Buckeye defense hoping for 1996 redux

On the second day of Ohio State’s 2014 preseason football camp, Luke Fickell said this was the first offseason since he returned to his alma mater as a coach in 2002 that there was reason to feel bad about how the defense had finished the season.

That got me thinking about another season that ended with national title hopes going up in smoke in large part because of a defensive letdown — 1995.  Fickell practice headshot

Now the Ohio State defensive coordinator, Fickell was a junior in this third year as the starting nose guard for the Buckeyes that season, and Ohio State rose to No. 2 in the national polls in November, the highest ranking for the program in over a decade.

Most of that success was on the back of a national top 10 offense that featured the best running back (Eddie George), wide receiver (Terry Glenn) and offensive lineman (Orlando Pace) in the country as well as first-team All-Big Ten players at quarterback (Bobby Hoying) and tight end (Rickey Dudley).

The Ohio State defense boasted All-Big Ten players at defensive end (Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes) and cornerback (Shawn Springs) and finished 12th in the nation in points allowed (16.7 per game), but it wasn’t on the same level as the scoring unit. That much was proven on the final day of the regular season as the Buckeyes traveled to Ann Arbor and saw their perfect season ruined by 12th-ranked Michigan, which got a record 313 yards rushing from Tim Biakabutuka en route to a 31-23 upset.

Ohio State, which had to settle for second place in the Big Ten as Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl, held Peyton Manning to 182 yards on 20-for-35 passing in a Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee on Jan. 2, but the damage was done.

I asked Fickell if there were similar feelings this offseason to that one between his junior and senior year, and he said yes.

“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,” he said, referring to another year in which the Buckeyes went undefeated in the regular season but came up short in their bid for a national title. “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. It was the first to be known as the Silver Bullets.

Both Pagac’s Cover 4 scheme and the general attitude trying to be instilled are similar to the scheme and effect Ohio State hopes to have in newly hired assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

“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 Springs, Finkes, Vrabel and Fickell, the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense featured 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.

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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