The last time the Buckeyes took the field, they were bullied and beaten up by the Michigan Wolverines. For the first time since 2011, they lost to a rival.
But it wasn’t just a loss, it was an unsettling display by a team that was seemingly exposed on the line of scrimmage.
Now, they are a week away from facing a very similar style of team in the Rose Bowl. The Utah Utes won the Pac 12 on the backs of a physical offensive line and a defense that was the best in the conference.
If the Buckeyes are going to force a different outcome against Utah than they got against Michigan, it will take a complete team effort.
However, there are a few names that will need to be bigger than the others.
Today, we’ll look at those names on defense. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the offense.
Linebacker Steele Chambers
Ohio State is going to need to tackle better than they did against Michigan and that will start at linebacker. As one of OSU’s two inside linebackers, Steele Chambers is going to be very busy against a Utah offense that would prefer to run the ball as much as possible. However, Chambers is also going to have to be on high alert for the running of quarterback Cameron Rising. Rising has five games of 45+ yards rushing this season, including a 61-yard effort against Oregon in the Pac 12 Championship Game. Rising is elusive enough to make defenders miss and just fast enough to outrun many front-seven defenders. Chambers can’t let either of those things happen, especially on third down.
Defensive Tackle Taron Vincent
Games are won up front and there is no doubt that the Buckeyes need a better effort at the line of scrimmage than they got against Michigan. The Wolverines rushed for 297 yards against Ohio State, which was the most for the Wolverines in Big Ten play since 2018. It was also the most rushing yards the Buckeyes have allowed since Maryland went for 339 yards against them in 2018. Taron Vincent is going to be a very important piece in controlling the line of scrimmage and it would be a great way for him to set the tone leading into next season. The Buckeyes are going to need leaders in the offseason and it’s time for Vincent to be one of those guys. (This is, of course, assuming he’s coming back for a fifth season, which he should.)
Nose Tackle Jerron Cage
Ohio State has allowed a team to average 7 yards per carry against them three times over the past seven seasons, and two of those games took place this year. Oregon rushed for 7.1 yards per carry back in September and Michigan went for 7.2 yards per carry against the Buckeyes a month ago. Those are numbers that should lead to blowouts, but didn’t. So if OSU could just keep Utah to 5 or 6 yards per carry, then maybe they’ll be okay. They should, however, shoot for an even better outing than that. Ohio State needs to set out to stop the run and play a scheme that will allow them to do so. Jerron Cage has been getting more and more snaps at nose tackle as the season has gone on and this could be his final game as a Buckeye. The defense will need his best snaps yet as they look to contain Utah’s power running game.
Safety Ronnie Hickman
Well, if you’re going to talk about which Buckeye defenders need to step up, you can’t rightly leave out the leading tackler on the team. Safety Ronnie Hickman has 97 tackles on the season, leaving him three tackles shy of being the first Buckeye to record 100 tackles since Second-Team All-America middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan in 2016. Hickman has arguably been the biggest surprise on the Ohio State defense this year and hasn’t flinched as he’s been asked to move around from a hybrid Bullet to a full-time strong safety. Hickman can help provide another run stopper for the Buckeyes, just as he did against Michigan. But maybe it would be better for Ohio State if he doesn’t have another dozen tackles next week like he did against the Wolverines. The defensive line and linebackers need to take some tackles away from him. Hickman will also be key in containing the quarterback run.
Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg
Middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg played sparingly against Michigan, most likely due to illness. He should be good to go against Utah and is expected to handle a large portion of the snaps on defense for Ohio State. Utah’s offense is right up Eichenberg’s alley. He’s not going to have to go far to find the action, especially since the Utes will routinely bring it to him. Eichenberg is currently fourth on the team in tackles, but after this game he will probably finish second. Eichenberg has 12 total tackles in his last two games, but has a good shot of hitting that number in this game alone. Eichenberg’s career-high for tackles in a game is seven. Expect that number to be bested on New Year’s Day.