Bucking the trend
Ohio State's Winfield hopes to avoid late-season funk
Posted: Tuesday December 29, 1998 08:23 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Antoine Winfield didn't have an interception all year and says he was lazy and went through the motions in the second half of the season.
Yet the Ohio State cornerback won the Thorpe Award as the top defensive back in the nation.
"I really don't know how I won the award," Winfield said Tuesday. "But I'm happy I did."
Now the senior says he plans on having one of his best games ever when the Buckeyes take on Texas A&M Friday in the Sugar Bowl.
"I think I got kind of lazy the second half of the year," Winfield said. "I was more relaxed. The first half of the season, teams tended not to throw to my side, so I didn't expect them to do that. I came out to practice relaxed, just joking around with the fellas and not really working on my technique. ... The last couple of games I was just trotting around and just basically sticking to my man."
But Ohio State defensive backs coach Jon Tenuta disputes Winfield's version. He said opponents threw Winfield's way as much in the first few games as they did at the end and that he didn't see a dropoff in Winfield's effort.
"I heard he said that," Tenuta said Tuesday prior to the Buckeyes' workout at the Superdome. "I just don't think he made the plays he wanted to make. I just think he was down on himself because he had opportunities and probably didn't make those plays. But to say he was lazy -- that's his assessment."
Linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer is seen as the linchpin of Ohio State's defense, but safety Damon Moore said that's not necessarily true.
"Andy is the mainframe of our defense, but Antoine gets us where we want to go," Moore said.
Twice selected as a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the Buckeyes usually go as Winfield goes. Maybe that's why Ohio State's only loss came in the game in which Winfield had his fewest solo tackles and was burned on several passes.
In the Ohio State defensive scheme, cornerbacks Winfield and Ahmed Plummer usually are in man-to-man coverage on the opposing wide receivers. That frees the safeties to fly up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run or to put pressure on the quarterback.
But that also makes the cornerbacks the pressure points of the defense. If they make a mistake and get beat on even a medium-range pass, there probably isn't anybody left to help them out.
Minnesota found some success throwing to athletic wide-out Luke Leverson over the 5-foot-9 Winfield. Indiana also didn't shy away from throwing to Winfield's man.
That was a pattern Michigan State picked up on in pulling off a dramatic 28-24 upset of the top-ranked Buckeyes. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who stands 6-5, had four critical catches for 125 yards -- most while being covered by Winfield.
Maybe that's what put Winfield in his late-season funk.
"They were throwing at me a lot more," he said. "They caught a couple of deep balls and I missed a couple of tackles."
A&M's starting wide-outs, Chris Cole and Leroy Hodge, are 6-0 and 6-2, respectively.
Winfield, whom Tenuta calls one of the team's hardest workers, began to work even harder to eliminate mistakes and get his confidence back.
"I've prepared the last couple of weeks. I worked on my game," he said. "I think you'll see a different Antoine Winfield in the Sugar Bowl."
He has long been acknowledged as the hardest hitter on the team, pound for pound.
"The guy just amazes me," coach John Cooper said. "I watch him and wonder how in the world a little guy like that can hit as hard as he can."
Two years ago, Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs was also an All-American and didn't have an interception. As with Springs, Winfield has taken a lot of good-natured heat from his teammates.
Winfield said he knows picking off a pass or two would finally end the kidding.
"That would be a dream come true: I come out there and get two or three picks and go out on a winning note," he said.
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