Braxton’s Fond Farewell

braxton-miller-40234188f6afc4f5Braxton Miller has played his last down as an Ohio State Buckeye, but he has left an indelible imprint on the Ohio State record books — and on the hearts of Buckeye fans everywhere.  And through it all, through triumph and adversity, he has been a true class act.

Now Braxton has shown that he not only is a great football player, but also a great communicator.  He’s written a letter, called “Dear Buckeye Nation,” that should be required reading for any fan of the Men of the Scarlet and Gray — and for that matter for any college football fan, period.  It’s great stuff.

Ohio State should be proud to have a graduate like Braxton Miller.

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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.

The Real Season Begins

The Ohio State Buckeyes have played 10 games this college football season and have won them all.  Every Ohio State fan knows, however, that the real season begins today, when the Michigan State Spartans come to town.

It’s been an interesting season for Ohio State, filled with twists and turns but with one, overriding theme:  the Buckeyes’ failure to be as dominant and impressive as the pundits expected them to be.  With Ohio State’s run to the National Championship still fresh in everyone’s minds and preseason expectations sky-high, anything other than a 60-0 drubbing is seen as a disappointment.  Last week’s win over Illinois is a good example.  The Buckeyes beat a Big Ten team with a winning record, on the road, 28-3 — and the talking heads kept talking about what was wrong with Ohio State.

22-bosa-connor-cook-crIf Ohio State can pull off a win today such talk should stop, because everyone knows Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country.  The Spartans are ranked in the top ten and would also be 10-0, save for a flukey loss to Nebraska that turned on a questionable no-call by the refs.  They’ve fought titanic battles with Ohio State, on even terms, the last few years.  They’re an experienced team led by a probable first-round draft choice at quarterback in Connor Cook, and their coach, Mark Dantonio, has turned the Michigan State football program into a powerhouse.  For the Spartans, this is a chance to avenge their loss to the Buckeyes last year and to take a further step toward cementing their status as one of the elite teams in the country.

This will be a tough, hard-hitting contest — but it also will be an opportunity for Ohio State to answer some of the critics and questions.  Can Ohio State finally gel on offense, avoid the frustrating breakdowns and penalties, and reach the same level of execution that made them close to unstoppable in last year’s National Championship Game against Oregon?  Can Urban Meyer and his coaches get Braxton Miller, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, and the Buckeyes other offensive weapons to fully mesh against a stout defense?  And can the Silver Bullets get pressure on Cook and avoid the big-play breakdowns that have made some of the Buckeyes’ wins this year too close for comfort?

The quarterback controversy is behind us, and the big games are finally here.  Everyone in Buckeye Nation wants to see a win for a great Buckeye, Braxton Miller, on Senior Day.  In Columbus, where the forecast is for rainy game-time conditions, the real season starts today.

 

Red Zone Resurgence

As I pointed out last week, the key for Ohio State is to just win, baby.

That doesn’t mean that their fitful offense hasn’t been frustrating.  With so much talent, and the memories of the team’s dominance at the end of last year still fresh in the minds of Buckeye Nation, three-and-outs to the likes of Indiana and Maryland are like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Today, against a game but not particularly talented Maryland team, Ohio State may have started to figure things out.  The adjustment was to start Cardale Jones, but let J.T. Barrett man the helm when the offense entered the red zone.  It worked like a charm.  With Barrett giving the Buckeyes a viable running threat at the QB position, the formerly sputtering Buckeyes went 6-for-6 scoring touchdowns in the red zone — which is more what we all expected when the season began.  Barrett just seems like one of those players who has a nose for the end zone, and having him run the team down close seemed to help Cardale Jones, too.  Jones tossed some beautiful passes today and had one of his best days ever throwing the football, and the Buckeyes spread the ball around to the indomitable Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller, and Michael Thomas and really got into a rhythm in the second half.

I’m not bragging about a 49-28 win over the Terrapins in a game that was tied after Maryland’s first drive in the third quarter, but I am happy that Ohio State put together some good drives and mixed up the run and pass.  The defense got gashed by a running quarterback — again — but the offense is the key to this team.  If Ohio State can get close to the juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped by the likes of Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon, the scoring onslaught puts so much pressure on the opponents that it makes the defense that much better.  Ohio State isn’t going to win many 6-3 games this year, but they aren’t going to lose many games where they score more than 40 points, either.

A Solid Win

Things looked dicey at halftime, but the Ohio State Buckeyes bounced back from some self-inflicted wounds and pummeled a game Virginia Tech team in the second half to win, 42-24.  The win avenges Ohio State’s only loss from last year.

This was a good win on a number of levels.  The quarterback controversy is finally over.  Urban Meyer went with Cardale Jones as the starter, and Jones played a pretty good game, throwing for two TDs (against one tipped interception) and rushing for almost 100 yards and another touchdown.  Equally important, for the first half, at least, Ohio State didn’t look like the invincible juggernaut that a lot of people were touting.  The OSU coaches will have a lot to talk to the team about after this win, because there is definitely room for improvement.

Virginia Tech is not an easy place to play for a visiting team, and when the Hokies took the lead just before halftime before a roaring home crowd, some teams might have folded — but not Ohio State.  They obviously have a lot of leadership (something Urban Meyer consciously tries to instill in his players) and a lot of talent, and you saw no panic on the Buckeye sideline.  A few dazzling Braxton Miller plays later, and OSU was on top and pulling away.  The fact that the Buckeyes’ defense knocked the Hokies’ starting quarterback out of the game didn’t hurt, either.  (The drop-off in talent between Virginia Tech’s starter and back-up just shows, again, how special the performance of Ohio State’s QB back-ups was last year.)  By the end of the game, a bunch of Buckeye back-ups were on the field, getting game reps in a hostile environment — something that also will probably pay dividends in the future.

In all, a nice, solid win in a tough venue that had its character-building elements as well.  It’s not a bad way to start the season.  Bring on Hawaii!

The J.T. Barrett Phenomenon

In Columbus, Ohio, it’s J.T. Barrett’s world — the rest of us just live in it.

I’ve been a fan of Ohio State football for decades, and during that time there have been many popular players — Archie Griffin, Chris Spielman, Eddie George, and Troy Smith among them — but I can’t remember a player who was as much of a phenomenon as J.T. Barrett.  When Braxton Miller went down with an injury only days before the season began, Barrett was a virtual unknown who had to fill the shoes of a Heisman Trophy favorite.  He responded with one of the greatest seasons in Buckeye history, smashing many of offensive records in the Ohio State record book and leading the team back into contention for the national title after an early season stumble against Virginia Tech.

And then, after improbably putting himself in contention for the Heisman Trophy and leading Ohio State to the brink of over arch-rival Michigan, Barrett suffered a gruesome injury that ended his season.  He reacted with class and stoicism — as every J.T. Barrett fan knew he would.  Throughout the season, he has managed to combine humility, quiet confidence, and leadership in a heroic mixture that seems more suited to a Grantland Rice story than modern reality.  But when he broke his ankle, then gave the stunned crowd a sign as he was carted off the field, then showed up in the stands in an inflatable cast so he could help root his team to the win, Barrett became the stuff of legend.

If you don’t live in a college town, you may not fully appreciate the depth of admiration Ohio State fans feel for J.T. Barrett.  We’re sad his wonderful season ended so brutally, but we’re so proud of how he has handled himself even in the face of this adversity.  There are little boys in Ohio now who want nothing more than to grow up to be like J.T. Barrett, and their parents are happy their sons have picked such a terrific role model.  No member of Buckeye Nation who lived through this season will ever forget the story of J.T. Barrett.

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!