The blueprint was drawn in the winter of 1996, when Fred Pagac, an Ohio State assistant coach for 15 years who had just been promoted to defensive coordinator, addressed his unit for the first time. The Buckeyes, who squandered an unbeaten season and a chance to play for the national championship when they gave up 484 yards and lost to Michigan 31-23 in the final game of the '95 season, would undergo a dramatic change. They would attack on defense, embracing a trend that was sweeping the college game. They would gamble and blitz, never sit back and read. That day, singling out the players who by their soundness would make the entire scheme work, Pagac said, "Our defensive backs are going to have to be fantastic."
More than two seasons later Ohio State is the best team in the country, undefeated after last Saturday's rain-swept 28-9 victory over No. 7 Penn State in Columbus. During the idle weekend that preceded that game, Buckeyes coach John Cooper sat in his office and enumerated his team's strengths. "We've got talent, depth, great team chemistry and character, outstanding work ethic," he said. "Of course, we've had those things before. We had all of them in '96. That was our best team."
Ah, '96. That team was a splendid balance of offensive punch and defensive dominance that won 10 consecutive games before letting yet another national title shot crumble in a 13-9 home loss to Michigan. Like the current Buckeyes, the '96 team was loaded with offensive firepower. Its defensive stars included senior linemen Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes and a freshman linebacker named Andy Katzenmoyer. Yet the best players on that team were in the secondary, as Pagac had demanded. The corners were junior Shawn Springs, who was the third player taken in the '97 NFL draft, and Ty Howard, a third-round pick in that draft. The safeties were Rob Kelly, a second-round draft choice in '97, and redshirt sophomore Damon Moore. They controlled games from the most distant outposts on the field, Springs and Howard taking receivers completely out of games, Kelly launching wild red dogs from 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and Moore playing run support like a linebacker. "It was a great year," says Moore, "until Shawn fell down."
The killer touchdown in that '96 loss to Michigan was scored when Springs slipped and fell on the Ohio Stadium turf, allowing Tai Streets to turn a routine slant pattern into a 69-yard score. It was the mistake that ruined a season, committed by the best player in the best unit on the field.
Atonement is at hand two years later. For all the buzz about Ohio State's potent offense and for all the controversy inspired by the Big Kat (erstwhile Butkus Award winner and golf student and, for the record, the third best linebacker in an Ohio State uniform last Saturday, behind lightning-quick 6'4", 235-pound sophomore Na'il Diggs and senior co-captain Jerry Rudzinski), Ohio State's secondary is the strongest unit on the team and the best defensive backfield in the country. "I've never seen a better bunch," says Missouri offensive coordinator Jerry Berndt, a 27-year coaching veteran whose Tigers were held to just 20 yards passing on six completions in a 35-14 loss to the Buckeyes on Sept. 19. "They're physical, they can cover, and they don't have a weakness that we could see."
This secondary, known to teammates as Shame, Scary, Box, Plum and Grandpa, is the safety net that allows the front seven to attack with abandon. "They make everything that we do possible," says Rudzinski. Safeties Damon (Shame) Moore and Gary (Scary) Berry, nickelback Central (Box) McClellion and corners Ahmed (Plum) Plummer and Antoine (Grandpa) Winfield have helped hold four opponents to an average of 7.8 yards per completion—the lowest in the nation—and just two passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes rank third in pass efficiency defense and have given up just 40 points.
Statistics only hint at the excellence of this secondary. Penn State baited Ohio State's corners and threw deep. "They were too good," said Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno after the game. The Buckeyes defensive backs are as interchangeable as Legos. Winfield is a pure cover corner, yet he led the team in tackles a year ago and is third this year, behind Katzenmoyer and Moore. Berry and Moore are lethal run stoppers, but they cover wideouts too. Making a run to the concession stand for nachos and cheese last Saturday meant missing a big play by the Ohio State secondary:
•On third-and-eight from its 17 early in the third quarter, Penn State tried to run a reverse to wideout Joe Nastasi. Moore read it like a linebacker and swallowed Nastasi for a nine-yard loss. One play later the Buckeyes scored on a blocked punt to take a 21-3 lead.
•After scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 21-9, Penn State attacked Plummer on consecutive plays, first short and then long. On second-and-nine from the Nittany Lions' 21, Plummer nearly picked off a pass intended for wideout Chafie Fields. On the next play Plummer, seemingly baited for a deep route, intercepted a pass from Lions quarterback Kevin Thompson 39 yards downfield to end the drive. And to think, Plummer is the only one of the Buckeyes' four secondary starters not nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's best defensive back.
Big plays are simply routine for this unit. On West Virginia's second snap in its season opener against Ohio State on Sept. 5 in Morgantown, quarterback Marc Bulger threw a well-designed swing screen to David Saunders, a dangerous wideout. "The play should have gone for 30 yards, but Antoine Winfield made a great tackle and held us to five yards," says Mountaineers offensive coordinator Dan Simrell, whose team went down to the Buckeyes 34-17. "They are an incredible bunch. They cover you. They run to the football. They hit you. Best I've ever seen."