COLUMBUS, Ohio - There were a lot of questions about the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes. One area where there were no doubts, however, was the defensive line -- until now.
Built around the relentless pass rush of John Simon and Johnathan Hankins with several ferocious freshmen eager to get time, the unit was a cornerstone of Urban Meyer's first year on the sidelines.
So far, through two victories, the line has been all but invisible.
"I could list a multitude of reasons and excuses and so on and so forth; we have to get better at (rushing the) quarterback or it's going to be a long year," Meyer said this week as the Buckeyes prepared for another pass-happy team in California.
How bad is the pass rush so far? Miami (Ohio) and Central Florida have thrown 95 passes in just two games, completing 57. The Buckeyes have just three sacks -- one fewer than their own offensive line has allowed.
Right now, no one on Ohio State's defense is happy, from the biggest man up front to the safeties 12 yards back of the line of scrimmage. Everyone is scratching their heads over how a strength has become if not a weakness at least an area of concern.
"We haven't been making the quarterbacks pay," said Hankins, who said he'd rate the pass rush as a C or a B- so far. "This week there's going to be much emphasis on hitting the quarterback and making sure he feels that we're there."
The line has been hit by injuries. Nathan Williams, perhaps the top rush end, is still recovering from microfracture knee surgery and didn't play last week. Michael Bennett, figured to be the top replacement for Williams, has a groin injury and won't return for at least another week.
In their place, the Buckeyes have had to fill in with freshmen -- albeit highly acclaimed freshmen such as Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt.
No matter who's out there, opposing quarterbacks haven't exactly had to live in fear.
Enter Cal, featuring a big-time passer in Zach Maynard and future NFL draftee Keenan Allen out wide. It's yet another major challenge to the entire defense, not just the line.
"We're going to get another big diet of passing this week," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We have been kind of weak on that the last two games, so we've got to pick it up. If (the Golden Bears) watch film, they're probably going to attack us in the passing game. So we're just going to have to lock down on defense and stop them from that and then just control them and make them do what we want them to do."
Defensive co-coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers have been working on shoring up the pass rush all week. Meyer said the Buckeyes may have to resort to more blitzes to shake things up and bring the heat.
"There's two ways to get (to the quarterback)," Meyer said. "One is to have a great player beat a guy. We haven't done that enough. The other is to bring more than they can block. We haven't done enough of that, either. Those are all issues that our defensive staff is reviewing. I think we've played OK, but obviously we expect more than OK."
Miami used short drops and quick passes to avoid the pocket collapsing. A week later, there wasn't much pressure applied.
Both teams racked up some big gainers in the pass game.
"Teams have thrown 95 balls against us through two games," cornerbacks coach Kerry Combs said. "So they've decided they are going to throw the ball a lot and you've got to be multiple in your approach. And any time you're multiple, you have the risk of making mistakes. I don't like mistakes -- I'm not happy about breakdowns in any area of the field. But of course, when you have breakdowns in coverage, they are very visible."
Meyer spends most of his time working with the offense, but he's been in talks with his defensive staff. He wants more of a push up front.
"I'm waiting to see Saturday, but we need to hit the quarterback," he said.
It sounds as if Ohio State will use more blitzes than it has been in order to hurry some throws and get some sacks.
"We're trying to get a little bit more (of a rush) than we have the past two games for this game," cornerback Bradley Roby said. "We've got some things in our game plan to get some pressure on the quarterback."
Hankins said the line has felt the wrath this week of coach Mike Vrabel, a relentless pass-rusher while winning three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.
"He gets angry. Not too bad, but he gets angry," Hankins said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "We get the sense that he's mad or there's something that's bothering him when we don't get pressure. This week we've done a pretty good job at it and I feel like we're going to get some pressure this week."