Ohio State’s “Rocky” defense goes from rags to riches

Senior linebacker Tommy Eichenberg (35) celebrates after a tackle during the Ohio State-Notre Dame game Sept. 3. Ohio State won 21-10. Credit: Katie Good | Asst. Photo Editor

Despite being the only player on the roster from Philadelphia, I’m sorry Marvin Harrison Jr., but you are not the face of this “Rocky” comparison.

Instead, I look to the Ohio State defense for embodying the Italian Stallion.

Think about it. They go from being nothing a year ago to now getting their shot at greatness on the biggest stage.

They have been bumped and bruised along the way, like when Rocky Balboa fought in scrappy clubs just to make a quick buck, surrendering 200-yard rushing performances to Minnesota, Oregon, Michigan and Utah a season ago.

People questioned the Buckeyes’ toughness on that side of the ball in the offseason, but players like fourth-year linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, second-year defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr. and third-year safety Lathan Ransom have put those questions to rest.

The Buckeyes’ defense has allowed 253 rushing yards in three games this year — something they allowed in two games alone last season — only letting Toledo eclipse the century mark on the ground.

It’s not something that came easy, though. It took an entire offseason of workouts and reshaping the defense to get to their current level.

When Rocky got his chance to take on Apollo Creed for the heavyweight title, he turned to Mickey Goldmill to train him.

The Buckeyes knew the defense couldn’t be the reason they wasted third-year quarterback CJ Stroud’s talents in the push for a national title, so in steps defensive coordinator Jim Knowles — Ohio State’s Mickey Goldmill.

Knowles has been everything the Buckeyes could have ever dreamed of: a mastermind committed to perfecting his craft while holding himself and the players properly accountable, like Mickey.

When Mickey took issue with Rocky’s training or fighting style, he’d let him know. Knowles probably doesn’t call his players bums like Mighty Mick did, but players said the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator “can get loud” sometimes in practice, and when he does, the players listen.

Through the air, Ohio State has surrendered just 583 yards with the only 200-yard passing performance coming two weeks ago against Arkansas State.

Don’t let the passing yardage totals fool you, though. The Buckeyes have struggled in defending the pass at times, surrendering big plays far too often.

The Buckeyes’ defense is one of 21 FBS teams to allow three 50-yard plays this season, surrendering completions of 54, 58 and 50 yards to Notre Dame, Arkansas State and Toledo, respectively.

Big plays are just the nature of the beast sometimes when you put your cornerbacks in a lot of one-on-one situations. Don’t forget Rocky whiffing on a big right hook against Apollo in their second fight. Sometimes you swing and miss, but as long as you’re still standing at the end, right?

Wrong. Knowles doesn’t want his unit to be a bend-don’t-break defense, rather one that forces three-and-outs or creates turnovers and gets the ball back to the offense as quickly as possible.

They have been off to a good start, being one of the most disruptive defenses in the country through the first three weeks of the Knowles era, and it doesn’t get any easier with Wisconsin coming to town Saturday.

The Buckeyes’ defense is the X-factor in if they can pose a legitimate threat to Georgia and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. If they rise to the occasion, expect Ohio State to have a legitimate shot to still be the one standing after the prizefight.

And if when it’s all said and done the Buckeyes are champs, a “Yo Buckeye Nation, I did it,” is necessary.

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