Hunting For Wolverine

Tomorrow, Ohio State’s season boils down to one game.  Fittingly, the Michigan Wolverines stand between the Buckeyes and a perfect season.

This scenario has played out before.  Michigan has ruined the season for many otherwise perfect Ohio State squads, and Ohio State has wrecked Michigan dreams of unbeaten seasons.  Going into tomorrow’s game, every Ohio State fan knows that Michigan will do whatever it takes to beat the Buckeyes, smash the Buckeyes’ hope for perfection, and start Urban Meyer’s OSU coaching career off with a losing record against Michigan.  Every Michigan fan knows, too, that the Buckeyes want to crush Michigan, get revenge for last year’s loss, and return to the glory days when Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a 9-1 record against the hated Team Up North.

This will be a great matchup between two pretty good teams in the greatest rivalry game in college football.  In Ohio State-Michigan games, the great players have a way of stepping up — Denard Robinson, for example, probably played the best game of his collegiate career when the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes last year — and otherwise obscure players can achieve lasting gridiron glory by making the hard hit and recovering the crucial turnover.  We can expect a tough, hard-hitting game tomorrow, because that’s just the way The Game is always played.

I think the key to the game is the Ohio State defense.  The Buckeye D played its best game of the year last week against Wisconsin, but Wisconsin played a traditional Big Ten offensive game.  Michigan, on the other hand, has a bit more of a spread mentality, and Ohio State has struggled to defend against the spread.  If Ohio State can contain Robinson, in his new role as multi-purpose offensive sparkplug, and pressure Devin Gardner, that will take them a long way toward winning.  Consistent with my view that The Game sees big players rising to the occasion, I’ll be looking for John Simon, Ryan Shazier, and Bradley Roby to make some big plays if the Buckeyes are going to win.

Offensively, the Braxton Miller Show ground to a halt last week.  Wisconsin had a great plan, executed it to perfection, and kept Miller bottled up and off balance.  Michigan will try to do the same — but it remains to be seen if they can bring the same defensive assets to bear that Wisconsin deployed.  I think the answer for the Buckeyes may be Carlos Hyde, who has run with punch in recent weeks.  If the forecast for tomorrow is accurate — and they are expecting temperatures in the 30s, with some wind — being able to run the ball effectively may be the key.  Beanie Wells killed Michigan during his career; Carlos Hyde would like to do the same.

Columbus is stoked for The Game.  Let’s go, Buckeyes!

A Bruising Win, And Now On To Michigan Week

Whew!  Ohio State escaped from Camp Randall Stadium with a 21-14 overtime win in one of the toughest, hardest-fought games you’re likely to see this year.

It wasn’t a pretty game offensively.  The Buckeye offense was pitiful during the second half, when it had multiple chances to put the game away.  The low point came when, with time running out in the fourth quarter, the offense could have salted the game away with one first down — but was unable to pick it up.  Wisconsin’s defense was terrific, and never let Braxton Miller shake loose.  The Badgers covered the Ohio State receivers like a wet blanket, and Miller often seemed baffled about what to do.  Ohio State’s coaching staff had better figure that out, because Michigan will be studying how Wisconsin defended the Buckeyes and will try to follow that approach next week.

The Ohio State defense, though, was stellar.  The Silver Bullets gave up yardage to Montee Ball — who doesn’t? — but penned him in and produced countless big plays.  The biggest was the lick Ryan Shazier laid on Ball to force a fumble on a fourth and goal with time ticking down in the fourth quarter, followed by a stout stand that gave the Buckeyes the win in overtime.  Defensive lineman John Simon was all over the field, playing his heart out.  He graduates this year, but his studly, never-say-quit play has earned him a place in the pantheon of Buckeye gridiron greats.

This was the kind of rugged defensive battle that epitomizes Big Ten football.  The Buckeyes prevailed, won the Big Ten Leaders division (who cares?), and moved to 11-0.  Now it’s on to Michigan Week, when the Wolverines come to the Horseshoe.  In football’s greatest rivalry game, Michigan will have the chance to ruin Ohio State’s perfect record, and Ohio State will have the opportunity to keep Michigan out of the Big Ten championship game.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Seeming Disengaged

Ohio State won yesterday against winless UAB, 29-15.  They won, but there’s not a lot of positive things to be said about Ohio State’s struggling performance.

The good?  No Buckeye seemed to sustain a serious injury.  Ohio State finally got a runner other than Braxton Miller — in the case, Jordan Hall — more than 100 yards on the ground in a game.  The defense forced two turnovers, and John Simon and Johnathan Hankins are terrors on the defensive line.  And that’s about it.

The bad?  A complete breakdown on punt blocking that allowed the entire UAB team, and probably some of their fans too, to block a punt before it was even kicked and return it for a touchdown.  Poor kick coverage that allowed UAB to get good field position.  A defense that gave up more than 400 yards to the UAB offense, had some serious third-down breakdowns, and couldn’t get UAB’s offense off the field.  An offense that sputtered for most of the game, can’t seem to control the line of scrimmage, had countless three-and-outs, and had to punt six times against a UAB team that hasn’t won a game.  When the game was in the balance, the offense couldn’t produce the score that would put the game away.  The team had more stupid penalties.

Overall, the team seems somewhat disengaged, and doesn’t play with much urgency or killer instinct.  Urban Meyer reminded OSU fans after the game that this is a team that was 6-7 last year; it’s not reasonable to expect that they will crush every opponent.  That’s a fair point — but it’s also fair to expect a team to be improving at this point in the season, and I’m not really seeing that from the Buckeyes.  With the team now moving into the Big Ten schedule, starting with a road game against Michigan State and then a home game against Nebraska, some significant improvement had better come quickly.

Anticipation And Expectation In Buckeye Nation

At noon today, the Ohio State Buckeyes kick off their 2013 season in soggy Columbus.  The opponent is the Miami RedHawks, and Buckeye fans are looking for an old-fashioned butt-kicking to try to wash away the sooty taste of last year’s disasters.

In Buckeye Nation, expectation and anticipation is high.  Last year’s distractions and constant NCAA issues are over.  An interim head coach has been replaced by a fiery, demanding taskmaster who has already won two national championships.  Urban Meyer clearly has made some significant attitudinal and cultural changes in the Ohio State program — including a new, interactive pre-game routine between players and students that will debut today — and all signs indicate that the changes are for the better.  From watching Meyer and his staff, you get the impression that they will do whatever it takes (within the boundaries of propriety and NCAA regulations, of course) to win.

The team has some real talent, particularly on the defensive side.  Defensive linemen John Simon, a never-say-quit force of nature, and huge, quick Johnathan Hankins anchor what should be one of the best Buckeye front fours in years.  We’ll be needing them to disrupt opposing offenses, because the linebacking corps is a bit thin and unproven, although Ryan Shazier showed great promise and heart in his freshman year last year.  The defensive backfield features cornerback Bradley Roby and hard-hitting safety Orhian Johnson.  This is a defense that will focus on forcing turnovers, something the Buckeyes didn’t do much of last year, while avoiding the big plays that plagued last year’s unit.

On the offensive side of the ball, a lot rides on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller.  Miller showed real flashes of brilliance last year — but mostly with his feet, on some stunning runs where it looked like the opposing team was trying to tackle a ghost.  Miller also will have some good running backs in the backfield with him, with Carlos Hyde likely to get a lot of the carries.  The Buckeyes’ air attack, on the other hand, was dismal.  If Ohio State is to take significant steps forward this season, Miller needs to take a quantum leap forward in his passing mechanics and his receivers need to hold on to the ball.  We should start, at least, to get a sense of that today.

It’s officially September, and I’m ready for some football!

Braxton Comes Of Age

What a great game!  What a great homecoming victory!  And what a great coming of age moment for Braxton Miller!

This was a game where Ohio State’s defense, led by John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, was dominant for three quarters.  In the meantime, the Buckeye offense was playing the ball control game, running the ball, and hoping that Boom Herron and Braxton Miller could break big runs.  And they did — but then Wisconsin came back.  Behind their cool senior quarterback, Wisconsin sliced up the Buckeyes defense for two quick scores in the fourth quarter and looked to have the game in hand.

But then, Braxton.  Miller somehow eluded the Wisconsin rush, as he had done all day, and then threw across his body to a wide-open receiver for the winning TD.  After a few nervous moments, and a weird double penalty that gave Wisconsin an extra play, the defense harried Wisconsin into an incompletion, and the Buckeyes had a great win.

This win may not mean much of anything, but then again it may mean everything.  Braxton Miller has shown that he can keep his cool and lead his team back to victory when all seemed lost.  Next game, the Ohio State offensive gurus might decide to let Miller throw the ball a bit more — and that could make the Buckeye running game that much more formidable.  Whatever the result, Ohio State’s season just got a lot more interesting, and the games to come just got a lot more meaningful.

The Buckeyes Dodge A Rocket

Ohio State stayed undefeated today, beating a game Toledo Rockets squad 27-22.  By winning, the Buckeyes kept alive a 90-year-old streak against other Ohio teams — and woe betide the OSU head coach who sees that streak end on his watch — but they also gave their coaches lots to talk about in getting the team ready for the first road game of the year, next week against Miami.

Offensively, the big concern is the offensive line.  Ohio State never got much of a push against the Rockets front four, and that does not bode well for upcoming games against teams like Nebraska, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.  Quarterback Joe Bauserman had an up-and-down game, and running back Rod Smith made the crucial blunder of putting the ball on the ground when the Buckeyes were on the verge of running out the clock and putting the game away.  Fortunately for Smith, the Ohio State defense kept Toledo out of the end zone — but the fact that Smith has now fumbled twice in clutch situations is going to affect how many carries he gets going forward.  There were some flashes of promise on offense, but for the most part the Buckeyes looked like a team that is still getting used to new players at the skill positions.

Defensively, the concerns are tackling and depth.  Fortunately, stud defensive lineman John Simon battled back from cramps that took him out of the game and returned to make some key plays as the game entered crunch time in the fourth quarter.  The defense rose up and stopped Toledo when it counted, but they also missed tackles that let Toledo turn short-yardage plays into big gainers.  The back-ups got some playing time and played respectably, but my sense is that the team lacks real quality depth in several positions on the defensive side of the ball.

On special teams, a blocked punt on what looked like a blown blocking assignment and a Buckeyes’ punt return for a touchdown about canceled each other out.  The significant issue is whether Drew Basil will develop into a reliable field goal kicker.  He missed another attempt today, and if I were coaching his accuracy in the two games to date would not give me lots of confidence to send him in for big kick with the game on the line.

The bottom line is that many of us expected Toledo to be more of a test, and they were.  Give the Rockets credit — they weren’t intimidated, they played hard, and they took advantage of the OSU mistakes.  I think this is a win that will look a lot better at the end of the season than it does right now.