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Buckeyes need strong start to change focus

8/30/2011

Ohio State center Mike Brewster heard all the talk in the offseason about his program's troubles. He read and listened to comments about how the Buckeyes were doomed for a collapse, that their streak of Big Ten championships would come to an end.

For the most part, Ohio State players and coaches didn't respond to that chatter. But they filed it away.

"We're looking forward to showing people," Brewster said. "We're going to speak on the field."

The first chance for a rebuttal arrives this Saturday in the season opener against Akron. Now, let's be honest here. The Zips barely avoided putting up a zilch in the win column last season, finishing 1-11. The Buckeyes haven't lost a home opener since falling to Penn State in 1978. Only the most catastrophic possible version of events contains a scenario where Ohio State fails to win this game.

Yet this remains an important first test for other reasons. For months, the conversation around Columbus has centered around tattoos, memorabilia, car dealerships, NCAA investigators and Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor. Finally, the team has its chance to turn that focus squarely on football and how this year's Buckeyes look. The last thing they want to do is stub their toes and invite more negativity.

"There's been a lot of talk," head coach Luke Fickell said. "But talk is that. Our performance will be what we want to define us. Our actions and the way we perform Saturday afternoon will be, to me, what we want to talk about."

Ohio State isn't immune to some early-season scuffles, after all. In the 2009 opener, it squeaked by Navy 31-27. The year before, a Week 2 game against Ohio ended in an unsatisfying 12-point victory.

Those weren't panic-inducing results because Tressel had a track record. Fickell doesn't have the same luxury.

The last Ohio State coach to lose his debut was Jack Ryder in 1892, and that was 21 coaches ago. But how many of those men were following a legend while lacking any head-coaching experience and doing so on a one-year contract? Every one of Fickell's moves will be dissected and debated in his first game, from how he handles end-of-half clock management to what he does on fourth downs to what he wears on the sidelines. (On that last topic, Fickell said he'd probably choose black so he'd stand out while signaling in defensive plays.)

Fickell says he likes criticism more than compliments, and that's probably a good thing. The radio call-in shows and message boards will roast him the first time the team bungles a two-minute drill. Fickell has never had to make those snap decisions in the heat of a game and said there is no real way to practice them.

"You have to be confident in what you're doing," he said. "There's no exact science. It's usually a feel thing. The best thing I can tell you is that in my eight or nine years here, a lot of those decisions were made collaboratively. On most every one of those decisions, I remember being on the head set and Coach [Tressel] flipping over and saying, 'Defense, what do think about us going for it on fourth down?' Or flipping over to the offense and saying, 'What do you think about that?'

"So you have to rely on your experiences, and it will still be a collaborative issue at times. But ultimately, when the time comes, a decision has to be made."

Since his battlefield promotion after Tressel's Memorial Day forced resignation, Fickell has steadfastly maintained that the program is bigger than him. He says he won't allow himself to think about the job he now has or the company he'll keep in history. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock tried bringing that up to him early this month at practice; Fickell just shook his head and walked away.

Still, he wants to put his mark on this year's team. When he screens film for the players on Sundays, he said, the first act will always include special-teams play and the fourth quarter. He's looking for correct body language and competitiveness.

"The three things we talk about our effort, turnovers and toughness," Fickell said.

Come Saturday, the Buckeyes hope they're talking more about those issues than anything else that happened the previous eight months.