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Published: Monday, 12/2/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Defense gives OSU’s critics ammunition

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The Ohio State football team has its critics. Check out just about any channel or any dot-com address.

Now, the Buckeyes will be under even greater scrutiny because 12 straight wins and attrition throughout college football has vaulted OSU into one of the top two spots in the BCS standings.

Just seconds after Auburn’s remarkable finish had stunned Alabama and after Missouri had prevailed over Johnny Football to set up a Mizzou-Auburn SEC championship game, every commentator with a microphone or a keyboard was speculating how the one-loss winner of that game should, could, or would jump over Ohio State for a BCS championship game berth.

It could happen, even if the Buckeyes handle Michigan State next Saturday in the Big Ten title game. And if they don’t, it’s all a moot point.

The criticism is twofold. First, the strength of schedule, with the Big Ten lacking total respect and OSU’s preconference slate considered soft, is always a topic.

And No. 2 on the list is the Buckeyes’ defense, which has been alarmingly average at times against some alarmingly average competition.

All of OSU’s warts were on display Saturday as rival Michigan rolled OSU for 603 total yards, 451 of them through the air, and came within a two-point conversion — by the way, great decision, lousy play — of a monster upset before falling 42-41 in Ann Arbor.

“We’re pretty disappointed,” said OSU outside linebacker Ryan Shazier. “It was a bad game. We’re better than that. But we got the win and that’s all that mattered.”

Sure, it was enough for the Buckeyes, but maybe not for a nation of critics and poll voters or, perhaps, critics who influence poll voters.

Michigan’s yardage and point total were the most surrendered in any single game by the Buckeyes. And it came on the heels of 420 yards (and 35 points) by Illinois and 442 yards by Indiana. It was the sixth time OSU had allowed 24 or more points.

“Our pass defense reared its head again,” coach Urban Meyer said, not hesitating to use the word again. “We have guys playing far too many plays. We have to develop some rotation.”

It seems a little late in the season to be reinventing the wheel, and defense has been the Achilles heel for the Buckeyes almost since the start, from 503 yards against a poor Cal team to the 603 by a Michigan team that finished 3-5 in Big Ten play.

But, in my view, it’s just an excuse to hate on the Buckeyes because very few teams play great defense in this day and age of sophisticated and highly efficient spread/​hurry-up offenses.

If the 300-yard mark is the definition of exceptional defense, just how many teams do you think qualify? There are only seven FBS teams surrendering fewer than 300 yards per game, from No. 1 Michigan State at 237.7 yards to Bowling Green at 296.6. Unbeaten Florida State stacks up between those two.

After the statistical whipping it took on Saturday, Ohio State’s defense ranks 30th, allowing 355.8 yards per game. For comparison sake SEC title foes Missouri (385.4) and Auburn (414.3) rank 52nd and 75th respectively.

So the Buckeyes, on paper, aren’t nearly as bad as some might think they look on the field.

But that 30th-ranked defense coupled with a 60th-ranked strength of schedule is a parlay that is a bit hard to, well, defend.

And for the many critics who believe a one-loss SEC team is better than anything the Big Ten can offer, it will continue to be their go-to argument.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.


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