True tests coming for OSU pass defense

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A visit to the defensive meeting room by the head man at Ohio State typically isn’t a friendly encounter.

The Buckeyes had one coming their way last month after a couple shaky outings.

Wisconsin had picked apart the secondary. At times, the following week, Northwestern was able to do whatever it wanted with the football. And even after a bye week, Iowa controlled the line and exploited the coverage with easy completions to its tight ends.

That was enough to bring coach Urban Meyer in for the second time (in as many seasons) to personally deliver a message to the defense that it wasn’t living up to his expectations, particularly when opponents put the ball in the air.

Based on the response since then, Meyer’s well-timed, fired-up challenge to the side of the ball he’s not heavily involved with appears to have accomplished exactly what it was intended to do for No. 3 Ohio State.

“Coach Meyer [was] just telling us that our passing defense is not where it’s supposed to be,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’re supposed to be one of the top defenses in the nation, and we weren’t playing like it. We got down to it -- all those coaches came to talk to us and told us we’re not playing to the level we need to be playing.

“We all had to step up. We all came to Ohio State to be the best and we weren’t playing like it.”

A secondary that was widely expected to live up to the best-in-the-nation standard was certainly under the most scrutiny, but the mandate for improvement touched on all levels of the Ohio State defense.

The pass rush wasn’t supplying enough pressure, forcing the cornerbacks and safeties to hold up longer while opposing receivers were given plenty of time to allow routes to develop. The linebackers were guilty of blowing a few assignments in coverage and weren’t getting to the quarterback often enough when the Buckeyes dialed up blitzes.

There was a ready-made excuse for struggles in the backend, as senior safety Christian Bryant lost for the season with a fractured ankle. However, there had been previous concerns about communication in the secondary that yielded explosive plays even star cornerback Bradley Roby had been a part of giving up early in the season.

But over the past two games, the Buckeyes have surrendered a combined 326 yards through the air and intercepted three passes. That moved them up 33 spots in the national rankings in passing yardage allowed to a tie at No. 47. It balanced out an already stout rush defense in the process.

Big tests for the pass defense will arrive on Saturday at Illinois and next week at home against Indiana, two teams with the most prolific aerial attacks in the Big Ten. But the Buckeyes have been preparing for games like that for nearly a month now.

“For us, we found ourselves in a situation where it was obvious -- we’ve got to get better at this,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “It was a huge area of emphasis on the part of everybody, and I think you change a little bit of your practice habits, change a little bit of your scheme, change a little bit about how you do your business and you get better.

“The staff and the commitment to that over the last three or four weeks has been consistent, and I think we’re going to continue to improve that. ... Over the last couple weeks, it has been dramatic. I think our kids have taken that personally, and they should.”

If the Buckeyes don’t take it to heart, they’re liable to get another visit from the head of the program, and they aren’t likely to enjoy it.