College Football Saturday 

I love these Saturdays.

The air has turned cooler.  I worked this morning, then walked home in time to catch the speedy and talented Buckeyes’ beat down of hapless Rutgers.  So my team has won, the day is still young, I have cold beer in the refrigerator, and there is some good college football yet so be played.

So I’ll drink a cold beer and scout the Badgers and Wolverines, both of which will square off against Ohio State in the coming weeks.  Then I’ll watch Louisville and Clemson.  And all the while I’ll do some channel surfing to catch other games, and scores, and maybe dip into the Tribe game now and then.

It’s fall and it’s Saturday, baby!  Let the pigskin fly!

Hey, by the way — isn’t TV great?

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.

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.

 

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.

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.”

5-0, 1-0

Ohio State (other than Ezekiel Elliott) didn’t exactly knock my socks off yesterday in their close win over a very game Indiana Hoosiers squad, but the statistics above are the ones that count:  Ohio State is 1-0 in the Big Ten and 5-0 overall.

IMG_1835Members of Buckeye Nation who bought into the team’s preseason hype are freaking out that Ohio State not only hasn’t crushed Indiana and its other opponents, but has struggled and doesn’t really resemble the team that rolled over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon at the end of last year.  And they’re right in the sense that this team has a lot to work on.  Way too many turnovers, stupid penalties, muffed center snaps, lack of timing between quarterback and receivers, some bad in-play decisions, and a general out-of-sync feel have kept the offense from showing its true potential.  The defense has been better, but it has had its breakdowns, too — and yesterday the offense did it no favors by failing to put together any sustained drives.  When you leave the defense on the field and let the other team run 30 more plays than you do, there are bound to be breakdowns.

I’m not going to join the chorus of Ohio State fans who are second-guessing the coaches.  This team obviously hasn’t gelled yet, and it will be on the coaches to make that happen.  Eventually, turnovers and penalties will bite you if they aren’t stopped.  But nevertheless, Ohio State has managed to find a way to win — and yesterday they did it against a fired-up team that looks to be on the upswing, on the road, in sloppy conditions.  Some good teams that weren’t having their best day would have lost yesterday’s game.  It says something positive about this team and its coaches that Ohio State didn’t let that happen.

Four teams ranked in the top ten lost yesterday, and two of them got crushed.  Other teams — like Michigan State — also struggled.  That’s the way college football works.  Ohio State fans should stop fretting about style points and start appreciating the Ws.