Buckeye Linebackers Will Be Key Against Penn State

Dante Booker Penn State Ohio State Football Buckeyes

The Ohio State linebackers have had their ups and downs this season, and with Penn State’s offense on the horizon, now would not be the time for one of those unhappy valleys.

Penn State leads the conference in rushing, averaging 275 yards on the ground per game. They also lead with a 6.4-yard-per-carry average and 20 rushing touchdowns. Those touchdowns are nine more than anybody else — and 10 more than the Buckeyes.

Junior running back Miles Sanders is rushing for 123.8 yards per game and averaging 7 yards per carry. Last week against Illinois, he carried the ball 22 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. In two games against Power 5 opponents, Sanders is rushing for 159 yards per game.

Making matters even more difficult for the Ohio State defense is senior quarterback Tracy McSorley, who is rushing for 58.8 yards per game, and backup tailback Ricky Slade, who is helping out with 36.8 yards per game.

McSorley is adept with reads, whether to run it, hand it, or throw it, and that is going to put the Buckeye linebackers in constant stress. And as we have seen this season, the Buckeye linebackers have not responded well to stress.

So far this season, only Rutgers had allowed more runs of 30 yards in the Big Ten than the Buckeyes. Ohio State has allowed five, which is already two more than they allowed the entire 2015 season. It is also the same number that the Nittany Lions have run for this season.

And no team in the conference has more 60-yard rushes than Penn State’s two this season.

Yes, stopping the running game starts up front, but that’s only the beginning.

The Ohio State linebackers need to fill their gaps and read their keys correctly. Be it inexperience or lack of execution or simply asking them to do too much, the Buckeye linebackers have had some struggles this season, and the scrutiny has certainly followed.

Despite that scrutiny, OSU head coach Urban Meyer has been relatively happy. Or at least that’s how he has portrayed his mood to the media.

“The first two games they played very well,” he said last Tuesday following the win over TCU. “You have Pete Werner playing Sam, I think he played very well. The one thing that got us out of sorts to a degree was their tempo. We practiced hard against it, but when you get into real time and real space, we had a couple of misalignment issues.

“But overall, their development, I think we have two of the three were new this year, and when Baron Browning is in there, that’s a new middle linebacker as well. Malik Harrison has been playing great. The other guys are getting better. Greg Schiano is very pleased with the progress and you have continue to get better with experience.”

In fact, speaking with the media one week ago, Schiano said he thought the linebackers were playing pretty well overall and he sees improvement from camp.

“I think the linebackers have played pretty well actually,” he said. “We’re not perfect by any means — but I think we’re really playing much more assignment-sound football. Even from training camp we’re getting better and better.”

While both coaches like where things are headed, this past Saturday against Tulane, not a single starting linebacker recorded a tackle for the Buckeyes.

Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, and Pete Werner all went unrecorded in the box score on Saturday.

Reasons can be argued. None of the three played much more than a half of football, and Borland split time with Baron Browning. But it is still a concerning stat, and one that Meyer wasn’t aware of on Monday.

“Zero tackles?” he said. “I did not know that.”

“That’s a question to ask Coach Schiano. I know they didn’t play that much probably, but that’s interesting. Because I know Malik’s playing at a very high level. Did we not have any Champions there?”

In fact, there was one linebacker who graded out as a Champion against Tulane, and that was Dante Booker, who has been Werner’s backup this season. Booker led the Buckeyes with four tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack, most of which took place in the third quarter.

Harrison has graded out a Champion against Rutgers and TCU, but no other linebackers have earned the necessary marks this season.

Contrast those three Champion grades at a position that frequently has three players on the field with the Buckeye defensive tackles, who only have one or two on the field depending on the down and distance. Six times this season a defensive tackle has been named a Champion.

This past week was the first time no tackles made the grade. It is not a coincidence that this was the same week that nose tackle Robert Landers was held out of action for a minor injury.

Lack of production at linebacker has been a story for the Buckeyes all season long. Malik Harrison leads the OSU linebackers in tackles with 12, but that’s only good for sixth-best on the defense. Harrison is the only linebacker among the top 10 tacklers for Ohio State.

Some of that is the product of an active defensive line taking down the ball carrier before he gets to the linebackers. Some of that is also the fact that the starters haven’t played that many minutes this season.

That is going to change Saturday night and the Buckeye linebackers need to be more productive than they were against Tulane.

Meyer was genuinely surprised to find out that his starters went without a tackle. It’s not typically a stat that you have to wonder about. It would be like a quarterback not completing a pass in a game. It just doesn’t happen.

But it did last week, somehow.

“That’s a great question,” Meyer reiterated. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

If the Buckeyes don’t have an answer for it Saturday evening in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lion offense could have a very good night.

9 Responses

  1. Urban is a great Coach when it comes to X’s and O’s, and recognizing recruits who fit his philosophy. My greatest hope coming away from the BS suspension, was that his focus would shift away from the silliness of the whole CEO silliness and back to being fully engaged with every aspect of his TEAM.

    Loyalty is great until it gets in the way of some obvious problems. Not being aware of the fundamental competency of the players and staff across 9 units raises questions. No one would ever expect him to know every single detail of every player and staff member, but the look on his face and the bewilderment in his eyes and response when questioned IF HE WAS AWARE no tackles for his 1st team linebackers), says he’s not engaged with what’s happening within those 9 units. Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson have the offense clicking, you’d think the Head Coach would be all over evaluating the obvious weaknesses on the defense.

    COME ON URBAN…..make the defense as good as the offense, and ORDER the changes necessary. The talent is there. The development isn’t, except on the defensive line. Yeah, Alex Grinch and Taver are new hires, but they weren’t born yesterday as new coaches. The weak link preventing this from being a GREAT defense should be your main focus, not blind loyalties.

    1. James- there are many issues going on here. First, it is clear Meyer almost views defense as an afterthought.. That is a real shame, it also looks true. The second issue is his buddy hire of Bill Davis. Remember, prior to Smith’s firing (which was YEARS too late and led to the enormous distraction which hampered the team), there were at least THREE buddy hires on staff- Smith, Davis, and Meyer’s son-in-law. That stuff needs to be stopped before it starts. Third, we have evidence here of soft “reporting” by the person who informed Meyer of the “zero tackle” stat by the starting LBs. Meyer tried the old “blame him, not me” when he said to “ask Coach Schiano” that question. The reporter’s immediate retort should have been, “I am asking YOU that question, Coach Schiano isn’t here and I can’t find Coach Davis with a search warrant”. Finally, Tuf Borland is yet another example of a player being brought back too soon- which I predicted the week his injury was announced. They did it with JT in the BIG championship, clearly are doing it now with Borland. Bosa is up next…anyone wanna bet?

  2. “hear…not here”

    didn’t do a very good job of spellchecking

  3. Well it appears as though a majority of us out here are observing the same thing. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones making the decisions as to who is paying or not. Borland does not appear play ready after his injury and can be one reason for the hesitancy. It’s also not uncommon for players after that injury are a little “gun-shy” to be”banging” in there.

    Werner plays fast and hard but that’s not much help if you’re always out of position. Harrison has not done too bad. But I was shocked at the difference of when Booker and Hilliard went in.

    The linebacking unit was 100% more active in their play as evidenced by Booker being named a champion. So I repeat what’s already been said here…why is he not been starting??….or at least playing more…same thing with Hilliard.

    When we here Coaches Myer and Schiano make comments about the linebacking play I think to myself…”which game…or what people are THEY watching??”
    You will notice that we never hear from the linebacker coach….so he can’t be confronted by the obvious.
    However, I am disappointed especially by Coach Schiano who seems to be better at coach speak than anything else. All IMHO

  4. Meyer has recruited very well. However, throughout his tenure, notwithstanding his great recruiting, player personnel decisions have often times been very questionable or poor. For instance, Haskins was clearly the better QB last year… yet he did not start. There was no excuse for not pulling J.T. at Iowa at least and seeing if Haskins could be a spark. The ruthless player personnel calls Saban makes account for the Gap between he and Meyer. I could go on with other examples but this highlights it.

    That said, clearly in 2018 we are NOT starting the best players at the LB position. Even a fool can see that Borland and Werner are not better than Hilliard, Booker, and Browning. Yet, they are starting… and will continue to start (absent injury). Its like once we name a starter, there is no personnel adjustment that can be made for poor play or superior play.

    Lastly, this issue is also seen in our secondary this year. We have a HUGE issue at safety. A simple fix would be to start Wade at corner and move Sheffield to safety (where he could excel with his speed and physicality and be saved from inevitable pass interference calls he is going to get when playing corner). But again, this would call for shuffling guys and making player personnel decisions.

    Big plays at PSU will get us smoked. Better limit them.

  5. Clearly Urban is taking his assistants word for things, and that IS a problem. He says he watches the film and yet he’s unaware that even this past week not a single “1st team” linebacker recorded a tackle. He clearly look stunned by that when it was brought up at the presser. He says that Malik Harrison has played GREAT and yet it has been on his side where the big runs have gone through. I thought Pete Werner was ready to be a starter. I was clearly wrong. Baron Browning has played very poor football so far this year, and getting Tuf Borland back hasn’t helped even a little bit. Watching a 200 pound tailback literally body slam Tuf like he was an empty bag was brutal to see. He followed that public display up by having that same tailback crush him on a simple dive play. Justin Hilliard looks to be the only MIKE backer capable of playing at this level.

    Opponents rushing starts up front………that’s true. The primary job for the DLine is to obviously make the tackle, BUT, just as important is keeping the linebackers clean to fill gaps and make the tackles. Other than the 2nd half against Tulane, the alignment has been completely wrong, and the onfield adjustments called by the MIKE has been awful.

    The problem is their education, and whether Urban or anyone else likes it or not, it’s Urbans fault. He’s the man in charge, and it’s best buddy making a laughing stock out of one of the historic, and Urban is completely unaware of the mess.

    Right now it’s Dwayne Haskins preserving Davis’ job, and when Dwayne departs, Davis should give him at least half of his unearned paycheck.

    1. “historically great Buckeye unit traditions.” ^

  6. Borland and Werner look tentative. When they are in position they frequently miss the tackle. Borland got trucked twice in the hole last week by the Tulane RB. Harrison seems to be the best of the three and at times he looks lost. We are going to see a huge dose of zone read Saturday and then play action off of this which means our LB’s need to make some plays. Again, why is Dante Booker buried so deep on the depth chart? Why isn’t he starting?

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