A Lifetime in Two Seasons

By Kyle Rowland on November 28, 2012 at 10:00a

October was a trying time for the Fickell household. Luke, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, was in charge of a unit that gave up 87 points in back-to-back games against Nebraska and Indiana. Meanwhile, his wife, Amy, was wrongly accused of playing a role in the firing of a local pizza delivery boy. 

These are much happier times for Luke Fickell.

It was the hardships that made the second half of Saturday’s 26-21 victory over Michigan so sweet. The final 30 minutes acted as a celebration, with the Buckeye defense completely shutting down a Michigan offense that had them backpedaling in the first half.

"Tough times bring out the best in real competitors,” said Fickell, reflecting on the past six games. “You can say that about players and you can say that about coaches. I think we did a great job of coming together and hashing things out and being successful. In the end, it’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish."

Ohio State finished undefeated, only the sixth perfect season in the program’s proud history, thanks in large part to the defensive effort of the season.

The Wolverines led, 21-20, at halftime, but failed to score any points in the second half against an Ohio State defense that was missing Big Ten defensive player of the year John Simon, its ‘heart and soul.’ Not only that, but Michigan never crossed midfield and was limited to just 60 total yards and four first downs on 21 plays.

Dynamic quarterback-turned-running back Denard Robinson gashed the Silver Bullets for 124 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown run, in the first half alone. But after the break, things changed dramatically for Michigan.

“We challenged them at halftime,” Fickell said. “All year, our thing was not to give up big plays, and that’s what we did in the first half. We were able to make adjustments and settle in. I thought we played one of our best games defensively in the second half.”

Meyer’s message to his defensive staff at halftime was to stop the quarterback run. 

Robinson was limited to minus-2 rushing yards in the second half. The Wolverines, excluding Robinson, had minus-14 rushing yards for the game as team. Ohio State also created three of Michigan’s four turnovers in the second half. The backbreaker came with under five minutes left when CJ Barnett intercepted quarterback Devin Gardner. From there, Ohio State ran out the clock.

“That’s the name of the game,” Fickell said. “They can move the ball, and they can create some big plays, but the only equalizer is turnovers.

Midway through the season, the defense concerned Meyer.

“We couldn’t panic. We couldn’t change up exactly everything we were doing just because of the fact that they had two big plays. So we just went back to the basics and made sure guys knew what they were going to get.”

The Indiana game was the low point for the Buckeyes and their defensive staff. The Hoosiers’ 49 points were the most Ohio State had ever given up in a win. The following week, Purdue scored on the first play of the game.

Ohio State only allowed one more offensive touchdown against the Boilermakers, and the next week at Penn State, the Silver Bullets finally started taking form. The Buckeyes didn’t allow an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter and Penn State was held to just 32 yards rushing.

It was the finest defensive performance for Ohio State since the last week of September, when it limited Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell to 45 yards rushing and zero touchdowns.

Meyer admitted on Monday that he was concerned about the direction of the defensive unit at the midway point of the season. Ohio State was undefeated, but it was winning unspectacularly and with a bend-but-don’t-break defense.

“I did have the same concerns that probably every person in America had in watching our defense play,” Meyer said. “You can see the steady growth of our defensive staff. I don’t want to use the word phenomenal, but I felt the comfort level between Everett Withers and – Mike Vrabel's never coached D-line before, and it really showed his experience as that group developed.”

The growth of the entire defense was most evident during the biggest half of the season. And while Everett Withers, Kerry Coombs and Vrabel are amoing the four defensive coaches, Fickell deserves most of the credit for the six-game turnaround following the debacle in Bloomington. After giving up 10 touchdowns in consecutive games, the Buckeyes only allowed 10 over the past five games.

“I’ve been blessed to be a part of couple of championship teams, and the common denominator is not rushing yardage, passing yardage, blocked punts, whatever it is, it’s great defense. And I’d say at this point in time Ohio State could go play with anybody in America.”

Coinciding with the Buckeyes’ buckling down on the defensive side of the ball was fullback Zach Boren’s move to linebacker. Acts such as that were a big contributor in Ohio State’s 12-0 season.

From 6-7 to 12-0, it's been quite a ride for Fickell.

“The great thing about this entire season is that I’m not sure that we’ve had a greater team season,” Fickell said. “Not one side is stellar every time. I haven’t been doing this a whole long time, but I can’t remember one that was a greater team season. There was somebody else every time, and I’m not just saying that because it’s right now. This team is unbelievable.”

Fickell’s emotions a year ago were dramatically different. He sat in a tiny room in Michigan Stadium with tears in his eyes after Ohio State had lost to the Maize and Blue for the first time in seven years.

The inevitable was coming, and Fickell knew it. His one-year interim tenure as Ohio State’s head coach was going to end soon, with Meyer’s hiring on the horizon. But Meyer’s first action as head coach last November was, along with his wife, Shelley, meeting with Luke and Amy. The gathering lasted four hours.

“I wanted to do the due process and due diligence,” Meyer said at his introductory press conference. “I asked him to come back and have coffee with me 7 a.m.

“Shelley and I prayed about it. We talked about it. We took our time. Next morning, we woke up. I looked at her again. She’s a better judge of talent than I am. And there’s no doubt I wanted him to be a part of this team. He was very open and shook my hand, a big smile on his face, and we called Miss Amy and she was great. It was a very good moment for Ohio State.”

Nearly 365 days later, Fickell’s smile may have been the brightest in the room, following the Buckeyes’ win over their archrival.

“It’s been a real growing, humbling experience,” Fickell said. “I don’t know that I’d be the same person if I didn’t go through it – last year and this year. But it’s still coaching, and it’s amazing to think that sometimes you think you’re teaching these guys something and they're teaching you so much.”

In November 2011, Meyer commended Fickell for how he handled an almost unwinnable situation during that same season.

“I have great respect (for Fickell),” Meyer said. “I know what kind of guy he is. He’s an Ohio guy, a Buckeye. 

“Obviously, he’s everything that you hope for in a former Ohio State player.”


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Coach Fickell definitely grew as a coach and as a person in the last year. Let's hope he continues to grow with the Silver Bullets staff and the new players the team will have back there in 2013.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

dumpus's picture

I'm happy for the guy - not only did he voluntarily march in front of the firing squad last year, but he became seemingly much more confident and resolute as a result.  I've got nothing but respect for the job that he did this year AND the job he did last year.  Coach Fickell, like many of the players in the last two seasons, put Ohio State ahead of his ego and staked his reputation on keeping the program on its legs.  Its not too dissimilar to Zach Boren strapping on his helmet before the Indiana game and saying "Whatever you need, Coach."  Dude did what it took when it mattered the most, and I'm certainly grateful as a Buckeye.
Credit to Urbs for asking him to stay with the program, too.  Urbs placed his trust in Fickell and, although it was shaky at times, Fickell ultimately delivered when it mattered most. 
From where we were at and how we were feeling 366 days ago...I couldn't be more excited about where we're going, and I couldn't be prouder to be a Buckeye. 
Merry Urbzmas, everyone. 

Earle's picture

Not to diminish the great defensive effort in the second half, but let's keep in mind that Borges helped us out with his "questionable" play-calling.  And I say questionable instead of idiotic only because I think Robinson was hurt and effectively out of the picture in the second half.
No question, the defense improved significantly in the last third of the season.  Luke deserves some of the credit for that.

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Run_Fido_Run's picture

When I rewatched the second half, though, it was even more obvious to me that Ohio State's front seven was dominating, getting heavy penetration on almost every play. DR was dinged up even worse than he was going into the game. Michigan's RBs were inffective. What was Borges supposed to call to overcome those realities?
I can see Michigan fans/media criticizing Borges along these lines: "hey, given how the Michigan defense was playing, we just needed to string together one or two drives or big plays, even if that meant stringing together a few effective plays out of duct tape and chicken wire . . . but the playcalling was even worse than the OL was playing. . ."
I could deal with that line of logic. But Michigan fans who believe that Borges was holding that team back from exploding on offense in the 2H against Ohio State are freakin' delusional.

JLP36's picture

I agree that Buckeye D gets more credit than Borges blame, but running your best player off the field all the time was stupid.  Can you picture Braxton running off the field seemingly randomly?  Stick Denard in the slot even if he is not going to do anything.  He is going to attract a lot of attention.  Denard was a little demon.  So the Buckeyes kicked ass AND Borges is stupid!
Michigan is all excited about Gardner now (compared to their alternatives a few weeks ago I guess that is fair) but Denard was by far their best player for years and now his long runs and maddeningly high jump ball completion percentage are GONE.  how sad.


Doc's picture

I hope Fick can progress and keep the Bullets going in the right direction.  I sure want him to be the right guy for the job.  I'm hoping his defense next year only gives up 10 td's for the entire season, all 14 games.

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toledobuckeyefanjim's picture

...And no touchdowns to that team up north.

Grant Edgell's picture

Couldn't agree more on the "want him to be the right guy for the job."

Iron_Buckeye's picture

I was great to see the defense make a turn around in the 2nd half of the season. I'm glad Coach Fick made it through the fire!

“The minute we stop expecting greatness from our football program, we become Wisconsin.” Craig Krenzel

D. Anthony's picture

Urban saved Luke from himself and the conservative coaching style he'd adopted from the previous regime... I do think Urban was the best thing that could've ever happened to Luke.

D. Anthony

JLP36's picture

A bunch of hard ass linebackers kicking ass all over the field makes any defensive coordinator look a lot smarter.  If Boren was at MLB on the first day of fall camp this season might have looked a lot MORE perfect.


Doc's picture

If Boren was at MLB on the first day of fall camp of his freshmen year this season might have looked a lot MORE perfect.

I fixed it for ya.  Just imagine what Boren would have been like playing MLB his entire OSU career.  He could have been scary good.

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JLP36's picture

Indeed.  Sadly he was essential on offense then. He put the MAN in the cave man offense.  He was a hell of a lead blocker, too.


Grant Edgell's picture

Watching Fickell in particular eat the struggles of last season was difficult as a fan. The dude said everything right and carried himself as professionally as I could imagine anyone doing from start to finish. 2011 would have been a tall task for anyone, but he was definitely out of his element at that point in his career. That said, he went on to handle the Meyer transition gracefully and, I think, earned plenty of respect from even those who were calling for his head.
To go through continued struggles the first half of 2012 - only to see his D come up huge in the second half Saturday in The Game - is a bit of a perfect script ending for the last 24 months for Luke. That's an entire off-season of personal positivity after what was obviously a rollercoaster ride for the guy since Tress left. Hopefully that momentum carries right into 2013 for him.

bassplayer7770's picture

2013 will certainly be a big test for Coach Fick since we lose so many players.  At this point, I'm assuming Hank will leave and Roby will stay.  Still, we lose Hank, Simon, Goebel, Williams, Boren, Sabino, Howard, and O. Johnson.  There will be a lot of holes to fill.  I suppose it may not change his playcalling so much, but his position group needs considerable development.  Of course, the other Defensive coaches will also need to make sure their groups are coached up and ready to fill their own holes.  On the bright side, we start against Buffalo and SDSU before heading to Cal, so I'd think this will give some young guys valuable game experience before the competition really heats up.
Hopefully, the Defense will step up right away, but we should also have a stronger Offense to give the Defense a little more time to develop if needed.  I just hope the Defense doesn't struggle quite as much as we did in the first half of this season.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Good points, although I expect that the secondary will be very high caliber regardless of what Roby decides. If Roby stays (fingers crossed), they'll potentially be "comically good," as Urbz said of Braxton. 

bassplayer7770's picture

I don't disagree about the starters assuming Doran Grant and Pittsburgh Brown step up to fill Howard and Johnson's shoes.  Still, I think the coaches will need to coach up the other kids in order to have quality depth at their positions.

buckz4evr's picture

I'm sure that many of the seniors on this team learned a lot about team and unselfishness when Fickel gave his heart and soul to them by taking the job and not deserting them through the darkest time in their careers.  God only knows what that team went through last year.

Doc's picture

Call me niave, but I see everyone staying for next year.  This senior class showed the team what it was like to be leaders.  I think Hank and the other rising seniors will want to do the same thing, and possibly going to the MNC could be all the carrot they need. 

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Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Love the fact that Luke is still a Buckeye coach and even better, learning under Urban!  He has had a great run under Tressel and now Urban is giving him a different kind of coaching style.  Luke will emerge a hybrid and that should be interesting to watch over the years.

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brylee's picture

“The great thing about this entire season is that I’m not sure that we’ve had a greater team season,” Fickell said. “Not one side is stellar every time. I haven’t been doing this a whole long time, but I can’t remember one that was a greater team season. There was somebody else every time, and I’m not just saying that because it’s right now. This team is unbelievable.”

Hit the nail on the head with this team.

Ann Arbor Buckeye's picture

Not only has Fickel done a great job with the defense the second half of the season, but I think his time with UFM will make him a great head coach down the line.

Yes there are two Buckeyes in Ann arbor on this site!