On the eve of the Big Ten Championship Game last season, Ohio State’s defective defense was unraveling and so was Luke Fickell.
While the Buckeyes were fresh off a thriller against arch-rival Michigan, the Wolverines — which touted one of the worst offenses in the country — suddenly erupted for 603 yards in Ann Arbor. Sure, then second-ranked Ohio State ultimately notched their 24th-straight win in two years, but it seemed like a potentially disconcerting sign of things to come.
When the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach was asked to address “what went wrong” the following Monday, Fickell snapped and growled at reporters.
“What do you mean what went wrong?” he said. “Did we win? Did we win? Did we win?"
You know the rest of the story.
The Buckeyes lost their next two games to Michigan State and Clemson and, in the process, were gouged for more than 1,000 yards. They finished 47th in total defense and — perhaps most glaringly — 112th in pass defense. Head coach Urban Meyer vowed a defensive overhaul in the offseason and poached Chris Ash away from Arkansas to work with Fickell to mend not only a broken system, but a broken culture as well.
“I don’t know if we’ve gone through an offseason since I’ve been here that I didn’t really feel good about the way we played at the end of the year,” Fickell said in August. “So it was quite an eventful offseason, and I just mean that as we’re the hardest critics on ourselves.”
Through eight games, Ohio State’s defense is considerably better than the unit that came undone last year:
- Scoring defense: 19.9 points a game, (17th nationally)
- Total defense: 300 yards, (eighth nationally)
- Pass defense: 181 yards, (13th nationally)
- Run defense: 119 yards, (18th nationally)
- Takeaways: 14 interceptions (seventh nationally) and forced nine fumbles
It’s why, almost a year since the Buckeyes got gashed for 438 yards and big play after big play against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, Fickell and a defense that was rightfully maligned last season is far less neurotic.
The conversation has changed.
“You can compare them and say you feel good about things but like I told the guys the other day, the hardest thing is not to handle criticism, the hardest thing sometimes is to handle praise,” Fickell said.
“Just when you think you’re starting to get better and you’re where you wanna be, that’s the things that cause letdowns.”
Ohio State has yet to have one since a loss to Virginia Tech (though Cincinnati hit the Buckeyes with big plays through the air on three different occasions). Of course, the Buckeyes intend to keep it that way against the Spartans Saturday in East Lansing.
“I think its moving in the direction we want to. Again, (we’re) never satisfied; it’s a really tough life to live sometimes but the reality is, we always ask ourselves, can we play harder,” Fickell said.
“Coach (Meyer) always comes in and asks the same the thing: Are you really playing as hard as you possibly can? There’s always room for that, nobody ever really truly plays as hard as everybody thinks they should or could so we continue to harp on those things.”