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.

Trappy Valley

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley to play the Penn State Nittany Lions.  Penn State has struggled this year, but this is a game that concerns me.  It’s one of those classic “trap games” that can reach up and bite you when your opponent gets pumped up because they can salvage their season with a win..

Since the Virginia Tech loss, Ohio State has racked up a lot of yards and put a lot of points on the board.  Many members of Buckeye Nation think Ohio State’s offense is an unstoppable juggernaut and terrific redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett is the second coming of Peyton Manning.  Let’s take a deep breath, people!  Ohio State’s recent performance is all well and good — but it has occurred against defenses that really aren’t comparable to Penn State.  As is always the case, Penn State has a lot of tough, hard-nosed athletes on the defensive side of the ball.  Statistically, the Nittany Lions are the best defense in the Big Ten, and they are especially good against the run.

With a huge home crowd behind them and roaring on every play, it’s not hard to imagine Penn State’s defense stopping the high-octane Buckeyes and keeping the score down.  Sure, Penn State’s offense has not been impressive, but Ohio State’s defense has given up a lot of big plays.  If the Nittany Lions can break through for a long score or two, and their defense keeps Ohio State out of the end zone, this game could turn into a close slugfest — and the longer the game is close, the more the crowd will become a factor.

As Ohio State knows all too well from the very successful Jim Tressel years, you don’t need to lead the nation in offense to win a lot of college football games.  Careful game management, a solid defense that doesn’t give up long touchdowns and keeps opponents off the scoreboard, and good fundamentals in the kicking and punting game can go a very long way to make up for a weak offense.  Tonight Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes might see some Tresselball from the opposing team, and Tresselball isn’t that easy to beat.

Trouncing The Newbies

Yesterday Ohio State crushed Rutgers, 56-17, in a game that was out of hand by the second quarter.  Ohio State rolled up more than 580 yards of offense, had a 35-7 halftime lead, was ahead 56-10 after three quarters, and then took its foot off the gas pedal.

IMG_4991The game was an important win for the Buckeyes, and not just because they need to win every remaining game by convincing margins if they hope to have a chance to play in the first college football playoff this year.  No, the game also was important for one of those reasons that sports fans understand intuitively, but non-sports fans will never fully grasp:  Rutgers is a new member of the Big Ten, and therefore it was essential that Ohio State crush them like a bug on their first visit to the Horseshoe.

You see, there is such a thing as conference pride.  The Big Ten has become a whipping boy in the national press for laying eggs in big out-of-conference games, but we can only imagine the sneers and snickers and sarcasm from the ESPN talking heads if one of the newbies won the conference championship during their first year as a member.  We simply can’t let that happen.  Ohio State has held up its end of the bargain, administering thorough beat-downs to both Rutgers and Maryland. Now we’ll hope that the other members of the Old Conference follow through, too.

Newcomer Ass-Kicking

Hey, Maryland!  Welcome to the Big Ten!  We think you suck!

Look, I’ve got nothing against Maryland.  Their mascot is a turtle, for God’s sake.  Who could hate a turtle?  Or, a terrapin if you want to make it a high-class turtle.  It makes no difference — I still want to kick their shell-protected keister.

This is the Big Ten.  Sure, our national reputation blows . . . but we’ve still got some pride.  We can’t let some newbie to the Old Conference come in and beat a traditional conference power.  So, I’m glad the Buckeyes toasted the Terrapins, 52-24, and I wish they hadn’t taken their foot off the gas at the end of the game.  I say, score 60 on these guys, and let them know they’re in a real conference now.  Kick their butts until they beg for mercy!

As for OSU, I think they’re still a work in progress.  They’ve got speed and talent on O, but their D is a question mark.  Michigan State will be the big test, and I’m interested to see how these young guys respond.  Can the offensive line block the Michigan State D?  Will J.T. Barrett continue to impress?  Can the D finally avoid giving up a big play?

This is why college football is great.

Michigan Is A Mess

If you are an Ohio State football fan, you naturally pay attention to what is happening with That Team Up North.  If you’ve been doing that this year, you know it’s not a pretty picture.

Michigan football is a mess right now.

Three weeks ago the Wolverines were crushed by Notre Dame, 31-0, in the last currently scheduled game of a long and storied rivalry.  Last week they got pasted, at home, by Utah, 26-10.  And yesterday they were crushed — again at home — by Minnesota, 30-14.  Michigan now stands 2-3 for the season, and they haven’t even played any of the Big Ten’s power teams (to the extent that the Big Ten has any power teams this year, which admittedly is a very debatable proposition).

Michigan’s offensive statistics are abysmal.  They are 104th in the BCS in the points scored category and 108th in passing yards.  The fan base is up in arms, Michigan’s home sellout string is at risk, and there are rumors of growing discord in the locker room.  To make matters worse, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke seems overwhelmed, confused,  and absolutely clueless about how to fix the problems.  Yesterday Hoke continued to play a wobbly and apparently injured player, which causes some fans to wonder whether he’s paying attention and whether he’s really got the players’ best interests at heart.

Michigan’s woes have been going on for years, since the end of the Lloyd Carr era.  Two bad coaching hires, and resulting years of bad records and frustrating losses, have left a once-premier program teetering on the brink.  It just shows you how, in college football, the line between dominance and mediocrity is a thin one.  A bad hire, a few lean recruiting years, and any elite program could be suffering mighty Michigan’s embarrassing fate.

C’est La Vie

I was rooting hard for Ohio State to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night.  But Michigan State is no Duke, and my wishes went aborning.

IMG_1822I give all credit to Michigan State, for a game well played.  I wish we had just pounded the ball after we took the lead in the second half, but I am not a coach.  Michigan State won, fair and square.  Tonight, they were the better team.

The holiday season beckons.  We’ll play in a bowl game, but not in a national championship game.  As I communicated to Uncle Mack during the game. c’est la vie.

I’m still proud of this team, and this season.  Don’t get down!