Another Great Season

Look, I know a lot of pundits and Ohio State fans are at the point where the Buckeyes have to win every game by 50 points and win the national championship, or the season is deemed a failure.  I think that’s ridiculous, but it is what it is.

635776004767032555-ap-ohio-st-virginia-tech-fooThis was a great season, by any rational measure.  If you are an Ohio State fan, you define season success by whether you beat Michigan.  This year, the Buckeyes trounced the Wolverines, in Ann Arbor.  Michigan was a darned good team — they smashed an SEC team, Florida, in their bowl game today.  And then Ohio State won its bowl game today, convincingly beating a very solid Notre Dame team in the Fiesta Bowl.  Those of us who lived through the Cooper era will never forget it, and will always treasure every win against That Team Up North and bowl game opponents because we will always remember, with a grimace, what it is like to end a season with a painful belly flop.

People are upset because Ohio State lost one game, played in a driving rainstorm, on a last-second field goal.  But when your team finishes 12-1, wins its crucial rivalry game and pounds a traditional power in a New Years Day bowl game, you can’t fairly be heard to complain.  If you do, you’re really as spoiled as the appalling Affluenza Kid.

A lot of Buckeyes have made the last few years really enjoyable for those of us in Buckeye Nation and will (in some cases probably) be moving on. Thanks, Braxton Miller!  And Joey Bosa.  Ezekiel Elliott.  Cardale Jones.  Taylor Decker.  Adolphus Washington.  Joshua Perry.  Jacoby Boren.  Other seniors who have won 50 games in their four years.  And, perhaps, some other juniors who think it’s time to take their talents to the NFL.  They have accomplished everything you could ask for, and I will always remember cheering myself hoarse and screaming “ZEEEEEKE” as last year’s national championship game wound down and I got to celebrate a year where my team and many of these same players and coaches won it all.

Thanks, guys, to all of the players, to head coach Urban Meyer and the rest of the coaching staff, and to everybody else who is part of the Ohio State football program.  It’s been a pleasure, and today was the cherry on top.

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When The Offense Struggles . . . .

Sometimes, having an engagement that keeps you from watching a football game is a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned in connection with the Browns, and yesterday it applied to the Buckeyes.

So, I didn’t get to watch Ohio State’s offense sputter for the second straight game, with missed assignments and turnovers and struggling quarterbacks making bad decisions.  From the box score, It looks like the Buckeyes could run the the ball, but when you are throwing interceptions and bungling handoffs and getting hit with drive-killing penalties it’s hard to establish much offensive rhythm.  The offensive line — which was easily the most improved unit from start to finish — also has to strap it up and get better.

Some Ohio State fans are panicking, but for the most part they are the same people who were saying before the season that the Buckeyes were going to win every game this year 72-0.  The fact is that we are talking about college students here, and working new players into the lineup, and new coaches, and a truckload of hype that might cause a young person to think they can win just by showing up.  I think we can safely trust Urban Meyer and his staff — and offensive line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the business — to put the pieces together and push the right motivational buttons.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on the Buckeyes defense.  Yesterday, the held a high-powered Northern Illinois offense under 200 yards and stood tall every time the offense failed.  Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Joshua Perry were relentless, and the defensive backfield covered like a wet blanket.  And when the offense couldn’t score, the defense picked up the slack with Darron Lee’s clutch pick six that finally gave Buckeye Nation some breathing room.  Ohio State’s offense got the preseason props, but it is the defense that has been the most impressive unit so far.

Offense is fun to watch, but my old-school view is that defense wins championships. The season is young, but this D could be something special.

All About The D

From the hype leading up to tonight’s game, everyone seems to be talking about who Ohio State’s quarterback will be and how they will fare against the Virginia Tech defense.  I’ll be focused, however, on the other side of the ball — on Ohio State’s defense.

Much as Cardale Jones deserves credit for stepping in and leading the OSU offense, the real key to last year’s National Championship, in my view, was the Buckeye defense.  The defense gave up a lot of points during the regular season and was gashed repeatedly by a mediocre Michigan team, which caused many fans — me included — to fret about how Ohio State would perform against Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers.  But it was like a light bulb was suddenly turned on after The Gamne, and against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon the defense played lights out.  The D held up and repeatedly delivered crucial stops even though, against the Crimson Tide and the Ducks, they had to deal with a lot of offensive turnovers that put the opponents in good field position with the games on the line.

We know that Virginia Tech has a good defense, and it will be interesting to see whether Ohio State can move the ball against the Hokies and exorcise the demons of last year’s sack-filled debacle.  But for the Buckeyes’ long-term success, I think the defense is the key — tonight and for the rest of the season.  During the last three games last year, the Buckeyes managed to get great pressure with a four-man rush, cover opposing receivers, and shut down three of the Heisman Trophy finalists — all at the same time.

The defense has lost some starters from last year’s squad, and Joey Bosa is out tonight due to a one-game suspension.  Can Darron Lee, Adolphus Washington, Josh Perry, and Tyvis Powell inspire and lead the defense to play like it did in those three unforgettable games?  I think that is the question.

The New-Look Buckeyes And Their Old-Outlook Fans

Tomorrow the college football season starts for the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Of course, the college football season never truly ends for their diehard fans in Buckeye Nation, who are focused on football, football, football the entire year round.

Most members of Buckeye Nation have ridiculously high expectations this year — just as they do every year.  Even though Ohio State’s defense was porous last year and lost its two best players to the NFL, even though Ohio State’s most punishing running back is also a pro and most of his fine offensive line is gone, and even though star quarterback Braxton Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury, fans think the Buckeyes will be better than last year’s team.  Some might call that delusional; others just accept it as part for the Ohio State program, where the fans are as demanding as any fan group in the country.

IMG_1827In reality, though, this year’s team has a lot of question marks.  On offense, the questions will start with the man behind the center.  With Miller out, the offense loses its principal big-play weapon, who always kept defenses off balance.  J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who therefore has never played a down in a college game, will be the starter.  He’s known to the coaching staff as “The Distributor” because he spreads the ball around, and Ohio State should have some offensive weapons who can handle the pigskin when Barrett gets it to them.  Ezekiel Elliott showed he could be the next great Ohio State running back in limited opportunities last year, and Ohio State has other running backs who can carry the rock, too.  Devin Smith is a great, big-play receiver, Dontre Wilson showed flashes of tremendous speed and elusiveness last year, and the Buckeyes have two very capable tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.  The big questions are whether the new offensive line can provide the time to use these weapons, and whether the new QB can get the ball to them.

On defense, Ohio State is looking to get back to its traditional toughness.  The Buckeyes’ defense struggled mightily at the end of last season, particularly against the pass.  The defensive line has some returning talent, with Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Michael Bennett returning, but the linebacking corps and defensive backfield is filled with question marks.  The roster of safeties and corners is filled with highly touted recruits — like Eli Apple and Vonn Bell — but we don’t yet know how they’ll perform when the chips are down.  And they get an interesting test tomorrow against Navy, which plays a triple-option offense unlike any other the Buckeyes will see this year.  A few years ago Ohio State played Navy in the season opener and barely escaped with a win, so fans should be wary.  The Buckeyes had better be able to stop the run, which means those new linebackers and safeties will need to make their reads and fill the holes.

We’ll find out whether the new-look Buckeyes will be able to meet the unrealistic, but expected, expectations of Buckeye Nation starting at noon tomorrow in Baltimore.  It’s time for some football!

The Spring Game

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes play their annual spring game.  The football team has been practicing for weeks, and with the spring game they finally get to strut their stuff in full uniform in front of adoring fans.

IMG_1861The most interesting thing about this year’s game is that it’s not in Ohio Stadium.  Because the old Horseshoe is undergoing maintenance, the game has been moved to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.  Fitting, because Paul Brown once coached the Buckeyes, before he went on to a legendary NFL career, and also fitting because Ohio State doesn’t dominate the sports conversation in Cincinnati like it does in other parts of the state.

The people of Cincinnati — the southernmost and westernmost of Ohio’s larger cities — have divided loyalties.  Some follow the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, some are fans of the University of Kentucky, and some pledge their allegiance to old Notre Dame.  By playing the spring game along the banks of the Ohio River, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State braintrust hope to increase their toehold and their visibility in one of the prime football cities in the state.  They’ll be giving the Buckeye team a full taste of Cincinnati, too, complete with hometown favorites like Montgomery Inn ribs, Skyline Chili, and Graeter’s ice cream.

As for the game itself?  The rules will make it a pass-happy affair, to try to cut down on the possibility of injury, so it won’t be like a real game.  We’ll get a chance to evaluate QB Braxton Miller’s continuing progress, and see with our own eyes the new players who’ve been dominating the news reports on spring practice — players like defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.  Every spring game there is one player who has a flashy performance.  Then we will put away the pads and wait until fall practice, when things get real with the Big Ten season looming on the horizon.