COLUMBUS — The defensive depth chart has become a very fluid document for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The personnel changes have been frequent, due to a steady flow of injuries that has often flirted with becoming a flood.
Through the first nine games of the season, the situation up front has been stable, but at the five linebacker and safety positions, 10 different players have started, and a handful more have been pressed into service.
“We've had a lot of guys step in and play and get the job done,” senior safety Jermale Hines said. “The coaches always preach to be ready when your name gets called, and with all of the injuries, we've called on a bunch of guys.”
But amid all of the changing names and the position shuffle, the performance by the collection of starters, backups, and backup-backups has pushed the Buckeyes back to the top of the Big Ten in all of the major defensive categories.
As Ohio State comes off a bye week and prepares to meet Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten and rank second nationally in total defense, allowing just 234.2 yards per game.
Ohio State has been the best in the country at forcing the opposition to spend three downs banging its head against the wall and then punt. The Buckeyes lead all FBS teams with nearly six three-and-outs per game.
“We've got a bunch of guys that just fly to the ball,” defensive tackle John Simon said. “No matter who's out there, the approach is the same. We want everybody around the ball.”
That tactic has allowed Ohio State's constantly changing defensive alignment to remain constant in its stinginess. The Buckeyes have allowed just 11 touchdowns and have forced 24 turnovers.
Opposing teams have struggled to run the ball or convert the pass against Ohio State, with the Buckeyes allowing just a 54.8 percent completion rate and picking off 15 passes.
Ohio State has been the Big Ten's best at denying the opposition success on third and fourth downs. On third downs, the Buckeyes' foes convert only 29 percent of the time. On fourth down tries, the success rate is just 30 percent. Ohio State has allowed a Big Ten low of 114 first downs this season.
“Our defense has been so good for so long, I think sometimes it gets taken for granted. It's one of the expectations here at Ohio State — that we're going to have a great defense out there,” senior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “We go against them every day in practice, so we know how good they are.”
After the week off, the personnel situation has improved somewhat for the Ohio State defense, although three players have been lost for the season. Nickel back Tyler Moeller suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a win at Illinois, safety C.J. Barnett damaged his knee in the win over Miami, and nickel back Christian Bryant needed surgery to address a persistent infection in his foot. Bryant could possibly return for the bowl game, but Barnett and Moeller are done for 2010.
Senior linebacker Ross Homan has missed the past couple of games with a foot injury but is expected back to face Penn State. Linebacker Dorian Bell has been sidelined for three games with a concussion, but could return this week.
Linebacker Brian Rolle limped off the field at Minnesota with an ankle injury early in that game, but he got patched up and returned to the fray.
Defensive back Donnie Evege, who was also a top special teams contributor, dislocated his elbow in a September win over Ohio University and has not played since. Linebacker Storm Klein has also missed time due to injury.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel takes a matter-of-fact, businesslike approach to the parade of injuries, reminding his players of the importance of preparation, no matter where they stand on the depth chart.
“Someone's got to step up. Regardless of how difficult it is, we've got to have someone ready,” Tressel said recently about the number and severity of the injuries on the defensive side.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.