There are a slew of statistics by which a defense can measure itself after a game, from takeaways to yardage allowed to the opponent's third-down conversion percentage. But the Ohio State D can accurately gauge its performance by the number of up-and-downs that defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio makes players do at the following week's practices. "He hasn't been on our backs so much lately, so we're doing something right," says senior defensive tackle Darrion Scott. "You mess up, you pay."
With their team's offense ranked 98th in the nation (327.1 yards per game), the Buckeyes' defense has little room for error. That was evident in Ohio State's 16-13 overtime win against Purdue last Saturday, during which All-America Mike Nugent kicked three field goals, including the game-winner, and the Buckeyes went without an offensive touchdown for the third time this season. Ohio State's most electric play occurred with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, when defensive linemen Tim Anderson and Will Smith sandwiched Boilermakers quarterback Kyle Orton, knocking the ball loose, and Mike Kudla pounced on it in the end zone to give the Buckeyes a 13-6 lead. "It was one more time when we looked at each other and said, 'This is on us,' " says sophomore safety Nate Salley.
The win boosted Ohio State's national title hopes and set up a showdown for the Big Ten crown with Michigan on Saturday. Last Monday the Buckeyes (10-1) moved past USC into the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings and are a virtual lock to play in the title game with a win in Ann Arbor.
When it comes to carrying the load, Ohio State's seven returning defensive players are old hands. In winning the national tide last season, me Buckeyes were 70th in total offense (364.5 yards per game) but second in scoring defense (13.1 points per game). The decision of players like Scott and Smith to come back for their senior years has resulted in "same defense, new year," says Scott. Yielding just 15.1 points per game, they are the main reason why Ohio State is again winning close games. When asked whether this defense could be better than last year's, Dantonio refuses to give an answer yet. "There are more games to be played," he says.
None will be bigger than the 100th game with Michigan. The defense has seen sneak previews of its archrival all season while viewing footage of upcoming opponents; not by accident, tape was frequently drawn from opponents' games against the Wolverines. "[We take it] game by game and all that, but this is Michigan" says Scott "We've been preparing for this all year."