COLUMBUS — Forgive Luke Fickell if he is defensive about Ohio State’s defense.
As a Buckeyes nose guard in the 1990s, he endured too much heartbreak against Michigan to not appreciate a win over their rivals. OSU’s 42-41 win Saturday sure felt a whole lot better than its more throwback 13-9 loss in 1996 — the third time in his four years UM ruined an unbeaten Buckeyes season.
So what went wrong last weekend? Ohio State’s defensive coordinator laughed.
“What do you mean what went wrong?” Fickell said. “Did we win? Did we win? Did we win? ... I went into that game undefeated three of my four years and didn’t come away with success. Whether it would have been a 42-41 win, I bet you I would be really happy to have one of them back.”
Truth is, though, he knows the second-ranked Buckeyes have some fixing to do before Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game against No. 10 Michigan State.
While the focus will be on Ohio State’s record-smashing offense against the nation’s best defense — the Spartans allow only 237.7 yards per game — the other sides of the ball may figure just as prominently.
“That stuff about our [offense and their defense] is good for the media and all that,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “But as far as winning the game, we’re going to have to play excellent defense against their offense.”
If not quite an anchor, Ohio State’s defense has been the only cause for concern on a team likely bound for the BCS title game with a win on Saturday in Indianapolis.
An off-and-on unit down to three returning starters vanished against a Michigan offense ranked 96th nationally, surrendering 451 yards passing and 603 overall — the most OSU has allowed since 1980.
Ohio State fell to 30th in total defense (355.8 yards per game) and 101st in stopping the pass (255.8).
Its latest performance underscored any number of question marks, including a lack of depth at linebacker, an uneven secondary, and the youth of a defensive line that has at times had its way but struggled to consistently pressure Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
Fickell also said an aggressive gameplan — a head-on mode that has helped the Buckeyes amass a national-best 39 sacks this season — left Ohio State more susceptible to the Wolverines’ screens and misdirection plays. OSU, for instance, was blitzing on Gardner’s early 84-yard throwback screen pass to Jeremy Gallon.
“But like we say to our kids, do you want us to stop and just play all base and not be aggressive because they’re going to hit you on something?” Fickell said. “You’ve got to move on. It all comes down to awareness.”
Bottom line, Meyer said, the defense must get better by Saturday. Or else ...
“We won’t win the game,” he said. “We won’t win that game this time. That’s just very simple. We have to play much better.”
As for Michigan State’s take on the Buckeyes’ high-wire win over UM?
“Any time you see your opponent give up that many yards the week before you play them, you’re licking your chops,” MSU quarterback Connor Cook said.
OSU players say they embrace the challenge. Though Cook has thrown for 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns, a no-frills Spartans offense just as content to stay on the ground could play into their hands. The Buckeyes’ rush defense ranks fifth in the country, limiting opponents to 100 yards per game.
“We were exposed [Saturday],” Meyer said. “We didn’t play very well, and when that happens, you’ve just got to get it fixed. I have a lot of confidence we will.”
Asked what he would tell fans who are down on the defense, cornerback Doran Grant smiled.
“Just tune in Saturday,” he said.
NO SUSPENSIONS: The Big Ten announced the two Ohio State players ejected for their role in the melee at Michigan will not be suspended for the Big Ten championship game.
The league did, however, issue a public reprimand of senior offensive lineman Marcus Hall for “his actions while exiting the playing field.” The starting guard slammed his helmet to the turf and raised his middle fingers to the crowd after he and freshman receiver Dontre Wilson, along with UM backup linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone, were ejected for throwing punches in the second-quarter fight.
The league also reprimanded the OSU staff for “failing in its duty to effectively manage the process of escorting” Hall to the locker room, but otherwise praised the coaches and officials.
“The officials and coaching staffs from both institutions did a good job of containing the situation once it started,” the Big Ten said in a statement. “As bad as it was, we’re fortunate the incident did not escalate any further. More can and should be done by both coaching staffs in the future to prevent similar incidents from detracting from this rivalry.”
Meyer called Hall’s gesture “nonsense” and said he was “very disappointed and angry” about the scuffle.
“That’s not us,” he said. “That’s not Ohio State, and it’s not them.”