COLUMBUS - Ohio State had a mini galaxy of stars on its defense last year, but when five starters departed from that group and landed in NFL training camps, it appeared that a somewhat major rebuild might be in order.
But four games into the 2009 season, the Buckeyes don't look much like a reconstructed unit.
Ohio State's defense has hung a couple of goose eggs on the scoreboard with recent shutout wins over Illinois and Toledo and also held the other-worldly Southern California offense to one touchdown drive. The Buckeyes have surrendered just a single touchdown in the past 11 quarters of play.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said his defense, which is allowing less than 100 yards rushing per game, is the product of the OSU staff tapping into a deep reserve of talent on the defensive side.
"The reasons that our defense has played well - I think it starts with good personnel. There's no doubt about it," Tressel said. "We have some veterans who have been there and grown. And we have a little bit of depth, such that we can play 15 or 16 or 17 guys a week."
After the departure of such established defensive standouts as linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins from
last year's team, the Buckeyes took another hit when linebacker and designated starter Tyler Moeller was lost for the season over the summer as a result of a head injury he sustained when he was assaulted while on vacation with his family in Florida.
Junior Brian Rolle stepped in to fill that void and had a key interception early in the 30-0 win over Illinois.
The next challenge facing the unit is playing at Indiana (3-1) this week without senior captain and all-Big Ten safety Kurt Coleman.
Coleman has been suspended one game by the conference for a helmet-to-helmet hit he made on Illinois backup quarterback Eddie McGee. Coleman, who was flagged for a
personal foul on the play but was not ejected, will be replaced by senior
Anderson Russell and redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson.
"There's really no replacing a Kurt Coleman, with his experience and intensity, but the suspension is just something we have to bounce back from," OSU senior defensive end Doug Worthington said.
"We've got a lot of guys who have put in the hard work and prepared for an opportunity to play, and now they get that chance. When you lose a guy to injury or any other reason, everybody else has to pick it up a little more."
The Buckeyes (3-1) are giving up just 11.2 points per game - second best in the Big Ten. Ohio State also ranks second in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 258.8 yards per game. Penn State is first in the conference in scoring defense (10.2 ppg) and total defense (233.8 ypg).
Junior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said the dominant performance by the OSU defense has put the Buckeyes' offense in a real comfort zone, especially with the shutout performances against Toledo and Illinois.
"The defense has made it easy on us the past couple weeks," he said. "When you get shutouts, the pressure's off of the offense."
Tressel said the back-to-back shutouts, Ohio State's first such double since the 1996 season, have bolstered the group's confidence and expectations, but making it three in a row will be even tougher since Indiana displayed its offensive might with 467 yards of offense in last weekend's 36-33 loss at Michigan.
"The good thing about our guys defensively is that they go into every game wanting a shutout, and then they play each play," Tressel said.
"Wanting a shutout is in the back of their minds, but they go out and play every play, and if it doesn't go great for a while, they keep playing every play. They seem to be a neat group in that there's no stars or people that everyone's talking about. They look to each other, and they look to the whole crew."
Worthington said that although the Ohio State defense has celebrated those shutouts and its
overall performance to date, the Buckeyes know those numbers mean
very little when they line
up against the Hoosiers
on Saturday in Bloomington.
"You see that all of the hard work and preparation was done for a reason," Worthington said, "and we all want to keep it rolling."
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