Saturday, November 8, 2003

DBs' play is Buckeyes' key


Spartans' Smoker begins stretch of top QBs unheralded unit will face

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - Ohio State begins a stretch run against three ranked teams - Michigan State today, then Purdue and Michigan - all jockeying for the Big Ten lead, all with one league loss like the Buckeyes.

Look closer and the assignment becomes clearer. OSU will face the league's three top passers: MSU's Jeff Smoker (258.2 yards per game), Michigan's John Navarre (249.4) and Purdue's Kyle Orton (224.1).

Opponents know better than to test the Buckeyes' rushing defense, which ranks No. 1 nationally at 49.4 yards a game. The pass defense, though, is more mortal: 206.1 yards allowed, fifth among Big Ten teams and 41st overall.

"You've got to stop the run first," OSU linebacker Bobby Carpenter said. "We can give up some yards to the pass, but as long as we're not giving up touchdowns, we're getting it done."

That's defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio's design. "Make the game one-dimensional," he said, by denying the run.

The overall effect works, for even though foes will complete some passes, their drives eventually falter. The Buckeyes (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) allow just 14.4 points a game, tied for seventh-fewest in the nation.

Last season, OSU ranked third nationally in run defense (77.7) and second in scoring defense (13.1 points).

With the exception of cornerback Chris Gamble's All-America status, the secondary goes unsung. But senior safety Will Allen (55 tackles, two interceptions) has made numerous big plays. Junior corner Dustin Fox has three interceptions but often is picked on by teams throwing away from Gamble. Sophomore safety Nate Salley ranks a surprising third in tackles (53) in his first season as a starter.

The effectiveness of that group is enhanced by OSU's veteran line, which has 21 1/2 sacks - 9 1/2 of them by standout end Will Smith.

"Any quarterback can do a great job if the defensive line doesn't get pressure on him," defensive tackle Tim Anderson said. "What we do can make the job for the guys on the back line easier."

It has been a tale of two seasons in terms of what OSU has faced.

Its four nonconference games were against teams playing spread offenses like MSU's. Those teams averaged 271 yards passing.

In conference games, OSU ranks second in pass defense with an average of 154.2 yards allowed. That's because it has faced the teams ranked Nos. 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 in the league in passing. (OSU is No. 7.)

Smoker, the career passing leader for MSU (7-2, 4-1), has improved after learning new coach John L. Smith's system. He averaged 233 passing yards a game before the Big Ten season, totaling six touchdowns and five interceptions. In league play, he has averaged 278.4 passing yards, tossing seven TDs and one interception.

OSU will counter with two QBs, as Tressel has promised Scott McMullen will see time in relief of starter Craig Krenzel.

"We're all excited to see Scotty get in there and get more playing time," tailback Lydell Ross said. "We think he deserves it. He's a great quarterback who makes plays - big ones."

It's the team's first QB rotation since 1996 and '97, when then-coach John Cooper would frequently substitute Joe Germaine for starter Stanley Jackson. That first season, Germaine came off the bench to lead the winning Rose Bowl rally as OSU finished with a No. 2 ranking. The next year the rotation didn't work as well, as OSU went 10-3 and finished No. 12.

Darren Barnett, a sophomore from Princeton High, starts at cornerback for MSU. He has two interceptions and 28 tackles.

No. 7 Ohio St. vs. No. 14 Michigan St.

Kickoff: 12:07 p.m. today, Ohio Stadium (101,568), Columbus.

Records: OSU 8-1 (4-1 Big Ten), MSU 7-2 (4-1).

TV: Ch. 9, 2.

Radio: WBOB-AM (1160), WPFB-AM (910).

Series: OSU leads 21-12.

Line: OSU by 7.

What to watch: OSU will take aim against the league's lowest-ranked pass defense rather than test a run defense that ranks 19th in the country. That means Lydell Ross' streak of two consecutive 100-yard rushing games probably will end today. Watch for DB Chris Gamble to get more time at receiver; he's likely to total about 100 snaps.

OSUTeam stats MSU
316.9Offense avg.382
125.6Avg. by rush114.3
191.3Avg. by pass267.7
255.6Defense avg.365.2
49.4Avg. by rush101.2
206.1Avg. by pass264
24.1Avg. points for30.6
14.4Avg. pts. against19.7

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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