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October 28, 2013

Challenge answered

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Smothered by at least two dozen reporters after practice Wednesday, Urban Meyer -- intentionally or not -- dared Ohio State's defense and, in particular, its secondary, to be something it hadn't been all season.

"We haven't had our best game yet back there," he said days before playing Penn State and a passing attack that seemed capable of grazing and nicking the often well-exposed underbelly of the undefeated Buckeyes.

"It's about time, we should've been the strength and I'm kind of counting on them this week to be a strength."

In a historically lopsided 63-14 thrashing of the Nittany Lions Saturday under the lights of Ohio Stadium, Ohio State's defense rather emphatically answered their coach's challenge.

"I think there was a lot of pressure on us," said senior safety and captain C.J. Barnett. "We all knew that we weren't playing to our capabilities, that the offense was playing great, the special teams was playing pretty good, but the defense was kind of lacking."

And by lacking, the Buckeyes had given up totals of 24, 30 and 24 points to its last three opponents in Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa. While such figures are hardly disturbing, they're somewhat unfamiliar outputs surrounded by a program that often likes to hang its hat on a tradition of asphyxiating defenses.

But for about four hours against a Penn State squad ravaged and tattered by NCAA sanctions, Ohio State looked as competent as it has all season.

"Obviously, it feels real good. We had our struggles a little bit and we got after our guys and they responded. That's the thing you love to see. You want to see guys go out and battle," said defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell.

"The name of the game is turnovers. And whether they can move the ball or not, if you have the opportunity to get some turnovers, it really creates momentum and puts you in good situations."

The Buckeyes had little trouble making their lives easier Saturday, forcing the Nittany Lions intro three turnovers -- two of which came in the form of interceptions from an apparently frazzled Christian Hackenberg.

And for Ohio State, the chief task at hand was stopping the freshman quarterback and junior wide receiver Allen Robinson, who seem to serve as driving forces behind Penn State's passing offense.

"With a young group, especially, you got to have some things you create some momentum and that was a number one objective in this game was to create some momentum," Fickell said.

Carrying that load for the Buckeyes were Barnett and senior safety Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown who each had a pick apiece. And, really, it seemed like such takeaways marked the beginning of the end for Penn State.

Brown's interception in particular -- which came in a diving effort across the goal line on the Nittany Lion's first drive -- was what Meyer called a "game changer" and it appeared that way.

"Our guys realize what they can do when we play together, when we do our job and we don't panic," Fickell said. "They're moving the ball and we don't panic. The first drive, we come up with a turnover. That's the difference in the ball game."

In the first half, Ohio State allowed just 158 yards and one touchdown on 41 plays before allowing 199 more yards in the second with its second and third stringers rotating in and out of play.

"I think what it shows is we're a younger group that's maturing and sometimes with that kind of crew you got to create some things and it takes some of those momentum things to gain it and I think we saw that tonight," Fickell said.

Part of the defense's success Saturday night, though, derived from its newfound pass rush that's seemed minimal or absent throughout much of the season.

"We all needed to see some pass rush and pass defense and guys stepped up and they certainly did. That was the most impressive part of the game to me," Meyer said.

"When you start with pass defense you start with pass rush, and that's where I saw the difference. I thought our D-line was challenged. And we expect that out of the D-line at Ohio State."

Of course, it makes things a bit easier for all those involved.

"Defense is not just one unit. It's not just a D-line, it's not the secondary, we all count on each other to make successful plays and make good plays," said junior cornerback Bradley Roby. "When the D-line's playing like that, it's easy to cover. All you do is cover for three to four seconds and they're down."

Perhaps just as the defense might be at its best when it leans on the different units that compose it, Ohio State might be at its best when it fully lends its trust in its offense.

Fickell said Meyer implored him to be more aggressive and, admittedly, the defensive coordinator said the Buckeyes were more combative compared to past contests.

"We knew we had to," he said. "With the kind of offense we have, we can take some chances and do some things. If something happens, something happens. What we can't have is methodical drives and things like that keeps the ball from our offense as well. I think that's just playing to your strengths."

And for Ohio State, its pass defense -- arguably for the first time this season -- can be included on that list of fortes.

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