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Fickell: OSU’s goal is to get better

By RUSTY MILLER

AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS — Ten times during his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell said his main goal is helping his team “get better.”

But before the Buckeyes can improve, they have to correct what went wrong in the past. And that means taking a hard look at how and why Nebraska ran off the last 28 points in Ohio State’s stunning 34-27 loss on Saturday night.

“I guess we got a little bit frantic and our tackling went down the drain,” Fickell said during preparations for the next big test for the Buckeyes (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) at No. 16 Illinois (6-0, 2-0) on Saturday. “Defensively, when things are bad, it starts with your tackling, and that’s where we’re going to point a finger. Whether it’s conditioning, whether we got tired, whether we got mentally drained — all those things factor into it. Ultimately we didn’t get the job done.”

The game turned when Nebraska linebacker David Lavonte stripped the ball from Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller after Miller had run for seven yards and a first down to the Buckeyes 24 with 7:54 left in the third quarter. Ohio State was in command at the time, 27-6.

Up to that point, Nebraska on its first seven possessions had totaled just seven first downs, 53 rushing yards, 80 passing yards and two field goals.

After that, in its final five series, the Cornhuskers’ offense accumulated 18 first downs, 179 rushing yards, 111 passing yards and four touchdowns.

“That (turnover) is what sparked it,” Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. “And they got a little hope and they had the crowd behind them.”

Illinois has taken notice.

“After that fumble, Nebraska’s offense had some momentum and they started running the ball,” Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “They got some first downs and it looked like they wore them out. And when they wore them out, they punished them.”

It clearly didn’t help that Miller was injured on the following series and backup quarterback Joe Bauserman ended up throwing more balls to the first row of the stands than he did to receivers. He was 1 for 10 passing for 13 yards with an interception as everything went wrong for the Buckeyes — on both sides of the ball.

Even though Fickell, a former Ohio State nose tackle and nine-year defensive coach, pointed to tackling and fatigue, linebacker Andrew Sweat said neither was a factor in the defense’s collapse.

“I don’t think it was missed tackles,” he said. “It probably looks worse on TV than it really was. … We just didn’t get it done.”

He added, “Anytime you’re on the field a lot you’re tired, but I don’t think that was it. It was more execution.”

No matter the reasons behind the defensive problems, the Buckeyes know they have to be much, much better against an Illinois team off to its fastest start since 1951. And they’ll be doing it knowing that one of their mainstays is not returning this season.

Defensive end Nathan Williams, perhaps the Buckeyes’ top pass rusher, injured his knee in the opener against Akron and then missed the next five games after arthroscopic surgery. Thought to be returning to the field soon, he now must undergo microfracture surgery on the same knee and the senior will be out the rest of the year.

Reciting another mantra that has been his catch-all response to the program’s NCAA problems, suspensions and injuries, Fickell said, “We’re not going to sit and dwell upon it.”

Buckeyes defenders talk as if they’re confident. Whether that translates to the field remains to be seen.

“This is definitely a huge game for us (against Illinois),” nose tackle Garrett Goebel said. “We want to finish the season 9-3. We think that’s possible. We think we have a good chance of doing that. We just have to keep working.”

Sweat said the Buckeyes took just a short look at the films from the Nebraska debacle. They were ready to move on immediately, forgetting about that dark moment.

“The game last week has no bearing on the week at hand,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win or lose the next game. They’re independent of each other.”

Roby was asked what it’s like for a team which has won the last seven Big Ten titles on the field (the 2010 championship was vacated due to NCAA violations stemming from the Tattoogate scandal) to lose two games in a row and be at the bottom of the standings.

“It’s a lot of craziness, but as long as everybody focuses on themselves getting better and doing their job for the team, I think none of that stuff really matters,” he said.

As for the team’s major objective, he repeated himself: “Win out. Win out. That’s the goal.”

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Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .