Thinking Out Loud: What Does Sabino’s Return Mean for the Buckeyes?
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with Etienne Sabino.
Photo by Jim Davidson
We won’t officially know anything until sometime later today, and perhaps not for certain until sometime later in the week, but all signs point to Ohio State’s senior linebacker making his return from a broken leg on Saturday.
The Buckeyes play a Wisconsin team that ran for 564 yards at Indiana over the weekend. That’s not a made up number, the Badgers really did rush for over 500 yards on the road against an Indiana team that was, at least technically, still playing for a possible spot in the Big Ten title game.
So much for that.
After looking pretty average, at least by his standards, during Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule, tailback Montee Ball (pronounced Mon-Tee, not Mon-Tay, or so we think) has run the ball with authority against everyone in the Big Ten that’s not named Michigan State.
Ball had 46 yards on 22 carries in the overtime loss to the Spartans. In his five other conference games, Ball has run for 820 yards and 13 touchdowns on 130 carries. That’s over 6.3 yards per carry.
He went for 198 and three scores against the Hoosiers. James White also went for 161 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Freshman Melvin Gordon had 96 yards and crossed the goal line once on just eight carries, and even Jeffrey Lewis, a guy who has carried the ball four times all season, found a way to get into the end zone against Indiana.
Take all that into account, and Kevin Wilson’s team has the worst run defense in the Big Ten, at nearly 244 yards per game this season. That’s actually not the worst in the country, but it’s close. Only Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan give up more on the ground.
By comparison, Ohio State is second in the Big Ten, and 16th in the country, in run defense. The Buckeyes have allowed just 108 yards per game on the ground this season, but that’s going to be tested Saturday.
The Badgers offense has been dragged through the mud since Paul Chryst left for Pitt in the offseason, but Wisconsin is currently fourth in the conference in rushing at nearly 219 yards per contest. That number jumps to nearly 270 yards in Big Ten games, which ranks second only to Ohio State (274).
Luke Fickell’s defense held the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell to just 45 yards on 17 carries back September, but that was also the last time they had a healthy Sabino on the field.
The very next game, in the first half against Nebraska, was when Sabino cracked a bone in his leg. He hasn’t played a down since. He was still hobbling around on that leg last week in practice, but it appears at the point – or at least very close – where they feel comfortable putting him back out there.
Ohio State has gotten by basically playing nickel defense for the last five weeks, with a little base defense mixed in against Penn State in the win up in State College. Freshman Joshua Perry was supposed to be the Sam linebacker while Sabino was out, but then against Curtis Grant was supposed to be the middle linebacker this year.
Neither of those things has materialized.
Instead, the Buckeyes moved fullback Zach Boren to middle linebacker and asked defensive Nathan Williams to play some Sam linebacker when they need three backers on the field. He’s a pretty darn good football player, so it wasn’t a complete stretch, but taking Williams away from his spot at Leo is a much bigger issue than switching out Boren for Jeff Heuerman as a lead-blocker.
Boren seems to have found some chemistry with sophomore Ryan Shazier over the last three weeks, but the Buckeyes would like to add Sabino as the third member of the trio against Wisconsin.
“That's our plan,” Meyer said after practice last Wednesday.
“Those are our three top guys right now. The next two games, you'll need them all, all three of those guys.”
Senior Storm Klein is also available, and could be effective in a physical, throwback game like the one Ohio State will play Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. But Klein is still nursing a back injury, and he doesn’t really solve the issue of having three experienced players at linebacker for a game of this magnitude.
That’s something maybe only Sabino can do.
“It's great having him out there,” Shazier said this past week.
“It's great to have another dude that we can trust. I feel that he's going to help out a lot. At the line of scrimmage, he knows what to do at that Sam position. He'll be able to keep leverage and help us keep their linemen from getting a push.”
Sabino was having easily his best season at Ohio State, which isn’t saying too much. He showed flashes at the end of last year, but hadn’t really produced much until Urban Meyer and his staff came to town.
He had 37 tackles and two sacks in just 5.5 games before the injury, but no one, not even Meyer, really knows what version of Sabino the Buckeyes will be getting back this week. He didn’t look like a guy who was ready to take on Montee Ball in the hole when we saw him running awkwardly off the practice field in the middle of last week.
The bye week came at the perfect time, but Sabino is only six weeks removed from breaking a bone in his leg. If he can be close to full strength on Saturday, the Buckeyes could have their best look of the year at linebacker.
“It's good to see No. 6 out there, he's a captain, he's a leader, and to see him back healthy,” left tackle Jack Mewhort added.
“To see him happy is huge for us and the morale of this team.”
Now the Buckeyes are hoping their senior captain can add more than just morale.
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