For a player widely regarded as one of the most talented in college football and perhaps the top pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Joey Bosa has flown somewhat under the radar during the 2015 season.
The jaw-dropping plays have been a bit more rare, he ranks third on Ohio State with just four sacks, he missed the Buckeyes' high-profile opener against Virginia Tech because of a suspension and the team has yet to play a game against a ranked team. The Ohio State defense has mostly done its job quietly this season, while most of the attention has been paid to 1) the quarterback drama as the Buckeyes have shuffled between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones and 2) the Heisman Trophy campaign of tailback Ezekiel Elliott and 3) the games in which the Buckeyes haven't quite met astronomical expectations.
Ohio State's defense was expected to be good, and against a weak schedule thus far, it has delivered, ranking fifth in yards per play allowed; seventh in Football Outsiders' S&P+ defensive ratings; second in points allowed; and first in defensive SRS, according to Sports-Reference. The Buckeyes are near the top of the country in many major defensive categories, but it's been more of a collectively impressive performance in which several players have shined rather than one individual standing out on his own.
But make no mistake: Joey Bosa is as dominant as ever.
He is one of the most pivotal players in all of college football as No. 3 Ohio State finally gets set for the tough part of its schedule -- No. 9 Michigan State on Saturday afternoon, followed by No. 12 Michigan and perhaps No. 5 Iowa in the Big Ten title game -- in its push for another playoff bid and national championship.
Take last week, for example. Ohio State crushed Illinois 28-3. Like many Buckeyes performances this year, it elicited Bosa-like shrugs. They controlled the game and were never in danger of losing, but the words "style points" won't be mentioned.
Of course, Illinois did not score a touchdown. Nobody, in fact, has scored more than 14 points on Ohio State in the last four games. That's attributable to the mind-boggling talent Urban Meyer has assembled across the board: Adolphus Washington has been a monster at defensive tackle, sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan has 97 tackles, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell form a terrific safety duo, Eli Apple is a standout cornerback, outside linebacker Darron Lee is an explosive athlete who makes plays all over the field, Joshua Perry is a reliable, instinctive player opposite Lee at the other outside linebacker spot. Everyone has a job, and everyone does it well.
Bosa's job isn't merely sacking the quarterback. Regardless of what his modest sack total says this year, nobody on one of the most talented defenses in the country impacts games like Bosa. His job is to disrupt offenses. That doesn't mean making the move that ends a play and shows up in the stat sheet. It means heavily impacting the process that leads to a positive result that someone else often gets credit for.
Things got so bad for Illinois trying to handle Bosa that at one point three blockers swarmed the defensive end. The result, predictably, is that with so much attention on Bosa, the pocket collapsed anyway and Illinois tossed a hopeless incompletion, forcing a punt.
At his press conference this week, Meyer was asked what makes a great defensive lineman, and he veered into a quick discussion of the triple-team.
"I think the term is disruptive," Meyer said. "What makes Joey Bosa, he's only got so many sacks, but at least two, and I saw a video where there were three guys blocking him. He took one where he took his -- he came from the left side and took a 300-pound man and threw him in the backfield and made a tackle in the back."
Bosa himself didn't shy away from acknowledging what Illinois' efforts said about his game.
"It obviously says a lot about what I'm doing, which is nice," Bosa said this week. "It's always a good sign when they have to scheme and put two or more guys on me. But more importantly is opening up opportunities for other guys on our defense to make plays."
The latter is exactly what Bosa has done. Entire game plans are devised to avoid him. Last year in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama had early success running with Derrick Henry … almost always away from Bosa's side of the field. Bosa mostly lines up at left end (meaning he sees right tackles), but the Buckeyes move him around, also lining him up inside as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, at right end -- frequently in obvious passing situations -- and even as a stand-up rusher, essentially as a blitzing middle linebacker over center.
Bosa is the most complete defensive player in college football, and the only other person who has an argument is do-everything Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Sacks are merely one number. They can obviously highlight great seasons, as Bosa had 13 1/2 last year, and they clearly tell a story this year for players like Penn State's Carl Nassib (15 1/2) and Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah (11), among others. But as Meyer said, what Bosa does is consistently disrupt the flow of everything an offense does, both in the running and passing games.
He (No. 97 below) can collapse the pocket and force a quarterback to hurry a throw or leave the pocket just through raw power, like when he uses an offensive tackle as a weapon against the quarterback …
He's explosive off the snap and relentless in pursuit …
He has the speed to beat blockers around the edge, but his lightning-quick and technically sound use of his hands can also frustrate opponents …
He can embarrass interior linemen in the running game when lining up on the inside …
Ohio State's defense has shown a weakness against running quarterbacks, but that's not going to be much of a problem through these key Big Ten games down the stretch against Michigan State's Connor Cook and Michigan's Jake Rudock. Bosa's skill set is basically an unwinnable proposition for defenses: Devote lots of attention to him, and players like Washington, Lee, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis are going to beat you. Try to play the Buckeyes straight up, and Bosa will take over.
It's not as if all of his stats are modest, either. Bosa has risen to sixth nationally in tackles for loss per game (15 in nine games), according to cfbstats.com, and with 40 tackles he could still set a career high.
There will be tough choices to make on All-America ballots this season, given the wealth of talent at defensive end in college football. Players like Nassib and Ogbah have put up huge sack numbers and deserve recognition. Nobody is more explosive than Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, who could follow Bosa as the top player in the draft in 2017.
But while Bosa's sack numbers are modest, nothing else about his game is. No defensive end is better against the run, and few have the same impact as a pass rusher. Few are also as versatile and capable of adapting to different positions and formations. He's both a tremendous athlete and a smart, technically sound player.
Saturday against the Spartans will almost certainly be Bosa's final game in Ohio Stadium before the Buckeyes finish the season on the road. A junior, Bosa hasn't said for sure that he's going pro, but it's inevitable. He said the only thing that could possibly keep him around is the chance to play with his brother, Nick, a five-star defensive end recruit who is scheduled to join the Buckeyes next season. But nobody in his position is going to stick around and pass up the opportunity to be possibly the No. 1 pick, and likely a top-five pick at worst.
The good news for Ohio State fans is that another Bosa is on his way. For now, though, Ohio State will finally return to the national spotlight over the next few Saturdays, and while some of the basic stats may not show it, Bosa is as dominant as ever. If he doesn't get the individual recognition now, the NFL is going to give it to him next spring anyway, and if the Buckeyes make it to the playoff again, he'll have played as significant a role as anyone.