Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ohio State Buckeyes' defense tough, but '96 squad set defensive benchmark

Linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer helped the Buckeyes' 1996 defense record three shutouts and limit opponents to 10.4 points per game.

October 3, 2009

By Doug Lesmerises

COLUMBUS -- When 13 years later you remember and regret the shutouts that should have been as much as the ones that happened, you were part of a great defense. Though Ohio State's 1996 defense did shut out three opponents in 12 games, former linebacker Greg Bellisari recalls the one that got away, a 38-7 win over Penn State when the Nittany Lions were dominated before scoring on Ohio State's second team in the fourth quarter.

"A shutout is the ultimate accomplishment as a defense," Bellisari said this week. "We may not have had all-stars on the field, but that's something you strive for as a unit."

When Ohio State's defense put up a second consecutive shutout last week, hanging a zero on Illinois after doing the same to Toledo, it was the first time the Buckeyes had done it since beating Minnesota, 45-0, and Illinois, 48-0, in November 1996. That group played at Indiana the next week just as the Buckeyes do tonight in Memorial Stadium, winning 27-17.

While the members of that 1996 defense didn't mind the look-back they received from the new shutout streak, they were more excited by what they've seen on the field this season.

Before the Buckeyes did it the past two weeks, the 1996 Ohio State defense was the last to record back-to-back shutouts. Though Ohio State has only allowed opponents to score 20 points per game in the regular season once since 1996, the Buckeyes still managed just six shutouts in the 12 seasons between 1996 and this year. The year-by-year breakdown, with points per game in the regular season, number of games allowing 10 points or fewer, and shutouts.

"I'm really impressed this year," said Matt Finkes, who started as a senior defensive end in 1996 and particularly likes what quick defensive end Thaddeus Gibson has done this season. "What we have that we haven't in a while is a really talented defensive line. That's the first thing I look for, and I think they've done a great job in both aspects of the game, against the run and the pass."

"I am overly impressed by the level of emotion and physical play that I've seen so far," said Bellisari, a senior starter at linebacker in 1996. "That's the hallmark of any good defense. Of course we have talented players, but it's the emotion. It's fun to watch good team defense. As a linebacker, I love it, and I think that the sky's the limit for them."

Both in 1996 and this year, the defense felt it had a little something to prove. Thirteen years ago, the Buckeyes had lost stars Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Bobby Hoying and Ricky Dudley from a 1995 offense that was the most prolific in Ohio State history.

"That didn't sit well with us, that the offense had carried the team that year," Bellisari said. "But we had some senior leaders going into '96, and we were confident. But more than having talent, we were a cohesive group, and that's what made us so good."

Coming into the season, the Buckeyes were trying to get past the loss of big-name defensive stars like Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, and while adopting a "No blame, no names, no worries," slogan, had their own group of senior leaders in Kurt Coleman, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger and Anderson Russell.

"I'm biased because it's my defense and it's something I feel so special about," Worthington said, "because I've been around these guys for so long. We have a special bond, and we've been together through the bad, through the good, through the OK.

"There were times last year when I was like, 'We're stinking it up on the field.' Now we're playing a lot more focused. It just shows that hard work pays off."

For the first time since 1998, an Ohio State defense has multiple shutouts in a season. But the Buckeyes have established a recent legacy of holding teams down, at least during the regular season. Since 2005, Ohio State has held opponents to 10 points or fewer in 31 of 51 regular-season games. While no recent Ohio State defense has bettered the 1996 team's 10.4 points per game scoring defense in the regular season, the defenses in 2006 (10.5) and 2007 (10.7) came close. Maybe this defense, currently allowing 11.3 points per game, will surpass the '96 team.

"You look in the recent past, with A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter and those guys, and that 1998 defense was a dominant defense, and I like to think that Ohio State has had some consistency from '96 to today when it comes to defense," said Ryan Miller, a starting linebacker in 1996. "Maybe they haven't thrown as many shutouts, but they're not surrendering large amounts of points."

Since 1996, only once has Ohio State allowed more than 20 points per game, in the 6-6 season of 1999. Yet in between the three shutouts in 1996 and the two this season, the Buckeyes had only six shutouts in 12 years. So they are to be remembered.

"It's no different than any other walk of life, when you have a big project or a test and you earn a 100 percent," Miller said. "In football, it's even more rewarding because the scoreboard is sort of so in your face. And it's so difficult in this day and age to pitch a shutout."

It's always difficult to be great. That 1996 defense held Michigan to 13 points, but the Buckeyes still lost to the Wolverines, 13-9, then finished with a win over Arizona State in the Rose Bowl to go 11-1 and wind up ranked No. 2 in the country.

"I thought we were one of the best defenses in the nation, if not the best," Bellisari said.

If this Ohio State defense ends the season feeling the same way, they'll be remembered, too.

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