Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel revealed Tuesday at his weekly press luncheon that his battered defense will face Purdue on Saturday at Ohio Stadium without two defensive regulars, continuing what has become a season-long battle of attrition on that side of the ball.
Linebacker Ross Homan missed much of the Buckeyes' 31-18 loss at Wisconsin last week and will be out for a couple of weeks going forward with a foot problem. Regular starter Andrew Sweat will move from strongside linebacker to Homan's normal spot on the other side, while Jonathan Newsome will fill Sweat's normal role in the Buckeyes' 4-3 base defense.
The nickel defense also will have a new look this week because starting nickel back Christian Bryant is in the Ohio State University Medical Center fighting an unidentified infection.
"He had an infection last week and we thought we had it under control and he played a little bit in the game and then he had a not very good reaction to it on the plane ride back," Tressel said.
"I don't know all the whys and the wherefores and whatnot, but it doesn't look like he'll be out of there until late this week and just want to make sure that we get that calmed down, you never know with infections and whatnot, so obviously he won't have a week of practice."
He wasn't ready to commit to how the Buckeyes will handle Bryant's loss, but there are several options. Jermale Hines, a senior starter at safety who played nickel back or Star the past two seasons, could move back there in nickel situations, in which case he would likely be replaced by senior Aaron Gant at safety. Or junior Nate Oliver could play Star with Hines remaining at safety. The Buckeyes also could opt to remain in their base defense, a move that would likely see the 6-3, 219-pound Newsome aligned over a slot receiver against three- and four-receiver sets.
"Nate Oliver was your number two nickel all spring and all season until he got hurt, and he's back healthy," Tressel said. "He played a little bit of special teams Saturday, so he's obviously an answer to that. Or you can do what Iowa does. Iowa plays nickel with their base people and that's what Miami (Fla.) does. Miami plays their nickel looks with their base people, so I'm sure there's a number of things you can do."
The coach sounded a bit relieved to be facing this Purdue team lead by head coach Danny Hope as opposed to one of former Boilermaker mentor Joe Tiller's pass-happy groups.
"If we were playing Purdue of yesteryear, you would have had a nickel guy in the game every snap," Tressel said. "Purdue of today does more things. Everyone thought Purdue (was) this ingenious group, well heck, they lined up the same way every time (and) just threw it every down, but you had the same guys on the field. Now they do a lot of different things. So you're going to have your base people in the game a decent amount, but you're going to have your nickel situations as well."
The injuries are not limited to the starting lineup, however. Backup linebackers Dorian Bell and Storm Klein both missed the Wisconsin game. Bell, a redshirt freshman, suffered a concussion against Indiana on Oct. 9 and is not expected back this week, while Klein is probable.
"He's been banged a little bit," Tressel said of Klein. "He probably could have gone but wouldn't have been anywhere close to 100 percent. We're hoping that this week he can get back to that.
The absence of Bell and Klein contributed to another poor showing by the Ohio State kickoff team as the Buckeyes allowed Wisconsin's David Gilreath to return the opening boot 97 yards for a touchdown to set the tone in the upset.
Ohio State already lost starting safety C.J. Barnett for the season to a week-two knee injury, and Tyler Moeller, the original No. 1 Star, is on the shelf for the year, meaning the Buckeyes will be down three regulars from the group they started the season with.
"Purdue really doesn't care about the difficulty of the challenge or the adversity or the disappointment of maybe letting someone down," Tressel said. "Purdue has had their own adversity. They lost their quarterback early. They lost a running back in preseason. They lost a great receiver. And to their credit, they just rolled up their sleeves and have gotten better and better and better and find themselves by doing so, sitting at the top of the Big Ten, 2-0, playing well.
"We've got to have someone ready, but that's why you get to practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and have walk-throughs on Friday. If you want anyone to care that you've had three guys in your secondary hurt, you're coaching the wrong sport at the wrong school because we've got to be ready."