared that the defensive coaches are tweaking things. But that might be a mammoth understatement.
At the same time he made it clear it wasn’t just one problem area on defense.
“It’s too many, [not just] one thing,” he said. “It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage. It’s all of the above. Then, the pass rush, the timing to call the blitzes and making sure the blitzes match the coverage.
“We just have to play better.”