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December 26, 2006
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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Poor Ohio State, the national publications said. All those weapons on offense, and only a couple of bit players back on the other side of the ball.
Four months later, there's no need to feel sorry for the Buckeyes. Save your sympathy for all those offenses left broken in their wake.
"When we came into this season we had a really big challenge," defensive tackle David Patterson said. "We had a lot of questions that were unanswered, we had a lot of new guys."
A weakness became a strength and rookies became wily veterans as the top-ranked Buckeyes' defense matched Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and the offense in big plays and memorable moments.
Ohio State's surprising defense, as much as any other factor, vaulted the top-ranked Buckeyes into the national championship game on Jan. 8 against No. 2 Florida.
What no one had counted on was a resilient group of seniors and several players who were extremely fast learners. The Buckeyes had only two returning starters from last year's 10-2 team, which surrendered just over 15 points a game.
The losses were staggering. Linebacker A.J. Hawk, safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Bobby Carpenter were all taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Cornerback Ashton Youboty and linebacker Anthony Schlegel went in the third round, and safety Nate Salley in the fourth.
One of the most honored classes ever at Ohio State left behind some huge holes.
"We knew going into it we were going to have to play together and we were going to have to really, really focus on doing this as a unit," linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. "Last year if something happened you might say, 'Don't worry, A.J. Hawk or Donte Whitner will make the play or Bobby Carpenter will do something.' This year we went into it saying this team's going to have to be a true team."
Maybe. However, several individuals had mammoth seasons. They fit into the team concept, but there's no question that the talented Buckeyes were reloading instead of rebuilding.
Linebacker James Laurinaitis blossomed in his first trip into the spotlight, leading the team in tackles with an even 100 while intercepting five passes, posting four sacks and forcing three fumbles. The sophomore, used sparingly a year ago, won the Nagurski Award as the top defensive player in the country and was a first-team All-American.
"James came along and started making some plays and raised the bar a little bit," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "Then Antonio Smith, another senior, came on and started playing well. What happened is they started getting a little team camaraderie and it just seemed like they started feeding off each other a little bit."
Teams are not supposed to lose as many top players as the Buckeyes did and become better. However, the numbers point to that.
Ohio State surrendered just over 10 points a game against a schedule that included two No. 2-ranked teams and two other Top 25 teams. Teams managed just 94 rushing yards a game. Most importantly, the defense intercepted 21 passes and recovered six opposition fumbles.
"The one thing that they do defensively is they have great balance from front to back," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "There's not a real weak spot in their defense that you try to find this one guy and let's try to attack him."
The result is a no-name unit more effective than a lot of defenses stocked with established stars.
Antonio Smith is Exhibit A in the Ohio State turnaround. A former walk-on, the cornerback barely saw the field in his first four years on the team. He wasn't put on scholarship until last spring.
Yet he came out of nowhere to finish second on the team in tackles with 66, picking off two passes and finishing among the team leaders with 10 tackles for minus yardage.
There were others.
Vernon Gholston, down the preseason depth chart at defensive end, had 7.5 sacks and was All-Big Ten. Malcolm Jenkins took over the corner opposite Antonio Smith and made it his home, with four interceptions and three pass breakups. Unproven sophomores Marcus Freeman and Jamario O'Neal came up big, the former stacking up 56 tackles and the latter taking over free safety in midseason and playing well.
With the Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the defense helped make the season special.
"As a senior, I wanted to be a part of one of the best teams in Ohio State history," starting strong safety Brandon Mitchell said.
It was gratifying for Heacock to be a part of a season so unexpected - at least by those national publications.
"We had some smart guys and some good leaders that got them in there watching a lot of extra film and working hard," Heacock said. "They studied the game. They prepared probably as well as any group I've been around."
For more coverage of the Ohio State Buckeyes, check out BuckeyeGrove.com.