Roll On: Previewing The Ohio State Defense

This is what can't happen on Saturday.

So yeah. This isn't a mediocre mountain west defense with an inexperienced front seven. This certainly isn't an FCS school. This is Ohio St., and even with last year's coaching shenanigans they're still filled with elite recruits and NFL hopefuls. As a matter of fact, SBN's own NFL draft site tells me that seven current Ohio St. defenders are likely draftees in the near future. Gulp.

It's worth noting that although last year's Buckeye defense was good, it wasn't Jim-Tressel good. You know, the type of defense that's so good that you can run an incredibly conservative offense and still win comfortably? The question is if that very slight decline will be immediately corrected by Urban Meyer, who as you might have guessed has had some pretty good defenses in the past.

The results thus far have been mediocre but encouraging. Central Florida and Miami (OH) both had averageish offenses last year for non-AQ teams, and both had decent success moving the ball against the Buckeyes. But both teams also coughed up the ball three times each, which will tend to prevent points from going up on the board. Ohio St. already has five interceptions. I don't really need to say anything more here, do I?

Personnel, stats, and of course some classic Cal pessimism after the jump.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Sr. DE John Simon, Jr. DT Johnathan Hankins, Sr. NT Garrett Goebel, So. DE J.T. Moore

Hankins is the star of the group, a pre-season All-American, likely first round draft pick, 322 pound monster that is already giving me nightmares. He recorded 67 tackles last year, which is a really huge number for an interior lineman. He will require frequent double teams. Hopefully our interior linemen remember how they dealt with Star Lotulelei last year.

And if they decide to double team Hankins, that means that John Simon will likely only have one blocker to deal with. That's bad. Simon is another likely high draft pick after leading Ohio St. with seven sacks last year. Ohio State was perfectly willing to move him to either side of the line last year, so I'm fully expecting to see him lined up on the left attacking Bill Tyndall and Zach Maynard's blind side on obvious passing downs.

Oh my.

Goebel and Moore aren't nearly the same impact players the way Hankins and Simon are, though the danger is if you give them free reign because you're focusing too much attention on the NFL prospects lined up on the other side. If Cal's patchwork offensive line keeps Hankins and Simon in check that would count as a major, major victory.

Linebackers: So. OLB Ryan Shazier, So. ILB Curtis Grant, Sr. OLB Etienne Sabino

Shazier and Sabino are both returning starters (Shazier only started the last three games of the year in 2011 as a true freshman but got plenty of playing time prior to that regardless) and both are solid, versatile players. Sabino has had five years in the program and is likely to end the season as a mid-round draft pick. I don't get the sense that either players are game-breakers, but at the very least they are solid, dependable guys who make all the plays they have to.

The wild card is 5 star recruit Curtis Grant, who saw very limited action as a true freshmen but has been elevated into the starting lineup this year. He's young and unproven and hasn't made a huge impact so far this year, so he might present an opportunity for Cal's offense to exploit. But he's a 5 star talent, so he might not.

Secondary: So. CB Bradley Roby, Jr. FS Christian Bryant, Jr. SS C.J. Barnett, Sr. CB Travis Howard

Roby may be the youngest in the group, but he's probably the biggest talent. He started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman and managed 3 interceptions. His size (5'11', 190') isn't especially impressive but he makes up for it with excellent speed and physicality. Ohio St. keeps their corners on one side of the field, so he won't follow Keenan Allen around the field.

Howard had to win a training camp battle to claim the 2nd cornerback spot, but he's a senior with plenty of experience so he's not necessarily vulnerable. For that matter, he has three interceptions already, so you know he's got a nose for the ball.

As you'll occasionally see from a good strong safety, Barnett led Ohio St. in tackles last season, so expect to hear his name frequently on Saturday. As you'll less occasionally see, his partner at free safety wasn't far behind him, finishing 3rd on the team in tackles. I'd be OK if Isi and Keenan force the free safety to make lots of tackles tomorrow. Please?

In nickle situations look for veteran safety Orhian Johnson or back-up cornerback Doran Grant.

Against the Run

2011: 3.84 yards allowed/attempt, 48th in the nation
2012: 2.37 yards allowed/attempt, 18th in the nation

The rushing stats from this year are a little skewed because Ohio St's first opponent, Miami of Ohio, basically doesn't run the ball. Considering some of the talent on their defensive line, I was somewhat surprised to see how mediocre Ohio St.'s rushing defense was last year. Perhaps that's more a reflection of iffy play from the linebackers, or perhaps teams are running away from Simon and Hankins whenver they can.

Granted, we can all probably agree that Cal's running game isn't like Denard Robinson and Michigan or Montee Ball and Wisconsin. If we had last year's healthy late-season offensive line I might carry quite a bit of optimism into this battle. But we don't. Hopefully two games is enough time for this unit to gel a little bit, but it's going to be tough, tough sledding at the Horseshoe.

Against the Pass

2011: 6.7 yards allowed/attempt, 37th in the nation
2012: 5.9 yards allowed/attempt, 33rd in the nation

Ohio State doesn't have many sacks so far this year, but when I glanced at the highlights from the first two games what I saw was pressure that led to interceptions. I'm not sure their secondary is so amazing that they can put a glove on somebody like Keenan Allen. But they absolutely have the talent to take advantage of any ill-advised throws brought on by QB pressure.

There are weaknesses to exploit here, but it will take strong performances across the board from the line, from Maynard and from his targets if Cal is going to take advantage of what Ohio St. might allow.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

2011: 20 forced turnovers (7 fumble recoveries, 13 interceptions), 77th in the nation
2012: 6 forced turnovers (1 fumble, 6 interceptions), 7th in the nation

The five interceptions that Ohio St. has already just might be a bit on the fluky side (a couple of them were tipped balls) but it's not like they were random awful throws or balls knocked to defenders by WRs or something really weird. Ohio St. but themselves in a position to force bad throws and create tipped balls, and took advantage. Obvious statement is obvious: Maynard vs. USC/UCLA cannot show up tomorrow

3rd Down

2011: Opponent conversion percentage of 40.22, 65th in the nation
2012: Opponent conversion percentage of 35.29, 55th in the nation

Red Zone

2011: Scoring allowed in 82.35% of opponent red zone possessions, 69th in the nation
2011: Touchdown allowed in 61.76% of opponent red zone possessions, 77th in the nation
2012: Scoring allowed in 57.14% of opponent red zone possessions, 11th in the nation
2012: Touchdown allowed in 28.57% of opponent red zone possessions, 20th in the nation

ZACH MAYNARD U NO THROW RED ZONE PICKS

Conclusions

It's simplistic to say that Cal's offensive performance will come down to how they do against Ohio St.'s star defensive line duo. The Buckeyes clearly have other talented players who can make plays. But if Cal fails to contain Simon and Hankins, I wouldn't expect much of anything else to matter. We all saw what happened in the Holiday Bowl when Texas claimed squatter's rights in Cal's backfield. I'm terrified that we'll see a replay of that on Saturday.

If . . . IF the offensive line can create enough space for the running game to keep the defense honest, and IF they give Maynard a decent amount of time, and IF good-Maynard-vs.-Stanford-and-ASU shows up, I think there's a possibility of a big game through the air. A sophomore conference USA quarterback making his 2nd career start managed to complete 60% of his passes. I would like to think that therefore, a senior QB with a likely first round draft pick wide receiver could potentially make some plays.

But how many points would Cal need to produce to top what Braxton Miller's unit is likely to put up? 31? 38? ManBearCal's preview of the Ohio St. offense probably didn't leave you feeling wonderfully optimistic. Lots of individual matchups on both sides of the ball that look to lean in Ohio St.'s direction are going to have to go Cal's way to pull the upset. I can't say that it seems very likely, but hey, that's why we watch, right?

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