77

Ohio State played the Toledo Rockets, one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, last night. The Buckeyes were a heavy favorite, but this season many college football favorites have gone down to ignominious defeat at the hands of an underdog–and for a time, shifty and speedy Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn gave the Buckeyes’ defense fits. In a normal game, his playmaking ability would have been a cause of concern.

But this was no normal game. Finn’s heroics didn’t really matter, because the Ohio State offense played about as close to perfection as human beings can get. They scored 77 points against a pretty good team, and their offensive metrics were unbelievably gaudy. The team racked up more than 760 yards in total offense, including 482 yards passing and 281 yards rushing. The Buckeyes scored at least two touchdowns in every quarter–including four touchdowns in the first quarter and 42 points in the first half–and responded to every great play by the Rockets quarterback with another score.

If I recall correctly, the Men of the Scarlet and Gray scored on 10 of 12 possessions, with the 12th possession focused on running out the clock at the end of the game. None of the touchdowns were on fluke plays or short fields; the team repeatedly put together long drives and chunk plays that shredded the Toledo defenders. The offensive line opened big holes for Ohio State running backs, protected their quarterbacks, and had only a few modest penalties. The Buckeye starters looked great, the back-ups looked great, and the back-ups to the back-ups–including freshman running back TC Caffey, pictured above, who kept his legs moving, escaped the pile, and took a 49-yard carry to the house–looked great. Coaches always find some flaw, less-than-stellar blocking technique, or missed assignment to coach up, and I’m sure the Ohio State offensive coaches will, too–but they are going to have to truly scour the game film to find much to discuss.

The Wisconsin Badgers come to town next Saturday, and with that game the Big Ten season will begin. Playing sound defense will be a lot more important, touchdowns will no doubt be much harder to come by, and last night’s performance against Toledo will fade into the background. But while the memory is fresh, I hope Buckeye Nation pauses for a moment and appreciates just how amazing last night’s offensive performance was. It truly was a game for the record books.

A Football-Free Sunday?

Having watched a terrific college football game last night, my appetite is whetted for more. I’m ready to plop myself down on the couch, crack open a cold one, and watch some NFL football today. I’m ready to hear the pads cracking and revel in the extreme athleticism, speed, and power of oversized human beings racing around on the gridiron.

Except . . . there is no NFL football today. Even though we got a full slate of college ball last night, football fans hungry for another pigskin fix will be hearing crickets over the Labor Day weekend. The NFL regular season doesn’t kick off until Thursday. So what are football fans to do? Watch the U.S. Open, baseball, or golf? Catch up on HBO’s House of the Dragon? When you’ve got a hankering for clashes on the turf, nothing else really satisfies.

What’s up with this sad reality? Can’t the NFL schedulers and the college schedulers get together and declare that the football season is formally here, so fans can get into their normal Saturday college/Sunday pro routine? Getting only the Saturday half of the equation is like getting the yin without the yang.

Mr. Loudmouth Comes To The Horseshoe

We went to the Ohio State-Notre Dame game last night. It was a great, hard-fought game between two of the most storied programs in college football. The Fighting Irish lived up to their name and put up a tough battle, leaving the game in doubt until the Ohio State offense finally found its footing in the second half, the Buckeye offensive line asserted itself, and the running game helped the team grind out a clutch, 90-yard drive that finally put the game away, leading to a 21-10 win. I’m an old school football fan, and any game where good defense and the rushing attack make the difference is just fine with me.

But, speaking of old school, this fan who went to his first Ohio State home game more than 50 years ago was struck by the atmosphere and the hoopla surrounding the game itself. If you haven’t been to a game at the Old Horseshoe recently, you might be surprised by the in-game experience. Some might call it a feast for the senses; others would say it has become a cluttered confusion geared for people with short attention spans, where the new stuff is threatening to crowd out the traditional elements of a college football game.

Don’t get me wrong, some of it was cool. Last night’s game began with a pinpoint Navy parachuting exhibition, where the parachutists dropped into Ohio Stadium at high speeds and landed flawlessly on the field to the cheers of a huge crowd. I particularly liked the member of the parachute squad who swept into the stadium and onto the field trailing an Ohio State flag, as shown in the first two photos above. I also liked the concept of the drone formations that accompanied the band’s halftime show–although we couldn’t see most of the drone stuff, from our seat in B Deck, which made me wonder how many of the fans outside of the closed end had an unobstructed view–and also the mass cellphone flashlight waving, which made the ‘Shoe look like it had been invaded by a million lightning bugs. The South Stands, in particular, embraced the flashlight waving with gusto, as shown in the bottom photo of this post.

I was also happy to see that some of the traditional elements of a home Buckeye football game remain. The band’s ramp entrance, seen above, remains a central focus, and it never fails to get the fans amped. Script Ohio and a Sousaphone player high-stepping and dotting the i will never get old. The team’s rush onto the field has been jazzed up, with fire blasts, billowing smoke, and fireworks, but at least the band and cheerleaders are still part of it. I like that they continue to use at least some of the breaks during the game to trot people out onto the field for recognition; yesterday’s game honored a 100-year-old World War II vet, the OSU women’s hockey national championship team, and Coach Jim Tressel and the 2002 Buckeye national championship football team, among others. And singing Carmen Ohio with the team and the band at the end of the game is a sweet way to celebrate a win.

But there are other things that this old codger found annoying. Ohio State has hired some loudmouth guy with a microphone who presumed to instruct those of us in the crowd about what to do–like barking out commands for fans to “show their Buckeye spirit” or trying to start O-H-I-O chants as t-shirts are hurled into the stands–as if we really need to be told to cheer and get loud during an exciting football game. Couple Mr. Loudmouth with blasting rock and rap music during some breaks in the action and a few dumb on-field activities, like a relay race between teams encased in large inflatable balls, and you feel like some master planner believes that the fans will become hopelessly bored unless something really loud is happening at every second. And, if you haven’t been at Ohio Stadium since beer sales became part of the experience, be ready to stand up constantly for the beer drinkers in your row to pass by for repeated replenishment and depletion. Some of the guzzlers in our section went by so often we wanted to install a turnstile and charge a fee to let them pass.

I don’t think an Ohio State home game, in one of the most storied venues in college football, needs all of this sideshow stuff. It crowds out the opportunities for the band to play and for the cheerleaders to do some of their routines in front of the fans–which are two of the key things that distinguish a college sporting event from the pros. All of the noise also interferes with another nice part of the Ohio State football experience, which is to talk to surrounding fans, who are typically pretty knowledgeable about football, about the game itself. What a novel concept: football fans wanting to talk about football during the game without being prompted to do something by a loud guy with a microphone! I’d vote to give Mr. Loudmouth his walking papers, ditch the inflatable ball races, and let the band play.

Despoiling The Spoilermakers

Yesterday’s game against the Purdue Boilermakers promised to be a challenging match-up. In recent years, Purdue has played Ohio State very tough–beating the Buckeyes on several occasions that still stick in the craw of Buckeye Nation–and the Boilermakers had already beaten two top three-rated teams this year when they knocked off Iowa and Michigan State. That’s why Purdue is now recognized as the “Spoilermakers.”

But Ohio State fans needn’t have worried. The Buckeye offense roared back to life and quickly put Purdue into a deep hole, thanks to big plays and some mistakes by Purdue that gave the Buckeyes short fields. The halftime score had Ohio State up 45-17–after the game, Ohio State Coach Ryan Day called that, with admirable understatement, “a heck of a score”–and the Buckeyes went on to win 59-31.

Ohio State’s offensive numbers were ridiculously gaudy across the board. C.J. Stroud was 31 of 38 for 361 yards and five touchdowns. Ohio State ran the ball 31 times for 263 yards, averaging an absurd 8.5 yards a carry. Garrett Wilson had a 51-yard touchdown run and caught three touchdown passes. With numbers like that against a solid team, you’re going to win most games, even if your defense gives up 390 yards through the air, as the Buckeyes did yesterday.

As Russell and I watched the game, it came home to me again and again how Ohio State now plays a kind of football that past generations of scarlet and gray-clad fans wouldn’t recognize. Those of us who became members of Buckeye Nation during the Woody Hayes “old buttoned shoe” era of full-house backfields and run-dominated offenses can still hear his inner voice counseling in favor of constant runs when you’ve got the lead, but the college game has changed. You’re not going to score 45 points in a half with grind-it-out football, and you’re not going to attract the highly rated “skill position” recruits with that scheme, either. The reality is that Ohio State has morphed into a quarterback and wide receiver oriented offense that has great running backs, too, and when everything is clicking, as it was yesterday, their offense is both fun to watch and hard to stop.

But even if Coach Hayes might shake his head at what Ohio State’s offense has become, he would understand the schedule. Ohio State has two of the toughest games of the season yet to go, against Michigan State and its powerhouse running game, and then up in Ann Arbor against That Team Up North. Both of the Michigan squads are 9-1 on the season and harbor hopes of knocking off the Buckeyes and going to the Big Ten championship game and perhaps, the College Football Playoff.

Woody would tell you that, whatever happens with the Ohio State offense, the defense will need to play better to bring home victories in those two games–and he would be right.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Ohio State has won two tough, physical games in the last two weeks. By winning at Lincoln, Nebraska today the Buckeyes stay atop the Big Ten East and remain in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

And yet, if you go to Ohio State message boards today, you would think the sky is falling.

Here’s some news for the spoiled, irrational members of Buckeye Nation: winning football games against big-time programs is hard. Winning on the road is hard. Winning with a freshman quarterback is hard.

And yet, Ohio State is doing it.

I’m not saying the Buckeyes will win it all. But expecting the team is win every game by 60 points is simply self-defeating, and ridiculous.

Me? I’ll take the win and move on.

Assessing The Rutgers Discount Factor

Ohio State crushed Rutgers yesterday, 52-13. The blowout final score doesn’t really tell the story of how one-sided the game actually was. The Buckeyes scored at will in the first half, completely shut down the Rutgers offense except for one breakdown play, and went into halftime ahead 45-6. After halftime the Buckeyes scored another TD, then put in the back-ups and got pretty much everyone on the roster into the game, which prevented a really ugly score but has the positive effect of allowing the team to build depth, give your athletes game experience on the road, and protecting your first-string players from injury.

The Buckeyes offense definitely looked sharp–especially quarterback C.J. Stroud–and the defense handed the Scarlet Knights a lot of three and outs in the first half that allowed the offense to get back on the field and rack up another score. Still, the opponent was Rutgers, a team the Buckeyes have routinely pulverized. Buckeye Nation always feels good about the team after the Rutgers game, because Ohio State is 8-0 all-time against the Scarlet Knights and the closest win was last year, when Ohio State won by 22 points. Yesterday’s 52-13 score not even the most lopsided result in the series; that happened in 2016 when the Buckeyes laid a 58-0 whipping on the Knights.

So, how do you assess a big win against Rutgers? Do you focus on the statistics, or discount them because they were achieved against Rutgers, and the Buckeyes always seem to play well against that New Jersey squad? That’s the big question for head coach Ryan Day and his staff. As for me, I think there are some definite positives to take away from yesterday’s game, and I’m not going to discount them entirely due to the Rutgers factor. Here are some of key points, in my view:

  • It’s a road win in the Big Ten against a team that just gave Michigan a tough game in the Big House. I don’t think the Scarlet Knights are chopped liver, and I suspect they will surprise some other teams this year. But the Buckeyes absolutely overwhelmed them. I think that’s a good sign.
  • The Buckeyes defense seemed to be well prepared and in position–something that didn’t seem to be the case in the games earlier this year. Ohio State has a new defensive signal-caller, and yesterday’s game was an indication that he’s doing a good job with the scheme and the pregame preparation.
  • Ohio State’s defense is going to be the big concern this year, and in my view the key is getting the players in position to make plays and avoiding the breakdowns that allowed Oregon and Tulsa players to be running free without a Buckeye in the vicinity. Those egregious breakdowns didn’t happen yesterday. You could argue that we’re talking about Rutgers, but the breakdowns happened a lot against Tulsa, too. If the right scheme is used, I trust the Ohio State players to make tackles, break up passes, and harass the quarterback, as they did yesterday.
  • C.J. Stroud was terrific, going 17 for 23 for 330 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran the ball, and looked a lot more confident in his decision-making. He was accurate and decisive, which are key attributes for the quarterback in an Ohio State offense that is loaded with talent. The modern college game, like the modern pro game, is focused on the quarterback, and I think the Buckeyes have another good one in C.J.
  • A college football season is a process, because personnel are always shifting and new players go through growing pains. The whole Ohio State team looked more settled and comfortable yesterday; the reps and game experience are having an impact. We’ll know more about how that process is going after next week when the Buckeyes take on Maryland–a team that has given Ohio State fits in recent years.

Our New Look Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes played their first game of the new season last night. Watching the game was a different experience, due to the date and time–has Ohio State ever played a football game on a Thursday night before?–and the fact that the team opened the season on the road in the Big Ten, before a packed house of rabid Minnesota Golden Gopher fans, and had to come from behind in the second half to pull out a 45-31 win. But mostly it was a different experience because Ohio State’s starters include a lot of new names, on both offense and defense.

On offense, it’s pretty clear that the Buckeyes have plenty of firepower and weapons galore. They have a new quarterback, C.J. Stroud, who played through some first half jitters and had a bad interception before settling down and making lots of good throws as the Buckeyes pulled away. Give some credit to head coach Ryan Day for continuing to dial up pass plays and give Stroud a chance to show his arm. If Stroud can settle down and throw the ball accurately, he’s likely to put up some big numbers this year, because the Buckeye receiving corps is loaded with talent and speed, starting with veterans Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. And the Buckeyes have a lot of punch in the backfield, too, with Miyan Williams, who rushed for 125 yards on only 9 carries and had a 71-yeard TD burst, dependable Master Teague, and true freshman TreVeyon Henderson, shown in the photo above, who looks like a star in the making.

The defense is another matter. Ohio State’s D was exposed last year by Alabama, and that was a veteran unit. This year’s defense features loads of new players in the defensive backfield and at the linebacker position, and there were some breakdowns last night–including a long run on a gutsy fourth-and-one play by the Gophers–that will need to be fixed. In fairness to the defense, Minnesota had a lot of veteran players at the offensive skill positions and a huge offensive line, and it can be tougher for a defense with a lot of new players to learn to play together as a team. We’ll call the defense a work in progress for now, but we’ll hope that the progress comes quickly, because Ohio State plays Oregon next weekend and the Ducks will be a handful.

It’s the Friday morning before Labor Day, the Buckeyes already have a conference road win under their collective belts, and members of Buckeye Nation have lots to analyze and criticize. It’s not a bad way to start a three-day weekend.

Million-Dollar Students

I guess I realized that the Supreme Court case upholding a lower court’s invalidation of certain NCAA rules, and the decision by the NCAA to changes its rules to allow student athletes to earn income from their name, image and likeness, would change the world of college sports forever. I just didn’t realize how fast it would happen,

The magnitude of the change was crystallized for me when Alabama’s head football coach, Nick Saban, announced recently that the team’s new quarterback, Bryce Young, is nearing a million dollars in payments on various NIL deals. Young is a sophomore who has never started a game—but he’s going to play quarterback for the defending national champions, and now he’s going to be rich. Young signed with an agency when the NCAA loosened its rules to allow athletes to receive NIL compensation so long as they comply with applicable state law, and Young happens to play in a state, Alabama, where the law allows him to receive such compensation. More than half of the states have enacted similar laws, and Ohio is one of them. (It’s amazing how quickly legislatures can act when something important like college football is involved, isn’t it?)

The ramifications of some college athletes making huge sums in endorsements are mind-boggling. Of course, only the big revenue sports, like football and basketball, are likely to be significantly affected. If you’re a college football coach, I think it has made your job a lot harder. Now you’re not only going to be recruiting the star athletes on the basis of your school’s tradition, and facilities, and educational quality, and ability to prepare the athlete for life and a potential professional career–you’re also going to be noting how well some of your current and former athletes have done in the money game. And as a coach you might well also be recruiting local car dealers, insurance agencies, and other boosters to reach out to the sports agencies representing your athletes to sign up for endorsements, so your stars have marketing deals that are competitive with other athletes on other teams at other schools.

Part of the motivation for Savvy Old Coach Nick to mention Bryce Young’s million-dollar deals is no doubt to communicate that other stud players who are choosing between Alabama and other schools should come to the Crimson Tide to maximize their NIL value and enjoy a lucrative college education. This kind of news is bound to have an impact on competitiveness, because not all schools can offer the alumni and booster and endorsement base that is found at Alabama, or Ohio State, or the other perennial college football powers.

And finally, what does having a million-dollar quarterback who hasn’t even started a game do for internal team dynamics? How are the offensive linemen who aren’t likely to rack up endorsement deals, but are getting battered on every play, going to feel about the money discrepancy? Will savvy quarterbacks make sure that their endorsement deals include the big guys who are blocking for them? Will players try to establish their individual brands in on-field play to attract more attention and increase their NIL value? And how will players feel about having limited roles that might not be as noticeable to the endorsers, but crucial to the team’s potential success?

I don’t envy the college coaches who are dealing with these issues, and I wonder if the college sports world is going to look a lot different in the future. Who knows? The 2020 COVID season, with its weirdness and uncertainty and cancellations, might end up being the last “normal” college football season.

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

Ohio Against The World

I first saw the slogan “Ohio Against The World” at the Sugar Bowl game against Alabama years ago. Ohio State had just made a great play, and the TV broadcast showed this shot of the two guys above, screaming their brains out at the prospect of a colossal Buckeye upset in the making. I was screaming my brains out, too, but nevertheless retained the ability to think rationally to myself: “Wow! That’s a very cool shirt.” I loved the sentiment of the shirt in the context of that particular game, where Ohio State was a huge underdog against a great Crimson Tide team. Of course, Ohio State went on to win that game, and then won the next game, against Oregon in a game I got to watch in person, to take home a national championship.

I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the shirt. The “Ohio Against The World” shirt and slogan, which were the work of a guy from Cincinnati, caught on. The creator aptly described the slogan as a “battle cry for the underdog,” but it goes beyond that. The phrase captures deep-seated beliefs about disrespect, and being dismissed, and not being given a chance, and being the subject of withering criticism when the weaknesses of other teams, and their conferences, seem to get a pass. And, because Ohio is part of “flyover country” and the so-called “rust belt,” the shirt no doubt transcends college football to tap into much deeper wellsprings of feeling on the part of residents of the Buckeye State.

People outside of Ohio and Buckeye Nation believe it’s odd — and, apparently, a bit brittle, and even phony — that one of the most successful college football programs in history believes it has been disrespected. Before the game against Clemson, an ESPN writer wrote about how Ohio State and its fans almost seem to search for “perceived slights” to get amped up for big games. The underlying notion was that other teams wouldn’t really care that the opposing coach ranked them at number 11, or campaigned against including them in the playoffs in the first place. I can attest, however, that the touchiness about disrespect is definitely real and not feigned — and when opposing coaches or commentators hit that nerve, the Ohio State football team and its fans are going to take notice and react.

Did the Clemson coach’s ranking, or the questions raised about the validity of including Ohio State in the playoffs in the first place, actually affect the outcome of the game Friday night? I can’t say for sure — Ohio State simply seemed like the better team that night — but I have to believe it sure didn’t hurt.

I note that Ohio State has been installed as a very significant underdog — I understand the betting line now favors Alabama by 8 points — in the National Championship Game. The storylines are very reminiscent of that last game against Alabama, or the National Championship game against Miami before it. Ohio State is once against the David standing against the seemingly unbeatable, juggernaut Goliath.

I imagine this Ohio State team is very comfortable with the fact that it’s “Ohio Against The World” once more. Members of Buckeye Nation can get their OATW gear here, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t delivered in time for next Monday’s kickoff. I’m guessing the company has seen a lot of orders recently.

Once More Unto The Breach

Yesterday the College Football Playoff Selection Committee announced that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in one of the semifinal games. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The two teams played last year in the semifinals, too, and in the semifinals in 2016 as well.

Those games haven’t ended well for the Buckeyes. In fact, Ohio State has never beaten Clemson, in four tries. And that record includes two immense black eyes for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray: the 1978 meeting that ended with OSU Coach Woody Hayes slugging a Clemson player who made an interception that sealed Clemson’s victory and brought the Ohio State legend’s coaching career to an end, and a 2016 CFB meeting in which the Tigers embarrassed the Buckeyes with a crushing 31-0 win. And last year’s game left the members of Buckeye Nation shaking their heads at what might have been if a few head-scratching officiating calls had gone the other way — a view, incidentally, that Clemson fans say that Clemson coaches will use to give Clemson motivation to win again this year. Some Ohio State fans view the upcoming game with Clemson with trepidation; others (including me) think if you want to be the best you need to beat the best. Clemson is up there with Alabama, and Ohio State needs to knock the Tigers off that perch.

But the fact that Ohio State will be playing Clemson in the playoffs — again — raises a larger issue for the sport of college football. The same teams seem to make it to the playoffs, year after year. This is the fourth time the Buckeyes will be in the playoffs, but they are pikers compared to Clemson and Alabama, which seem to make it pretty much every year. In fact, if Clemson and Alabama both win their semifinal matchups this year, they’ll play each other in the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons — which is why one ESPN writer called the CFP the “Alabama-Clemson Invitational.”

This isn’t good for college football, in my view — and I think that view is shared by a growing number of people. The answer isn’t to arbitrarily exclude teams like Clemson and Alabama, which routinely dominate their conferences and put up impressive records year after year. Their performance shows that they deserve to be in the mix. Instead, the solution is to open up the playoffs to more teams, so that other worthy teams — like Cincinnati and Texas A&M this year — get a chance to play on the big stage and show that they belong.

When it comes to college football, 2020 has demonstrated that the sport can be flexible. The COVID-19 pandemic threw old ways of scheduling and operating out the window, with different conferences starting at different times and playing different numbers of games. Doesn’t that show that the college football powers-that-be could manage things to accommodate a larger eight-team playoff? Maybe a new approach to crowning a national champion could be something good that comes from this strange and star-crossed year.

The Year Without The Game

With all of the other bad things that have happened during this ill-fated year, I think many of us had a sneaking suspicion that the Ohio State-Michigan football game — known around these parts simply as The Game — would fall victim to the coronavirus, like so many people and traditions and parts of American life have fallen victim before it. Yesterday, that suspicion was confirmed, when a coronavirus outbreak at the University of Michigan caused The Game to be canceled. And so, for the first time in more than 100 years, in 2020 we won’t be able to watch the latest installment of the greatest rivalry in sports.

It’s a tough development to swallow in a year that has brought a lot of hard things to take.

It’s difficult to describe the Ohio State-Michigan game experience if you haven’t lived through it, aren’t invested in it, and haven’t been immersed in it. Let’s just say it’s unique and — during the week of The Game, at least — pretty much all-consuming. Fans of both teams look forward to The Game with a mixture of anticipation and dread — anticipation, because you hope for a victory, and dread, because you hate the very idea that your team might lose to its hated rival. The outcome of The Game pretty much makes or breaks the year. Victory is sweeter than you can imagine, and defeat is like a sucker punch to the gut that leaves that achey feeling at the back of your throat.

This year, as Michigan has struggled and Ohio State is considered to be in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs, some people have suggested that UM used COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid The Game and complicate Ohio State’s potential path to a role in the playoffs. I would never say that. A big part of The Game is the respect that the two schools, and their fans, have for each other. I suspect, instead, that the opposite is true: those inside the Michigan program were looking forward to the Ohio State game as a chance to redeem a disappointing season, which has happened repeatedly in the history of the rivalry. But player safety and public health concerns have to take precedence.

With The Game being cancelled, what other traditions are at risk? Say, how is Santa’s health these days?

Playing In A Pandemic

Yesterday, the Ohio State Buckeyes beat in the Indiana Hoosiers in a matchup of two top ten teams. It was an entertaining game, we learned that Justin Fields is in fact a human being, and the Buckeyes hung on to win, 42-35, and remain undefeated. As is always the case with Ohio State, some fans were dissatisfied that the Buckeyes didn’t win by a larger margin.

After the game, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day — pictured above in masked mode — commented that people don’t understand the sacrifices these college students have made in order to play football games in the midst of a global pandemic. He was not offering the comment as an excuse, but as an observation — one that people should consider the next time they are thinking about criticizing their team.

In the case of Ohio State, virtually everything we associate with the team and the game and the whole Ohio State experience isn’t happening this year. There is no tailgating, no Skull Session, no walk through cheering fans to the Stadium, no ramp entrance, or Script Ohio, or band, or tumbling cheerleaders. Games are being played in an empty Stadium, with piped-in noise. It’s a dramatically different, and decidedly less energetic, environment, and it’s got to have an impact on the players.

But that’s only the gameday tip of the iceberg. For the players, there’s the isolation from the rest of the student body, in hopes of avoiding infection. There’s the monitoring of symptoms and periodic testing. There’s the uncertainty of whether or not the upcoming game will be played or cancelled because the other team has COVID issues — which has already happened once this season. And many, perhaps most, of the players and coaches have family members and friends who may be sick, and perhaps seriously ill, with the coronavirus at any given point in time. It’s not exactly an ideal environment for intense focus on the upcoming athletic contest. And when gameday arrives, and the experience is so utterly different, the point that this is a surreal time has to be driven home, again. The difficulties no doubt help to explain why some traditional powers, like Penn State and Michigan and Michigan State, are struggling this year.

I’m grateful that the Buckeyes are playing football, because we could all use a diversion, and there’s nothing like sports to provide it — even if the games are stripped of the “color and pageantry” we have come to know so well. But I’m also going to try to stay appreciative of the sacrifices of the players and coaches, on both teams, as I watch the games. They are undergoing pressures and difficulties most of us can’t even fathom.

A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

Out Of The Pens Of Babes . . . .

If, like me, you tend to get a little overwrought about things like college football games or how your favorite team is faring, I’ve got a suggestion for you:  read this story and, especially, read the handwritten letter that nine-year-old Fraser Hartnell wrote to the coach, the quarterback, the team, and the fans of the Michigan State Spartans.

fraserhartnellMichigan State has had a tough season this year — the kind of season that no doubt has a lot of Spartan fans grumbling and saying unkind things about the coach and the players.  In this social media era, it’s easy for fans to post the most appallingly negative, hurtful things about young athletes playing college sports.  I’m amazed at what some people say publicly about college and professional athletes, and I’d like to think that, if those fans just thought about how deeply wounding some of their comments are, they might not make them in the first place.

Fraser Hartnell helps to put it all in perspective.  He plays quarterback on his football team, and he knows that things like interceptions happen.  The important thing is to learn from them, and keep trying.  He went to a Michigan State game this year that the Spartans lost in heartbreaking fashion, but he still had fun — and, as Fraser recognizes, sports is really supposed to be about having fun, anyway.

Here’s what he had to say to MSU fans who were upset about the loss in that game:

“We did not win but you can still have fun when you lose because you love your team no matter what.  Not everyone gets to go see a game so if you get mad I feel sad for you.  Some people get spoiled like a kid who gets all the Christmas gifts.  They are only happy with wins.  Losing gets rid of the bad fans.  That way when we win we can enjoy it.  I like wins but it is not all in life.  There are a lot of things sadder than losing a game.”

My guess is that most of the adult sports fans who read Fraser Hartnell’s heartfelt letter — myself included — will see a little of the “bad fan” in themselves, and realize that they need to take Fraser’s viewpoint to heart.  I’m going to try to adopt Fraser’s positive attitude when I watch the Buckeyes and the Browns this weekend.  As Fraser wisely says:  “Games are supposed to be FUN but they are just games.”