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.”

Big Head Syndrome

I’m worried about the Ohio State football game against Penn State on Saturday.

The Buckeyes obviously have a lot of talent this year, and they’ve played exceptionally well so far.  They’re undefeated, have won every game by huge margins, and have risen to the number 1 or number 2 spot in every football ranking service, including the rankings established by the College Football Playoff committee.

chase-young-ohio-state-wisconsin-gettyThat’s great — but it’s also the problem.  Ohio State has been so good during its first 10 games this year that people have started talking about them as if they are one of the historically great teams — not just at Ohio State, but in all of college football.  You’ll see analysis of how the Buckeyes match up with other all-time great teams in terms of statistical dominance, margin of victory, and other metrics.  And one telling measure of the praise that has been gushing around this year’s team is that Ohio State is a 19-point favorite to beat Penn State come Saturday.  That’s right:  Ohio State is expected to beat a one-loss, traditional powerhouse that has played the Buckeyes very close in recent years and that is itself ranked in the top ten — by nearly three touchdowns.  It’s an absurd example of the sky-high expectations surrounding this Buckeye squad.

I think it’s silly to talk compare a team to all-time great prior teams while there are still lots of important games to be played against excellent teams like Penn State and, next week, Michigan.  I also think it’s dangerous.  If you hear about how great and unbeatable you are long enough, you might actually start to believe it — and if you get the big head and start to believe those press clippings, you’re headed for a fall.  Ohio State fans have seen this story before, with the 1969 team, the 1973 team, the 1998 team, and the 2015 team.  Each team had lots of smoke blown up its behind about being the best ever — and then had a horrible stumble.  I’m worried we may be seeing a replay of the same disappointing story this year.

There are young Ohio State fans who have absolute confidence in this team.  Those of us in Buckeye Nation who are old enough to remember the crushing losses of the past, including in games where the Buckeyes were heavily favored, are very wary.

The hype can be a trap.  It will be up to Ryan Day and the other Ohio State coaches to make sure that the players disregard the praise, focus on their prior mistakes and getting better, and come out humble, motivated, and ready to play on Saturday.

Going Pro

Yesterday Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins announced that he will leave college to participate in the 2019 NFL draft.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore, which means he will be giving up two years of college football eligibility in order to turn pro.

web1_Haskins_MVP-1The decision surprised exactly no one.  Haskins was the Ohio State starter for only one season, but in that season he shredded the record books, setting new single-season Ohio State marks for attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns and single-season Big Ten records for passing yards and touchdowns.  He’s easily the best pure passer and pro-style quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had.

He had a remarkable year, and the experts have graded him accordingly.  The NFL Draft Advisory Board, which exists to give college players who are considering leaving school early a sense of where they might go if they stand for the NFL draft, gave Haskins a first-round grade, and he is widely considered to be the best quarterback prospect in the draft and a likely top ten pick.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who follows football.  So why am I writing about Dwayne Haskins going to the NFL?  Because while his decision was predictable, what’s changed has been the reaction to it.  In the past, college football fans used to hold a grudge against players who left early, viewing them as betraying their alma maters to chase the almighty dollar.  Now, there may be some people out there who still hold to that view, but the majority have shifted to a different position.

We see how much money professional athletes can make, we know how that kind of money can be life-changing for the athletes and their families, and we also know that, in a sport as violent as football, you never know whether the next play might inflict a gruesome, career-ending injury.  As a result, for the most part, fans have come to view decisions to turn pro by high-caliber players like Haskins as a rational, reasonable judgments — even though we’d love to see them continue to perform for our favorite college teams.  We get why they don’t want to take a huge risk that they might end up regretting forever.  In short, we’ve reached the last stage of the seven stages of grief and have accepted the way the world now works.

So Godspeed, Dwayne Haskins!  It was fun watching you play football for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray . . . while it lasted.

CFP’d Off

I’m warning you in advance that this post is going to sound like sour grapes.  And, in fact, some of the motivation for writing it in the first place is sour grapes.  But I’m here to tell you that the College Football Playoff process that was rolled out to great fanfare only a few years ago is already broken.

ype12feWho made the college football playoffs last year?  Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia.  Those same four teams finished in the top five this year.  It was only because Notre Dame ran the table against a weak slate of opponents — and, because ND is nominally independent, a slate that doesn’t include a conference championship game — that college football fans everywhere avoided watching the same four teams play each other again this year.

In the five years the College Football Playoff has been in existence, Alabama has made it every year.  Clemson has made it four out of five times.  Oklahoma has made it in three of the five years.  It’s the same old, same old.

And, for Ohio State fans, what’s especially galling is that this year the playoff selection committee ranked a two-loss SEC team that didn’t win its conference — i.e., Georgia — ahead of a one-lose Big Ten team that won its conference championship.  I can understand Ohio State, which got whacked by Purdue during the regular season, being ranked behind Oklahoma, even though I think the Big 12 is a pretty weak conference.  But I don’t understand how a one-loss champion of a major football conference like the Big Ten can be ranked behind a two-loss non-conference champion.  To me, that result says that the selection committee has quaffed the SEC Kool-Aid and lost any claim to objectivity.  Every year we start with the presumption that the SEC is the best conference in college football, and every year every inference goes in the SEC’s favor.

Who did Georgia play out of conference this year?  Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State, and the University of Massachusetts.  They aren’t exactly powerhouses, are they?  The rest of the schedule is SEC teams.  Georgia got pummeled by LSU and played Alabama close before losing.  The latter result reflects favorably on Georgia only if you conclude that Alabama is a bunch of supermen — but we don’t know that, either, because Alabama played only SEC teams, along with an out-of-conference schedule that included Louisville, which ended the season 2-10, the Citadel, Arkansas State, and University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

The system needs to be changed.  The playoff should be expanded, and every major college conference champion should be included.  I happen to think that Ohio State could give Alabama, Georgia, and any other team a good game — just as it did in 2014, when the Buckeyes somehow beat mighty Alabama and went on to win the national championship, to the surprise of every pundit and talking head on ESPN.

The champion should be crowned on the field, not in backrooms based on hype.

Kings Of The Big Ten . . . Again

Yesterday Kish and I drove over to Indianapolis to join friends and watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. We had a lot of fun, and I’d recommend the experience to any members of Buckeye Nation.

The only downside was that I was seated next to Mr. Negativity during the game. He was the kind of angry, muttering jerk who talked non-stop about how much he hated watching the team and voiced loud obscenities after even marginal plays, like a run for no gain. He added a decided element of danger to the game, because you never knew when a bad play might make him start swinging. Fortunately, the Powder Keg never was fully set off. I wonder if he even dimly realized that everyone sitting nearby thought he wasn’t a “fan” at all, but rather a colossal ass.

As for the Buckeyes, it’s been an interesting and successful season. The team is now 12-1, beat Michigan, and topped a gutty and game Northwestern team to win the Big Ten Championship Game. Dwayne Haskins dissected another tough defense and has rewritten the record books, too. Now we’ll just have to see whether the College Football Playoff Committee is considering this question: wouldn’t it be interesting to see what Dwayne Haskins could do against Alabama, and vice versa?

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.

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.