COLUMBUS — The clock did not strike midnight on Ohio State’s perfect season Saturday night at Indiana.
But it may have for the Buckeyes’ defense as we know it.
A 52-49 win that was not secured until the witching hour confirmed once and for all the assembly line of dominant units that once rolled through Columbus is in need of major repair.
While a measure of perspective is likely to reassure the Buckeyes — a team that won six games a year ago jumped a spot to seventh in the latest AP poll — the post-victory tone was strangely muted.
Players quietly shuffled up a winding hill to the team bus. Those on the defense used adjectives like “horrendous” and “embarrassing.” And coach Urban Meyer longed for answers.
“I’m not sure what my feeling is right now,” Meyer said. “I’m anxious to get back home to get back to work. I wish I was in the office right now.”
It was 12:30 a.m., and you got the impression he was not kidding.
A defense beset by injury, inexperience, and ineffectiveness has left him rethinking the way he runs his team.
Meyer usually delegates the responsibility of coaching the defense almost completely to his assistants. His focus is on the offense that torched IU for 578 yards and special teams; coordinator Luke Fickell runs the defense. But the status quo is not up to his standards.
The defense is testing Ohio State’s 272-0-1 all-time mark in games it scores at least 35 points. Though the statistics from Saturday are skewed slightly by Indiana’s two touchdowns and a recovered onside kick in the last two minutes, the 49 points were the most OSU has allowed since a 63-14 loss to Penn State in 1994. The Buckeyes now rank 71st nationally in total defense (400 yards allowed per game) and have yielded a combined 89 points the last two weeks.
Their leading tackler against Indiana? Zach Boren, who only switched from fullback to linebacker last Tuesday.
Asked if he planned to devote more time to the defense, Meyer said, “Oh yeah, yep.”
What are the issues?
“I’ve got to get more involved and find out,” he said.
One issue is a staggering lack of depth aggravated by a sudden flurry of injuries.
Just listen to Meyer’s rationale for moving Boren, which struck him as he surveyed the linebackers before Tuesday’s practice. Etienne Sabino was out (broken leg), as were Ryan Shazier and most of the top reserves with minor injuries.
“I’m not a math major, but you’re starting to get real thin,” Meyer said. “I was jogging out to practice, and I looked at [Zach], and I had that horrible gut feeling that we had to get some experience and a veteran guy over there to help us out.”
Boren, who was recruited as a linebacker but has served as the Buckeyes’ starting fullback in each of his four seasons, said he jumped at the offer. Meyer hinted later the switch could be permanent.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” Boren said after his eight-tackle performance.
Meyer, though, knows one stopgap is not a cure-all. The defensive issues run deeper, especially against teams like Indiana that favor a quick-hitting spread over power.
“We came in here, and we told ourselves we were going to hold this team to maybe a touchdown,” cornerback Travis Howard said of Indiana, which came in averaging 33 points per game. “And coming out , they put up that many points? It’s horrendous.”
Bradley Roby said the Buckeyes need to develop the “will to crush your opponent,” suggesting their high-scoring offense loosens the defense.
“I believe that’s exactly what happened,” said Roby, a sophomore cornerback. “Our offense got two or three scores, and I feel like as a defense we felt like we won the game, just joking on the sideline.”
Roby’s mood was not as light afterward.
“I don’t feel too good right now,” he said.
The good news for OSU: The lessons came in another win.
“The most important positive,” Meyer said, “is that you have a group of players and coaches getting on a plane right now heading back to Columbus at 7-0 with an opportunity to go 8-0.”
Contact David Briggs at:firstname.lastname@example.org,419-724-6084,or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.