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!

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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.

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.

How Able Are The ‘Canes? (And The Buckeyes?)

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play their first road game of the 2011 season, at 7:30 against the Miami Hurricanes.  Pundits are having fun with the fact that both teams have had to deal with off-season NCAA issues — emails about ‘Tats vs. ‘Tutes have burned up the internet in Columbus over the last few days — but let’s focus on football for now.

This is a young, inexperienced Ohio State team, and for young players going on the road is always a challenge.  In such games you start to learn about how players will perform in pressure situations, away from the encouraging crowds at Ohio Stadium.  When the key third-down play needs to be made, how will Joe Bauserman respond?  Can the defense rise to the occasion on a crucial series with the game on the line?  Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, with its warm temperatures and a crowd that is likely to include more than a few members of Buckeye Nation, is not going to be as intimidating as the trips to Nebraska or the Big House that the Buckeyes must make later this season — but tonight’s game may begin to give us a sense of the Buckeyes’ inner grit and fortitude.

Miami, playing without a number of suspended players, lost its first game last week at Maryland.  Forget that result.  For tonight’s game, Miami’s starting quarterback, Jacory Harris, and a slew of defensive players will return to the lineup, while the Buckeyes will regain starting running back Jordan Hall and starting defensive back Travis Howard.  Miami has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and will try to put pressure on the young Buckeyes.  Ohio State, meanwhile, will try to work through the snags and missed assignments that appeared in last week’s struggling win against Toledo.

Pre-game analysis doesn’t mean much in these situations, where so many players will be playing in their first big away game.  When Luke Fickell — who will be experiencing his first road game as head coach — leads the team out onto the field for the kickoff, he will no doubt be thinking:  will our players be able to overcome the jitters and perform?

Suspension Fatigue

Ohio State has self-reported more NCAA infractions and suspended three more players for the opening game against Akron.  The players are running back Jordan Hall and defensive backs Travis Howard and Corey Brown.  They reported that they received less than $300 in “impermissible benefits” while attending a charitable event earlier this year.  Ohio State has suspended them but seeks their reinstatement for the rest of the year.

There is no confirmed information that I have seen as to what the benefits were — and given that the benefits were conferred at a charitable event you have to wonder.  Was it food?  Free drink?  A leg up in bidding for an unpopular silent auction item?  And how much less than $300 were the benefits, anyway?

I don’t mean to belittle whatever it was the players did, but the fact is that right now Ohio State will be reporting every purported violation, no matter how trivial it may be, to demonstrate to the NCAA that the University is serious about compliance.  Given that reality, I’ve developed “suspension fatigue.”  Until I hear what these players actually did, and learn what possibly obscure rule they allegedly violated, I’m not going to rip them or tear my hair out at this latest apparent transgression.

Can this season please actually get started as soon as possible?

Seven In A Row, And Counting

Yesterday, on a cold and blustery day in Columbus, the Ohio State Buckeyes pulverized the Michigan Wolverines, 37-7.  The win in The Game was the seventh in a row for Ohio State over its archrivals.

Buckeye bagpipers at French Field House

At Ohio Stadium it was a festive atmosphere from start to finish.  A troupe of bagpipers walked among the tailgaters at the French Field House lot playing Carmen Ohio.  Brutus rode by, hanging out of the window of a pickup truck and pumping up the raucous crowd.  Inside the Horseshoe the 105,000 fans also had their game faces on, heckling and booing the Michigan band, cheerleaders, fans, and anyone else who dared to wear maize and blue.

When the game finally began, Ohio State started slowly.  Michigan, on the other hand, moved the ball.  Then the Ohio State defense forced a crucial turnover, Ohio State finally broke through to score 10 points, and when Michigan answered with its one touchdown Jordan Hall broke Michigan’s back with a return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.  After that it was no contest.  The Buckeyes methodically ground up the Wolverines, forcing two more turnovers and pounding Michigan on the ground.  The only thing that kept the game even remotely close was the absurd refereeing, which punished college kids for making the “O” sign and negated Boom Herron’s brilliant 99-yard touchdown run with the worst downfield holding call in college football history.

The team and band sing Carmen Ohio after the win

Although Michigan has struggled this year, this nevertheless was an impressive win for the Buckeyes.  The offense did not play its best game, yet still Terrelle Pryor, Boom Herron, Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey, and their teammates scored 30 offensive points — and could easily have scored more if Coach Tressel had not called off the dogs in the fourth quarter.  The defense, on the other hand, played one of its best games.  It held the high-powered Michigan offense to its lowest point total of the season and pretty much shut down the Wolverines after they scored their lone touchdown.  The Buckeyes clearly wanted to contain Denard Robinson, and for the most part they succeeded.  When Robinson went out with an injury, every Buckeyes fan breathed a sigh of relief.  Although Tate Forcier is a decent quarterback, he is a much easier player to defend.

At the end, as we listened to the team sing Carmen Ohio and looked at the scoreboard memorializing a decisive victory over the Wolverines, it was a sweet moment.  Beating Michigan never gets old.

The Buckeyes, Five Games In

After five games, Ohio State is undefeated and ranks second in the polls.  If you had asked most Buckeye fans before the beginning of the season whether they would accept a 5-0 record and a pretty convincing win over Miami at this point in the campaign, virtually all would have said, “yes.”  Nevertheless, having watched the five victories, there is some unrest in Buckeye Nation.  You will hear people say that the win over Illinois was not as definitive as it should have been, that the running game is not up to par, that the special teams have been hair-raising at times, and that Ohio State coaches were too conservative in their play-calling on the road in Champaign. If your standard is perfection — and that is the case for many Ohio State faithful — you are not going to be satisfied no matter how many games are put in the win column.

What do I think?  I think Ohio State has a solid defense that is too banged up in the secondary for much comfort.  The injuries to the defensive backs are going to make it especially important for the OSU defensive line to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force hurried throws.  With the talent and depth on the defensive line, that assignment should be doable.  The team also looks strong against the run, and the tackling has been pretty good.  It is an opportunistic, athletic defense that has forced a lot of turnovers and made some big, game-turning plays.  Based on what we have seen so far, this appears to be a defense that should match up pretty well against the remaining teams on the conference schedule.

On offense, Terrelle Pryor has been wonderful, but his recent injury has left him gimped up and left the coaches wondering how to proceed.  Pryor’s pocket mobility, strength, and great running skills are huge parts of his game.  I expect Coach Tressel has suggested that his star quarterback be content with playing a more conventional game until he gets closer to 100 percent physically.  That means dropback passes, looking for quick routes from the receivers and running backs, and throwing the ball out of bounds if the coverage is good.  It also means heavy reliance on the running backs to carry the ball and move the chains.  I think Boom Herron will be the Buckeyes’ bread-and-butter back during this “rehabilitation” period because he clearly runs with more pop than Brandon Saine.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry, both of whom have looked elusive and explosive in limited action, get more carries.

The special teams were better against Illinois than they were against Miami, but that isn’t saying a whole lot.  They remain an area of concern, and the concern applies to all facets of the special teams, from punting to kickoffs to field goal attempt blocking to kick coverage.  Improvement in this area is crucial because a special teams breakdown can allow an otherwise overmatched team to stay in the game.

I’m not one of those fans who expect perfection.  I’m more interested in seeing continuing improvement, and that is what I will be watching for in the next few games.