In Defense of the Defense

I need to start off with a disclaimer: I absolutely hate writing these kinds of posts. Whenever there is a controversial topic where both sides are passionate and stubborn it is nearly impossible to convince either side to be reasonable and have a discussion and not a fight.

Having said that, I want to tackle the issue of Ohio State’s defense and, in particular, Luke Fickell.

First lets start off with some facts.

Facts for 2012:

  • Ohio State is 7-0
  • The defense is giving up 24.6 PPG
  • OSU is giving up 122 YPG on the ground
  • OSU is giving up 277 YPG in the air
  • Total defense is 399 YPG

Facts for 2011:

  • Ohio State was 6-7
  • The defense gave up 21.0 PPG
  • OSU gave up 141 YPG on the ground
  • OSU gave up 180 YPG in the air
  • Total defense is 321 YPG

Now, for some of you, at the beginning of the year I heard a lot of people saying, “Coach Meyer better not FIRE Luke Fickell after he guided OSU through a 6-7 campaign and gained a lot of respect from fans and the media for helping guide OSU through a difficult time.” Fast forward ten months and OSU is now 7-0 and I am hearing a lot of fans screaming, “Coach Meyer better fire Luke Fickell.” WHAT?????

That alone might make my case. But if it pleases the court, I’d like to introduce some additional evidence for the jury.

Exhibit A – Last year, Luke didn’t call defensive plays and the defense was just as bad if not worse in some categories. Such as: in the seven losses, OSU gave up 25.5 PPG and in the seven wins this year OSU is giving up 24.6 PPG. Sounds like an improvement to me.

Exhibit B – OSU is running a completely new offense that is based on speeding things up and scoring as fast as possible. This strategy keeps the offense off the field a lot more and the defense on the field A LOT more. The more they are out there the more tired they get and more chances they have to make mistakes. Nine chances per game, to be exact. Last year, the defense was on the field for an average of 64 plays per game. Through the first seven games of this year, the defense is averaging 73 plays per game. A lot can happen in nine plays.

Exhibit C – OSU has lost a lot of talent to transfers and injuries. Of the last ten linebackers recruited, two are still with the team. TWO. We are decimated with injuries all over the defense to some of our key players. Some of those injured are still not 100% and are playing hurt. Every starting defensive back has missed time this year. We have had two of the three linebackers miss extended time. Half the defensive line has missed extended time.

Exhibit D – OSU has a serious depth issue and because of that they have to play a lot of freshmen who just aren’t ready to play at this level without making mistakes along the way.

Exhibit E – OSU is so depleted they have moved a fullback to linebacker and a defensive end to linebacker. Both of whom are seniors and have spent the previous three plus years playing at that position. That is a recipe for disaster.

Exhibit F – It is a time honored tradition for sports fans to blame the coaches when something goes bad. Maybe, just maybe, the players aren’t as good as we had all hoped. That’s not to say they can’t or won’t be great players but right now we have very few ELITE players on defense and those we have have been injured a lot.

Exhibit G – OSU has two defensive coordinators and a head coach and multiple defensive assistants. Somehow, Luke Fickell has become the scapegoat. If Coach Meyer thought Luke was the problem I am sure he would ask Coach Withers, who has had success calling defensive plays, to take over. Or any of the other defensive assistants. Truth is, he calls the plays and sometimes he calls bad ones. Sometimes the players just aren’t making the plays they need to.

Exhibit H – Coach Meyer and his staff will fix this problem and will do it by recruiting better defenders. They will put the best guys on the field and put them in a place to have success and if they fail they will replace them. That same theory will apply to the coaches as well.

What we have here folks is a perfect example of sports. There are very few “complete” teams, teams with great offenses, defenses, and coaching. Those teams are so rare and yet fans expect to have them every year for their teams. When it doesn’t happen some fans revolt and look for a scapegoat. Some fans blame the coaches. Some fans blame the players. Some fans blame the referees. In actuality there is enough blame to go around. So spread it around but make sure you have the facts and don’t blame blindly and be a lemming joining the masses in a good old fashioned rage-mob carrying pitchforks and torches.

Lastly, If I were to tell you two months ago OSU would be 7-0 right now and fans would be angry and wanting to see Luke Fickell fired, would you believe me?


  1. malibuckeye says

    Great points, and I agree with your premise.

    Counterpoint- Ohio State had the #19 defense in the country last year, and returned 9 starters.

    It gets better, right?

  2. @Mali- Yes OSU was ranked 19th in total defense at 323 YPG. I promise you it will get better. Maybe not this year if some injured guys dont get healthy. Next year for sure.

    They aren’t a horrible defense they just arent as awesome as OSU fans are use to.

  3. @mali – Have those nine starters started a game together yet this year? Also, be careful comparing rankings that way. That’s #19 in yards/game, but #34 in yards/play. This year, OSU is #71 in yards/game but #64 in yards/play. Yes, it’s still worse than last year, but it speaks to SYR’s point about more defensive plays = more chances to fail. And one failure (like a 70-yard TD pass) can totally wreck your stats.

    But hey, what are yards anyway? That’s not how you keep score. That 70-yard TD pass doesn’t get you any more points that a 1-yard dive. Last year, OSU gave up .320 points per play. This year? .328. That’s barely a difference and we can still improve that number.

  4. @Jason I forgot to add that the teams we struggled against this year played a style of offense we have always struggled against. Even when we had dominating defenses we struggled against the quick passing spread offense.

    When we play a pro-style team we dominate because the prior coaching staff built the defense to beat that kind of offense and has left us vulnerable against what is becoming a more popular offense then true pro-style.

  5. Exhibit a: you can’t compare losses in 2011 vs total in 2012. The fair comparison is 24.6 vs 21
    B: valid point except that poor defenses tend to be on the field longer. So more plays could be a result of us moving the ball faster… Or our defense may not be able to get off the field.
    C, D, E: are all the same point. I agree, but its only one point.
    F: coaches recruit and develop players. I they are recruiting the wrong guys, that’s on them. If they aren’t developing them, that’s on them. This is Ohio state, we should be able to recruit and train depth at defense.
    G: yes, this isn’t all on fickel, but he is in charge of the defense.
    H: yes if you told me what Nebraska and Indiana did.

  6. @Chris

    A.) it also isnt fair to compare 7 games this year against 13 games from last year.

    B.) It is prob both but the truth is we arent playing ball control football any longer which definately means the defense is playing much more.

    C.D.&E.) Tell it to the judge

    F.) They arent this admins players. Fickell was a co DC before last year with Tressel and Heacock making decisions on whom to sign. They dont have the players to run the kind of def they need right now but they will.

    G.) Fickell is still just a CO-DC with Withers and Urban is the head coach. I repeat though they are not the main problem with the defense.

    H.) No you wouldnt believe me if I told you IU put up 49 on OSU and we still won lol

  7. Interesting analysis, SYR, well done.
    I have a couple thoughts, observations..
    – OSU runs a pretty hard-to-defend offense in practice. What are our defensive guys doing? It’s not like they haven’t seen this thing before.
    – You mention recruitment. Are you implying that, prior to Meyer’s hire, we were recruiting players geared more to defend Wisc/MSU type offenses?
    – I can understand the depth/attrition reason/excuse. My wrath at the defensive coaches goes beyond that; poor attack/pursuit angles, poor discipline (penalties) and god-awful tackling technique.

  8. @Ken- In practice the no.1 Offense practices against the no. 2 defense and vice versa. and the no.2 offense and defense always acts like the team they are preparing for with varying success rates.

    As for recruiting I am not implying it I am flat out saying it :). They recruited guys who were made for the B1G Pro-Style offenses.

    I always have a problem blaming coaches at the college level for not teaching technique and tackling. Shouldn’t they already know that by the time they get to a place like OSU? Even if they dont and you expect the coaches to teach them those things it should be up to the position coach not the DC. No one is calling for Coombs or Vrabel to be fired. If you want to say the DC is the man in charge he should take the most blame then shouldnt that keep going up to Urban?

    As for penalties and dumb decisions those things happen and they always have. Penalties arent up this year as far as I know. When they do happen and they are bad penalties (not bad refereeing) Meyer pulls the guy off the field and benches him for a few plays and I assume runs the heck out of them at practice.

    • SYR, first, thanks for you reply & feedback, I appreciate it. Here we go..

      I understand the practice alignments (@1’s vs #2’s) but if anything, I don’t see it helping the ‘defense of the defense’. With our player attrition, if anything, it sounds like our #2’s should be pretty acclimated to facing a fast-paced spread offense.

      Regarding penalties, yes, it happens, that is a valid point. As it were, penalites & yardage on a per-game basis are up from last year. I believe, per, that 2012 is averaging 8penalties/70yards per game while 2011 was 5.4/44..

      Regarding coaching influence, I philosphilically disagree with you. First, I believe that a player ‘plays-as-he-practices’, so I find it hard to believe that our defense would look so forlorn in practice and none of the defensive coaches feel the need to instruct. Along the same lines, if the players should have the basics down pat when they arrive at a major university, then we could make a case to dispense with position coaches altogether. Finally, if you want to elevate the defensive issues to Urban and give the defensive coaches a pass, I ask, why stop there? Elevate it up to Gene Smith or Gordon Gee.

      Finally, my comments on other sites have been harsh to both Fickell & Withers. As COO of Ohio State Football, Meyer has tasked the defensive performance to those two as well as their direct reports (position coaches). From what I’ve seen in several decades in business, if a COO has to insert himself into a situation to correct operational deficiencies, the line managers need to rethink their approach.

      One final point; I was reading recruiting information on another OSU-centric blog, and this recruit was asked about his feelings toward Ohio State.He commented that” He talked to defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Coach Fickell told him that “after the season, when the coaches get their heads on straight, good things will happen.” Seriously? IF this is an accurate statement and IF I were Urban Meyer, I’d have Luke Fickell’s ass in my office so fast it would make his head swim.

      I think that you and I will agree to disagree on this topic, SYR.

  9. @Ken- I will handle your last comment first. There is absolutely zero chance Fickell ever said anything like that. If you dont mind me asking who was the recruit and which site? if you dont want to say no worries.

    I think we have a misunderstanding of how much these guys get to practice a week and how little it is actually game like offense vs defense. Going against the no 1 offense for the no 2 defense while they have to pretend to be say the Indiana defense and their tendencies wont do much to help them to practice to play against the Indiana offense.

    Tackling and technique should be learned in the 10-12 years most of these guys have played football. The problem is ESPN. In basketball these kids grow up practicing how to jump high and dunk a ball so they can get on sportscenter. In football they practice hitting the players as hard as they can so they can get on sportscenter. Proper tackling and technique goes by the wayside. They just dont make them like they use to I.E. Spielman.

    As for being harsh on the coaches I dont find them blameless by any means. I just think in the lists of things to blame for why the defense is struggling the coaches come in 4th or 5th.

    Lastly, penalties being up while a bit surprising it doesnt separate them into offense and defense penalties so I cant say it is an issue. Not to mention some of the more egregious penalties seem to be bad calls on the REFs either due to their ineptness or the sissifying of football by people in charge.

    I also dont think we disagree too much on this subject. We agree on the things that are wrong just not maybe in the same order of importance. I appreciate the discussion and the feedback.

  10. Indiana scored 49 points in 23 minutes. We can’t say that OSU’s fast paced offense lead to Indiana getting the ball more…OSU controlled that game from start to finish.

    I’ve never…NEVER seen an OSU defense give up as many big plays as this one. Last year OSU gave up big plays vs good offenses…this year they give up big plays to literally very one they play.

    Something is broken on defense. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Bad coaching, young players, blue chip recruits not working out, injuries…lots of blame.

    Luke Fickell is the scape goat because he is the 2nd highest paid coach on staff and he makes the defensive calls…just like Jim Bollman was the scape goat with OSU’s terrible offense.

    I don’t think OSU fans are guilty of having a knee-jerk reaction at this point. Each and every game has seen OSU give up enormous plays on defense.

    In 2010…OSU was a national leader in long plays from scrimmage given up. Two years later they are one of the worst in the country:


    >20: 10th
    >30: 1st
    >40: 1st
    >50: 1st


    >20: 14th
    >30: 29th
    >40: 42nd
    >50: 9th


    >20: 86th
    >30: 97th
    >40: 110th
    >50: 118th

    This defense is getting better? I don’t see it. I see this defense getting owned by players on Miami, UAB, Cal, Indiana and UCF….hardly world beaters.

    It 2 years….4th to 19th to 71st….

    • I count 5 players who are on both the opening 2010 two-deep and the opening 2012 two-deep. 16/25 (that’s with a couple of ORs) are freshmen or sophomores.

      That’s in two years.

      Zach Domicone, Jamie Wood, Dominic Clarke, Jon Newsome, Dorian Bell, Adam Bellamy. Those are Fr/So backups from 2010. Guys who should be starting in their Jr/Sr year. Two of those guys are still on the team. Neither has contributed much.

      Two years is a long time in college football. Throw in the uncertainty of off-the-field turmoil, staff turnover, post-season ineligibility and how is this Luke Fickell’s fault again?

      I agree that there are problems that need to be fixed, and the coaching staff is always on the table, but even Jim Bollman looked like a guru when Troy Smith was on the field.

  11. @Kade- Let me start off with your assertion of 2010 and earlier vs 2011 and 2012 there is no doubt that our defense was much better before last year. The question is why?

    In 2010 and before OSU was blessed with something they didnt have in 2011 or in 2012. A stud at MLB who not only made plays but directed the defense. We just didnt have that last year or this year.

    Luke Fickell was the Co-DC during the years before 2011 when OSU was top 5 in the country. He didnt call plays last year when the OSU defense was just as bad Jim Heacock was. Both guys were there when OSU defense was stout.

    Ohio State defenders have broken up 49 passes this year, nine more than anyone else in the nation, including 15 at Indiana. What does this tell us? Teams are getting behind us and throwing the ball a lot more.

    In 2010 OSU gave up 30 pass plays of 20+ yards
    In 2011 OSU gave up 28 pass plays over 20 yards.
    In 2012 OSU has given up 22 pass plays over 20 yards

    In 2010 OSU gave up 7 rush plays of over 20 yards
    In 2011 OSU gave up 13 rush plays of over 20 yards
    In 2012 OSU gave up 10 rush plays of over 20 yards

    If I told you OSU gave up more big pass plays in 2010 then they did in 2011 I doubt you would believe me. Maybe OSU will gave up more big plays this year then both those years it is even likely.

    OSU has given up 7 plays of 50+ yards this year. That is 350 yards in 7 fricking plays. That is an entire games worth of yards in 7 plays.

    As for scapegoating Fickell because he is the 2nd highest paid coach why not scape goat the highest paid coach? Why does money matter?

    Jim Bollman became a scapegoat for years of bad OL play not 7 games. Luke Fickell has been the Co DC since 2005 and the vast majority of those years OSU had a top notch defense so all I am saying is possibly are there other bigger factors causing the drop in defense then the DC?

    • I’m sorry, but teams aren’t really getting behind vs. OSU. OSU is playing more spread passing attacks and teams have found out since game 1 that OSU is susceptible vs. the pass.

      Fickell is paid to be THE guy on defense. If the defense struggles…which is an understatement…he takes a majority of the blame.

      Fickell calls the game…and so far isn’t performing very well….

      • We are 7 and 0 and we are scoring 40 points a game and giving up 24 points a game. At some point we must be getting ahead no?

        Strange when the defense sucked last year I didnt hear anyone calling for Jim Heacock to be fired.

        We are 7 games into Luke Fickells career at calling defensive plays 7 whole games. There are a lot of factors into why this defense is not performing as well as we would like. Play calling is a small part of it IMO.

  12. @Jason Dominick Clarke and Dorian Bell and Jonathan Newsome and Adam Bellomy would all be starters this year for sure. That is a lot of 5 star talent gone.

    I really think we have the guys to put up a great defense. We just have had too many injuries and playing too many players with little and no experience. Moving players to new positions midway through their SR season is a sign of a team desperate to try anything.

    I just want to remind people that this year doesnt matter. We are playing 12 pre-season games in prep for a NCG run next year and 2014. The playing time these young guys are getting is invaluable. They are struggling right now but that will help them get better.

  13. Being ranked 19th overall doesn’t suck. Not as good as being top ten, but certainly didn’t suck.

    Next year OSU will be a Nation Championship contenter…

    Meyer wanted Stoops BADLY and almost got him…if this trend continues this year, Fickell will be on the hot seat…and not from unhappy OSU fans…


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