The Lost Season

It was a tough loss to Michigan today — but then, it’s been a tough season all around.  Give credit to Michigan and Denard Robinson, who played lights out.

Being a Midwesterner, I was raised with the notion that if you’ve done something wrong you deserve to be punished.  Ohio State players broke the rules, and the Buckeyes have been punished.  They’ve lost a legendary coach, suffered through their worst season in years, lost to Michigan for the first time since 2003, and now have to decide whether they want to go to some embarrassingly mediocre bowl game.  The fact that they came close to beating the Wolverines today, only to fall short as they have done so often this season, is just another taste of the whip.

The Buckeyes will be hiring a new head coach.  Everyone here is talking about Urban Meyer; we’ll have to see whether that in fact happens.  For now, I want to thank Luke Fickell for taking the reins under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and doing his best to hold things together.  I hope he finds a good job somewhere — perhaps on the staff of the new coach.  I also hope that all Ohio State’s players stick with the program and commit themselves to restoring Buckeye football to its past glory.  With Braxton Miller under center, we’ll be hoping for a quick turnaround.

Now, let’s forget that the lost season of 2011 ever happened.

The Fickell Finger Of Fate

What a difference a few games — or maybe even one pass — can make!  After Ohio State lost a home game to Michigan State by the grim score of 10-7, then blew a big lead and lost at Nebraska, the Buckeye Nation was ready to run head coach Luke Fickell out of town on a rail.  Now that the Buckeyes have beaten undefeated Illinois and downed mighty Wisconsin on an improbable, last-second pass from Braxton Miller, Columbus is abuzz with talk about whether Coach Fickell should be hired permanently.

A labor economist would tell you that, in making a hiring decision, you need to consider the knowledges, skills, attributes, and other characteristics that are required to do the job well.  The head football coach at one of the nation’s premier college programs obviously must know about football, but there’s a lot more that also is required.  Can he recruit talented players?  Can he run a clean program that avoids the NCAA embarrassment that has bedeviled the Buckeyes for the past year?  Can he motivate his players, coach them up to higher levels of performance, and figure out how they can best help the team?  Can he impress and inspire when he speaks to the news media, the boosters, and the small-town touchdown clubs?

Luke Fickell was dealt a horrible hand when he took over the Ohio State program and began the season with the distraction of ongoing NCAA issues and with his best offensive player and the core of his offensive unit unavailable.  He’s played the hand reasonably well, but there is still a lot of the story of the Buckeyes’ 2011 season yet to be written.  After the regular season is over, there will be plenty of time for reflection and consideration of whether Coach Fickell really has the qualities we want in our head football coach.

Time To Break Out The Champaign

The Ohio State Buckeyes traveled to Champaign, Illinois to take on the undefeated Fighting Illini and came out with a hard-fought win.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was the first Big Ten win of the season for the Buckeyes, and we’ll take it.

Today’s game means that Ohio State keeps the Illibuck Trophy and stays undefeated in the Big Ten “Leaders” Division.  (Boy, I hate having to talk about Big Ten divisions!)  Neither of those things really mean that much, however.  What’s important is that the Buckeyes bounced back from last week’s embarrassing loss and seemed to learn a lesson from that game:  today they ran the ball, relied on their defense, and milked the clock after they built up a lead.  In so doing, they exposed the Fighting Illini as a big of a paper tiger — what Ron Zook-coached team isn’t? — and hopefully built up some confidence for the upcoming game against Wisconsin.  I credit head coach Luke Fickell for keeping a young team from experiencing a total meltdown.

It is important to remember that this really is a young team.  It doesn’t have a lot of senior leadership, and when things start to go bad, there aren’t many players to step up and keep their teammates playing with chins up.  Today’s game, in a hostile environment, may help to build some of the character that football teams need to survive the tough times.  You have to like the way the Buckeyes ran the ball against a team that was fully expecting the run, even if it is difficult to watch a football game when your team completes only one pass.

Still, I’m not going to complain.  Illinois was undefeated and nationally ranked, and we were playing at their house.  At this point, any win for Buckeye Nation is a very good win indeed.

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?

A New Era Begins

Today the Buckeyes started their new era — an era without Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor — and beat Akron, 42-0.  The win was, if anything, even more convincing than the one-sided score.

Defensively, the Buckeyes were dominant.  They held the Zips to 90 yards, forced a turnover, and didn’t let Akron get within spitting distance of the end zone.  Everybody contributed to a team effort that featured solid play by the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs.

Offensively, the game was a coming-out party for Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller.  Bauserman has been a cipher during the past few years; he didn’t see the field much and didn’t make much of an impression when he did.  Today he played well, made some good decisions, and threw some fine passes.  Miller, after an initial hiccup, displayed the run-pass abilities that will likely make him a dangerous offensive weapon.  The offensive line got a good push, and the Buckeyes showed depth at running back and wide receiver.   We also saw that fullback Zach Boren is a fierce lead blocker and tight end Jake Stoneburner poses huge match-up problems for defenses.  (Let’s hope the 2011 Buckeyes continue to go to their tight end, unlike prior teams.)

Congratulations to new head coach Luke Fickell on the win.  Now let’s all take a deep breath, remember that Akron is probably one of the worst teams in college football, and focus on the Toledo Rockets who will visit the Horseshoe next Saturday and provide a much stiffer challenge for the Buckeyes.

Wondering If The Worm Has Turned

All in all, the last 10 years have been a pretty sweet ride for Ohio State football fans.  The team won a national championship, dominated the Big Ten, and repeatedly qualified for BCS bowl games.  Sure, there were two national championship game beatdowns mixed in with the good stuff, but for the most part the Jim Tressel era was high-flying time for Buckeye Nation.

We all remember, however, that this Era of Good Feeling started abruptly.  After years of gagging against Michigan and stumbling in bowl games under John Cooper, it seemed to take only one change — the hiring of Jim Tressel — to convert failure into glorious Buckeye success.  Suddenly, the team that couldn’t beat the Wolverines or win a bowl game began to routinely thrash the Team Up North and win BCS games against the toughest competition.

Now, change has come again to the Ohio State football program.  It is unwanted change.  Coach Tressel is gone in the wake of an NCAA investigation, players are suspended, and a new, young, interim coach in the person of Luke Fickell is at the helm.  In the meantime, change has come to the Michigan program, which also has a new head coach, and change has come to the Big Ten, which has added Nebraska and split into the pretentiously named Legends and Leaders divisions.  These are the kinds of changes that mark the beginnings and ends of eras.  Some pundits are predicting as much, by forecasting that the Ohio State Buckeyes will be mediocre this year, in the 7-5 or 8-4 range.

And so, Ohio State fans everywhere anxiously follow the news about the Buckeyes’ fall camp, and the competition to be the new starting quarterback, and the efforts to plug the other holes left by suspensions and graduations, and wonder:  has the worm turned once again?