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!

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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.