December 30, 2013

Don't panic, don't sweat

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With ample time to let a loss to Michigan State marinate in his mind, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer offered up the notion that changes could be coming to a reeling and floundering defense.

"Tweaks might be the appropriate word," Meyer said Dec. 18. "We're still working through that and working at the changes."

Some of those modifications are deliberate. The infusion of Vonn Bell into the starting lineup and pushing Tyvis Powell over to safety are intentional -- and strategic -- movements by Meyer and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. Some are not.

What appears to be unexpected are the potential (and that's a key word) losses of sophomore defensive end Noah Spence, junior cornerback Bradley Roby and junior linebacker Curtis Grant. While nothing is definitive as of Monday afternoon, the three remain questionable with a bout against Clemson in the Orange Bowl Friday.

Spence -- Ohio State's leader in sacks -- didn't make the trip to South Florida because of what Meyer described as "personal issues." Roby is "day-to-day" as he rehabs a knee injury suffered in the Big Ten championship game. Grant continues to battle back and ankle ailments that have hampered him since mid-November.

All three, of course, are starters for a defense that's given up 1,041 yards and 75 points in back-to-back games against the Michigan State and Michigan. All three of them would be missed against a Tigers offense that's averaging 40 points and 503 total yards.

"That's tough, but that's why you've got these other guys. It's a part of the game that you don't always account for, but it's a reality," Fickell said.

It's also a reality that could have a profound effect on an Ohio State team that might be trying to validate what was once a 24 game winning streak before the 10-point loss to the Spartans in Indianapolis.

'It's going to be a tough task. I think we'll do a good job on responding to the task," senior safety C.J. Barnett said. "We have no other choice but to. Everyone is expecting us to play badly all we can do is impress if we play well."

Surely, it's easier said than done and easier with arguably three of your best defenders.

"In the NFL, you can go and get Jon Kitna at 41 years old off of waivers and get him out of teaching junior high or high school math and pull him onto your team," Fickell said, pointing to how the Dallas Cowboys scooped up the veteran quarterback to temporarily replace an injured Tony Romo. Of course, there's no such emergency pool of talent to draw from at the collegiate level.

"For us, we can't. We've got to develop that freshman kid like Vonn Bell that's got to go in there and play. We've got to put more weight on a guy like C.J. Barnett and (junior linebacker) Ryan Shazier and (sophomore defensive end) Jamal Marcus and say, if the guy can't go, we've got to step up," he said.

"It's a part of the game. We've got to deal with it. We can't dwell on it. We can't whine and complain about it. Next man up."

That's probably an appropriate reaction and a frame of mind that will serve Fickell and the Buckeyes well. It stems from a disposition Fickell developed as Ohio State's interim head coach in 2011 -- a NCAA violations-ridden campaign that saw his squad stumble to a 6-7 finish.

"You've got to try to handle the things that you really have control over. I think that was the biggest thing throughout that entire year … the reality is there's things that are going to be thrown on your plate and the ability to never be too high and never be too low, I think, is a huge factor when you're a leader," Fickell said.

"Those things that come in and out. You ask about these guys or heard this guy's not here, what do you do? Do you want to know if I lay awake at night? Yeah. But if you let those guys see you sweat over it and worry about it, what kind of leader are you?"

"You can't control whether they're going to pull this guy. You can't control whether Noah Spence is truly going to get back here. You can't control whether that kid's knee is going. You've got to move forward, and you've got to go on. If you let your guys see you sweat over it and worry about it and things, what do you think they're going to do?"

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