Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell knows exactly when the Michigan game flipped — where the confidence of his players eroded and the Wolverine offense grabbed the upper hand and kept it the rest of the day.
The Buckeyes were in an all-out blitz on Michigan’s third play, and quarterback Devin Gardner flipped a sideline pass to receiver Jeremy Gallon, who followed a convoy of blockers on an 84-yard romp to the Ohio State 2-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown.
After making gains defensively the last few outings by applying more pressure on the quarterback, the Buckeyes suddenly became tentative, having realized the Wolverines had an antidote for that aggressive approach.
“We were blitzing and didn’t execute. We didn’t get off blocks. Guys didn’t retrace to the ball,” Fickell said. “Sometimes those plays put your kids in a little bit of a shock situation. And the game’s a different game (after that). It’s all about momentum.”
Fickell admitted he’d like a mulligan on that call, but that might have been the only play where he second-guessed himself during the Buckeyes’ 42-41 victory, which wasn’t decided until an interception on a potential game-winning, two-point conversion try.
The Wolverines finished with 603 total yards, the second-highest amount ever amassed by an OSU opponent. And Gardner passed for 451 yards, the fifth-most allowed by the Buckeyes.
Michigan ran several throwback screens — where Gardner rolled to his right and passed over the heads of defenders in the other direction — and they worked virtually every time.
But Fickell was defiant while meeting with the media this week. When a reporter opened the interview with a question about what went wrong, Fickell said: “What do you mean ‘what went wrong?’ Did we win? Did we win? Did we win? I’ve been up there quite a few times during my 18-year career (as a player and coach) and didn’t come away with a win.
“We know we have things we have to correct. Momentum and things happened, and we didn’t play great on the defensive side of the ball. But every week, we have objectives, and the last objective is to win. We came away with a win. We made a play when we had to make a play.”
But coach Urban Meyer doesn’t think the Buckeyes can keep counting on victories without dramatic improvement on defense.
Asked what would happen if the unit plays that way against Michigan State this week, Meyer said, “We won’t win the game. That’s just very simple. We have to play much better.”
He added: “(Poor) pass defense surfaced again and we had a lack of contact on the quarterback. We just had some (receivers) running open. It’s a combination of things. … But I trust that we’ll get it fixed.”
Fickell has been skewered on sports talk shows in Columbus, but the Buckeyes actually are respectable statistically. They’re fifth nationally against the run and are one of only two teams out of 123 at the FBS level (along with Syracuse) that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
They also rank 18th in scoring defense (20.3 points per game) and 30th in total defense (355.8 yards per game).
But Fickell knows the standards at OSU are higher than that — because he had a major role in establishing them. He was co-defensive coordinator under coach Jim Tressel from 2005-10. The Buckeyes had the No. 1 scoring defense in 2007 (12.8 points per game) and never finished worse than sixth in that span.
The current unit is plagued by a lack of quality linebackers and youth at most positions. Safeties C.J. Barnett and Corey “Pitt” Brown are the only starting seniors.
Adjustments can be made to defend the throwback screen, but the experience and depth issues can only be fixed with time.
That’s why Fickell doesn’t intend to alter his game plans and take a more passive approach.
“You have to give them credit. They caught us in a couple things that were very difficult for us to defend in certain situations,” he said of the Wolverines. “But like we said to our kids, ‘Do you want us to stop and play all base (defense) and not do the things we do because they can hit you on something?’ You move on.
“We can’t change who we are. We can’t ask our kids to step back and change their demeanor and not get after the quarterback just because of that.”
OSU OPPONENTS’ TOP GAMES
Illinois 659 1980
Michigan 603 2013
Minnesota 578 2005
Penn State 572 1994
Purdue 553 1981
Illinois 621 1980
Purdue 516 1981
Purdue 497 1985
Purdue 455 2000
Michigan 451 2013
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Ohio State (12-0) vs. Michigan State (11-1), 8 p.m. Saturday, FOX, 1410