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.

The Ineligible Bowl

This afternoon — at the weird starting time of 5:30 — the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Penn State Nittany Lions at Happy Valley.  Both of the traditional powers are undefeated in the Big Ten.

Normally the game would be a big deal nationally, but not this year.  Both teams are ineligible for the Big Ten championship game and bowl games.  Ohio State is on probation for one year due to NCAA violations.  For Penn State, post-season is off limits long term due to its awful institutional breakdowns in connection with the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

For the players, that just means that today’s game is a bigger deal than it would be otherwise.  If you’re Penn State, the best way to keep your program going during your prolonged period of ineligibility is to beat teams like Ohio State that will be competing with you out on the recruiting trail.  If you’re Ohio State, you just want to try to run the table and win every game and preserve bragging rights.  Neither team has the chance to end the season with a high note in a bowl game, so the regular season really counts.

How do these teams match up?  That’s hard to say, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that this year’s Big Ten, top to bottom, is as weak as it has been in a very long time.  Ohio State has won impressively and in squeakers.  In some games its defense has played well and the offense has struggled, and in others its offense has been unstoppable and its defense has been a cheesecloth curtain.  The Buckeyes have won, sure, but it doesn’t seem that any of the wins really say a lot about the quality of the team.  Penn State, on the other hand, began the season with two losses as its offense struggled, but since then it has found a way to score and its defense has been solid.

I think you have to give the edge to Penn State in this game if Braxton Miller is sidelined after being knocked out of last week’s game.  Happy Valley is an intimidating venue under any circumstances, but this year the fans will be particularly pumped for the game.  As well as replacement QB Kenny Guiton played in leading the Buckeyes to a miracle win against Purdue, Miller gives OSU a big play threat  it doesn’t have otherwise.  It’s hard to see Ohio State grinding out a lot of points against a stout Penn State defense.  Penn State’s offense is led by senior quarterback Matt McGloin, who has played well after a shaky start, throwing for 14 TDs and good yardage and avoiding turnovers.  To win, Ohio State will need to bottle up McGloin, force some turnovers, and take advantage of every scoring opportunity that is presented.

Another Reason Why You Don’t Give Up And Leave Early

Today Ohio State fans learned a valuable lesson:  you don’t give up and you never, ever leave a game early.

The Buckeyes were stumblebums for most of the game.  The offense sputtered.  The defense gave up an 83-yard TD on Purdue’s first play from scrimmage.  Purdue returned a kickoff more than 100 yards for a touchdown.  Braxton Miller was injured (no report yet on how seriously, but it didn’t look good).  The Buckeyes had a field goal hit the upright and gave up a safety due to a holding call in the end zone.  And, with 40-some seconds left, the Buckeyes were behind by 8, with no timeouts, trying to rally behind their second-string quarterback.  By then, many fair weather fans had already left, and only the diehards remained.

Yet somehow, improbably, the Buckeyes came back to win.  Kenny Guiton, the backup QB, led the Buckeyes on a drive that saw them score the crucial touchdown with 3 seconds left, and then gain the essential two-point conversion with a beautiful play that featured Guiton throwing a fine touch pass to his tight end.  And so, improbably, the Buckeyes sent the game into overtime, where the Buckeyes scored on their possession and Purdue didn’t — and that was the ballgame.

I always stay at games until the end.  I’m there to see the game, and the last seconds of a loss are as much a part of the game as the first few plays.  I’ve also seen enough football to know that anything can happen . . . and today it did.  It gives me some pleasure to know that the early departees are kicking themselves for giving up and missing the chance to witness one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Ohio Stadium history.

As far as the Buckeyes go, this is a team that still needs a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball.  For now, though, I’m going to enjoy a game that showed you should never give up, whether you are a player, or a fan.  Go Bucks!

A Game That Coaches Should Like

Ohio State spanked the Miami RedHawks today, winning 56-10.  It was the kind of game that probably is a coach’s dream — a comfortable win, but chock full of errors that will keep players and coaches focused on improvement.

The Buckeyes scored 35 points in a row to put the game away.  They got a special teams touchdown, a good thing for a team looking to significantly improve its special teams play.  Ohio State racked up 244 yards through the air and ran a lot of passing plays involving a lot of players.  Braxton Miller had some great runs, and Devin Smith made one of the most unbelievable catches I’ve ever seen from a Buckeye receiver.  The defense had two picks and held Miami — admittedly  a pure passing team — to -1 yard on the ground.  The back-up quarterback, Kenny Guiton, played significant minutes and looked comfortable running the offense.  And no one got hurt, aside from Miller’s cramps.

At the same time, the coaches will have a lot of negatives to point out.  The Buckeyes offense sputtered early — OSU trailed, 3-0, after the first quarter — and the offensive line looked shaky at times, giving up a number of sacks.  The defense allowed more than 300 yards through the air and had some breakdowns early that produced huge Miami gains.  Many Miami drives were stopped by its receivers dropping catchable balls , rather than rugged defensive plays by the Buckeyes.

Pulverizing an overmatched team doesn’t mean a whole lot, but I liked what I saw during the last three quarters of the game.  I liked the hurry-up, I liked the mix of plays, and I liked the athleticism and skills of the players being showcased by Meyer’s new system.  Today was an eminently acceptable start to the Urban Meyer era.