Monday Morning Hangover: Buckeyes Should Be Smarter with D-Line Rotation
By Brandon Castel
What happened to the depth?
That is what I found myself wondering throughout the game Saturday as Ohio State’s defense blitz from just about every angle in order to get pressure in the face of Cal quarterback Zach Maynard.
Jeff Tedford’s brilliant counter-punches eventually forced Luke Fickell to pull back his dogs, which basically meant the Buckeyes were limited to rushing four – at the most five – guys for most of the second half.
Photo by Dan Harker
As a result, the OSU coaches kept sending John Simon, Johnathan Hankins and Nathan Williams back into the game over and over again on defense.
Don’t get me wrong, if Williams is healthy, those are the best three players Fickell has on his entire defense. Cornerback Bradley Roby is quickly joining that conversation, and linebacker Ryan Shazier will get there eventually, but right now it’s all about those guys on the defensive front.
It may not seem like they have taken over games the way people thought they would this season, both those four guys up front – let’s add Garrett Goebel into the mix – have done exactly what the coaches have asked them to do, and then some.
Go back and watch the fourth quarter again. Fast forward through all the missed tackles and mental breakdowns in the back seven, and what you will see is Hankins absolutely dominating the man across from him. Not only that, he was making plays down the line, in the backfield and even two or three yards downfield.
It was gratifying to see the big guy rewarded for his brilliant play with a huge sack on Cal’s final possession of the game – a sack which ultimately forced Maynard to throw the ball up for grabs when he was picked off by Christian Bryant.
Where’s the Depth?
As well as Hankins played Saturday – and he was just as good last week against UCF – I couldn’t help wondering about the lack of depth on Ohio State’s defensive line. Where was Noah Spence? Where was Adolphus Washington? What about J.T. Moore or Steve Miller or Tommy Schutt?
We saw a little bit of Joel Hale, and Washington got a handful of plays in the fourth quarter, but Ohio State basically went with four guys on the defensive front for most of the game. That includes Nathan Williams, who missed last week’s game because his knee didn’t respond as well as they had hoped after he played about 30 snaps in the season-opener.
When asked about it after the game, Fickell insisted Williams hadn’t been out there for most of the game. He told me J.T. Moore got a bunch of snaps in the early part of the game, which is sort of true. If I remember correctly, Moore started the game at strongside end and played the first two series before he was replaced by Williams on third down.
Outside of a few plays here or there, I’m not sure we saw him the rest of the game. At most, Moore was out there for maybe 15-20 plays against the Bears. That means Williams was in there for close to 50 or 60 plays, as the Cal offense finished with 79 plays – compared to just 63 for Ohio State.
Spence and Washington were out there to rush the passer on Cal’s final possession, but the defensive coaches weren’t about to take Simon, Hankins or Williams off the field when the game was still in jeopardy.
“When that game got tight you want your dudes in there, your guys,” Meyer said afterward.
“One common denominator about most of those guys, they're still young and green. We have to get them un-green here real quick because we need them.”
Play Smart, Not Just Hard
Especially with the uncertainty surrounding Williams and his knee. He said he felt fine after the game; that his knee responded a lot better during practice this week than it did leading up to the UCF game.
He said he expects to be ready for UAB, but how can anyone really know for sure with a guy coming off microfracture surgery? And then there is Simon, who played probably every snap on defense against Cal on Saturday with an injured shoulder.
“John Simon played hurt today,” Meyer revealed after the game.
“He had a sore shoulder. They kept telling me all week, it should be fine, it should be fine, but he almost didn’t play. It just didn't heal as fast as we hoped.”
That means two of the guys Ohio State is counting on to carry this defense, and in many ways this team, for the rest of the year are now battling the type of injuries that can linger throughout the same.
And then there’s Michael Bennett. His injury might hurt the most because he was the one other guy this staff could absolutely count on at this point in his career, especially since Adam Bellamy unexpectedly quit the team during fall camp. Bennett can play end, he can play inside at tackle, he can rush the passer and he can play the run. He’s not Superman, and he’s not better than Simon or Hankins at this point, but this groin injury has really cost the Buckeyes any chance to have a solid rotation up front.
According to Cal running back Isi Sofele, the OSU defensive linemen were on their knees, patting their helmets for a break when the Bears were working their way up and down the field in the second half.
Maybe he’s exaggerating a little bit, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out those four guys were exhausted by the end of the game. How else do you explain putting Washington, Spence and Schutt – three true freshmen with almost no game experience – into the game on that final Call possession in the fourth quarter?
Fickell and Mike Vrabel don’t want to rotate guys up front if it means taking better guys off the field, but at some point they have to start thinking about keeping them fresh for four quarters. There’s a reason John Simon broke down in the locker room after giving everything he had for 60 minutes.
Even when the Buckeyes had some of their best defensive lines, they still managed to get some younger guys in there to give the studs a rest so they could play fast and play strong for four quarters.
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