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!

Irresistible Force And Immovable Object

Saturday night, the Ohio State Buckeyes will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten championship game. It should be a classic matchup in which strength is pitted against strength — and correspondingly, weakness against weakness.

This season, Michigan State’s defense is the immovable object:  the number one defense in the country and third-best scoring defense. You can argue about the weakness of the Big Ten this year, but Michigan State’s gaudy defensive stats would be impressive under any conditions.  The Spartans stop the run, rush the passer, guard receivers like glue, and consistently play tough, disciplined defensive football.  In their signature game against interstate rival Michigan, the Spartans dominated physically, limited the Michigan rushing game to a ridiculous -48 yards on the ground, and beat down Wolverines QB Devin Gardner with sack after sack.  Michigan State held Michigan to 168 yards, offensively, and won convincingly, 29-6.  Against Ohio State, by contrast, Gardner and Michigan put up huge numbers, scored 41 points, and almost won.

The Buckeyes offense, on the other hand, has been the irresistible force.  No one has come close to shutting down the two-headed Ohio State rushing game behind power runner Carlos Hyde and elusive quarterback Braxton Miller.  Ohio State features an experienced offensive line and receivers who can spread the field and present a meaningful deep threat.  All together, it amounts to the third-ranked scoring offense in the land, one that has put up more than 30 points in every game this season.

What will happen when this immovable object confronts the irresistible force?  Which team will win the physical battle at the line of scrimmage and wear down the opponent as the game progresses?  And, when the Spartan offense faces Ohio State’s defense, which team will have the advantage?  Michigan State has struggled on offense, and Ohio State’s defense looked like the Keystone Cops against Michigan.  Their battle also looks to be evenly matched.  Both teams are well coached, and those of us in Buckeye Nation still have a soft spot for Spartans head man Mark Dantonio, who coached the stout Buckeyes defense when Ohio State won the 2003 national championship game.

In any rational world, people would be amped and anticipating what should be a terrific battle.  Unfortunately, the game has been overshadowed by incessant yammering about the BCS and which two teams deserve the nod for the championship game if Ohio State, Florida, and Auburn all win tomorrow.  It’s unfair for both Michigan State and Ohio State, which deserve to be evaluated in their own right on their own, exceptional records.

Commentators may be able to make the ludicrous assumption of a victory against this hard-as-nails Michigan State team, but Ohio State certainly can’t.  I hope Coach Urban Meyer and his staff — and the Buckeye senior leaders — have Ohio State focused relentlessly on this game and the challenges posed by a rugged Spartans squad.