Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer and Luke Fickell yell at a referee during the 1st quarter against Michigan State Spartans in the NCAA college football game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan on Sept. 29.
COLUMBUS — Luke Fickell does not worry about life outside the bubble.
Really, insists Ohio State’s most scrutinized coach. The armchair quarterbacks screaming for his job on talk radio? The blistering message boards? The hard-hitting television report claiming a Columbus-area pizza delivery man was fired for telling the coach’s wife his defense needed work?
“If you can put more pressure on me than I put on myself, I don’t know how you could,” Fickell said Monday. “So the outside pressures, I don’t know, I don’t feel it. If they’re harder or stronger than what I put on myself, then maybe I should read about it.”
Back as defensive coordinator after guiding the Buckeyes through the turmoil of last season, he is finding his new role as fraught with tension as his old one.
Fickell said OSU’s 52-49 victory against Indiana on Saturday left him with a larger-than-usual pit in his stomach.
While the seventh-ranked Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) continue to pile up points — they have hung at least half-a-hundred in consecutive games for the first time since 1996 — a program traditionally defined by their defense is allowing them at an alarming rate.
Before Saturday, OSU had never given up 49 points and won. Its defense is ranked 69th nationally, allowing an average of 400 yards per game.
“Is there a pit? Yes. Does it make it hard to sleep? Yes,” Fickell said. “But what do you do? You can fold up your tent, you can start to whine and complain, or you can go back to work and find a way to get better.”
Fair or not, the pizza boy is not the only one aiming the finger at Fickell. After serving as co-defensive coordinator under Jim Heacock between 2005 and 2010, he is now being paid $750,000 per year to call the shots.
Meyer expressed confidence Monday in his defensive coaches, noting a roster short on depth — especially at linebacker — and the new-look staff. Fickell is the lone holdover from the Jim Tressel era. Defensive line coach Mike Vrabel joined OSU last year while co-coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs arrived this season.
“There are new guys in that room, but I feel good," Meyer said. “They're good team guys and great coaches. We just need to see more production on that side of the ball.”
Still, Meyer wants more answers and fewer four-hour slugfests.
The offensive-minded boss spent a chunk of Sunday afternoon in the defensive meeting room. While Meyer will leave the play-calling to his assistants, he sees too many poor angles, too many missed tackles, not enough fire. He said, “it's been absurd how many big plays we give up.” OSU allowed Indiana a 76-yard touchdown pass and a 59-yard scoring run.
Meyer said the defensive struggles are forcing him to reallocate his time, though he’s not sure yet how much to intervene.
“I've not done that very often,” he said. “I think my job is to support our [defensive] staff, support our players. … We're going to demand four to six seconds of relentless pursuit and effort. If you don't, I'll be involved in that.”
Fickell said he welcomes Meyer’s increased presence, saying it’s good to make the players “uncomfortable.”
“[The issues] are obvious,” he said. “But when it comes from the top down, it becomes a little bit more obvious. That’s what was so good about Sunday, for them to see the head guy over there take a big part in what we’re doing.”
Outside the secure walls of the football facility, meanwhile, Fickell said he will take the criticism.
He knows it’s part of the gig — even when the heat comes from the local pizza parlor. WTTE-TV reported last week a 25-year-old employee at Iacono’s Pizza in Shawnee Hills was fired after critiquing the Buckeyes’ tackling while taking a phone order from Fickell’s wife.
After the man said Fickell’s wife called to complain, OSU sought to clarify Pizza-Gate in a statement.
“The manager called the Fickells to ask what was said by his employee,” an OSU spokesman said. “They told him. And just like they did not place a call to complain, they also did not ask that anyone be fired.”
Added Fickell: “Our whole philosophy is don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. I think I said it a million times last year. My 5-year-olds know that, my wife knows that. We’re all in the same boat. We would never whine and complain."
As for the delivery man’s criticism? “I actually agree with him,” Fickell said, smiling.
MEWHORT HONORED: Left tackle Jack Mewhort was among three players recognized as the Buckeyes’ offensive player of the week. The St. John’s Jesuit graduate sent the defender opposite of him to the ground a season-high 12 times and did not allow a quarterback pressure against Indiana.
TIMES SET: Ohio State learned its start time will be noon for Saturday's home game against Purdue (3-3, 0-2), and also was informed of a slight change in the kickoff time for the game at Penn State on Oct. 27.
The game had been within the six-day window for television to make a programming decision.
In addition, the Buckeyes’ game in State College, Pa., will kick off at 5:30 p.m. instead of the 6 p.m. which had been announced. The move was made to more easily accommodate a television doubleheader. Both teams agreed to the request.
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