Ohio State's defense gaining strength

Josh Weir

The collisions were cringe-inducing Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

They also were one-sided, with Ohio State’s defense on the giving end and Northwestern on the receiving end.

“With the way our defense plays, it’s hard not to have swagger,” senior right tackle Kirk Barton said.

Buckeye defenders are playing like scarlet-and-gray bullies. Ohio State hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in three games at the Horseshoe. The two touchdowns Washington scored last week at Husky Stadium are the only times the opponent has reached the end zone against the eighth-ranked Buckeyes (4-0, 1-0).

Youngstown State kicked a couple of field goals in the season opener.

Against Akron, Ohio State forced 13 consecutive three-and-outs. The Buckeyes held Northwestern to zero rushing yards on 33 attempts. The last time OSU did that was Oct. 12, 2002, against San Jose State.

A defense with just one senior starter – linebacker Larry Grant – seems to be gaining momentum with each game.

“I hope so,” Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock said. “We’ve got some young guys that are getting a little bit of confidence about themselves. I think we’re making some progress. The big thing for us is: This game is over. Let’s get ready for next week.”

Next week doesn’t promise much of a test. Ohio State faces struggling Minnesota (1-3, 0-1) at the Metrodome.

However, after that, the Buckeyes travel to Purdue to face the currently undefeated Boilermakers.

It takes more than some film and a scout team to get ready for OSU. The way linebacker James Laurinaitis and the rest of the Buckeyes fly to the football can’t be simulated.

“We’re a fast defense,” said Laurinaitis, last year’s Bronko Nagurski Award winner. “We just try to focus on running to the ball, swarming, attacking, not really afraid to make a mistake. If you make a mistake, there are 10 other guys flying to the ball.”

“Right now, we’ve got a bunch of unselfish guys that are playing well as a team,” Heacock said. “We talk to our players about 1/11th. We just want them to do 1/11th. If every single guy does his 1/11th well, we’re going to be successful. Don’t try to do someone else’s work, or we’re going to get in trouble. A lot of it’s discipline.”

The defense’s dominance is putting some pressure on the offense.

“They get a three-and-out, (defensive back) Malcolm Jenkins comes over and barks at me,” Barton said. “We score a touchdown; I go over and bark at him. They get another three-and-out; he comes over and barks at me again. So I’m like, ‘We better go score another touchdown.’ It’s kind of like a little competition: Three-and-outs vs. touchdowns.”

For the record, the defense recorded seven three-and-outs Saturday. The offense scored seven touchdowns and a field goal. Bonus points go to the defense for scoring a TD on Vernon Gholston’s fumble return.

The man: First-year starting QB Todd Boeckman looks at ease at the head of the Ohio State offense. “To be a leader out there is kind of nice, to have that confidence and have the guys behind you, knowing they’re looking to you to make plays,” said Boeckman, who replaced Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. “You’re the leader out there, so you have to look like it and act like it.”

Spread the wealth: Boeckman found Brian Robiskie three times for touchdowns and Ray Small once Saturday. Brian Hartline would have liked to get in on the action. “He knows what he’s doing, obviously,” Hartline said of Boeckman. “The QB is the guy on the field, so you don’t say anything to him. But, you know, maybe I was thinking something.”

Receiving duo: Robiskie is becoming a star, but he is not a one-man show. “Robo is a kid who really studies the game,” Head Coach Jim Tressel said.

“He’s very disciplined in his route running. He’s long. He goes out with those hands, and he can pluck the ball out of the air in a lot of different ways. … He just has got excellent hand-eye coordination – works extremely hard at it. He’s got a running mate in Brian Hartline who I think is much the same. Those two guys have done a great job taking over the leadership from three guys that are lining up on Sundays now. I think both those guys, if they keep doing what they’re doing, we’ve got a chance.”

Join the party: The defense wasn’t alone in knocking the snot out of Northwestern on Saturday. Some of the hits on special teams were downright brutal, led by true freshman Brian Rolle. “It’s getting to the point where I’m expecting to really hit a guy, and if I don’t, I’m a little disappointed,” said Rolle, a linebacker from Lehigh Acres, Fla. “I have to get better at a lot of little things, but I feel I can really contribute to that squad.”

Reach Repository sports writer Josh Weir at (330) 580-8426 or e-mail josh.weir@cantonrep.com.