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.

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More Than Ho Hum

I think I can guess the reaction of 99.9% of the members of Buckeye Nation to last night’s 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers:  disappointment, and a shrug.

Disappointment, because we all hoped to see the Cardale Jones and Buckeye offense that took the team to the National Championship last year — and we didn’t.  The offense got off to its customary slow start again last night, as it has in most of the games Jones has started this year.  When you’re getting close to halftime and a team that is filled with speed and playmakers hasn’t scored yet, it’s frustrating.  Is it because of Cardale Jones, or because different coaches are calling the plays this year?  We don’t know for sure — but the offense just looks totally out of sync when Twelve Gauge takes the snaps.

A shrug, because we recognize that a win is a win and we have confidence that the offense will play better with J.T. Barrett at quarterback.  We see other teams falling from the ranks of the unbeatens — look at what happened to Michigan State, for goodness’ sake — and we know that even if Ohio State’s win looked sluggish and uninspired, it still goes in the W column.  And in college football, staying unbeaten is still the best way to make it to the playoffs.

I think we might want to do more than take a ho hum attitude about last night’s game, however.  Sure, there are some good things to take away from it, like an improved performance from the defense, which produced a touchdown and came reasonably close to pitching a shutout.  Some will even argue that it’s a positive that the game quashes any lingering issues about a quarterback controversy.

But the big issue in my mind is about confidence.  Last year, when J.T. Barrett went down, Cardale Jones had not tasted failure.  The offense was rolling already, and CJ played footloose and fancy-free.  When he hit some long balls against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, his confidence went through the roof.  This year, though, he has had his struggles and — equally important — the team has, too.  They don’t play with nearly the same confidence with Jones at quarterback.  He knows it, and they know it.  It would be very difficult for the team and #12 to recapture the moxie they displayed last year.

What does it mean?  Increasingly, it looks like this:  members of Buckeye Nation had better hope that J.T. Barrett keeps his nose clean and his body uninjured if Ohio State wants to have a realistic chance to defend last year’s title on the field.

The Bye Week Jinx Strikes Again

College football fans hate “bye” weeks.  It seems like something bad always happens when the players on your favorite team are away from their normal weekly routine of classes, practices, and film study.

This week Ohio State has a bye week, and the jinx bit — just when Ohio State seemed to have turned a corner with J.T. Barrett taking over the starting position at quarterback  and the Buckeyes posting a crushing road victory over Rutgers last weekend.  To the consternation of members of Buckeye Nation everywhere, Barrett was cited early this morning for a misdemeanor count of OMVI. He will serve a one-game suspension, will missing the Buckeyes’ game against Minnesota, and will be eligible to return for the game against Illinois the following week.  In the meantime, Cardale Jones will once again start for the Buckeyes — and we’ll see whether Barrett regains the starting job once he’s eligible to play again.

This kind of news is maddening for many college football fans, who wonder why athletes can’t toe the line and avoid these kinds of incidents.  I think such people forget what it’s like to be a young college student, with temptations around every corner and students dealing with the pervasive feeling of invulnerability that comes with youth.  J.T. Barrett seems like such a mature, capable decision-maker on the football field that we’re surprised that he doesn’t always make the same careful decisions and check-downs in his personal life.  I guess he’s human after all.

I’ve not met J.T. Barrett, but everything I’ve ready about him tells me that he will be harder on himself for this lapse than just about anyone else — except perhaps Coach Urban Meyer.  Young people frequently make mistakes; the key thing is to learn from them. J.T. Barrett seems like a good student of the game of football; let’s hope he’s an equally adept student about learning about life.

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.

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!

All About The D

From the hype leading up to tonight’s game, everyone seems to be talking about who Ohio State’s quarterback will be and how they will fare against the Virginia Tech defense.  I’ll be focused, however, on the other side of the ball — on Ohio State’s defense.

Much as Cardale Jones deserves credit for stepping in and leading the OSU offense, the real key to last year’s National Championship, in my view, was the Buckeye defense.  The defense gave up a lot of points during the regular season and was gashed repeatedly by a mediocre Michigan team, which caused many fans — me included — to fret about how Ohio State would perform against Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers.  But it was like a light bulb was suddenly turned on after The Gamne, and against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon the defense played lights out.  The D held up and repeatedly delivered crucial stops even though, against the Crimson Tide and the Ducks, they had to deal with a lot of offensive turnovers that put the opponents in good field position with the games on the line.

We know that Virginia Tech has a good defense, and it will be interesting to see whether Ohio State can move the ball against the Hokies and exorcise the demons of last year’s sack-filled debacle.  But for the Buckeyes’ long-term success, I think the defense is the key — tonight and for the rest of the season.  During the last three games last year, the Buckeyes managed to get great pressure with a four-man rush, cover opposing receivers, and shut down three of the Heisman Trophy finalists — all at the same time.

The defense has lost some starters from last year’s squad, and Joey Bosa is out tonight due to a one-game suspension.  Can Darron Lee, Adolphus Washington, Josh Perry, and Tyvis Powell inspire and lead the defense to play like it did in those three unforgettable games?  I think that is the question.