Nineteen-ninety-six was a pivotal year in Ohio State football. That was the year that the school that produced Bill Willis, Jack Tatum and Chris Spielman went back to being known for defense.
How would the Buckeyes cope with the loss of the nation's best running back and wide receiver as well as the Big Ten's top quarterback? It turned out the answer was on the other side of the ball. Those Buckeyes became the first Silver Bullets.
They played with a different style than they had the previous season, one that was brutally effective and absolutely a joy to watch. Those Buckeyes built a reputation that lasted long after they were gone, even if sometimes in name only. Even as Ohio State's defense continued to be effective through the first decade of the 21st Century, it did so with a different kind of style that many longtime Ohio State observers always felt was missing something even as it usually did the job.
This offseason we've heard a lot of rhetoric about how those days are coming back, but it's more than just talk that is similar to the glory days of the original Silver Bullets. How does the lead up to the 2014 Ohio State season resemble the birth of the original Silver Bullets in 1996? Let us count the ways...
The landscape of college football is different, too, with the Big Ten not as strong as it once was and a chance to play for a national championship more tangible thanks to the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes' 2014 schedule should be tough enough to test them, but there are not multiple top-five teams in the country awaiting them in September as there were back then in Penn State and Notre Dame.
But the most interesting similarities come with how last season ended and how the Buckeyes are changing the defense. The images are nearly identical in a lot of ways.
There are differences, too, of course.
In 1995, Ohio State was ranked No. 2 in the nation when they went to Michigan and gave up 313 yards Tim Biakabutuka, ruining a perfect season. Then they dropped a rain-soaked Citrus Bowl to Peyton Manning and Tennessee. A different squad from that state up north and a different Southern school with a star senior quarterback downed the 2013 Buckeyes, but the effects were much the same. They left no doubt about a need for change.
"I didn't think about it because I hadn't felt bad about a year here probably since I was playing with the way we felt defensively, maybe '06," said Luke Fickell, the current Ohio State defensive coordinator and the nose guard for the Buckeyes from 1993-96, when asked about comparisons to his final offseason as a player. "Obviously it's hard to say when you lose a national championship, but you give up a lot of points in that team up north game and stuff, but it wasn't talked about as much because it was just a different time, but that would be a good comparison."
Defensive coordinator Bill Young left for Oklahoma after the 1995 season and was replaced by Fred Pagac, who was promoted from linebackers coach and remade the Buckeyes into an aggressive, attacking unit that was the backbone of a team that won the 1996 Big Ten title and the '97 Rose Bowl.
According to Matt Finkes, a two-time All-Big Ten defensive end who was a senior in '96 and who is now a radio personality in Columbus, both Pagac's Cover 4-based scheme and the general attitude trying to be instilled are similar to the scheme coming to Columbus with new secondary coach Chris Ash.
"Pug didn't change the philosophy of the defense as much as he just changed the aggression level," Finkes told BuckeyeSports.com. "A lot of the calls and defensive formations we did were things that were in our playbook under Bill Young, but the philosophy changed and the way he called the defense was a more attacking style of defense. Our alignments changed minutely and really just more for Mike (Vrabel) and I than for anyone else in the defense except the secondary. Pug just really took what Bill Young did and used the more aggressive side of it than the more passive Cover 2, over-stacked defense."
Asked later, Fickell agreed there are similarities.
"Yeah, it really would be," Fickell said. "It would definitely be more of an aggressive style of play, and as you see times change. We're gonna continue to adapt and change with those times as well. If we don't, that's when we can fall behind."
Of course, the '96 team owed its success as much to the Jimmies and the Joes as the Xs and the Os. In addition to Finkes, Vrabel and Fickell up front, the nation's No. 2 scoring defense featured All-American cornerback Shawn Springs and fellow future NFL draft picks Andy Katzenmoyer at linebacker, Rob Kelly and Damon Moore at safety and Ty Howard at the other cornerback spot. Future Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield was the nickel back. Katzenmoyer was a revelation, of course, taking advantage of the new scheme and the veteran defensive line to post 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a true freshman.
Katzenmoyer's arrival also allowed the cerebral but undersized Greg Bellisari to move from middle linebacker to the outside, improving two spots rather than just one, while 305-pound Winfield Garnett moved into the starting three-technique tackle spot. Moore was a new starter at safety and ended up leading the team in tackles twice in three years.
"I think the personnel in '96 fit the defensive style we had perfectly," Finkes said. "When you have the corners that we had and then you have Rob Kelly and you have Antoine Winfield to be able to play nickel, you were able to do pretty much whatever you wanted with the six guys in the box. Being able to move around and play different positions, Mike and I were able to stand up and rush from the outside, gave us a lot of options there. The versatility Pug liked to have with his calls worked really well with the personnel we had in 1996. I don't think you could run that package with just anybody."
There will be more new faces on the 2014 Ohio State defense than there were in '96, but plenty of them are as highly recruited if not more so. It remains to be seen if they will prove to have the same makeup that made that unit successful.
"There are some schematic changes," Fickell said. "It's more philosophy changes in some ways, but I think the comparison being that there's a chip on the shoulder not just for the coaches but obviously the players we're training to do it. If we have the same kind of leadership we had from '95 to '96 with that senior crew, the sky's the limit for us."
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