The Spring Game

It’s a beautiful day in Columbus.  After weeks of crappy, rainy, even snowy, unseasonably cold weather, spring finally has arrived in earnest and brought some warm weather.

img_1616-1000x750-2b938vhFor Ohio State football fans, today marks the semi-official start of spring — and starts the countdown to Buckeye football in the fall — with the playing of the spring game.  The Ohio State team will split in half, with the Scarlet squad vying against the Gray team in Ohio Stadium.  Tens of thousands of people will show up to watch.  Last year, a record 99,391 members of Buckeye Nation made the trip to the Horseshoe to watch the spring game.  Why not?  It’s fun, there’s no pressure in the result, and it’s a way to scratch that need-to-watch-football itch that’s been tormenting OSU fans since the Buckeyes trounced Notre Dame in their bowl game.

The spring game is a kind of glorified scrimmage, but it’s one that is broadcast on national cable TV (tune in at 1:30 on the Big Ten Network!) and this year it’s got an interesting story to it.  A huge number of Buckeye stalwarts of the recent past — Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Adolphus Washington, Eli Apple, Michael Thomas, Taylor Decker, and Braxton Miller among them — have moved on to the NFL, so the Buckeyes have a lot of holes to fill.  Here’s a chance to see the newbies don the pads and the uniform and begin to show what they’ve got.  They’ve been working hard for weeks with Urban Meyer and his coaching staff in spring camp,  and now they get to run out onto the turf at the fabled Ohio Stadium venue and soak in the cheers and applause of the Buckeye faithful.

Who’s going to be the next great Ohio State running back?  Who’s going to harass opposing quarterbacks, make the clutch catch in a big game, or make the key block that allows the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to cinch a game?  The Spring Game might provide some answers to those questions — and it also lets you start to work on your tan.

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.

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.

 

Black Unis

Tonight Ohio State plays Penn State under the lights at Ohio Stadium.  In any rational world, that would be exciting enough.  Two big-time, tradition-rich programs matching up in prime time, with a lot on the line — the winner stays in contention for a spot to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, and the loser probably doesn’t.

But these days colleges and their athletic departments — prodded by corporate sponsors and marketers — are always looking to up the ante.  So tonight, Ohio State will host a “Black Out,” where all of the people attending are encouraged to wear black gear and the hope is to see the Horseshoe, and its 110,000 occupants, blanketed in darkness.  It’s a pretty cool idea, and definitely a departure from the standard look of the Stadium, where scarlet and gray are the dominant colors.  I’m sure it will help the attendees get even more amped up for the game.

But there’s a hitch — for some people, at least.  As part of the “Black Out,” the Buckeyes will be wearing black uniforms with black helmets.  Black uniforms?  Black helmets?  For some members of Buckeye Nation, the very thought is sacrilegious.  The traditionalists don’t want Ohio State to become the Midwestern equivalent of Oregon, which always seem to wear different, envelope-pushing (and frequently, in my view, ugly) uniforms in every game.  The conservative wing of Buckeye Nation likes the scarlet and gray and simply won’t tolerate any deviation.  The progressive wing, on the other hand, says that Ohio State needs to keep up with the competition, and that recruits — lots of whom will be at the game tonight — think black is really a cool color for uniforms.  Therefore, they argue, showing the option to wear black uniforms just might tip the balance in the Buckeyes’ favor when the time arrives for five-stars to declare the school of their choice.

I’m in the moderate wing of Buckeye Nation, I suppose.  I don’t mind when Ohio State modifies its look from time to time, as in recent years when the Buckeyes have worn “throwback” jerseys that are supposed to honor storied past teams.  Black uniforms will be a more significant departure because there’s no “throwback” argument, but if they make for a more exciting experience for recruits and the crowd at tonight’s game and help the Buckeyes to pull out a crucial win, I’m all for it.

On the other hand, I don’t want to make a habit of messing with the Ohio State uniforms.  We don’t need to get attention with different color combinations or designs or feathered helmets; we make our statements on the field.  Any college football fan who sees the regular uniforms, with their timeless look, knows that they are watching The Ohio State Buckeyes.  And after all, Ohio State picked scarlet and gray as its colors back in 1878 because it was a “pleasing combination” — and that remains true 137 years later.  There’s a reason why The Buckeye Battle Cry speaks of “Men of the Scarlet and Gray.”

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.

Noon Kickoff Memories

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Maryland Terrapins at noon.  Nowadays, that seems like a weird time for an OSU football game.  It’s so early!  Now, the Buckeyes typically play at 3:30 or at 8:00, under the lights.

But when I first started going to OSU football games in the ’70s, noon was the kickoff time for pretty much every game.  And at our house, where Dad and Mom hosted a gang of clients, colleagues, and family members who were going to the game, the noon kickoff produced a certain rhythm and sameness.

Scarlet-and-gray clad people started arriving at about 8:30.  An Ohio State Marching Band record would be playing on the stereo, and Mom would lay out a buffet of food.  For the hardy souls — and I do mean hardy — Uncle Tony would prepare lethal, translucent Bloody Marys that could end your football Saturday before it really began.  Jim, Aunt Bebe and I would look at Aunt Bebe’s football card, which identified the games you could bet on for the day and their spreads, and Aunt Bebe would consult her season-long Stat-Key information before making her picks. As kickoff time neared, we’d start to hear the motors of the prop planes flying overhead, heading for Ohio Stadium with their advertising banners for pizza or insurance in tow.

We’d nibble at food, listening to the noise level in our split-level house mount as more people arrived and feeling that growing excitement that comes with the knowledge that a game is only hours away and you’re going.  Jim and I were usually responsible for making sure that iced-down coolers of beer and sodas were put in our transportation.  Then the departure time would come, and we’d don our Buckeye Nation gear, pile into a van or RV, and roll from Upper Arlington down to the French Field House parking lot across from the Stadium for some tailgating before game time.

After the game — which usually lasted no more than three hours, because only one or two of Ohio State’s games were televised each season and at the game you didn’t have to wait through a bunch of commercial interruptions — we’d return home, ready to celebrate another Buckeye victory and eat the lavish spread that Mom had set out.  The adults would drink some more, but Jim and I would usually go outside to throw the football around with our neighborhood friends on a crisp autumn afternoon, and there was still plenty of daylight left to do so.  When we came back inside the remaining guests were roaring and red-faced and entertaining in their own right, and usually there would be a late game to watch before the 11:30 start of The Woody Hayes Show rolled around.

College football coaches don’t like noon kickoffs these days.  They want a later kickoff, so visiting recruits can see the campus and spend some time with the current players before the games begin, and I can understand that.  But as a kid, I liked the noon games.  The memories of those games during my teenage years are still very fresh.