One of the pleasant surprises for the Ohio State defense this season has been the play of sophomore Nate Salley, who has emerged as the starter at free safety.
Going into tonight’s pivotal Big Ten game at Wisconsin, Salley stands second on the team in tackles with 30. The 6-3, 205-pound Salley opened the season as the nickel back. But he replaced Brandon Mitchell as the starter in time for the third game against N.C. State.
He has enjoyed career-high tackle games the last two games, notching eight against Bowling Green and nine against Northwestern. He said he wasn’t even aware that only linebacker A.J. Hawk has more tackles this season.
“I didn’t even know that,” Salley said. “I’m just going out and trying to make plays and limit my missed tackles. I know I just have to keep working and try to work on my fundamentals. I know if I’m in the right place at the right time plays will come to me.
“I have just tried to play hard and take advantage of my opportunities.”
Salley accompanied the team to Madison last year, when the Buckeyes won 19-14. But he was just a bit player on special teams. He recalled the scene, though.
“The fans are crazy,” he said. “That was one of my first Big Ten away games. It was an excellent learning experience, even though I didn’t play that much. I watched how the older guys handled it. It was cool.”
With the game set for a 9 p.m. start (8 p.m. Central), Salley expects Camp Randall Stadium to be even more off the hook -- if that’s possible.
“In high school, you play at night,” Salley said. “This brings back the kid in us. You grow up playing a lot of night games. In college, you don’t get the chance very often. It brings a whole lot of excitement when they turn on those lights.”
OSU is only a slight favorite for tonight’s game, despite winning its last 19 games and being ranked third nationally (Wisconsin is ranked 23rd). But Salley knows the Buckeyes will have to play their best game if they expect to keep their winning streak alive.
“I have never looked past any team or looked ahead,” Salley said. “We take them week by week because on any given week anybody can be beaten. We have to make sure that isn’t us.”
With Wisconsin’s reputation as a strong rushing team, Salley will be counted on to provide support. At the same time, UW receivers Lee Evans and Brandon Williams can also get deep at any time. Again, Salley will have to play a sound game if the Buckeyes are to contain the Badgers.
“We are just trying to focus on what we need to do,” he said. “We want to have fun and I am enjoying myself. I just try to help my teammates and have a lot of energy.”