“What do you mean what went wrong? Did we win?”
That was Luke Fickell’s response last November when pressed about the defense’s performance after surrendering yards and touchdowns on what seemed like every possession against Michigan. You won’t hear Fickell sound off in a similar manner this season, because a leaky defense for a third consecutive year is unacceptable.
Urban Meyer’s made that clear. No coaches were dismissed in the offseason, but new hires Chris Ash and Larry Johnson send a message that the Buckeyes are focused on improving – and quickly. When evaluating his first two seasons as head coach, Meyer mentioned 24 straight wins and then “we hit a speed bump.”
More like a rockslide. After an historic offensive campaign, it was a sputtering defense that proved to be Ohio State’s undoing. Before the season began, all was good – the secondary was stockpiled with veterans, Ryan Shazier still tackled everything in sight and the defensive line had depth.
But beautiful paintings don’t always hold their value.
“I felt like we were a ‘what-if’ defense last year,” Meyer said. “I saw it from our coaches, I saw it from our players.”
There’s no secret how Meyer wants his teams to play – angry and fearless. But he hasn’t seen that yet in Columbus. Quite the opposite, actually. At times, he’s seen paralysis by analysis, players performing tentatively to avoid making a mistake.
Issues on defense first arrived in 2012 when Ohio State allowed 49 points to Indiana. The Buckeyes finished the season undefeated and confidence soared. But the groundwork for defensive shortcomings was set quietly below the surface.
In the final two games last season – both losses – Ohio State gave up more than 1,000 yards and 74 points. Go back to the Michigan game and the Buckeyes allowed an additional 600 yards and 41 points.
Soon after the Orange Bowl ended, Meyer understood bigger changes loomed than the usual personnel comings and goings.
“I’ve got to make sure that we have a clarity of purpose, of culture here at Ohio State,” he said. “It’s not timid. It’s a very aggressive approach to everything we do.”
Ash and Johnson usher in a change, but also a return of the Silver Bullets. Wide receivers will feel uncomfortable with contact at the line of scrimmage. Press coverage is aimed at ridding the laundry list of weaknesses scattered about last season’s pass defense. Meanwhile, Johnson has developed a deep rotation of defensive linemen and cultivated the atmosphere among the group.
“It doesn’t matter what we do schematically, we’re going to have a philosophy,” Ash said. “We’re going to have a system, an identity about what we're doing. But really, it’s all about how hard we play and how consistent we are doing it.”
The objective isn’t just to re-store the Ohio State defense’s roar, it’s to place the Buckeyes among the perennial leaders nationally. Before the recent stumble, that level of play was commonplace. The tables have now turned to where offense is more prevalent and accepted.
“Back in the day, it was about the defense,” cornerback Tyvis Powell said. “So that’s what we’re trying to get theme to go back to. Let’s go to the game to see their defense, not the offense.”
Powell continued on, giving credence to everything Meyer said about fear. The junior said the backend of the defense played scared, which zapped the aggression and led to vulnerabilities.
Spring practice and the spring game brought on noticeable modifications. Not only did philosophies and schemes change, but also there was a vigor and energy that was absent in 2013.
“That was the huge emphasis that I was trying to make on the secondary,” Powell said. “[Fans] really came to see what was talked about so bad in the media, about how bad the pass defense was. [The spring] was just a way to showcase that we improved and we were able to be aggressive.”
As if Ohio State’s defenders had any choice. Some coaches yelled, some were mild-mannered, but the points hammered on were simple enough – and the buy-in rate would have the SEC – not that SEC – suspicious.
“They’re not allowed to not buy into it to be perfectly honest with you. It’s not an option," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs bellowed. “It is the way it’s going to be.”
And the Silver Bullets are the way they’re going be – aggressive, hard-hitting and sound. It’s a throwback to recent times and to the 60s and onward.