RUSTY MILLER,AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS Through four games and four victories, Ohio State's defense has faced a continual drumbeat of short passes, quick routes, screens and sweeps.
Every opponent, it seems, has relied on sleight of hand.
No wonder the Buckeyes — built for the black-and-blue Big Ten — are dead last in the conference in defense, allowing almost 400 yards a game.
"That's very alarming," coach Urban Meyer said on Tuesday. "It's not the (same) Ohio State defense over the last 10 years (that was) as good as there is in the country. That's very alarming and that's something that's got to change real fast."
Now the 14th-ranked Buckeyes are getting back into their element. They'll be in familiar territory, at least in terms of the style of play, when they open the Big Ten schedule on Saturday at No. 20 Michigan State.
A 244-pound tailback? Check. Less misdirection? Check. Fewer passes? Check.
After facing subterfuge and rush-avoiding quick-hitters for a month, now the Buckeyes are pleased that they can get back to meeting ball-carriers head on.
They're thinking that maybe now they forge an identity.
"We have to find out what we want to hang our hat on," defensive co-coordinator Everett Withers said. "It's an ongoing process. The mission is to win the next game and — hopefully, eventually — we find exactly who we are on defense. This week will give us a pretty good idea."
The Spartans don't figure to do a lot of bubble screens and trickery, which have been a regular part of the diet from the Buckeyes' four opponents so far. Instead, they'll go with a sledge hammer directly at Ohio State's defense.
Michigan State's first and foremost weapon is Le'Veon Bell, a brawny runner from not far from the Ohio State campus who is third in the nation in rushing at 153 yards a game.
There is very little subtlety in having a guy who weighs an eighth of a ton running right at you.
And, believe it or not, that's a welcome change for Ohio State.
"The No. 1 thing is we're going to have to stop the run," linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "Their run game is the strength of their offense. They have a great running back. We have to stop them from running. If we're able to do that, we can have a pretty good game."
Ohio State's four opponents so far — Miami (Ohio), Central Florida, California and UAB — managed just 4 yards per rush. But they went for a startling 9.9 yards per pass completion.
Almost everyone on the team has a theory why the defense has been gashed on those quick throws on the perimeter.
At first, a lack of pressure from the front wall was blamed. Then it was the secondary which surrendered big-gainers. The linebackers have drawn more than their share of criticism.
But overall, Meyer and his staff said the Buckeyes were not very good at tackling. So over the past two weeks, extra time in practice has been spent on mobbing the ball, wrapping up and attacking.
"We know that we know how to go out there and tackle," safety Orhian Johnson said. "It was us just trying to maybe go out there and make those big plays instead of being fundamentally sound."
Now, with a familiar opponent playing a more conventional offense, the Buckeyes believe they've taken steps to alleviate their problems.
"Honestly, looking at the film, I don't think we're that far off," Sabino said. "We just have to shore up a couple of little things. It goes back to tackling and making sure guys do their jobs at all time. When we do our jobs, we're actually pretty good."
Everyone recognizes that if Bell runs through the Buckeyes — or over them — then it is back to the drawing board.
"If it turns into a 200-yard rushing day (for Bell), then we're going to lose the game," Meyer said. "I think our defense is kind of built for this. It's not built for sideline-to-sideline dinks and dunks. That's the challenge."