A Few Modest Observations About The Buckeyes

It hasn’t been an easy year for Buckeye Nation. I went to the game yesterday, and that wasn’t easy, either, as Ohio State eked out a win over Nebraska. The game featured the painful aspects of this year’s team that have become all too familiar — a very shaky defense that routinely gives up big plays, a running game that often misfires in the clutch, and an absence of the big plays we’ve become used to seeing.

Ohio State fans are scratching the heads and wondering what has happened? Why aren’t the highly rated recruits we’ve been reading about crushing every opponent? Sure, the team is 8-1, but it’s a very uncomfortable 8-1.

I wonder if Ohio State hasn’t been, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Every year, a bunch of Ohio State players leave college early to go to the pros — often being drafted in the first or second round. Every year, Ohio State coaches move on to better jobs. Other than Urban Meyer, the turnover has been extraordinary. How much better would Ohio State be if all of those talented underclassmen were still playing, and those coaches were still coaching their systems?

I’m not making excuses, just an observation. Ohio State has been able to overcome the constant turnover and jell as a team in prior years, but that doesn’t mean it will happen every year. A lot of being a good team is continuity, experience, knowing the scheme, and playing together as a team. When you’re shuffling the deck every year, it’s hard to achieve that. How many of Ohio State’s struggles are due primarily to a bunch of new guys trying to learn to play together?

One positive sign from yesterday: at the end of the game, when the Buckeyes really needed to run the ball and keep Nebraska off the field, they were able to do that. Maybe the offensive line, at least, is starting to learn to play together.

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Laying A Pumpkin

The Ohio State Buckeyes went to West Lafayette, Indiana last night hoping to play a football game. They laid a colossal pumpkin instead. And not just any pumpkin — an evil, grinning, death’s head pumpkin that was grimly reminiscent of last year’s debacle in Iowa City.

This year’s team has had serious issues on both sides of the ball, and hats off to the Purdue Boilermakers for ruthlessly exposing all of them. Now maybe the Buckeyes will stop thinking about their recruiting ratings and start focusing on becoming a football team that plays defense, runs the ball, and actually blocks and tackles. Otherwise, we members of Buckeye Nation are going to have to deal with more muerte pumpkins in our immediate future.

Passing The September Test

There used to be a saying in college football:  September is for pretenders, and November is for contenders.  The underlying concept was that the good teams played a bunch of patsies in September and the tough games really didn’t roll around until November.  Thus, November was when you’d finally separate the wheat from the chaff.

That saying is true no longer, at least for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

0f7-web2psu-10jpeg-0163b7666e5c9c44Last night — on September 29 — the Buckeyes had to play the Penn State Nittany Lions at Happy Valley.  Penn State is one of the toughest teams in the Big Ten and a perennial contender for the conference championship, both teams were ranked in the top ten, and 110,000 screaming, white-clad fans packed Beaver Stadium to cheer on the Lions.  The sound in that Stadium last night was deafening.  It’s hard to imagine a better atmosphere for a big-time college football game, or a more daunting challenge for the visiting team.  It was a November contest being played in September.

Somehow, the Buckeyes came from 12 points down in the fourth quarter and beat the Nittany Lions, giving Ohio State a leg up over Penn State in the always tough Big Ten East.  The offense sputtered and coughed and the defense gave up some huge plays to let Penn State take the lead, but Ohio State never gave up and kept fighting until the final play.  Kudos should go to everyone on the Buckeye team, with a special nod to the punter Drue Chrisman, who repeatedly pinned the Nittany Lions deep after each unsuccessful Ohio State possession.

These days, college football in September is not for the faint of heart.  The Buckeyes have passed their first huge Big Ten test.  But if this is September, what in the world is November going to be like?

Testing The Young Gun

Tomorrow night the Ohio State Buckeyes play under the lights in Dallas, Texas, where they will be matched up against the TCU Horned Frogs.  It will be a coming out party of sorts for Ohio State’s new quarterback, Dwayne Haskins.

For four years, J.T. Barrett held the QB position for the Buckeyes with a vice-like grip.  He was a terrific leader and a real winner — literally.  He set just about every offensive record that a quarterback could set, and under his guidance the Buckeyes achieved great success — but they never quite got to the mountaintop with Barrett at the helm.  Some Ohio State fans, possessed of the loftiest expectations, complained that J.T. didn’t have the arm or the accuracy, and was too quick to pull down the ball and run.  That very vocal segment of Buckeye Nation has been clamoring for a drop-back passer at the QB position.

usatsi_10422300-2Well, now they’ve got one, and his name is Dwayne Haskins.  In two games, he’s looked terrific.  Haskins has completed almost 80 percent of his passes, has averaged 270 yards through the air per game, and has thrown for 9 touchdowns against only one interception.  And, so far, at least, his passes are a thing of beauty — arriving on time and hitting receivers in stride and in the hands.  Haskins looks like the real deal.  He may just be the pure passer that Ohio State fans have been dreaming of since Woody Hayes made “three yards and a cloud of dust” synonymous with the Buckeye offense.

But . . . not so fast, folks.  Oregon State and Rutgers, Ohio State’s first two opponents, aren’t exactly national championship contenders.  TCU is a different story.  It’s been in the talk for a berth in the college football playoffs in recent years, and this year it’s ranked in the top 20 going into the game.  And its head coach, Gary Patterson, is a reputed defensive mastermind who will be sure to throw lots of blitzes and weird coverages at Haskins, who’s a redshirt sophomore who will be making only his third start, in hopes of enticing him into turnovers.  TCU knows that if it can get a signature win over Ohio State it will rocket up the rankings and be part of the college football playoff chatter, so we can expect that they’ll leave everything on the field in trying to baffle Haskins and beat the Buckeyes.

Right now, Dwayne Haskins is the young gun.  Tomorrow night, in Texas, we’ll get a better sense of how truly he fires under pressure.

Should It Be The Buckeyes?

Every year, it seems, the talk on the Sunday where the participants in the College Football Playoff are finally decided is all about the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Should they go, or shouldn’t they?

jt-barrett-vs-wisconsin-8e4be645b4ee0204This year is no different.  With Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin last night, a game in which the Buckeyes were led by a gutty J.T. Barrett, only days after he’d had knee surgery, the Buckeyes are 11-2 and the official Big Ten champions.  Normally, you’d think the Big Ten champs would be in easily — but in one of those losses the Buckeyes got waxed at Iowa, losing by 31 points in one of those games that shows you that anyone who thinks they can predict college athletics just doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  The first three teams in to the College Football Playoff are easy decisions:  Clemson, Georgia, and Oklahoma, which handed the Buckeyes their other loss.  And now the chatter is whether the fourth team should be Ohio State, the Big Ten champ with that one big matzo ball of a bad loss, or Alabama, which has only one loss but didn’t play in its conference championship game, lost its only game of the season against an elite team, and played a schedule that wasn’t very difficult.

It’s a tough question, and as an Ohio State fan I’m king of torn.  Last year’s blowout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff rattled a lot of us.  We love our Buckeyes, but that defeat — and then the Iowa debacle this year — has introduced an element of doubt for many.  We don’t want to see the Men of the Scarlet and Gray get in, and then get creamed.  And since the Buckeyes would be the fourth seed if they were to make it, they’d play Clemson again.  Would another humiliating spanking be in the offing?

On the other hand, you’ve got to give Ohio State credit for playing one of the toughest schedules in the country.  They’ve beaten a number of very good teams, including Penn State in an epic comeback, and they bounced back after the Iowa loss to thrash Michigan State, win their great rivalry game against Michigan on the road, and then beat a tough Wisconsin team on a neutral field.  And, while Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin was only by six points, I think the Buckeyes clearly were the superior team by a larger margin than the score indicated.

So, should it be the Buckeyes, or the Crimson Tide?  Call me a homer, but I think a conference championship should count for something, and I think fans can’t let their fears stand in the way of the dreams of young men who’ve played hard and had a fine season.  I hope the Buckeyes make it.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.

Burn The Sooners!

I saw some Sooners fans in downtown CBus as I walked home from work tonight.  I was pleasant and friendly, and said I hoped they enjoyed their visit to the capital city of the Buckeye State except for tomorrow’s game.

I sincerely meant it at the time — but who I am I kidding?  As I sit in front of tonight’s fire, I want the Buckeyes kick Oklahoma’s ass tomorrow.  Go Bucks!