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Published: Friday, 9/22/2006

Ohio State defense making the grade

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - Nobody is holding their breath, wrought with anxiety over the interim report on the Ohio State Buckeyes.

A quarter of the way through the 2006 season, the team is unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Ohio State offense has been every bit the venomous hydra many expected it to be - cut back one facet, and the others strike a mortal blow.

But the early report card on the Buckeyes carries one unanticipated gold star. The Ohio State defense has been a lot better than previously graded. Through three games, the Buckeyes have not allowed a rushing touchdown, and have given up just 26 points.

The expected struggles following the loss of nine starters, including three first-round NFL draft picks, have not materialized. The young defense might flex, but it has not snapped. Ohio State enters tomorrow's Big Ten opener at home against Penn State ranked second in the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 8.7 points a game, and has forced six turnovers.

"I think our defense is improving," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "They've done a good job of limiting people from a point standpoint, which is the bottom line. We did a great job in the last two ball games from a take-away standpoint, but I don't know if they have an identity after three games. We've got so much more to prove as a team, but I think they're coming along."

The Buckeyes are allowing a modest 293.7 yards per game, and have made 30 stops behind the line of scrimmage, with 13 quarterback sacks to date. The timing has been good, as well, with no touchdowns scored against Ohio State in the second half of the last two games, and the Buckeyes have held the opposition to just a 21 percent success rate on third downs.

Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock, who along with fellow senior David Patterson account for the sum total of returning starters on the OSU defense, has initiated a lot of the pressure and disruption that has enabled the unit to be so successful. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Pitcock had three sacks last week against Cincinnati.

"Quinn is an outstanding player and I've said many times that our two inside guys, David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock, are as good as it gets," Tressel said. "Those guys create havoc, and you've got to really figure out a way to slow them down."

"The defense has played pretty well, and I think the new guys, the young guys have grown up pretty quick," Pitcock said. "But I have to credit the coaching staff, too, because they really prepared the seniors and made us understand that a good defense would be made by us taking younger players under our wing, getting them ready for practice and excited about the games."

The Buckeyes are third in the country in sacks, 10th in scoring defense, and 12th in turnover margin, but Pitcock said it is too early to label this group as a certain brand of defense. Tressel continues to funnel a multitude of players into the rotation, leaving few positions locked in.

"I don't think we really have a signature yet," Pitcock said. "There are no true starters and you can't really get a feel for that until the ninth or 10th game. Turnovers are a big thing, though, and something we looked a lot at when we studied film from last year. We wanted to cause more turnovers than we were able to last year. We knew if we could do that, we could make the team better by giving the offense more chances to score."

Middle-linebacker James Laurinaitis has emerged as the team's leading tackler, with 26 stops in three games, including 13 in the road win over defending national champ Texas. Laurinaitis has also forced a pair of fumbles and intercepted two passes. He has not made anyone forget last season's dynamic trio of A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel, but he has minimized the laments over their departure.

"It's an honor for people to think highly of me, but we have, and I have a long way to go," Laurinaitis said. "I don't feel like I've arrived yet. I watch film of guys that played here, like A.J. and Bobby, and realize that I have a long way to go."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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