2002. A successful national championship season for the Ohio State Buckeyes led by Mr. Conservative himself, Jim Tressel and his trusty accomplice, Jim “Walrusball” Bollman. Both Jim’s had the same goals as any coach would – score more points than the other team and do not lose that lead. I know, real John Madden insight there but the processes involved as we all know are not the same for each coaching staff. Neither were known for taking chances offensively so when the team did take the lead, it became absolutely maddening to watch because a new playbook appeared that put the team on cruise control instead of their foot on the opponents throat. The team clearly had a lot of offensive talent. While Craig Krenzel was not exactly a top-tier quarterback, the demand for him to be was not pressing when he had surrounding talent such as Maurice Clarett, Santonio Holmes, Michael Jenkins and Chris Gamble. The team was more than capable of putting up 30+ points each game and with the incredible defense they had, winning games by a comfortable margin should seem somewhat effortless.
Yet, when you look at their schedule you find this: a 4-point win against a terrible Cincinnati team; a 5-point win against a poor Wisconsin team; an overtime win against a weak Illinois team and finally another 4-point win over Purdue that took exactly 8-years off my life (I did the math). This same team, loaded with ugly wins, won the national championship.
Was there an identifiable theme throughout all of this madness? There sure was – winning.
The current Ohio State Buckeyes have 7 wins, and exactly zero losses. This, in a transition year, after going 6-7 last season. Aside from the obvious bowl ineligibility, what is the difference from this team than the 2002 National Championship team? 5 games remain on the Buckeyes schedule. Should they finish the season undefeated, even as awful as the B1G is currently, would that be satisfactory? Instead of a simple “yes“, I would gamble that the immediate response lies along the lines of “not if their defense doesn’t learn how to tackle“. That is a completely fair statement considering that this team is is playing for nothing more than dignity and development. But remember, no matter how ugly it is, this team still continues to outscore everyone they play just as the national championship team did.
Listen, I am not naive enough to think that this current Buckeye roster is loaded with similar talent that the 2002 team had. Quite frankly, next year already scares the heck out of me with defensive juggernauts that will be graduating at the end of this season. John Simon (DT), Nathan Williams (DE), Etienne Sabino (LB), Travis Howard (CB) and Orhian Johnson (S) will all be leaving this already porous defense, not only forcing younger players to step up, but to grow without a true field general to learn from. The normal grace period of being a backup and learning for a year or two before stepping into the fire, will disappear quickly. That learning curve will be immediately replaced by the pressure of becoming a premier Ohio State player.
This current defense is struggling so much that Urban Meyer made the decision of moving the Buckeye’s fullback, Zach Boren, to linebacker. Boren lead the team in tackles Saturday night and Coach Meyer now says that the move is “temporarily permanent”. What truly starts to become even more troubling at this point is his response when speaking about the defense:
“I wish I had the answers,” going on to say only what he promised his family he would not do, “I don’t know. I’ve got to get more involved right now, and I don’t know what the issue is. So I don’t think you can pinpoint one thing right now.”
If Urban Meyer does not have an answer for what is currently going on, I can assure you that no one else does. We can speculate all we want, but that is all that it will remain to be. When issues such as this begin to arise, the natural reaction is to immediately look at the coach responsible which is Luke Fickell. I will acknowledge that it is a somewhat lightly swirling rumor that this falls back on him, but I do not believe for a minute that he shoulders even the majority of this current situation. Luke Fickell has been the linebackers coach since 2004 and helped produce some immensely talented defenses. That is not some blind loyalty to a coach because he was the sacrificial lamb for the program, but a recognition that he has a proven track record of knowing how to cultivate and mold talent.
Fickell said he did not get a whole lot of sleep after his defense gave up 26 first downs, 352 passing yards, 481 total yards and 49 points in Saturday night’s 52-49 win at Indiana.
“You try not to think about exactly how many points (you gave up),” he said. “If we had walked out of there having given up 31, to be honest with you, I’d have the same pit in my stomach. Maybe the pit grew a little because the kids and coaches and everybody else is talking about it. But we can’t lose sight of the No. 1 most important thing is to win. And get better.”
On Saturday afternoon everyone will be looking for answers. The Purdue Boilermakers come into Ohio Stadium looking for their 1st conference win after dropping both contests against Michigan and Wisconsin. The problem for the Buckeyes right now is that the Boilermakers actually have a very effective offense. To make matters worse, they run a spread offense which is predicated around short passes which have created some serious problems for Ohio State’s defense in the very recent past. Purdue is also averaging 33 points per game, so while they generally would not pose a serious threat in years past, Saturday can a very different scenario given the current state of the Buckeyes.
“We are not good in certain areas, and we were exposed,” Meyer said. “Spread offenses right now are really exposing us. We have got to get something fixed. I don’t want to take anything away. We are 7-0 and we ran the ball for 350 yards and had two guys really haul it running the ball. We have got to get back to work.”
This Ohio State team is currently averaging over 40 points per game which ranks them 20th in the entire NCAA, as well as averaging 263 rushing yards per game which is good for 8th in all of college football.
Finding the right answer is all a matter of perspective.