The New-Look Buckeyes And Their Old-Outlook Fans

Tomorrow the college football season starts for the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Of course, the college football season never truly ends for their diehard fans in Buckeye Nation, who are focused on football, football, football the entire year round.

Most members of Buckeye Nation have ridiculously high expectations this year — just as they do every year.  Even though Ohio State’s defense was porous last year and lost its two best players to the NFL, even though Ohio State’s most punishing running back is also a pro and most of his fine offensive line is gone, and even though star quarterback Braxton Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury, fans think the Buckeyes will be better than last year’s team.  Some might call that delusional; others just accept it as part for the Ohio State program, where the fans are as demanding as any fan group in the country.

IMG_1827In reality, though, this year’s team has a lot of question marks.  On offense, the questions will start with the man behind the center.  With Miller out, the offense loses its principal big-play weapon, who always kept defenses off balance.  J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who therefore has never played a down in a college game, will be the starter.  He’s known to the coaching staff as “The Distributor” because he spreads the ball around, and Ohio State should have some offensive weapons who can handle the pigskin when Barrett gets it to them.  Ezekiel Elliott showed he could be the next great Ohio State running back in limited opportunities last year, and Ohio State has other running backs who can carry the rock, too.  Devin Smith is a great, big-play receiver, Dontre Wilson showed flashes of tremendous speed and elusiveness last year, and the Buckeyes have two very capable tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.  The big questions are whether the new offensive line can provide the time to use these weapons, and whether the new QB can get the ball to them.

On defense, Ohio State is looking to get back to its traditional toughness.  The Buckeyes’ defense struggled mightily at the end of last season, particularly against the pass.  The defensive line has some returning talent, with Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, and Michael Bennett returning, but the linebacking corps and defensive backfield is filled with question marks.  The roster of safeties and corners is filled with highly touted recruits — like Eli Apple and Vonn Bell — but we don’t yet know how they’ll perform when the chips are down.  And they get an interesting test tomorrow against Navy, which plays a triple-option offense unlike any other the Buckeyes will see this year.  A few years ago Ohio State played Navy in the season opener and barely escaped with a win, so fans should be wary.  The Buckeyes had better be able to stop the run, which means those new linebackers and safeties will need to make their reads and fill the holes.

We’ll find out whether the new-look Buckeyes will be able to meet the unrealistic, but expected, expectations of Buckeye Nation starting at noon tomorrow in Baltimore.  It’s time for some football!

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When Wisconsin Comes To Town

Tomorrow night the Wisconsin Badgers come to town for a night game at Ohio Stadium.  Technically, Ohio State has played four games already, but I think their season really starts tomorrow.

Wisconsin is a perennial power that has been the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl for the last three seasons.  Last year, the Buckeyes and the Badgers played a bruising game up in Madison that Ohio State won in overtime, 21-14.  It was a defensive struggle in which Wisconsin throttled Ohio State’s high-powered offense and held it to only 236 yards.  That game was a good representation of what Wisconsin always seems to bring to the table.  On offense, the Badgers are known for handing the ball to a gaggle a fine running backs who pound you behind a huge, corn-fed offensive line and mixing that diet of hard-nosed running in with an occasional pass.  On defense, the Badgers will pressure and hit and try to rattle their opponents, physically and mentally.

IMG_1835Wisconsin’s performance this year suggests that tomorrow’s game may be different — or maybe not.  The Badgers’ quarterback, sophomore Joel Stave, has thrown for six touchdowns, including three to fine receiver Jared Abbrederis.  But in last week’s Big Ten opener against Purdue, Wisconsin ran for a mind-boggling 388 yards on their way to pulverizing the Boilermakers, 41-10.  Ohio State’s defense has played against spread offense, quick-throw teams so far this year.  Tomorrow night, they had better be ready for  up-the-gut football with an opponent that would like nothing better than to derail the Buckeyes’ national championship aspirations.

When the Buckeyes are on offense, the big issue will be how quarterback Braxton Miller plays.  After missing two full games and most of a third with an injury — and watching back-up Kenny Guiton break a number of Ohio State offensive records on the way — Miller will be trying to reestablish himself as the premier quarterback and offensive weapon in the Big Ten.  He’ll also be looking to use every arsenal in the multi-faceted Ohio State attack.  With power runner Carlos Hyde back in the backfield after a three-game suspension, along with fellow running backs Jordan Hall and freshman Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott, Miller has plenty of options in the ground game, and Guiton has shown that Devin Smith, Corey Brown, Chris Fields, and Evan Spencer can catch and run for quick scores.

Tomorrow night’s game will answer a lot of questions about this Buckeye team.  Can their defense handle a team that plays the prototypical Big Ten power game?  How does the Buckeyes offensive speed match up against a big-time opponent that will tackle hard and do whatever it can to force turnovers.  We’ll see tomorrow night, and I’ll be there are the Horseshoe to see it.  I can’t wait!

The Offense Rolls, But The Defense . . . .

Ohio State’s 52-34 win over Cal told us several things.

First, it told us that Ohio State has the best back-up quarterback in college football.  Kenny Guiton performed almost flawlessly, throwing for four touchdowns and 276 yards, rushing for 92 yards, and navigating the multi-faceted Buckeyes offense as it steamrolled the Cal defense.  Led by Jordan Hall, with three touchdowns and 168 yards, the ground game amassed 332 yards.  (Somewhere, Woody Hayes is smiling.)  A national TV audience also was introduced to lightning-quick Dontre Wilson, burner Devin Smith, who had a nifty three catches for 149 yards and two TDs, clutch receiver Corey Brown, who made a great end zone grab, and other offensive options.  The Golden Bears simply had no answer for the Buckeye offense, which put up more than 600 yards.

photo-96Second, we know that Urban Meyer has the soul of a riverboat gambler.  From the long bomb to start the Buckeye scoring, to the repeated decisions to go for it on fourth down, Meyer demonstrated a willingness to push his chips onto the table and count on his team to perform — and they did.  There will be fourth downs that the Buckeyes don’t convert, of course, but Coach Meyer has sent a message to the rest of the Big Ten:  don’t expect these team to play conservative offensive football.

Third, it’s clear that the defense needs a lot of work.  Cal has a high-powered offense, and you’re going to give up touchdowns and yards.  But what concerned me was the poor fundamentals, particularly in tackling.  From Bradley Roby’s desultory shove of a receiver who nevertheless tiptoed down the sideline to a score, to countless failures to wrap up, the defense showed it still has a long way to go.  Against a team that matches up better against the Buckeyes’ offense, one of those breakdowns could cost the Buckeyes the game.  From a talent level, the defense seems to have as many weapons as the offense, but the pieces haven’t been put together.  Next week against Florida A&M, I hope to see a tackling clinic.

Finally, we know that Buckeye Nation travels — and how!  From TV shots, it looked like the Cal Stadium was mostly clad in scarlet and gray.  I know that the fans had a blast too.  Thanks to Mr. Nesser, one of the traveling Buckeye Nation faithful, for sending me this photo of The Best Damn Band In The Land performing at the Hearst Greek Theater in Berkeley before the game.