Cause for concern

Flood of points, yards bewilders OSU defense

Michigan State's Tony Lippett, left, makes a 33-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State's C.J. Barnett (4) during the first half of a Big Ten Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.
Michigan State's Tony Lippett, left, makes a 33-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State's C.J. Barnett (4) during the first half of a Big Ten Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.

COLUMBUS — The aftermath of an Ohio State loss is rarely pretty, and this week is no different.

No one understands this better than Luke Fickell, who has felt both the adulation and wrath of the Buckeyes’ loudest minority. A sampling of message boards after Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game revealed hotter heads prevailing and predictions the man in charge of OSU’s defense would not, with one fan launching FireFickell.com.

Yet publicly, the even-tempered Fickell’s response remains the same: Bring it.

“I tell guys all the time, the hardest thing around Columbus, Ohio, to handle is praise,” Fickell said. “Criticism is not hard to handle. If you’re not a tough person, you’re in the wrong sport anyway. Criticism just makes you tougher, makes you grind harder, makes you work harder, and it makes you a better person.”

Can it also make a better defense?

Though coach Urban Meyer has not hinted at any wholesale changes, he said he plans to evaluate a defense that has fallen short of his standard — and one that is bracing for its biggest test yet against Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

All-American senior quarterback Tajh Boyd has thrown for 3,473 yards and 29 touchdowns on a Tigers offense ranked 12th nationally (502.9 yards per game). By comparison, Michigan and Michigan State — the schools that have gashed OSU for a combined 75 points and 1,000-plus yards the past two weeks — are 83rd and 84th, respectively.

“We’ve already began to look at [the defense],” said Meyer, who is 7-1 all-time in bowl games and 4-0 in BCS contests. “There are certainly some things that need to get fixed, and get fixed in a hurry. Look at what’s coming down the road here.”

A defense whose off-and-on struggles played out under the cover of a national-best 24-game winning streak was exposed in full during the Buckeyes’ 34-24 loss to Michigan State.

Spartans sophomore quarterback Connor Cook said earlier in the week he was “licking his chops” to face OSU, then backed up the bluster with a career-high 304 yards passing.

A week after the Buckeyes were burned by Michigan’s screen passes and misdirections, a 13-yard screen for the Spartans’ first completion foreshadowed another long day. They allowed five plays of 20 or more yards, three of which went for touchdowns and a fourth — a 48-yard pass from Cook to Macgarrett Kings, Jr. — that led to the Spartans’ other TD.

All the more staggering was it came despite regular pressure from OSU, with star freshman defensive end Joey Bosa having two of the team’s eight tackles for a loss. The back seven often appeared lost — Shazier said there was “some miscommunication” — with the pass defense Meyer called “alarming” in October returning for a second straight week.

There are explanations. OSU has little linebacker depth beyond star junior Ryan Shazier, and a season-ending injury to third-year senior safety Christian Bryant was a bigger issue than expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby’s extended second-half absence with a knee injury Saturday didn’t help, either.

Meyer, though, does not excuse the performance, calling the Buckeyes’ coverage “disappointing.” This is not what he expects. His best teams have enjoyed far more balance — Florida boasted a top-10 defense in five of his six years there. This year’s Buckeye defense is 29th overall (362.2 yards per game) and 104th against the pass (259.5).

“It is what it is,” Fickell said. “Guys have got to make plays. We’ve got to put them in situations where they can make plays. There’s no finger-pointing.”

For yet another week, the search for answers continues, though time is running out. Fickell insists the Buckeyes are not far off.

“Football’s the greatest team sport known to man because it takes 11 guys,” Fickell said. “You have 10 guys playing well out there, and they’re going to find that one guy. That’s what we got to make sure we do a better job at is all sticking together through those adverse situations.”

RATINGS HIT: The Big Ten’s return to the national spotlight delivered monster TV ratings.

More than 13.9 million Fox viewers made Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game the most-watched college football game of the season. The audience surpassed the previous high for Nov. 30 Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama (13.8 million) and marked Fox’s highest-rated Saturday night broadcast since an NFL playoff game last January.

Wisconsin’s rout of Nebraska in last year’s Big Ten title game drew 5.1 million viewers.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.