O-Fer No Longer, And Buckeye Nation Rejoices

Finally!  Finally! Finally! Ohio State has beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  The Buckeyes held on to beat Arkansas, 31-26, in a wild game at the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

At times it seemed like this game would not end and the fates had decreed that Ohio State was destined to lose.  There was a weird safety call.  Lots of injuries to key players, including Chimdi Chekwa, Cam Heyward, and Terrelle Pryor.  A fumble by Boom Herron on a crucial fourth-down conversion.  And ultimately a blocked punt that gave Arkansas the ball in great field position.  But somehow Ohio State’s defense refused to crumble.  Solomon Thomas intercepted Ryan Mallett as Arkansas was on Ohio State’s doorstep, and that sealed the win.

Say what you will about Terrelle Pryor, but he played a great game — and he is the only Ohio State quarterback to beat the SEC in a bowl game.  Pryor ran, passed, and made a slew of big plays to convert third downs and move the chains.  And Ohio State’s defense played a “bend, but don’t break” approach to perfection.  Arkansas moved the ball, but the D would make a big play and force a punt or a field goal attempt by a team that is used to scoring touchdowns.  Cam Heyward was a force on the defensive line all night long.  He has been a great Buckeye — one who returned for his senior year, when he could have gone pro — and he was rewarded with a game that Buckeye Nation will remember forever.  He will be missed.  And the rest of the defense also did a great job in holding Arkansas at bay and then, finally, forcing the turnover that ended the game.

Ohio State can’t brag about their record against the SEC.  They sprinted to a lead in this game, and then held on for dear life.  But it feels very sweet indeed that the Buckeyes have finally thrown the SEC bowl game monkey off their backs, and in the process salvaged a bit of pride for the Big Ten conference.  Congratulations to the entire team and Coach Tressel and his staff on a 12-1 season that showed, again, that Ohio State has fielded one of the best teams in the country.

Room For Improvement

I went to the Ohio State game today and, as expected, saw an easy 43-7 win over the Ohio University Bobcats.  The Buckeyes controlled the game from the start, scored 34 points in the first half, and put the game away early — which is what you want to do if you are the number two-ranked team in the country.

The Bobcats take the field

Defensively, the Buckeyes simply overmatched OU.  Cameron Heyward and his mates forced five turnovers, notched a safety, and held the Bobcats scoreless until the defensive reserves took over in the fourth quarter.  In all, the defense held Ohio U. to 158 total yards, most of which were gained during mop-up time.  The defensive line in particular looked very good, but the whole defense was solid.

Offensively, the Buckeyes sparkled for most of the first half.  Terrelle Pryor completed 16 straight passes at one point, ran for a touchdown, and threw for two more.  He used his tight end and spread the ball around, ultimately completing 22 of 29 passes for 235 yards.  Still, the offense had its struggles.  In the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, Pryor took a sack and threw an interception in the end zone.  The running game was not as steady as you would like, and some of the new plays the Buckeyes attempted (including some plays run from the “wildcat” formation, with Boom Herron taking a direct snap) clearly didn’t work as they had been drawn up.  I like the fact that the Buckeyes are trying some new formations, however, and a game like this one is a perfect venue to conduct some on-the-field experimentation against real opponents.

Finally, the special teams again looked shaky, and it is becoming a real concern.  Ohio U. had a kickoff return for a touchdown called back and came close to breaking a few other returns, and they also blocked a punt.  The special teams just don’t look sharp, and OSU’s inability to get the ball into the end zone on kickoffs is giving opposing teams excellent field position.

Coach Tressel will be thinking about how to improve the special teams

Only at a school like Ohio State, I suppose, could a fan look at a 43-7 drubbing of an opponent and say that there is “room for improvement” and really mean it — but that insistence upon excellence is what distinguishes the Buckeyes from many other college football programs.  True fans know that successful Big Ten teams need dependable running games in the second half of the season, when cold, wet weather and bad footing make it much more difficult to depend upon pass-oriented offenses.  True fans know that successful teams must consistently execute the two-minute drill and score touchdowns when you reach the red zone and be able to do so in a distant stadium filled with 100,000 howling fans who are hoping the  opposing team pulls off an upset that makes their season.  True fans know that, in a tough away game against well-coached teams like Iowa or Wisconsin, a special teams blunder can mean the difference between a win and a heartbreaking loss.

On days like today, when the weather is warm and sunny and the Buckeyes take the field against overpowered opponents, the team can work out the kinks and strive to establish the consistency and capabilities that will be sorely needed soon enough, when the cold winds begin to blow and the conference contests begin.

The Buckeyes March On

Ohio State won a big game yesterday, and did so in pretty convincing fashion.

The Buckeyes topped Miami, 36-24, and the game ended with the Buckeyes taking a knee deep in Miami territory.  It was an exciting game throughout, with two long returns for touchdowns by Miami, a blocked field goal by Ohio State, and four interceptions by the Buckeyes.  The Buckeyes defense got pressure on the Miami quarterback, bent but did not break, forced turnovers, and held a Hurricane offense with some potent weapons to one offensive touchdown.  The defensive line played very well — Cameron Heyward, in particular, will never forget his interception and 80-yard rumble down the field — and the linebackers and secondary made some big hits and had no big breakdowns.

On the offensive side of the ball, Terrelle Pryor played a fine game after a somewhat slow start.  Pryor clearly feels more comfortable with the deep ball at this stage in his career, and he made a terrific long throw to DeVier Posey.  But Pryor also made other good throws, like the wheel route touchdown pass to Brandon Saine.  More importantly, and unlike the Miami quarterback, Pryor had no turnovers.  And, of course, the additional dimension Pryor offers is his running ability.  His touchdown jaunt was vintage Pryor, and his runs helped the Buckeyes control time of possession and run out the last 7 minutes of the game.  In short, I think Terrelle Pryor is still a work in progress as a quarterback — but good progress is definitely being made.

The rest of the Buckeyes’ offense played a solid game.  The offensive line did a good job on pass protection, although the running game was a bit fitful.  Brandon Saine made a great catch on the wheel route touchdown, and Boom Herron ran with authority, notched a touchdown run, and had an excellent run after catching a shovel pass.

The special teams report was good and horrible.  The horrible was the two complete breakdowns on the Miami kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns.  The coverage was so bad that Jim Tressel quickly decided not to even kick long to Miami.  It’s humiliating to pooch kick in your own building, but the strategy at least kept Miami from getting other long returns.  On the other hand, Ohio State’s return game also looked good, with two near touchdowns — one apparently foiled when Jaamal Berry was tripped by a teammate — and the Buckeyes field goal kicker was 5 of 6.  From their return work, it looks like Jordan Hall and Berry also have great futures as OSU running backs.  Obviously, though, the kick and punt coverage needs work, and I’m sure it will be the focus of practices in the coming weeks.

All told, it was a good win, and should help to erase the lingering doubts about Ohio State’s ability to show up in big games and the quality of Big Ten football.  Next up is Ohio University.

The Hurricanes Blow Into Town (Cont.)

The game against the Miami Hurricanes is less than two days away, and the excitement here in Columbus is building.  Buckeye and Hurricane fans, and no doubt college football fans generally, are looking forward to what should be a marquee matchup between two teams with storied programs and lots of tradition.

The Miami program has experienced a few down years since the glory days of the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, and Miami fans, I think, view this game as a chance to make a national statement that “The U” is back.  Ohio State fans, on the other hand, are looking to continue the momentum created by the 2010 Rose Bowl win and to wipe away the memory of the tough home loss to U.S.C. last year.  It seems like, every year, pundits raise questions about whether the Buckeyes can win the big games.  So, each team will come to the game thinking they have something to prove.

Early season matchups also have their own intriguing aspects because the teams are largely unknowns.  Last week Miami beat the snot out of Florida A&M, a Division 1-AA program, scoring 45 points, completing a high percentage of passes, pitching a shutout, and constantly harassing and sacking Florida A&M’s quarterback.  The Buckeyes pretty much did the same with Marshall.  But Ohio State fans like to think that the Buckeyes are much better than the Rattlers, and Miami fans believe they are much better than the Thundering Herd.  In all likelihood, the first games don’t tell us much.

I think the game is going to be decided on the line of scrimmage.  The Hurricanes have a fine quarterback, Jacory Harris, who is highly accurate when he is given time to throw.  Last year, however, he was sacked 34 times and threw 17 interceptions.  Ohio State will be looking to Cameron Heyward, Dexter Larimore, and their fellow defensive linemen to control the line of scrimmage.  If the Buckeyes can get pressure with their front four, it will simplify the task of Ohio State’s somewhat inexperienced secondary.  If Miami’s offensive line can keep the defensive line away from Harris, on the other hand, it will open up Miami’s running game and allow Harris to exploit the Buckeye secondary.

The Buckeye faithful will need to be loud on Saturday

On the other side of the ball, the burden will fall on the Ohio State offensive line.  Miami has some excellent speed rushers but has been victimized by power running games.  The Buckeyes may well focus on their stable of running backs and dare Miami to stop the run.  If Ohio State does mix things up, it will need to protect Terrelle Pryor.  Like Harris, he has shown that he can turn the ball over when significant pressure is applied.

Neither side seems to have a significant advantage on special teams.  The Buckeyes looked raggedy in the kicking game last week, giving up a long kick-off return, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and a blocked extra point.  Miami will have speed to spare on its special teams, so the Ohio State coaches will have had to work on the spacing and coverage issues if they don’t want to get burned come Saturday.  When a team like Miami comes into a tough environment like the ‘Shoe — and let’s hope the Buckeye Nation is loud, loud, loud — you don’t want to give them a cheap touchdown that makes their task any easier.

This is one of those games where we will know early whether the teams are evenly matched.  I think we will see a tough, hard-fought game on Saturday.

The Hurricanes Blow Into Town