The blueprint was drawn in the winter of 1996, when Fred Pagac,
an Ohio State assistant coach for 15 years who had just been
promoted to defensive coordinator, addressed his unit for the
first time. The Buckeyes, who squandered an unbeaten season and
a chance to play for the national championship when they gave up
484 yards and lost to Michigan 31-23 in the final game of the
'95 season, would undergo a dramatic change. They would attack
on defense, embracing a trend that was sweeping the college
game. They would gamble and blitz, never sit back and read. That
day, singling out the players who by their soundness would make
the entire scheme work, Pagac said, "Our defensive backs are
going to have to be fantastic."
More than two seasons later Ohio State is the best team in the
country, undefeated after last Saturday's rain-swept 28-9
victory over No. 7 Penn State in Columbus. During the idle
weekend that preceded that game, Buckeyes coach John Cooper sat
in his office and enumerated his team's strengths. "We've got
talent, depth, great team chemistry and character, outstanding
work ethic," he said. "Of course, we've had those things before.
We had all of them in '96. That was our best team."
Ah, '96. That team was a splendid balance of offensive punch and
defensive dominance that won 10 consecutive games before letting
yet another national title shot crumble in a 13-9 home loss to
Michigan. Like the current Buckeyes, the '96 team was loaded
with offensive firepower. Its defensive stars included senior
linemen Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes and a freshman linebacker
named Andy Katzenmoyer. Yet the best players on that team were
in the secondary, as Pagac had demanded. The corners were junior
Shawn Springs, who was the third player taken in the '97 NFL
draft, and Ty Howard, a third-round pick in that draft. The
safeties were Rob Kelly, a second-round draft choice in '97, and
redshirt sophomore Damon Moore. They controlled games from the
most distant outposts on the field, Springs and Howard taking
receivers completely out of games, Kelly launching wild red dogs
from 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and Moore playing run
support like a linebacker. "It was a great year," says Moore,
"until Shawn fell down."
The killer touchdown in that '96 loss to Michigan was scored
when Springs slipped and fell on the Ohio Stadium turf, allowing
Tai Streets to turn a routine slant pattern into a 69-yard
score. It was the mistake that ruined a season, committed by the
best player in the best unit on the field.
Atonement is at hand two years later. For all the buzz about
Ohio State's potent offense and for all the controversy inspired
by the Big Kat (erstwhile Butkus Award winner and golf student
and, for the record, the third best linebacker in an Ohio State
uniform last Saturday, behind lightning-quick 6'4", 235-pound
sophomore Na'il Diggs and senior co-captain Jerry Rudzinski),
Ohio State's secondary is the strongest unit on the team and the
best defensive backfield in the country. "I've never seen a
better bunch," says Missouri offensive coordinator Jerry Berndt,
a 27-year coaching veteran whose Tigers were held to just 20
yards passing on six completions in a 35-14 loss to the Buckeyes
on Sept. 19. "They're physical, they can cover, and they don't
have a weakness that we could see."
This secondary, known to teammates as Shame, Scary, Box, Plum
and Grandpa, is the safety net that allows the front seven to
attack with abandon. "They make everything that we do possible,"
says Rudzinski. Safeties Damon (Shame) Moore and Gary (Scary)
Berry, nickelback Central (Box) McClellion and corners Ahmed
(Plum) Plummer and Antoine (Grandpa) Winfield have helped hold
four opponents to an average of 7.8 yards per completion--the
lowest in the nation--and just two passing touchdowns. The
Buckeyes rank third in pass efficiency defense and have given up
just 40 points.
Statistics only hint at the excellence of this secondary. Penn
State baited Ohio State's corners and threw deep. "They were too
good," said Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno after the game. The
Buckeyes defensive backs are as interchangeable as Legos.
Winfield is a pure cover corner, yet he led the team in tackles
a year ago and is third this year, behind Katzenmoyer and Moore.
Berry and Moore are lethal run stoppers, but they cover wideouts
too. Making a run to the concession stand for nachos and cheese
last Saturday meant missing a big play by the Ohio State
--On third-and-eight from its 17 early in the third quarter, Penn
State tried to run a reverse to wideout Joe Nastasi. Moore read
it like a linebacker and swallowed Nastasi for a nine-yard loss.
One play later the Buckeyes scored on a blocked punt to take a
--After scoring a touchdown in the third quarter to cut the
deficit to 21-9, Penn State attacked Plummer on consecutive
plays, first short and then long. On second-and-nine from the
Nittany Lions' 21, Plummer nearly picked off a pass intended for
wideout Chafie Fields. On the next play Plummer, seemingly
baited for a deep route, intercepted a pass from Lions
quarterback Kevin Thompson 39 yards downfield to end the drive.
And to think, Plummer is the only one of the Buckeyes' four
secondary starters not nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award, given
annually to the nation's best defensive back.
Big plays are simply routine for this unit. On West Virginia's
second snap in its season opener against Ohio State on Sept. 5
in Morgantown, quarterback Marc Bulger threw a well-designed
swing screen to David Saunders, a dangerous wideout. "The play
should have gone for 30 yards, but Antoine Winfield made a great
tackle and held us to five yards," says Mountaineers offensive
coordinator Dan Simrell, whose team went down to the Buckeyes
34-17. "They are an incredible bunch. They cover you. They run
to the football. They hit you. Best I've ever seen."
"We know we're good," says Berry. "We know we're the best there
They have the benefit of learning from Springs and other former
Buckeyes who spend parts of their NFL off-season working out in
Columbus. "I can't tell you all the little nuggets Shawn has
passed along to the younger guys," says Plummer. The Buckeyes'
secondary also has the invaluable experience of working in
practice against pro-ready wideouts David Boston and Dee Miller
and, before them, Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway. "If you can
blanket those guys," says Moore, "you can blanket anybody in the
Moore, a fifth-year senior who started with Howard, Kelly and
Springs, is the leader of the group. "He's the quarterback,"
says defensive backs coach Jon Tenuta. "He's the one who makes
us work and makes us laugh," says Plummer.
Growing up outside Toledo, in northeast Ohio, Moore dreamed of
playing for Michigan. "I'm lucky it worked out this way," he
says, despite the Buckeyes' annual failure against Michigan, and
the Wolverines' co-national title last season. Moore doesn't
play for the maize and blue because Michigan did not recruit him
until his senior year, and by then it was too late.
At 5'11" and 200 pounds, Moore is a safety in name only. While
he can cover most wide receivers if necessary, he was, by his
own estimation, in pass coverage "about three times" in the win
over Penn State. The rest of the afternoon he spent terrorizing
Thompson and ear-holing running backs. He led the Buckeyes with
five unassisted tackles, including two for losses and one sack.
For much of his career Moore has freely voiced his opinions,
however incendiary. That might change. Before the Buckeyes'
victory over Missouri, he said publicly that Tigers quarterback
Corby Jones would "give up," as he supposedly did against Ohio
State last season after being hit hard by Katzenmoyer. Later,
when he read that Jones's father had died of a heart attack over
the summer, Moore felt embarrassed by his comment; he lost his
own father to a heart attack last year. Moore has vowed to be
more temperate in his remarks.
Berry, a junior, brought the gaudiest credentials to Ohio State.
As a senior at DeSales High in the Columbus suburb of
Worthington, he was a nationally recruited running back. He made
official visits to Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and
Penn State, and joined the Buckeyes with the potent class that
included Boston, Katzenmoyer and running back Michael Wiley.
Berry practiced with both offense and defense as a freshman and
made a permanent home on defense only when the coaching staff
told him it was where he could play right away.
"I miss carrying the ball," says Berry. "Of course, I still get
to carry it when I pick off a pass." He has six interceptions in
his career. He also returns punts.
McClellion, a fifth-year senior, is the utilityman. He is the
nickelback and the first corner off the bench behind both
Plummer and Winfield. Raised in Delray Beach, Fla., he is also
the only one among the five regulars who isn't from Ohio.
Plummer, a fourth-year junior, is the preacher. He leads the
team's prayer group. "I'll tell you a story that I've never told
anyone," he says. "My mother [Babette Plummer, a psychologist]
told me that when I was in her womb, the doctors did tests and
told her that I wouldn't be born healthy and that she should
consider an abortion. She told me that she prayed and that
angels appeared to her and told her to have this baby. She went
against the doctors, and her prayers were answered."
As a player, Plummer is preparing to succeed Winfield. (He had
the Buckeyes' only interception last Saturday, his second of the
year, and Penn State didn't complete a pass against him.) His
inner calm is perfectly suited to his position. "A corner is
going to get beat; it's the nature of the position," he says, and
in fact last year he yielded a touchdown to the Nittany Lions.
"You just come back for more."
Winfield is the most talented member of the secondary. His
nickname should be Papa, not Grandpa, because on Aug. 16 his
longtime girlfriend, Ohio State senior Erniece Polk, gave birth
to their first child, Antoine Duane Winfield Jr. In '96 Winfield
played behind Springs and as the nickelback. A year ago he was a
first-team All-America, and it was whispered that Winfield was a
better cover corner last season than Heisman Trophy winner
Charles Woodson of Michigan or North Carolina's celebrated Dre'
Bly--cool dish that's impossible to prove but delicious to
argue. Winfield had two interceptions in '97, led the Buckeyes
with 100 tackles and was voted team MVP. "Nobody in the country
was better," Cooper says.
"Winfield is one of the best corners I've ever seen," says
Missouri's Berndt. "Ohio State is a very talented team, and he's
their best player."
This is why it was such a shock when Nastasi beat Winfield on a
deep go route in the third quarter of Saturday's game and caught
a 37-yard pass from Thompson, which led to the Nittany Lions'
only touchdown. In this case beat is a relative term. Winfield
was with Nastasi but lost a battle for the ball. "Give him
credit," Winfield said after the game. "He's on scholarship,
too." Then he threw his head back and laughed.
The Buckeyes laughed in 1996 as well, when October mistakes were
harmless. Then Springs fell down. In the secondary, it takes only
one play to kill a season.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER Fab five From left: Moore, Berry, McClellion, Winfield and Plummer stick together and don't blink under pressure. [Damon Moore, Gary Berry, Central McClellion, Antoine Winfield, and Ahmed Plummer]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Handcuffed With the exception of a 37-yard pass that set up Penn State's only touchdown, Winfield (11) kept Nastasi in check. [Antoine Winfield covering Joe Nastasi's attempt to catch pass]
"They are an incredible bunch," says Simrell. "They run to the
football. They hit you. They're the best I've ever seen."