Linebacker Joshua Perry laughed when he recalled the scene on the Ohio State sideline in the waning moments of a 59-0 romp over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Coach Urban Meyer was giving hugs all around, and he zeroed in on defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.

Linebacker Joshua Perry laughed when he recalled the scene on the Ohio State sideline in the waning moments of a 59-0 romp over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Coach Urban Meyer was giving hugs all around, and he zeroed in on defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.

"What was funny was not that Coach Meyer gave him a big hug, but that Coach Fickell was like, 'Bro, I'm still trying to coach a game,' " Perry said. "His reaction was pretty funny. But after the game, you could see how excited everybody was; it was just a great thing to be a part of."

As for Fickell's reaction, Meyer rolled with it.

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"I was so happy for Luke," Meyer said. "I love Luke. He's a Buckeye, he's a great family man, he's a guy that I have a lot of respect for. … He was in a very interesting situation (serving as the interim coach for the 2011 season) before I got here, and he had no reason to be as loyal as he has been to me."

And vice versa. With that in mind, what a difference a year makes.

Meyer, Fickell and the Buckeyes are preparing to play Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 in New Orleans. The winner gets the Rose Bowl victor, Oregon or Florida State, in the national championship game on Jan. 12.

This time a year ago, the Buckeyes were licking their wounds after a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Meyer wasn't in a hugging mood.

"We were abysmal in pass defense a year ago, so we blew it all completely up," Meyer said. "And that's a credit to being able to bring in a guy the quality of Chris Ash, who is a fine coach and left a coordinator role (at Arkansas) to be a co-coordinator here without any hesitation, and without any hesitation on Luke Fickell's part."

Meyer wanted the defense fixed, and he wanted it done in a team-like fashion. Safeties coach and co-coordinator Everett Withers had conveniently left to become head coach at James Madison. Defensive line coach Mike Vrabel leaped to the NFL's Houston Texans. With Fickell and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs still in the room, Meyer hired Larry Johnson away from Penn State to coach the line, and he brought in Ash to do the redesign, with brushstrokes from all.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators - Ed Warinner, Tom Herman - and myself. It's not one guy calling plays. That's not the way we do business," Meyer said. "We script each play, everybody is involved in game-planning. … I don't want that dictator in there.

"Same thing on defense. … The best I've ever been around" share the work and the planning, "and that's why I think we're doing so well on defense now. There's four good coaches in that room, and obviously the players are being developed."

The shutout of Wisconsin, which included the throttling of running back Melvin Gordon, spoke to that.

"You've got to play your best ball at the end of the year, and I think that's what this team is doing," Fickell said.

The Meyer hug attested to something else, Ash said.

"It speaks volumes of the type of person that Luke is," Ash said. "It's no secret there was a lot of adversity coming out of last season, a lot of questions that had to be answered about how to get the defense going in the right direction. Luke persevered through all of it.

"To see us continue to improve this season, and see us play our best game in the league championship game - Coach Meyer could see that, and (the hug) was a show of recognition of, 'Hey, I appreciate what you've done through the bad times and the good times,' and there will be more good times because of it."

Ohio State, No. 110 nationally against the pass last year (268.0-yard avg.), is No. 17 this year (188.2). In total defense, the Buckeyes were No. 46 last year (377.4) but are No. 15 now (328.0). The Buckeyes also are No. 4 in interceptions (21) and No. 6 in tackles for loss (100) and sacks (40).

The Fickell-Ash consortium has paid dividends.

"They're two partners in crime," middle linebacker Curtis Grant said. "They make it simple for us to understand to just go do our job. And it's all about getting the players to understand and not think about it, just go out and perform. They've done a great job doing it."

But the next challenge is the most formidable: trying to control Alabama's power running game, which is augmented by quarterback Blake Simms hooking up regularly with receiver Amari Cooper, who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. Does Meyer think he has a national-championship-caliber defense? He said that's to be determined

The Big Ten title-game performance "helped," Meyer said. "I had my reservations during the year, like everybody did, about stopping the run because we installed a back-end-first approach to pass defense. I know Coach (Bill) Belichick and some of those, they work the back end first and move forward. We'd always been a front-end first. We've added a lot of coverage principles. … We're not a finished product. There's too many young players out there. The future is very bright, though."


tmay@dispatch.com

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