Commentary

No stars, lots of production for OSU

Originally Published: December 29, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Heacock made a statement Tuesday that would have drawn eye rolls or blank stares back in August.

[+] EnlargeJim Heacock
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJim Heacock loves the way his squad plays team defense.

"The strength of our defense," Heacock said, "is the defense."

Every coach says things like that before every season, and Heacock, Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, is admittedly no different. The subject of team defense ranks high on the coaches' cliché chart, somewhere between taking it one game at a time and giving 110 percent.

The fact that Heacock can make the statement just days before the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi is the significant part. Team defense isn't just some vague goal for Ohio State. It's a fact backed up by 12 games of evidence.

The Buckeyes' ability to embrace team defense throughout the season is the biggest reason why they're here, preparing to face No. 7 Oregon on Friday at the Rose Bowl (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET).

"You always talk about that, you want to have a great team defense," Heacock said. "I don't know if I've ever in my coaching career had a group of guys that really fit that description more than this group. There's nobody that's got the ego that's out of control. There's nobody that's about 'Me.'

"Individually, I don't know how good we are. Collectively, we've been able to play fairly sound."

Take a look at Heacock's definition of "fairly sound."

Ohio State led the Big Ten in total defense, rushing defense and takeaways, ranking fifth, fifth and tied for fourth nationally in those categories, respectively. Ohio State also ranks fifth nationally in points allowed, 13th in third-down conversion percentage, 17th against the pass and fifth in first downs allowed. In addition, it leads the nation in first-down rushing defense and fewest runs of 10 or more yards allowed, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Individually, I don't know how good we are. Collectively, we've been able to play fairly sound.

-- Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock

Without a doubt, the Buckeyes' defense was the most dominant unit in the Big Ten this fall.

A group with such credentials usually boasts individual standouts. The Buckeyes? They had a grand total of one first-team All-Big Ten defender in senior safety Kurt Coleman.

"I feel a little sad because some guys should have got recognized who didn't," Coleman said, "but it's a team effort and without one person, we wouldn't have been able to do it."

Before the season, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former Ohio State player, spoke to the defense about embracing a collective approach. From there, the Ohio State defense lived by the motto of "no names, no blame, no worries."

National award winners James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins were gone. So were standouts like linebacker Marcus Freeman and cornerback Donald Washington.

"We knew we'd lost all of our names," Heacock said. "Then you look at the names you've got up there ... it's just a bunch of guys."

That bunch of guys led Ohio State to Pasadena, where the Buckeyes will face the greatest barometer of team defense Friday.

Few offenses capitalize on missed assignments or poor positioning quite like Oregon's. The Ducks operate at warp speed both before and after the ball is snapped. They pack their backfield with big-play threats and use a flurry of fakes to send defenders off course.

"It makes you be very, very disciplined," Ohio State defensive tackle Doug Worthington said. "If one person doesn't do their job, that's a 5-, 10-, maybe 60-yard gain."

Simply following the football can be a major headache.

[+] EnlargeKurt Coleman
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireKurt Coleman was the Buckeyes' lone representative on the All-Big Ten first team.

"There's been a couple times where you think one guy has the ball and somebody else does," Buckeyes safety Anderson Russell said. "They've even faked out their own camera guy."

Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich calls getting tackled without the ball "an unselfish act." The Ducks often have multiple backs running at full speed, even though only one has the ball.

"I've got hit more times this year without the ball than I did when I had the ball," Ducks freshman running back LaMichael James said. "Most of the time, [opposing defenders] use profanity and say, 'Aw, man, thought you had the ball.'

"I'm like, 'Nah, I don't have it this time.'"

Coleman admits he had to rewind the Oregon game tapes several times after losing sight of the football. But he added that following the ball isn't nearly as important as sticking to assignments.

As long as Buckeyes defenders account for every possible ball carrier, they can limit damage.

"If you have the dive, if you have the running back, have the dive, have the running back," Worthington said. "Sometimes he's going to get [the ball], sometimes he's not. But as soon as your guy doesn't have the ball, you have to go out there and help the other man out."

Buckeyes defenders have been doing their jobs and helping each other all season long. They'll need to be a united front against Oregon.

"It's the ultimate test," Worthington said. "By far."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.