NEW ORLEANS – In a traditional sense, Ohio State has always been about defense – big, tough, bruising defense. The Buckeyes' most famous offensive philosophy, after all, was called "three yards and a cloud of dust," Woody Hayes talking about running those "fat tackles" to victory.
So the 41 points Florida hung on the Buckeyes in a blowout victory in the BCS championship game a year ago wasn't just a single-game humiliation, it was an assault on everything the program holds dear.
Especially after the Buckeyes watched the game film. For all the talk about the Gators' superior athletic ability, the truth is, other than freak wideout Percy Harvin, the problem was as much strength as speed.
"A lot of people say, 'It was speed, it was speed,' (but) if you really watch film, Florida just out-physicalled us, they pounded the ball down our throats," OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman said.
"Yeah, they hit us with a couple of speed demons," he continued. "But Florida dominated the game in a way we thought we could dominate them in, a physical game. They dominated us physically."
Those 60 minutes changed everything about the perception of the Ohio State program. Once rock solid, it was now solidly mocked. It was a high-profile humbling.
For all the hype about the motivational DVD Jim Tressel handed out featuring various talking heads ripping the Buckeyes, most of the players and coaches on defense pretty much shrug and agree with the insults.
If Ohio State is going to beat Louisiana State on Monday night in the BCS title game, the Ohio State defense must return to the Ohio State defense that's been so vaunted through the years.
Forget proving anything to the media, to the fans or America: Ohio State needs to prove something to itself.
"For us we need to worry about showing each other," said co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. "When you start worrying about all the external things, 'We are going to shut that person up,' or 'So and so said something bad about us' (it doesn't work).
"We want to play for each other. We want to prove something to the guy next to us. The external things we can't control."
This was repeated by all of the Ohio State defensive personnel – coaches and players – who met with the media here Friday. There was no attempt to put a positive spin on last year's performance; there was no explaining away the embarrassment.
"We didn't play well," Fickell said. "You can't point a finger at one thing, at this guy, that guy. No excuses."
At this point, they don't care, either. The Buckeyes enter this game with another punishing defense – first nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. Only one team (Illinois) managed to score more than 17 points on them.
These guys look tough, talented and together.
And yet, they did a year ago also. So what went wrong?
"I don't know," shrugged co-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. "We didn't execute and Florida did execute. And in most games that's what it comes down to."
Here's the problem for the Buckeyes: LSU has not just a gifted offense, but a diverse one. They have two quarterbacks who both play. They have bruising running game and a high-octane passing one. They can do a hundred different things well.
"One play (their formation is) in two backs, two tight ends, the next they have five wide receivers," Freeman said. "It's a huge challenge to defend so many different things."
Freeman and the other players even compared the LSU offensive line to a Big Ten outfit in terms of strength, which makes sense since the Tigers also have a weight room.
"I think the whole thing (is) defense wins championships," Freeman said. "Without having a good defense, it's tough to win. Last year we had a good defense but we didn't play good that day. It's tough to win a game like that. Florida did, their defense played good that day."
For nearly a year, the memory and reminders have stuck. Ohio State's historic defense was crushed in every way imaginable and its reputation won't return in full unless it can shut down LSU.
"That is something you'll never forget," Freeman said. "You try not to sit back and say, 'Let's use that as motivation.' But that feeling, that loss, looking at that scoreboard and seeing them celebrating is something that will be with us for the rest of our lives."
This is far beyond angry DVDs or press clippings on the locker room wall. Ohio State isn't worried about who's talking what talk. It's all about walking their old walk, all about getting back to the basics of the Buckeyes.
Monday night the plan is simple – meet strength with strength – or nothing changes.
- Ohio State
- Marcus Freeman