COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Veteran experience and plenty of athleticism were supposed to provide peace of mind.
Ohio State seemingly had no reason to worry about its secondary in training camp. It was going to lean on a couple senior safeties to provide stability, count on talented cornerbacks to lock down in coverage and then dip into a reserve of skilled newcomers to feature packages designed to overcome youth and uncertainty in a rebuilt front seven.
But somewhere along the way in the first half of the season, those roles have been reversed for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer’s defense had had a few more holes in it than Ohio State's coach surely anticipated, which has made patching them up an unexpected priority for his bye week.
“It’s rather obvious,” Meyer said. “We’re really good against the run. We held a very good rushing team in Wisconsin well below [its] average. We kind of kept Northwestern in check, also a very good running team with some complicated schemes.
“But the pass defense is very alarming right now.”
That certainly wasn’t the script the Buckeyes were expecting to work off this season with Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett returning to anchor the defense in the back at safety, Bradley Roby spurning the NFL for another season to bolster his stock at cornerback, and a handful of guys pushing new starter Doran Grant for the final spot in the lineup.
Bryant’s fractured ankle suffered late in the win over Wisconsin two weeks has certainly thrown a wrench in those plans, but even with the respected captain and often overlooked contributor on the field, the secondary wasn’t quite living up to the lofty standard it had set for itself heading into the season.
The Buckeyes were victimized for a handful of big plays on the road against California, with communication issues leaving targets wide open. Committed to stopping the run against the Badgers, Ohio State did exactly that -- but couldn’t contain receiver Jared Abbrederis as he racked up 207 yards through the air. And with a similar game plan last week at Northwestern, the Buckeyes were again largely successful in the trenches only to have that work undone by 343 passing yards.
Of course, Ohio State remains unbeaten, is alive and well in the hunt for a national title and is still ranked No. 19 in the country in total defense. But that rating is due in large part to shutting teams down on the ground, and the disparity between a rush defense that is seventh-best in the country and a passing defense that is No. 76 in the nation (allowing 240 yards per game) is clearly wide enough to command Meyer’s attention on the off date.
“First on the hit parade is pass defense,” Meyer said. “That’s not just coverage, but it’s pass rush in combination with pass defense. We’ve devoted so much energy to stopping the run because that’s obviously what our philosophy is, but we’ve given up too many pass plays, big plays in the passing game. That’s No. 1 on defense.
“I believe we’ve played soft coverage at times, and then the two big hits that we gave up last week were pure missed tackles. ... That’s not because of poor scheme, it’s just you have to make the play.”
Nobody was expected to make more of them than the defensive backs when the season started. Halfway through it, the Buckeyes are regrouping and trying to make sure the defense doesn’t have to pull off any more high-wire acts.