COLUMBUS — Speak the name of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, and the six-syllable nightmare returns.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell can shut his eyes and see Michigan’s Tim Biakabutuka still running, as if his 313 rushing yards against the previously unbeaten Buckeyes 19 years ago were not enough.
“I never want to relive it,” said Fickell, the nose tackle in OSU’s 31-23 loss that day.
On second thought, what is sleep?
Asked if he could envision a bigger rushing day — one like the 408-yard deluge Gordon dropped on Nebraska weeks earlier — Fickell smiled.
“No, I don't want to imagine 400 yards rushing,” he said.
And so the work continues.
In Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the nation’s most unstoppable force (Gordon) is set to meet — at least of late — the very moveable object (the Ohio State run defense).
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes (11-1) know it will not matter who is playing quarterback if they can’t limit the nation’s record-smashing leading rusher.
“Obviously Wisconsin is as good a rushing team as there is in the country,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “So we’re going to have to devote some more personnel to us stopping the run.”
Gordon presents the toughest in a line of tests the Buckeyes’ otherwise improved defense have barely passed over the past month. The league’s top rushers only increased their already prolific rushing averages against OSU, including Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford (137 yards on 18 carries), Minnesota’s David Cobb (145 yards on 27 carries), and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (228 yards on 27 carries).
Yet none compare to Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 213-pound blend of power and 4.4 speed who has rushed for 2,260 yards and 26 touchdowns through 12 games.
Locked in a two-man race for the Heisman Trophy with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the junior from Kenosha, Wisc., has sledgehammered through the record books. He surpassed 2,000 rushing yards faster than any player in FBS history — his 241 carries at the time 10 fewer than Penn State’s Larry Johnson required in 2002 — zipped past Ron Dayne’s single-season Big Ten rushing record set in Madison in 1996 (2,109 yards), and is now eyeing Oklahoma State legend Barry Sanders’ all-time rushing mark (2,628 yards). With two contests remaining, he will get there as long as he sticks close to his average of 188.3 yards per game.
“This is as good a running back they have had, and they have had some great ones,” Fickell said. “Montee Ball, James White and heck, go all the way back to Ron Dayne. I don’t know that they’ve had one as electric as Gordon. You can’t let him get going. We have seen, you get some of those guys going, it’s hard to get them down.”
So what to do about it? For starters, OSU can look at the film from its 31-24 win over Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten opener. Gordon had only 74 yards on 15 carries, held under triple digits for the first time of the season.
But that was a different Gordon and a different OSU defense. The Buckeyes were torched for 295 yards through the air that night, reflecting their enduring woes against the pass. This year, their problems — and priorities — have flipped. Their overhaul to fix the pass defense has resulted in a league-best 18 interceptions but more holes up front.
In all, OSU ranks 19th nationally in total defense — up from 47th last season — limiting opponents to 333.8 yards per game. Meyer said, “For the most part, I have not been disappointed.”
“We’ve been really close to being a really, really sound, stout, smothering defense,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “It’s just those few bad plays.”
The ones that can fuel nightmares for years.
“It just comes down to playing team defense,” Fickell said. “It's not like last year, we would have just put [All-American linebacker] Ryan Shazier on [Gordon] and spied him. No, you don’t do that. You have to have great defense. You have to surround the ball, you have to build a wall at the line, and you have to swarm tackle.
“No one guy is going to bring him down.”
BARRETT RECOVERING: Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had just one question when his record-setting season ended prematurely last Saturday.
“You just wonder ‘Why?’” he said Wednesday. “When you have those conversations or little talks with God, you’ll be like, ‘Why now?’
“But you never know. I’m taking it for what it is. What can I do, you know?”
Speaking with reporters for the first time since fracturing his ankle late in the Buckeyes’ 42-28 win over Michigan, Barrettt was already focused on the future. He underwent surgery on Sunday — a procedure that required a metal plate and screws — and will remain in a cast for six weeks. Barrett expects to be ready, though limited, for spring practice and full speed for summer workouts. He plans to travel with the Buckeyes to Indianapolis.
As for how he ended up in the stands minutes after suffering the gruesome injury, Barrett shrugged. Team doctors wanted to immediately transport him to the hospital, but he would have none of it. He watched the final minutes of the game with fans.
“I found out it was broken, but I wasn’t in that tremendous, horrible pain, and I wanted to see the end,” Barrett said. “Even if I was in some crazy pain, I still wanted to watch the end of the game, so it wasn’t that big a deal, I didn’t think.”