The Angst About The Game

It’s the week of The Game. That’s the football game between Ohio State and That Team Up North, of course. In the Midwest we like to say it’s the greatest rivalry in all of sports (although I suspect that Army and Navy and the Red Sox and the Yankees might disagree with that), and every year this week features its unique, The Game-specific mixture of angst, fear, and loathing. Both members of Buckeye Nation and fans of the Maize and Blue know what I mean because they feel that unsettling mixture of emotions deep in their bones.

The loathing part is obvious: we hate (but nevertheless respect) the opposing team. But the angst and fear part require some explanation.

This is a rivalry game where both fan bases are haunted by memories of past losses and disasters, to the point where we each have sports-related PTSD. No Buckeyes fan who lived through the catastrophic failures of the ’90s will ever be comfortable about any game against TTUN; traumatic experiences have taught us, again and again, that calamity lurks around every corner. Fans of our opponents have the same feelings, only about the more recent games. That’s where the heavy, oppressive sense of angst comes in.

The fear, on the other hand, is that our greatest rival will ruin a fine season, and give bragging rights to the opposing fan base. This year is a good example. As has often been the case with The Game, the Buckeyes and TTUN will be playing for all the marbles: the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship Game and, potentially, the College Football Playoffs. But that’s not all. Every fan of either team knows a number of ardent fans of the opposing team, and we know that if The Game ends with a loss we’ll be hearing about it, in the most pointed, terrible ways imaginable, from now until next year’s contest offers a chance at redemption. We dread that awful possibility.

Angst, fear, and loathing: it’s the holy trinity that dominates our characters during the week of The Game, and it will always be thus. Go Bucks! Beat the Blue!

Despoiling The Spoilermakers

Yesterday’s game against the Purdue Boilermakers promised to be a challenging match-up. In recent years, Purdue has played Ohio State very tough–beating the Buckeyes on several occasions that still stick in the craw of Buckeye Nation–and the Boilermakers had already beaten two top three-rated teams this year when they knocked off Iowa and Michigan State. That’s why Purdue is now recognized as the “Spoilermakers.”

But Ohio State fans needn’t have worried. The Buckeye offense roared back to life and quickly put Purdue into a deep hole, thanks to big plays and some mistakes by Purdue that gave the Buckeyes short fields. The halftime score had Ohio State up 45-17–after the game, Ohio State Coach Ryan Day called that, with admirable understatement, “a heck of a score”–and the Buckeyes went on to win 59-31.

Ohio State’s offensive numbers were ridiculously gaudy across the board. C.J. Stroud was 31 of 38 for 361 yards and five touchdowns. Ohio State ran the ball 31 times for 263 yards, averaging an absurd 8.5 yards a carry. Garrett Wilson had a 51-yard touchdown run and caught three touchdown passes. With numbers like that against a solid team, you’re going to win most games, even if your defense gives up 390 yards through the air, as the Buckeyes did yesterday.

As Russell and I watched the game, it came home to me again and again how Ohio State now plays a kind of football that past generations of scarlet and gray-clad fans wouldn’t recognize. Those of us who became members of Buckeye Nation during the Woody Hayes “old buttoned shoe” era of full-house backfields and run-dominated offenses can still hear his inner voice counseling in favor of constant runs when you’ve got the lead, but the college game has changed. You’re not going to score 45 points in a half with grind-it-out football, and you’re not going to attract the highly rated “skill position” recruits with that scheme, either. The reality is that Ohio State has morphed into a quarterback and wide receiver oriented offense that has great running backs, too, and when everything is clicking, as it was yesterday, their offense is both fun to watch and hard to stop.

But even if Coach Hayes might shake his head at what Ohio State’s offense has become, he would understand the schedule. Ohio State has two of the toughest games of the season yet to go, against Michigan State and its powerhouse running game, and then up in Ann Arbor against That Team Up North. Both of the Michigan squads are 9-1 on the season and harbor hopes of knocking off the Buckeyes and going to the Big Ten championship game and perhaps, the College Football Playoff.

Woody would tell you that, whatever happens with the Ohio State offense, the defense will need to play better to bring home victories in those two games–and he would be right.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Ohio State has won two tough, physical games in the last two weeks. By winning at Lincoln, Nebraska today the Buckeyes stay atop the Big Ten East and remain in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

And yet, if you go to Ohio State message boards today, you would think the sky is falling.

Here’s some news for the spoiled, irrational members of Buckeye Nation: winning football games against big-time programs is hard. Winning on the road is hard. Winning with a freshman quarterback is hard.

And yet, Ohio State is doing it.

I’m not saying the Buckeyes will win it all. But expecting the team is win every game by 60 points is simply self-defeating, and ridiculous.

Me? I’ll take the win and move on.

A Hot One In The Shoe

Russell and I had the chance to go to the ‘Shoe last night and watch a classic Big Ten game with more than 102,000 of our closest scarlet-clad friends. The game started with a great fireworks display and ended with fans flooding the field to celebrate a hard-fought Ohio State victory as the Buckeyes pulled out a 33-24 win.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who wonder why Ohio State didn’t march up and down the field on offense and rack up another blowout win. The reason is: the Buckeyes were playing Penn State, and Penn State always plays Ohio State tough, whether the game is in Columbus or Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions have a great program and a lot of pride, and it seemed clear that Penn State’s surprising loss to Illinois was caused, at least in part, because Penn State was focused on this game against the Buckeyes. With all due respect to Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten doesn’t really begin until you start to play teams like Penn State, Michigan State, and That Team Up North. Last night’s game was what the rest of the season will be like–tough, hard-hitting, and closely contested from the kickoff–and I was happy to see the Buckeyes display some grit as they pulled out a win. So it didn’t surprise me that the Buckeyes didn’t put up gaudy numbers on offense or defense.

The Buckeyes have some things to be happy about, like our placekicker, who really came through in the clutch, and a defense that made some key turnovers, and some things to work on, like way too many penalties, a surprisingly unimaginative red zone offense, and figuring out how to play pass defense in the middle of the field. But I think a game like this is good for a team and may cause the Buckeyes to stop worrying too much about press clippings, Heisman campaigns, and hypothetical future matchups with Georgia and get back to focusing on the next opponent, because the next opponent has the ability to derail all of your hopes. I’m confident that Ryan Day and his staff will take the film of this game, study it, figure out how the Buckeyes can deal with those issues and continue to improve, and get the players to sharpen their focus.

Kudos to Penn State, their quarterback, who played a great game, and their defense, which gave the Ohio State running game fits and kept the Buckeyes’ offense off-balance the entire game. The Big Ten season has now officially begun.

Our New Look Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes played their first game of the new season last night. Watching the game was a different experience, due to the date and time–has Ohio State ever played a football game on a Thursday night before?–and the fact that the team opened the season on the road in the Big Ten, before a packed house of rabid Minnesota Golden Gopher fans, and had to come from behind in the second half to pull out a 45-31 win. But mostly it was a different experience because Ohio State’s starters include a lot of new names, on both offense and defense.

On offense, it’s pretty clear that the Buckeyes have plenty of firepower and weapons galore. They have a new quarterback, C.J. Stroud, who played through some first half jitters and had a bad interception before settling down and making lots of good throws as the Buckeyes pulled away. Give some credit to head coach Ryan Day for continuing to dial up pass plays and give Stroud a chance to show his arm. If Stroud can settle down and throw the ball accurately, he’s likely to put up some big numbers this year, because the Buckeye receiving corps is loaded with talent and speed, starting with veterans Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. And the Buckeyes have a lot of punch in the backfield, too, with Miyan Williams, who rushed for 125 yards on only 9 carries and had a 71-yeard TD burst, dependable Master Teague, and true freshman TreVeyon Henderson, shown in the photo above, who looks like a star in the making.

The defense is another matter. Ohio State’s D was exposed last year by Alabama, and that was a veteran unit. This year’s defense features loads of new players in the defensive backfield and at the linebacker position, and there were some breakdowns last night–including a long run on a gutsy fourth-and-one play by the Gophers–that will need to be fixed. In fairness to the defense, Minnesota had a lot of veteran players at the offensive skill positions and a huge offensive line, and it can be tougher for a defense with a lot of new players to learn to play together as a team. We’ll call the defense a work in progress for now, but we’ll hope that the progress comes quickly, because Ohio State plays Oregon next weekend and the Ducks will be a handful.

It’s the Friday morning before Labor Day, the Buckeyes already have a conference road win under their collective belts, and members of Buckeye Nation have lots to analyze and criticize. It’s not a bad way to start a three-day weekend.

Back To The Big

Yesterday Big Ten football returned, in earnest, across the Midwest. In our household, for the first time I can remember, I was able to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play an in-conference game with a Zen-like calm. It was eerie, because normally when I watch a game I’m an agitated, fingernail-chewing, shouting-at-the-TV wreck. I’m guessing my weirdly peaceful game-watching experience was attributable to a deep inner gratitude that Big Ten football is being played at all. With everything else that has happened, and is happening, in this ill-fated year, having some college football to watch is such a welcome diversion.

Even though Ohio State fell behind early yesterday, and the game was tied in the second quarter and remained in the balance for a while, I was able to maintain my tranquil disposition throughout the contest. It’s pretty clear that the Buckeyes have some things to work on — the offensive line still has to jell, and there is work to be done on defense — but this is a team with lots of extraordinary talent, starting with quarterback Justin Fields and his cadre of excellent receivers, and I’m perfectly content to let Ryan Day and his coaches work on ironing out the kinks and getting the team to play at its maximum capability. It’s all part of maintaining my new, zen-like ‘tude about spectator sports.

It will be interesting to see whether my new mindset will be able to survive a few bad calls from the refs, or unlucky bounces, or — God forbid! — losses. But for now, I’m just glad that Big Ten football is back, to add a little fun and fanship when it is needed the most.

A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.

Burn The Sooners!

I saw some Sooners fans in downtown CBus as I walked home from work tonight.  I was pleasant and friendly, and said I hoped they enjoyed their visit to the capital city of the Buckeye State except for tomorrow’s game.

I sincerely meant it at the time — but who I am I kidding?  As I sit in front of tonight’s fire, I want the Buckeyes kick Oklahoma’s ass tomorrow.  Go Bucks!

Baby Steps

Through the first seven games of the season, Ohio State has established that it’s not the most dominating team in college football history.  It sounds silly, but the expectations before the season started were so high that’s how the team was being measured.

Still, the Buckeyes now stand at 7-0, and last night they hung a pretty convincing win on Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions 38-10.  And if you are an Ohio State fan, you can be forgiven for looking for little signs that the team is improving.  I think the signs are there.

Offensively, the Buckeyes seem to be moving toward making J.T. Barrett the starting quarterback.  The more he plays, the better the offense performs.  Cardale Jones is a fine player with a terrific arm, but with Barrett at the helm the Buckeyes simply seem more fluid, more confident, and more multi-dimensional — and Barrett has an uncanny knack for finding the first-down marker and keeping drives alive.  With Barrett playing increasing minutes, the Buckeyes have now gone two games without drive-killing turnovers and are turning red zone appearances into touchdowns.  And last night, they did it all against a pretty good Penn State defense that features lots of talent.

But we are talking baby steps here, and there are still steps to be made on offense.  Last night, the Buckeyes racked up more than 300 yards on the ground, with both Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott posting more than 100 yards gained, but the passing game suffered.  If Ohio State hopes to compete with the elite, it can’t play with one hand tied behind its back.

On defense, the situation is more difficult to assess.  Joey Bosa and the defensive line did a good job of rushing the passer and physically dominating Christian Hackenberg, when the game was on the line they held Penn State short on a key fourth down, and they forced a turnover that put the game away — but there were lots of negatives.  The D was gashed on the ground and made Saquon Barkley look like the second coming of Jim Brown, showed some really poor tackling and pass defense techniques, and seemed to have scheme failures where Penn State runners were 10 yards downfield before a tackler appeared.  All of this should be concerning, even after a convincing win.  Penn State couldn’t capitalize on these weaknesses, but there are teams from The State Up North who will unless Ohio State gets those problems fixed.

With the “Black Out” and uniform dust-up behind us, let’s focus on some football and continuing improvement and see what this team can really do.

Welcome Back, Coach Harbaugh

ESPN and other sources are reporting that Jim Harbaugh, most recently coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is returning to his alma mater to coach the Michigan Wolverines.  The apparent hire is supposed to be formally announced tomorrow.

I welcome Coach Harbaugh back to the Big Ten.  I’m not sure that I can speak for the rest of Buckeye Nation, but I am glad that Michigan has hired someone who has been successful virtually everywhere he has coached.  The hiring of Coach Harbaugh may make it more difficult for Ohio State to prevail in The Game — Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and the players on the OSU roster obviously will have something to say about that — but I think it is good for the Big Ten if in fact Michigan has lured a fine coach back to the college ranks.

There seems to be a divide among college football fans.  Some people root only for their team, don’t really care about the other teams in the conference, and want their archrivals to lose every game in humiliating fashion; others root hard for their team, but want their conference to perform well and therefore pull for the conference foes — including the archrival — when bowl season rolls around.  I’m in the latter camp.  I hope that Ohio State pulverizes Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, and every other Big Ten team every time they play, but when Big Ten teams play in bowls, I hope they win every game.  I want the Big Ten conference as a whole to be respected — which would be a change from the recent prevailing perception of the Old Conference.

I think Michigan’s apparent hire of Jim Harbaugh is another step in attempting to regain the respect that the Big Ten has lost.  So I say:  Coach Harbaugh, welcome back!  And next year, I hope we kick your keisters in The Game with That Team Up North.

Number 8

The Ohio State football team took a giant leap forward in the college football playoff rankings this week, moving up to number eight.  Of course, that only means that the Buckeyes have to pass four more teams to make it into one of the coveted top four spots that will earn a spot in the first-ever college football playoff.

Can they do it?  Beats me!  I’m not sure exactly how the rankings are devised, and what the voters are considering as they try to figure out whether one-loss Ohio State should be ahead or behind of one-loss Oregon, one-loss TCU, and one-loss Baylor.  I don’t think anybody else really knows, either.

But I do know this:  if Ohio State wants to make it, they had better win every game, starting with the game at dramatically improved Minnesota this week.  In essence, that means Ohio State’s playoff process has started already, and it’s a single-elimination system.  If Ohio State doesn’t win, and convincingly, as they play the teams on the remainder of their schedule they can forget about the playoffs.  So the college football gurus haven’t created a four-team, two-game playoff; they’ve really created a multi-team, multi-game playoff process that will last for more than a month.

It’s all very interesting, but it just means Ohio State had better be focused on Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota between now and noon on Saturday.

Most Impressive

Look, I’ll admit I’m an Ohio State fan.

And I’ll also admit to being a Big Ten buff.  The Old Conference might not be the greatest right now, but I still think that Michigan State is a good team and East Lansing, at night, in prime time is a pretty darned tough place to play.

So say I’m a deluded homer . . . but I thought Ohio State’s win over Michigan State tonight was pretty impressive.

Who would have thought the Buckeyes would be able to rack up 568 yards against the very stout Spartans defense?  Who would have thought that Ohio State could run the ball down the throat of a Michigan State team that prides itself on stopping the run when the game was on the line?  Who would have thought that Ezekiel Elliott could rush for more than 150 yards and a clinching touchdown when the game was on the line?  Who would have thought that Ohio State could overcome two turnovers in the first half, on the road, against an opponent that had everything going its way?  And who would have thought the Buckeyes would win, despite the defense playing the softest prevent defense imaginable in the second half.  (OK, that’s unfair I suppose . . . but does any true football fan really like the @#&$%#@ prevent defense?)

Urban Meyer has his signature win.  Mark Dantonio missed on his guarantee.  And  J.T. Barrett had a tremendous, almost perfect game, throwing for 300 yards and 3 TDs, running for 86 yards and two touchdowns, and at one point leading Ohio State to 7 touchdowns on 8 possessions against a defense that is considered one of the very toughest defenses in college football.

Most impressive!  Now let’s turn our focus to the Golden Gophers.

This Year’s Biggest Game

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes visit East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans.  It’s the biggest game of the year, by far, and it will tell us a lot about how this Ohio State teams matches up against an elite opponent.

Diehard members of Buckeye Nation might argue the point, but the reality is that Ohio State hasn’t played any really good opponents this year.  It’s embarrassing, but the Virginia Tech team that came to Ohio Stadium earlier in the year and whipped the Buckeyes is now 4-5 and 1-4 in the ACC.  And while Ohio State has beaten up a number of teams since then — as well as squeaking past Penn State in overtime — none of the opponents who’ve been thrashed have been impressive, period.

Michigan State is different, obviously.  Under Mark Dantonio — a graduate of Jim Tressel’s OSU staff — the Spartans have become one of the toughest, most consistent teams in the Big Ten.  Last year they beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game, and this year their only loss came on the road at Oregon, on the same day the Buckeyes fell to Virginia Tech.  Let’s just say that Michigan State’s one loss looks a lot better than Ohio State’s one loss.

What can we expect from this game?  From Michigan State, we can expect hard hits and a stout defense that doesn’t give up many points.  We can expect the best quarterback Ohio State has faced all year, a balanced offense that runs the ball well and scores lots of points, and a lot of experienced, knowledgeable staff that knows how to beat Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes.  Oh, and we can expect a bunch of Spartan fans who are screaming their brains out, trying to cheer their squad to victory.  With all of this going for him, Coach Dantonio is confidently predicting a victory.

Most people will focus on how the Ohio State offense matches up against the rugged Spartan D.  That’s interesting, of course, but I think the real question will be how Ohio State’s defense will handle Michigan State’s multi-faceted offense.  Ohio State’s defense seems to have improved since early in the year, when it was repeatedly gouged for big plays — but is that because the defense is playing better, or because the opponents aren’t worth a tinker’s damn?  Tonight we’ll see whether the Buckeyes’ apparently improved press defense against the pass works well against an elite team.

Urban Meyer would like to earn the “signature victory” over a top 10 team that has so far eluded him during his tenure at Ohio State.  I’m guessing that this game will be an evenly matched tilt that will be decided by turnovers, and toughness.  Against the Spartans, you wouldn’t expect anything else.

Eyeing The Illini

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play their second night game in a row. This week, their opponents are the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, and the Illibuck — the wooden turtle that goes to the winner — will be at stake. I’ll be there in the Horseshoe with a group of friends for the match-up.

Ohio State’s performance last week against Penn State hurt it both literally and figuratively. Literally, because quarterback J.T. Barrett sustained a knee injury that is concerning, even though he was able to tough it out and lead the Buckeyes to victory in overtime. Figuratively, because most people — me excepted — thought the Buckeyes would beat the Nittany Lions easily, and the fact that Penn State came back to force the game into overtime clearly hurt the Buckeyes’ national reputation. It’s part of the reason why Ohio State is sitting at number 16 in the bowl playoff rankings, which puts it pretty much in the “out of contention” category for now.

Ohio State has three goals in the game tonight. First, win. A loss to Illinois, which had struggled mightily before upsetting Minnesota last weekend, would end any hope Ohio State has of making it to the first college football playoff. Second, perform well enough to allow J.T. Barrett to give his knee a rest while Cardale Jones and other quarterbacks play. Barrett says he will be ready, but I’m expecting that — if he plays at all — his role will be limited to handing off and passing, where there is less chance of aggravating the injury. That means Ohio State needs to run the ball effectively and get off to a fast start, and the Buckeyes can’t give Illinois any flukey scores, like the pick-six that allowed Penn State to get back in the game last weekend.

Finally, Ohio State needs to win impressively if it hopes to move up in the football playoff rankings. I’m not sure that it’s possible to wow selectors with a win over Illinois — no matter how lopsided — but Ohio State simply can’t afford a ho-hum effort that causes them to drop farther down the rankings.  As it is, a lot of dominoes will need to fall for Ohio State to have a chance.

All of these goals recognize one thing: the big game for Ohio State really is next weekend, in East Lansing, against Michigan State. They will need J.T. Barrett at his best for that game — which is the next big opportunity for Ohio State to impress the voters by beating an excellent team on the road. But focusing on that game just increases the risk that Illinois might pull off the upset tonight, as it did last week. The Buckeyes can’t let that happen.  Tonight, focus will be the key.