The last two seasons have been a tale of two defenses for Ohio State football.
In 2013, the Buckeye stop unit was a liability, especially late in the season. A year later, a pair of new assistants combined with two holdovers to rethink how the Buckeyes played defense and the results were much better. If not quite the new Silver Bullets, the 2014 Ohio State defense was an opportunistic bunch that played its best in the biggest games at the end of the season.
What was the difference between the two? Well, one can easily look at the roster and see some change in personnel, but simply plugging in new players does not tell the tale -- not even close. That is particularly true when considering the fact three of the 2013 team's best players -- linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Bradley Roby -- were among those who weren't around in 2014.
How does a defense get better despite losing three All-Big Ten performers?
Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes' defensive coordinator, made the case personnel is never really a question at Ohio State. Speaking to a collection of high school coaches at the annual Ohio State coaches clinic in April, he said even the 2011 team for which he was the interim coach had enough talent to post a much better record than the 6-7 mark with which it ended up. That is the only Ohio State team to finish below .500 in the past 25 years, so it's as good as any to use as an example. Fickell also pointed out to the crowd he has been at his alma mater now for 20 years, making him among the foremost experts on how things have gone around there for quite some time.
The Columbus native offered an interesting explanation for why the 2013 defense proved to be an anchor on Ohio State's national championship hopes while the '14 unit helped the Buckeyes soar to the top of college football.
Before doing so, he posted an interesting fact. Then he dismissed the most-often-cited reason.
Would you believe the 2013 defense and the 2014 team posted nearly identical stats through their first five games? The rushing and passing yards allowed varied somewhat significantly because one team faced run-dominant Navy while the other took on pass-happy Cal, but overall the 2013 defense entered week six allowing 304 yards and 17 points per game. And the 2014 group? Those Buckeyes stood at 314.4 and 20.0, respectively.
Keen observers likely know why Fickell chose the five-game mark to begin his comparison. While game No. 5 of 2013 was arguably Ohio State's best win of the season (over No. 23 Wisconsin), it was also one that came with a cost. Head coach Urban Meyer arrived in the postgame room at Ohio Stadium that night with a solemn look on his face as he had just received the news Christian Bryant, a senior safety, was out for the season with a broken ankle.
"My goodness, just love that kid," Meyer said. "I just want to ask you to keep Christian's family in your prayers and that darn kid has done so much for our program, come so far. Incredible leadership skills. And he's going to be even more valuable outside of football. I love that guy. Doggone it. Hard part of the game, boy."
Meyer was visibly shaken by the revelation, and he has said on more than one occasion since that losing Bryant was a major blow to the 2013 defense.
Fickell told a different story in April, however. While acknowledging Bryant's value to the team, he did not blame Bryant's absence for the defense's decline. Rather the problem Fickell saw was how the coaching staff reacted to his exiting the lineup.
"The No. 1 thing in leadership is consistency," Fickell said. "In 2013, we had a guy injured so as coaches sometimes we know our team better than anybody, we know our deficiencies so what's the first thing we start to do? We start to mask our deficiencies. So we changed. We not only changed what we do, we changed how we do it.
"What does that entail? Sometimes it entails you having a good game because you changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4 or you changed from a quarters defense to three deep because you're trying to hide something. In reality, what does that do? It doesn't make you better in the long run. When you're changing all the time, you're not getting better at what you do. You've got to truly believe in what you do."
"I know I look back to '13 and we got a guy injured. That's not the reason why. We started to change. We got to mask -- that guy's not quite as good, so we've got to do something different. The ultimate goal is to play best at the end of the year, and that's what we didn't do because we didn't have consistency."
Fast forward a year and "quarters" was again a buzzword at Ohio State as the Buckeyes tried again to base their attack around that type of pass coverage, but early returns were not all that favorable.
After opening the season against Navy's triple-option attack (which did not give the Buckeyes a a chance to see anything resembling a traditional modern passing game), the new-look defense suffered some key breakdowns that kept drives alive as Virginia Tech scored a 35-21 upset in week two.
Two games later, Cincinnati came to Ohio Stadium and put 28 points on the board, thanks in no small part to several long bombs that had many Buckeye fans deeply dismayed about the direction of the defense after an offseason full of talk about things would be different this time around.
In time it turned out they were, and Fickell told the coaches at the clinic why.
"What's the No. 1 thing we've got to be able to do? That is play great at the end of the year," said Fickell, whose defense ended up allowing about 35 yards per game less in 2014 than the year before. "That's what we said at the beginning of camp. We've got to play our best ball at the end of the year, and this is how we're going to do it: We're going to consistently do what we need to do, we're going to put our fundamentals on film, we're going to care about one another, love one another, and we're going to work our butts off. They saw us continue to stay to that, whether we got beat by Virginia Tech or gave up four long touchdowns against Cincinnati, we didn't change what we believed. We were consistent to what we were doing. And it ultimately you saw it throughout the entire season."
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