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.