It’s a matter of debate if Big 12 teams play defense, but there is little question that Ohio State boasts the best defense that Texas will face all season when the two powerhouse programs collide in the Fiesta Bowl on January 5.
The matchup between the Longhorns’ high-octane offense and the Buckeyes’ stonewall defense has been personified by each of the school’s most high-profile players. Texas QB Colt McCoy is generally considered the reason for the (11-1) season while MLB James Laurinaitis has been college football’s most celebrated defender the past two years. There was an unexpected reunion between both standouts during the recent College Football Awards in Orlando. Laurinaitis was seated behind McCoy and Longhorn offensive coordinator Greg Davis during the December 11 presentation. Prior to the ceremony, Davis introduced himself to Laurinaitis before motioning to McCoy.
“This is the guy that got you started on your All-American career,” Davis told Laurinaitis. It was the first time McCoy and Laurinaitis were in the same venue since top-ranked Ohio State beat No. 2 Texas in Austin, 24-7, on September 9, 2006. The turning point on that evening was, arguably, Laurinaitis’ 25-yard interception return to the Texas 25. It set up a Buckeye FG and the visitors would never relinquish a double-digit lead. “I don’t even remember the game,” McCoy said, before adding, “well…part of it.”
The part he remembers, of course, is hitting Laurinaitis in the numbers after the Buckeyes dropped into a zone blitz.
“It’s a play I will never make again,” McCoy said. “I learned from that. I’ve had three years of experience. I’m not the same player I was then.”
Neither is Laurinaitis.
His performance during the prime-time, national telecast against Texas was the coming out party for three-time All-American. He has since captured the Butkus Award (top linebacker) Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player) and the Lott Trophy (which takes into consideration a defensive player’s personal integrity and community involvement). Laurinaitis surprised many by returning for his final year of eligibility in what was also expected to be a third-straight BCS title game appearance for the Buckeyes. A co-Big Ten championship and another Fiesta Bowl appearance was the consolation prize for a Buckeye team that sputtered on offense but more than held its own on the other side of the ball. Ohio State finished the regular season rated No. 6 in pass defense (164.3 ypg), No. 7 in points allowed (13.0 ppg) and No. 8 in total defense (279.2 ypg), “They’re really huge on defense,” McCoy said. “They may be the biggest defense we’ve played.”
They are certainly the highest rated defense Texas has faced this year. Statistically, the best defense McCoy and company met in 2008 was Oklahoma’s No. 65 unit (359.8 ypg). The numbers are a bit skewed, given the prolific offenses the Longhorns defended in the Big 12. Heading into the bowl season, Texas has faced five teams currently ranked in the Top 10 for total offense. Conversely, Ohio State has met just two offenses ranked in the Top 15 (USC, Penn State). Both resulted in the Buckeyes’ only losses of the regular season.
Texas is already scheming for Ohio State’s frequent shifts from four-down to three-down linemen in which LDE Thaddeus Gibson moves to OLB. It means Davis is tweaking his pass protection assignments, particularly for his running backs.
“There are a lot of protections, when we throw the ball, that our back has the Will linebacker,” Davis said. “When they jump to a three-down alignment, the Will linebacker is now the defensive end. If you chose to leave your back in that matchup because, schematically, that’s what you normally do in your three-down package, you’re in trouble because it’s a mismatch. It’s like having (Texas DE) Brian Orakpo out there. You don’t want your back on him very often.”
Heading into the 2008 campaign, the Buckeye secondary was considered the strength of the unit.
All-American RCB Malcom Jenkins is a four-year starter who gives Ohio State the luxury of mixing man with zone defense.
“Sometimes they’ll zone away from him while he plays man,” Davis noted. “Your progressions tell you that that’s where the man-to-man ball is, but you’ve got to win that man-to-man ball or you’re better off working somewhere else. They will play man across-the-board and they will press. They use their hands well.”
The Bucks are a blitz-happy team that sends at least one extra man nearly 50 percent of the time, but it amounts to another day in the life of Colt McCoy. Nearly all Big 12 teams increased their blitz packages to try to knock the Texas QB off his rhythm. But few have succeeded since that September night in 2006. Now, McCoy is widely regarded as the heart of the Texas program and is on the verge of setting a new NCAA record for completion percentage. The Heisman runner-up has been true on 77.6 percent of his attempts, is third nationally in passing efficiency and No. 6 in total offense (385.1 ypg). “The difference is that this is Colt’s team and that (2006 season) was still Vince (Young’s) team,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “Vince was supposed to be here. We had a national championship group of seniors returning, and we thought Vince would be with them. We had a freshman quarterback trying to go no-huddle. We were very limited and simple in that ballgame. Now, Colt is bigger, tougher and stronger. He’s seen everything.”
Texas is scheduled to arrive in Arizona on December 29.