Can You Fix a Defense in Six Days?

By Kyle Rowland on December 3, 2013 at 9:15 am
Luke Fickell's defense has been questioned for two years.

If you read any message boards following Ohio State’s 42-41 win over Michigan on Saturday, you may have come away thinking the Buckeyes lost. That’s because of the doomsday attitude toward the Rusted Bullets. Ohio State’s once-proud defense, despite a bevy of talented players, resembles something from the 1980s era WAC instead of Columbus.

Championship-caliber defenses have come through Ohio State like Model Ts off a Ford assembly line. With the dawn of each new season, the amount of players lost to the NFL and graduation are irrelevant. The Buckeyes trot out a top-flight unit regardless of how many new starters take the field. Silver Bullets never lose their shine – until they do.

Michigan gained 600 yards Saturday, just the second time in school history Ohio State has ever yielded that many yards. When defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was asked what went wrong, he was incredulous.

“Did we win? Did we win?” he asked reporters on Monday. “Because I’ve been up there quite a few times in my 18-year career here and have not always been able to come away with the win.

“Momentum and things happen and we didn’t play great on the defensive side of the ball. So there are a lot of things to correct.”

At the top of list is pass defense, an area that’s plagued the Buckeyes going on two seasons. Devin Gardner completed 32 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns, including three during a fourth-quarter comeback bid. It was bad enough that after a victory over their arch nemesis to stay in the national championship hunt, linebacker Ryan Shazier said it felt bittersweet.

“We’re pretty disappointed,” he said. “We’re a lot better than that. We had a bad game. We had too much emotion at the beginning and they got in front of us. They started off early and we just had to start calming down. We just have to do better.”

Confidence from head coach Urban Meyer isn’t lacking. He believes the unit will improve during six days of practice leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game against 10th-ranked Michigan State. In his own words, they have no choice.

What was once an alarming pass defense has evolved into a four-alarm fire. Time and again, Michigan rolled Gardner to the right, only to have him come back left and throw across his body, more often than not, to an open receiver in the flat. Screen passes have turned into Ohio State’s kryptonite.

“We’re pretty disappointed,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We’re a lot better than that.”

Shazier said the misdirection plays are effective because you rarely see them executed. Fellow linebacker, sophomore Joshua Perry, made reference to facing the facts.

“When you turn on the film, you’ve got to realize there were some mistakes made,” Perry said. “It’s nothing too urgent, like we’ve got to throw out the whole defense and start over again. We just have to correct what we know how to do.”

They’ll have to do so on short rest, though Fickell didn’t seem too bothered by it. Nor did the players. Adrenaline can work wonders, as can age. But with a blueprint now available to thwart the winners of 24 games in a row, Fickell believes awareness is critical.

“You’ve got to move on, but it all comes down to awareness,” he said.

It wasn’t long ago that the Buckeyes ranked ninth nationally in total defense. That number has since plummeted to 30th, largely because the pass defense is taking on more water than the titanic. Ohio State is allowing 256 yards passing per game – 101st in the country and 11th out of 12 Big Ten teams. Linebacker Curtis Grant’s return, which isn’t known at this point, could be a boon for the Buckeyes.

Minimal depth at linebacker has contributed to some defensive woes. Also at issue is the balancing act of playing aggressive but not too aggressive. The Buckeyes lead the nation in sacks, but over pursuing or not getting home on blitzes led to several explosive plays for Michigan.

“We were exposed,” Meyer said.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, a Walsh Jesuit grad, shared that viewpoint, saying he and the Spartan offense is licking their chops. Cook’s production has steadily increased throughout the regular season. There’s still a sentiment that Michigan State’s offense is nothing but a plodding, low-scoring unit, but Cook has thrown for 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns. Play like they did last week and Meyer said emphatically that the Buckeyes won’t win.

Said Fickell: “We can’t change who we are. We can’t step back and ask our kids to change their demeanor and not be aggressive and not get after the quarterback just because of one situation.”

In Ohio State’s corner is the fact the Spartans don’t have someone who can burn the defense like Allen Robinson, Jared Abbrederis or Jeremy Gallon. And to Fickell’s facetious “we won the game” comment, he is right. The Buckeyes have done it 24 consecutive games, whether the defense played lights out or struggled.

“Every single week we have objectives, and the last objective last week was win,” Fickell said. “And you know what? We came away with a win.”

All they need again this week is one more point than the opponent and it’s off to sunny Southern California.

“We’ve got to get better at what it is that we do and we’ve got to focus on what we’re going to do,” Fickell said. “That’s the name of the game. Every play, every time you go out, every practice, we’ve got to get better. That’s an attitude we’ve had from the beginning of the year.

“No excuses, we’ve just got to get better.”

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