Ohio State makes no secret of its game plan for Thursday's Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl: Keep the high-powered BYU offense on the sidelines.

"We hope we can go out on offense and do ball-control type things, keep their offense off the field," said Buckeye tight end Cedric Saunders. "The coaches won't try for any quick-strike touchdowns."In other words, the Buckeyes will run the ball at BYU until the Cougars prove they can stop it.

And that, as anyone who has watched the Cougars all season knows, is the problem. The Cougs have given up yards like Santa gives up presents. Eight of BYU's opponents gained 480 yards or better; the Cougs allowed an average of 228 ground yards per game. Hawaii ran for 454 with a bunch of no-name running backs, UCLA and Notre Dame each rushed for more than 300.

The Buckeye backs aren't big-play types; their top five guys all average between 4.2 and 5.3 yards per carry, and their longest run from scrimmage this season is a 49-yarder. What they do, though, is get behind that massive front line and pound the ball at you, play after play after play.

"They execute," said BYU assistant coach Claude Bassett. "Everything they do, they execute. They're a big-time ball-control team."

Clearly, the BYU defense faces a tremendous challenge. Is there any reason to think it will perform better Thursday than it has all season? The Cougars answer "yes", with this qualification - everyone has to stay healthy, especially linebackers Todd Herget and Nathan Hall.

Hall shouldn't be a problem; he has not had a recurrence of the heart irregularity that sidelined him for the Utah State game. And Herget, who has been bothered by a shoulder stinger suffered in the UCLA game, has been practicing.

"He plans on playing, but how long he'll last remains to be seen," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards.

With that pair in the game, the Cougars say they are a lot better defensive unit.

"They were our foundation blocks," said defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt. "Not only were they our two best players, Todd and Nathan are our leaders, our take-charge guys."

The point might be made that BYU's defense wasn't that good before Herget and Hall had their midseason problems, but the Cougs say that through all their trials, they have improved.

"We've gotten a lot better," Bassett said. "We're capable of playing better defense than at any time of the year."

There is some evidence to support that assertion. For one thing, there have been several lineup changes over the course of the season, as BYU has figured out who its best players are.

- On the defensive line, tackle Greg Pitts is frequently replaced on passing downs by freshman Andy Nash, who has three sacks, third on the team. And Nash's pass-rushing ability seems to have opened things up more for Randy Brock at the other tackle spot.

- At middle linebacker, after trying several players through the first few games, freshman Shay Muirbrook finally captured the job. "He's gotten better every week," said Bassett. "He's making more plays. He's getting involved in pass coverage. He's done a great job." Muirbrook finished fourth on the team in tackles.

- At the safety positions, BYU opened the season with Frank Christianson and Casey Mazzotta as the starters. They have since been replaced by Jack Damuni and Cory Cook, and that pair may be BYU's most consistent defensive backs. Damuni has intercepted three passes, one more than all the other defensive backs on the team combined.

View Comments

What the Cougars hope this all adds up to is its best defensive effort of the season.

"This is more than a game for our defense," Herget said. "This is a chance to show what we can do if we're all on the field at the same time."

Bassett thinks BYU will - and must - field its best defensive unit of the year.

"Without it," he said, "these guys could do some things like Texas A&M did to us."

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.