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Buckeyes seek answers on defense as Clemson looms PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, December 19, 2013 9:14 PM

From Media Sources


COLUMBUS — Asked after a recent Ohio State practice if he was concerned about Clemson’s passing attack in the Orange Bowl, coach Urban Meyer all but laughed out loud.

“Oh, yeah,” he replied, shaking his head. “You think?”

With two weeks left until the Buckeyes take on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl, Meyer knows that his defense has to get better. A lot better. And soon.

Clemson has one of the best passing games in the nation, with Tajh Boyd in control at quarterback and Sammy Watkins snagging receptions downfield.

The 12th-ranked Tigers (10-2) average 502 total yards, 329 through the air, and 40.2 points per game. Boyd is tied for 15th in major-college history with 102 touchdown passes. Watkins has 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 TDs this season.

Granted, No. 7 Ohio State (12-1) has a potent offense of its own, with Braxton Miller chewing up yards with his arm and legs and bruising tailback Carlos Hyde breaking big plays on the ground.

But there are troubling signs over the last month or so that the Buckeyes cannot stop even lesser passers from piling up stratospheric numbers.

“They have a lot of good athletes,” All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier said of the Tigers. “This might be the best passing team we’re going to face this whole season.”

If that’s true, then it’s no wonder that a lot of Buckeyes’ fans are more than a little queasy.

Callers to sports talk shows, letters to the editor and those posting on booster websites are calling for co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers to either be fired or demoted for what’s happened lately.

In the last four games — relatively easy wins over Illinois and Indiana, a one-point victory at Michigan and a crippling 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game — the average per game passing line for the opposition is: 31-of-48 for 341 yards and three touchdowns.

Michigan’s Devin Gardner, suffering through an otherwise erratic season, hit on 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards and four scores. His 2-point conversion pass in the final minute was intercepted by Tyvis Powell at the goal line to preserve the Ohio State victory.

“Pass defense surfaced again and (we had a) lack of contact on the quarterback,” Meyer said after that rivalry game. “We just had some guys running open.”

Then with the Buckeyes riding a school-record 24-game winning streak and needing a win to lock up a berth against Florida State in the BCS national championship game, Michigan State’s Connor Cook went off. He came in averaging 177 yards and 1.4 touchdown passes per game. Against the Buckeyes, he threw for a career-best 304 yards and three TDs.

Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett believes there’s plenty of blame to go around in the defensive huddle.

“Guys have to cover on the back end but we can’t let the quarterback sit back in the pocket for 5 or 6 seconds because someone’s going to get open,” he said. “When stuff like that falls apart, it’s the whole team thing — it’s not (just) on the back end. The front guys have to do more and the back guys have to do more. It’s not a scheme issue; it’s just guys need to do their jobs better.”

There are hints that there might be personnel changes, possibly getting more time for Powell or freshman Vonn Bell in the secondary.

Meyer declared that the defensive coaches are tweaking things. But that might be a mammoth understatement.

At the same time he made it clear it wasn’t just one problem area on defense.

“It’s too many, (not just) one thing,” he added. “It’s not man coverage, it’s not zone coverage. It’s all of the above. Then, the pass rush, the timing to call the blitzes and making sure the blitzes match the coverage.

“We just have to play better.”

Miller weighs his options: Miller is a 2-time Big Ten player of the year with a flair for the electric.

Ask the Ohio State quarterback if he believes he is ready to play in the NFL and there is little hesitation.

“Oh yeah, of course,” he replied. “Yeah, definitely. Just like when I came here from high school, coaches are going to get you prepared, get you mentally ready for everything. It’s just another step in life.”

So can we read the Buckeye leaves? Is he staying or going?

Miller isn’t saying.

As No. 7 Ohio State prepares to face Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the junior star’s impending decision — a choice that will largely shape the Buckeyes’ expectations for next season — continues to hang over the program.

He has betrayed few hints since OSU’s 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. He told a Sports Illustrated reporter in the post-defeat haze that he planned to return for his senior year, then conceded days later, “It’s tough; I just don’t know.”

“Hopefully ball out on January 3 and see what the scouts are looking at,” Miller told the Chicago Tribune after winning the newspaper’s Silver Football Award as Big Ten MVP.

Miller, who passed for 1,860 yards and ran for 1,033 this season despite missing three games with a sprained knee, also told the newspaper he is well aware the Buckeyes are losing four senior starters on the offensive line and that he is “getting tired” of taking hits.

Meyer said he has not yet talked with Miller about the NFL but, like most draft analysts, recently suggested his quarterback would benefit from another year of college.

“He has a skill set to be a pro quarterback, there is no doubt in my mind,” Meyer said. “I don’t believe he’s ready yet but I certainly get asked that question. Can Braxton Miller play an NFL quarterback? Absolutely, he can. There’s no doubt in my mind because he continues to develop.”

Many see Miller as a dazzling athlete with a big arm in need of more polish as a passer. Though his accuracy has improved, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes over the final month of the season.

Miller is widely viewed as a mid-round selection if he chooses to wade into a deep class of draft-eligible quarterbacks. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, UCF’s Blake Bortles, and Fresno State’s Derek Carr are projected first-round locks while Boyd, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray could all be drafted ahead of him.

“Does [Miller] have a lot to gain from coming back? Absolutely,” CBS Sports draft expert Dane Brugler said. “At the beginning of the season, I considered him a better running back prospect than a quarterback prospect. But through the year, with his passing, he did show progression and improvement. He really needs to continue that development as a passer. His touch, his accuracy, his anticipation, all those areas kind of run hot and cold throughout a game.

“So much will depend on how he does in the predraft process. When it comes to the quarterback situation, all it takes is one team to like you and believe in you. It wouldn’t shock me if a team took a chance on him in that second round. But I think we’re talking more third and fourth round right now.”

Miller declined to share what factors could push him into the draft, though he said his family situation — Miller has a 1-year-old son, Landon — or concern for his health would not play a role. He acknowledged the pros of another year in college: “Learn from Coach Meyer, graduate, get better fundamental-wise, lead the young guys.”

Yet for now, Miller isn’t tipping his hand.

EXTRA POINTS: Buckeyes senior left tackle Jack Mewhort was named to the Football Writers Association of America All-America second team. … Meyer was in good spirits after OSU landed a pair of blue-chip prospects — five-star Georgia linebacker Raekwon McMillan and four-star Florida receiver Johnnie Dixon — on back-to-back days this week. Though not allowed to speak in specifics, he said the commitments “make the food taste better.” … Meyer said senior starting right guard Marcus Hall, who sat out the Big Ten title game for his obscene gesture at Michigan a week earlier, will play in the Orange Bowl.

Withers reportedly taking job at James Madison: Ohio State’s defense may include a new voice next season.

Withers will be the next head coach at James Madison University of the FCS, the website reported today.

James Madison has not confirmed the report.

Withers, 50, in his second season as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator — along with Fickell — and safeties coach. The Charlotte native’s resume also includes a 1-year term as North Carolina’s interim head coach in 2011 and NFL stops in Tennessee and New Orleans.

Withers helped build one of the nation’s top defenses during his four years with the Tar Heels but has struggled to find the same success in Columbus. The Buckeyes’ defense — officially directed by Fickell — has been under siege for much of the season. OSU allowed 75 points and more than 1,000 yards in its final two games against Michigan and Michigan State and is 104th nationally in giving up 259.5 passing yards per game.

If Withers leaves for JMU, he would likely take a pay cut. His $580,000 annual salary is second behind only Fickell’s $600,000 among OSU assistants. The recently fired Mickey Matthews, who was 109-71 with an FCS national title in 15 years at JMU, made $222,000 per year.


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