Lineup in flux for floundering Buckeyes
These are dark times for the Ohio State football program.
On the heels of an ugly 10-7 loss at home to Michigan State, the Buckeyes are grasping for solutions while battling a tsunami of problems off the field, stemming from a series of NCAA violations involving several players.
And now the Buckeyes (3-2) get to travel to Lincoln, Neb., for the 14th-ranked Cornhuskers' first Big Ten home game.
Clearly, it doesn't get any easier.
Interim coach Luke Fickell has heard the rumblings. Callers to talk shows and fans online are all questioning the coaching staff, the players, the athletic director and the direction of the program in the wake of two more suspensions announced on Monday.
''We all don't like where we are (in terms of record),'' Fickell said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. ''We all know there's ways we need to get better. Criticism I handle a lot better than I do praise. It just makes me mad, it makes me work harder, it makes me do things a little bit more. But you can't let it affect you. You've got to continue to get better.''
Fickell, who replaced Jim Tressel who was forced out of the job in the midst of an NCAA probe into his lying about possible violations, is trying to regroup his troops. At a meeting with the players after the latest suspensions were announced on Monday, many walked away with their heads down.
After Saturday's loss, center Mike Brewster called the defeat one of the most painful of his career. Thirty of the offense's 63 plays went for no gain or a loss.
''It's just frustration that you can't get anything going,'' he said of Michigan State's plan to stack the line of scrimmage with defenders to shut down the run and dare Ohio State to pass. ''I felt like there were guys everywhere in the box, which was frustrating. We've got to find out a way to get it done.''
Fickell said there is no alternative to trying to turn things around.
''We just have to do a better job of figuring out what our guys can do and what our guys can handle. And we will,'' he said of criticism of offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and the rest of his staff. ''There's going to be growing pains. It's nothing that a good offensive performance or a good win won't make up for. But if we sit and worry about all the people that criticize us, boy, we'd stay up late at night worrying about that instead of actually doing what we need to do. We can't let that affect us.''
This was supposed to be the week that the Buckeyes got a boost from four players returning from suspension. But athletic director Gene Smith, at a news conference on Monday, announced that last year's leading rusher, Daniel Herron, and the team's leading returning receiver, DeVier Posey, would still be held out. Before, the reason was accepting cash and free ink from a local tattoo-parlor owner. The latest revelation was that both had been overpaid for summer jobs from a Cleveland-area booster who has been banned from contact with the program.
So the Buckeyes are in a state of flux.
It's an old one-liner that has never been more apropos: You truly can't tell the players at Ohio State without a scorecard.
Two players - left tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas - are returning for Nebraska after serving five-game suspensions for involvement in Tattoogate.
Fickell said Tuesday that starting defensive tackle Nathan Williams is still not ready to play after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery four weeks ago. He also said that starting wideout Verlon Reed sustained a torn knee ligament on an onside kick in the waning seconds of the Michigan State loss and would be out for the rest of the season.
But he remained hopeful that wide receiver Corey ''Philly'' Brown might be able to come back after missing the last four games with a high-ankle sprain.
Fickell said he emphasized to the team the late UCLA coach John Wooden's three points of wisdom: Don't whine, don't complain and don't make excuses.
''How many times have we said, we are going to focus on what we have, not what we don't have and focus on moving forward,'' he said. ''So that's what we have to do. We are not going to make excuses for guys. We are not going to allow them to be down.''
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap