Speaking to the media just days before the Penn State game, sophomore “viper” Noah Spence offered up an explanation for the defense’s second-half change of fortune against Iowa.
“We basically had to learn to be more of an attacking defense,” Spence said. “Not sitting and waiting for the play to come to us. We need to attack more, and that’s what we started to do toward the end of the game. It worked out good for us. We’re gonna do a lot more of that this week.”
Those words weren’t just an empty promise. Playing against his home-state team, Spence wreaked havoc all night long against Nittany Lions. He finished the first half with a pair of sacks against freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and also forced a fumble that would have resulted in a turnover had it not squirted away from sophomore defensive tackle Tommy Schutt.
After registering no sacks and just one tackle for loss against Iowa, the Silver Bullets rebounded by racking up four sacks for 21 yards and six total tackles for loss. Hackenberg completed 12 of 23 passes for 112 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. By the third quarter, he was done for the game, his shoulder wrapped in ice on the sideline.
For Ohio State defenders, the correlation between a rejuvenated pass rush and one of the team’s best defensive performances of the season was obvious.
“Any time you get pas rush like that, it’s going to be very hard for another offense to move the ball on you,” junior cornerback Bradley Roby said. “Just the fact that our D-line stepped up and played so well, it’s a big reason why we did so good on defense.”
The high level of play wasn’t limited to the front four. Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, recently announced as a semifinalist for the Bednarik and Butkus awards, continued his dominant effort with a team-best 10 tackles and a sack. Senior safety Pitt Brown helped change the complexion of the game with an opening-drive interception in the end zone, and Meyer said that Roby played his best game of the season.
After back-to-back weeks with only two Silver Bullets earning “champion” status, Meyer opened his Monday press conference by rattling off five defenders who attained the honor against Penn State, including co-players of the week Roby and Spence.
“I think it was just the way we attacked,” Schutt said. “We were physical up front, linebackers were physical and the back end was great. That’s something we need to continue to do throughout the rest of the season.”
Playing in just his second game after breaking his foot right before the season, Schutt said he could sense in the first quarter that the freshman was becoming unnerved by the atmosphere.
“We did a good job of applying pressure to him, and the environment here definitely helps a lot,” Schutt said. “This is a pretty big stage for a freshman to be playing on, and we did a good job of getting in his head a little bit.”
That success was a marked change from the game against California, in which freshman quarterback Jared Goff hit Ohio State for 371 yards and three touchdowns. Of course, it helps to be backed by an offense that ranks among the best in the country.
The offense’s consistent scoring threat allows the Silver Bullets to shift to a more aggressive style of play, knowing that any mistakes will likely be wiped out by junior quarterback Braxton Miller or senior running back Carlos Hyde.
“That gives you a lot of confidence,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said on Monday. “And we tell our guys sometimes. I mean, football is a game of momentum. Where it comes from, who knows? At times you've got to create it yourself, at times it comes from the offense. And some points from the defense as well. Momentum all over the field… the key is once you get it, you've got to keep it. If you have to create different ways of doing it, that comes with the game. But you have some confidence built up in the fact that you know that the ball's in the offense hands. They've got a real good shot to continue to move and give you some breathing room.”