There’s no use in denying it at this point: Ohio State’s defense cost them a shot at the national championship. Through a combination of unfortunate injuries (Christian Bryant), failure to try new players (Vonn Bell), and pure incompetence (Armani Reeves, Pitt Brown, Joshua Perry), the Buckeye defense bungled their way to some embarrassing yardage and point totals against what should have been overmatched opponents.
Now that same defense will be called upon to stop Tajh Boyd and the high-powered Clemson offense, which ranks 11th nationally with 329.3 pass yards per game. That job has gotten harder in the past few days with the news that the Buckeyes could be missing three regular starters.
Starting defensive end Noah Spence and his team best eight sacks did not make the flight to Fort Lauderdale with the team. Coach Urban Meyer originally told the media that Spence is dealing with a personal issue, but on Wednesday it was announced that Spence was suspended for three games, including the Orange Bowl, for an unspecified violation of Big Ten rules. That violation is reportedly the use of an unapproved dietary supplement, but no specifics have been confirmed by the school or conference.
With Spence banned, his starting spot will be deputized by some combination of sophomore Jamal Marcus and junior Steve Miller. The two have seen some action this year, combining for 27 tackles and five sacks, but it is still a significant downgrade from Spence.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell also told the media earlier this week that middle linebacker Curtis Grant was unlikely to play as he continues to battle ankle and back ailments.
The most troublesome news, however, comes in the secondary. Earlier in the week Fickell insinuated that All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby could miss the game with the knee injury he suffered against Michigan State. On Wednesday, Meyer told the media in Miami that he did not expect the junior to play against Clemson.
That revelation would mean that Roby’s career in Scarlet and Gray is likely over, as he has made his intention to declare for the NFL Draft exceedingly clear. His career has been a memorable one that included an All-American selection last season, but the last significant play of that career just might end up being the third quarter pass against Michigan State on which Roby bruised his knee and dropped an interception that would have likely locked up the game and a BCS Championship Game berth for the Buckeyes.
If Roby doesn’t suit up, Doran Grant will slide into the top cornerback role with Armani Reeves moving back into the starting lineup. That sounds to me like a recipe for disaster against the Clemson receiving corps led by speedster Sammy Watkins.
In other bad, yet more expected news about the Buckeyes’ defensive backs, Fickell revealed that injured senior safety Christian Bryant would not be able to play on Friday as he continues to recover from the broken ankle he suffered against Wisconsin. Furthermore, Meyer told the media on Thursday that he believes that Bryant’s appeal to the NCAA for a medical redshirt that would grant him an extra year of eligibility was denied, meaning that his collegiate career is over.
All of this news combines to seriously threaten the fragile ecosystem that is the Buckeyes defense. It’s no secret that the secondary is the weakest link of this weak unit. A top-10 team should not have a unit that ranks 102nd nationally as the Buckeyes’ passing defense does. The 259.5 yards they allow per game have come against relatively weak aerial attacks, a category to which Clemson does not belong. Now, with Roby out, there is even more pressure on the Ohio State front seven to get pressure on Tajh Boyd and unsettle the Tigers passing offense.
With Spence out, that responsibility falls on defensive linemen like Adolphus Washington, Michael Bennett, and Joey Bosa. This game could be a coming-out party for the freshman stud from Fort Lauderdale. A massive game on the national stage could launch Bosa’s name into the national spotlight for next season, when he figures to be a candidate for All-Big Ten and possibly even All-American honors.
At the second level, fellow Fort Lauderdale native Ryan Shazier must continue his spectacular season to help pick up the slack from the possible absence of Grant. The junior linebacker is considered slightly undersized, but this week the NFL Draft Advisory Board projected him as a second-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. For the Buckeyes to shut down Clemson, they need Shazier at his best, but a great performance may lead him to enter the draft and forgo his senior season.
Both Shazier and Bosa are vital to the Buckeyes’ hopes. Perhaps even more important will be the play of the secondary itself, specifically the safeties. C.J. Barnett and Corey “Pitt” Brown both had nightmarish games against the Spartans. Those performances led to a reshuffling of the depth chart. Barnett retains his starting spot but must bounce back from his weak showing in Indianapolis. The biggest change on the defense comes with the promotion of true freshman safety Vonn Bell to the first-string nickelback spot. That move means that usual nickelback Tyvis Powell will start in place of Brown at the safety spot opposite Barnett.
While I don’t think we could possibly see this new set of safeties perform as poorly as Barnett and Brown did against Michigan State, they will still need help from the rest of the defense to stifle the Tigers. If Bosa, Shazier, and company can keep Boyd uncomfortable in the pocket, it will go a long way towards helping the Buckeyes secure an impressive BCS victory that could combine with the bowl victories by Michigan State and Nebraska help the Big Ten earn back some much-needed respect.
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)