Ohio State football: Revamped defense looking forward to first major test at Nebraska

Credit: Michael Hickey

Credit: Michael Hickey

The biggest question of the offseason for Ohio State football won’t have a full answer until the end of the year.

Anyone who has watched college football for long knows many an early-season perception has fallen to the ground and blown away like so many autumn leaves.

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Even things that seem certain — such as Michigan had a great defense last season — seem less so once all the results are in.

Ohio State’s 2006 defense endured a similar fate, putting up impressive numbers for 11 weeks before looking almost helpless at times against Michigan and Florida in its last two games.

Ten years before that, it was the Buckeye offense that roared out of the gate in 1996 then nearly ground to a halt by the end of the season, but there is no shortage of examples from schools across the country.

The ’06 Buckeyes didn’t face a balanced offense until the Wolverines, but this group won’t have to wait until November for such a test.

Nebraska presents that Saturday night.

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Averaging 38 points per game, the Cornhuskers have multiple threats at running back, a star receiver in J.D. Spielman and a freshman running back/receiver named Wan’Dale Robinson who has drawn favorable comparisons to reigning Big Ten freshman and receiver of the year Rondale Moore of Purdue.

“I think all three of those backs get you in different ways,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Tuesday. “Wan'Dale is really dynamic. He reminds me of the kid from Purdue. He could be a matchup problem for you if he gets on a linebacker or speed sweeps, things like that. He can do a bunch of different things, a little bit of a hybrid. And the other guys run hard, those two other backs, they run downhill, and they've got some receivers.”

Then there is multitalented quarterback Adrian Martinez, the straw that stirs the drink for a team that totaled nearly 700 yards last week at Illinois.

“You have to be able to handle his feet, too,” Day said. “That's the other part of this thing. When you combine that all together with the tempo, it's hard to prepare for.”

Martinez and the Cornhuskers gave the Ohio State defense some problems last season in a 36-31 win for the Buckeyes, but that was not unusual.

Almost everyone found at least some success against a Scarlet and Gray stop unit that gave up more points and yards than any before it.

That led to an overhaul in the coaching staff and scheme that has so far yielded great returns.

>>RELATED: Buckeyes preparing for first real challenge

Ohio State is third in the nation in scoring defense (9.0 points per game) and second in total defense (222.0 yards per game) despite being able to get many minutes for reserves in the first four games of the season.

Of course, the Buckeyes haven’t exactly faced the modern college football equivalent of the 1927 Yankees “Murderer’s Row,” so they are looking forward to getting to reveal if they are for real or not.

"I played against Martinez last year and I know a he's a really good quarterback,” Ohio State defensive end Jashon Cornell said. “He can run the ball, and he can actually pass the ball, too, so he's a threat.”

Martinez accounted for over 300 total yards last season in Columbus, but this time the Buckeyes will benefit not only from having seen him before but also practicing against a quarterback with similar skills (Justin Fields) all spring and preseason.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Mattison confirmed that would be a bonus for the Buckeyes — and that quarterbacks who can run and pass are the toughest thing to shut down in college football.

"The dual-threat guy at this level by far,” said Mattison, who has been a college coach since 1976 accept for three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. “You know when a guy stays in the pocket, you just need to look in and (co-defensive coordinator Jeff) Hafley’s room and say, ‘Okay, I hope I have a really good secondary,’ and then you look in (defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s) room you say, ‘I hope I have a really good front so I can get a pass rush.’ But when you have a guy that can scramble, can make things happen with his feet, as well as throwing it really makes it more difficult for you.”

Meanwhile, Ohio State is hoping to be closer to full strength on the defensive line after regular rotation members Jonathon Cooper, Robert "BB" Landers and Tyreke Smith were unavailable for the 76-5 win over Miami University last Saturday.

"Yeah I believe the 'rushmen' can do a lot more," Cornell said, referring to the nickname Johnson has given the group.

"As of right now I think we're doing a great job of the next man up motto because coach always says whoever goes down, the next person in the game has to play that person'a position and their position, like it's two people."

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