Happy Picture, Happy Thoughts

8dbb109f-2811-4942-b624-5d00d644946cOhio State isn’t playing in the Big Ten Championship Game today — more’s the pity — but that doesn’t mean we can’t still revel in last weekend’s crushing defeat of That School Up North.

And in the meantime, we’ll think happy thoughts about the dominoes that need to fall for the Buckeyes to get back into the playoffs to defend their National Championship.  I think we need Michigan State to beat Iowa convincingly in the Big Ten Championship Game, along with Alabama losing in the SEC Championship Game or Clemson losing in the ACC Championship Game — or maybe both.  It’s a long shot, perhaps, but it’s still a shot.

Thanks to Mrs. Nesser for this picture of the scoreboard at the Big House, memorializing the Buckeyes’ dominating win.

5-0, 1-0

Ohio State (other than Ezekiel Elliott) didn’t exactly knock my socks off yesterday in their close win over a very game Indiana Hoosiers squad, but the statistics above are the ones that count:  Ohio State is 1-0 in the Big Ten and 5-0 overall.

IMG_1835Members of Buckeye Nation who bought into the team’s preseason hype are freaking out that Ohio State not only hasn’t crushed Indiana and its other opponents, but has struggled and doesn’t really resemble the team that rolled over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon at the end of last year.  And they’re right in the sense that this team has a lot to work on.  Way too many turnovers, stupid penalties, muffed center snaps, lack of timing between quarterback and receivers, some bad in-play decisions, and a general out-of-sync feel have kept the offense from showing its true potential.  The defense has been better, but it has had its breakdowns, too — and yesterday the offense did it no favors by failing to put together any sustained drives.  When you leave the defense on the field and let the other team run 30 more plays than you do, there are bound to be breakdowns.

I’m not going to join the chorus of Ohio State fans who are second-guessing the coaches.  This team obviously hasn’t gelled yet, and it will be on the coaches to make that happen.  Eventually, turnovers and penalties will bite you if they aren’t stopped.  But nevertheless, Ohio State has managed to find a way to win — and yesterday they did it against a fired-up team that looks to be on the upswing, on the road, in sloppy conditions.  Some good teams that weren’t having their best day would have lost yesterday’s game.  It says something positive about this team and its coaches that Ohio State didn’t let that happen.

Four teams ranked in the top ten lost yesterday, and two of them got crushed.  Other teams — like Michigan State — also struggled.  That’s the way college football works.  Ohio State fans should stop fretting about style points and start appreciating the Ws.

Most Impressive

Look, I’ll admit I’m an Ohio State fan.

And I’ll also admit to being a Big Ten buff.  The Old Conference might not be the greatest right now, but I still think that Michigan State is a good team and East Lansing, at night, in prime time is a pretty darned tough place to play.

So say I’m a deluded homer . . . but I thought Ohio State’s win over Michigan State tonight was pretty impressive.

Who would have thought the Buckeyes would be able to rack up 568 yards against the very stout Spartans defense?  Who would have thought that Ohio State could run the ball down the throat of a Michigan State team that prides itself on stopping the run when the game was on the line?  Who would have thought that Ezekiel Elliott could rush for more than 150 yards and a clinching touchdown when the game was on the line?  Who would have thought that Ohio State could overcome two turnovers in the first half, on the road, against an opponent that had everything going its way?  And who would have thought the Buckeyes would win, despite the defense playing the softest prevent defense imaginable in the second half.  (OK, that’s unfair I suppose . . . but does any true football fan really like the @#&$%#@ prevent defense?)

Urban Meyer has his signature win.  Mark Dantonio missed on his guarantee.  And  J.T. Barrett had a tremendous, almost perfect game, throwing for 300 yards and 3 TDs, running for 86 yards and two touchdowns, and at one point leading Ohio State to 7 touchdowns on 8 possessions against a defense that is considered one of the very toughest defenses in college football.

Most impressive!  Now let’s turn our focus to the Golden Gophers.

Eyeing The Illini

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play their second night game in a row. This week, their opponents are the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois, and the Illibuck — the wooden turtle that goes to the winner — will be at stake. I’ll be there in the Horseshoe with a group of friends for the match-up.

Ohio State’s performance last week against Penn State hurt it both literally and figuratively. Literally, because quarterback J.T. Barrett sustained a knee injury that is concerning, even though he was able to tough it out and lead the Buckeyes to victory in overtime. Figuratively, because most people — me excepted — thought the Buckeyes would beat the Nittany Lions easily, and the fact that Penn State came back to force the game into overtime clearly hurt the Buckeyes’ national reputation. It’s part of the reason why Ohio State is sitting at number 16 in the bowl playoff rankings, which puts it pretty much in the “out of contention” category for now.

Ohio State has three goals in the game tonight. First, win. A loss to Illinois, which had struggled mightily before upsetting Minnesota last weekend, would end any hope Ohio State has of making it to the first college football playoff. Second, perform well enough to allow J.T. Barrett to give his knee a rest while Cardale Jones and other quarterbacks play. Barrett says he will be ready, but I’m expecting that — if he plays at all — his role will be limited to handing off and passing, where there is less chance of aggravating the injury. That means Ohio State needs to run the ball effectively and get off to a fast start, and the Buckeyes can’t give Illinois any flukey scores, like the pick-six that allowed Penn State to get back in the game last weekend.

Finally, Ohio State needs to win impressively if it hopes to move up in the football playoff rankings. I’m not sure that it’s possible to wow selectors with a win over Illinois — no matter how lopsided — but Ohio State simply can’t afford a ho-hum effort that causes them to drop farther down the rankings.  As it is, a lot of dominoes will need to fall for Ohio State to have a chance.

All of these goals recognize one thing: the big game for Ohio State really is next weekend, in East Lansing, against Michigan State. They will need J.T. Barrett at his best for that game — which is the next big opportunity for Ohio State to impress the voters by beating an excellent team on the road. But focusing on that game just increases the risk that Illinois might pull off the upset tonight, as it did last week. The Buckeyes can’t let that happen.  Tonight, focus will be the key.

The Bloody And Battered Big Ten

Rutgers and Maryland may want to reconsider their decision to join the Big Ten, because apparently the Old Conference really sucks this year.

Saturday, September 6, 2014 was an embarrassing bloodbath for the Big Ten.  The top teams — including, unfortunately, the Buckeyes — all lost convincingly.  Virginia Tech came in, pulverized the overmatched Ohio State offensive line, sacked poor redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett more times than you can count, and came out of the Horseshoe with a tough, physical win.  Kudos to them for a great victory.  Meanwhile, Notre Dame beat the tar out of hapless Michigan, shutting out the Wolverines 31-0 and leaving Brady Hoke looking sweaty and bewildered, as always, on the sideline.  Oregon put on a track meet in the second half and drubbed Michigan State, 46-27.  Purdue got crushed by Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois beat Northwestern.

Even the wins that Big Ten teams racked up yesterday were pretty lame.  Nebraska needed a last-second miracle to beat McNeese State.  Penn State squeaked by Akron, and Minnesota slipped past Middle Tennessee.  Maryland and Rutgers, at least, held up their end of the bargain and won.

The season is young, of course, and I’m hoping that the Buckeyes get better.  They’re young, and without Braxton Miller to energize their offense with his special talents I wasn’t expecting them to contend for a national championship.  But there’s no doubt that, after yesterday’s crippling losses, the Big Ten has taken another black eye and its national reputation, which already was battered, has slipped another notch.

I hope I don’t have to take any trips down to SEC country soon.

Bad Fan

I admit I was a bad fan last night. I watched the OSU-Michigan State basketball game, but when the Buckeyes fell behind by 17 points with less than 10 minutes in the game I concluded it was a lost cause. Rather than stay up late and grow increasingly frustrated by the conclusion of a blowout, I snapped off the TV with a curse or two and went to bed.

When I woke up this morning and checked the final score, I was amazed — and ashamed — to learn that the Buckeyes had come roaring back to tie the game and send it to overtime before losing. Amazed, because the team that played while I was watching was a turnover machine that seemed to be playing without much punch or purpose. Ashamed, because I had given up when the players clearly didn’t. I felt like a quitter who let the team, and Buckeye Nation, down. It’s embarrassing.

Because I am a superstitious fan, I now wonder whether Ohio State came back precisely because I turned off the TV. We all know, from the Butterfly Effect theory, that the smallest action may have profound consequences. Maybe my watching the Buckeyes is a jinx? Maybe it would be better for the team if I didn’t watch Ohio State basketball at all this season.

I’ll watch the next Buckeyes game, but you can be sure that if they fall behind and are playing sluggishly, I’ll be tempted to snap off the TV in hopes of provoking a comeback.

A Big Early Season (And Late Night) Match-Up

Tonight the Ohio State men’s basketball team plays Michigan State at East Lansing. The Big Ten season is still very young — the Buckeyes and Spartans have each played only two conference games — but this game is shaping up to be a big one in a conference that many people consider to be the premier basketball conference in the country.

Ohio State is ranked third in the country, whereas Michigan State is ranked fifth. Both teams have senior leadership. Both teams are experienced in playing big games and know how to win them. Both teams have great coaches. Both teams have some excellent players. For Michigan State, it’s Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, and the unguardable Adreian Payne, who always seems to make a crucial three-point shot or put-back basket. For Ohio State, it’s Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Both teams are deep. Michigan State plays great offense; Ohio State plays great defense.

It’s a wonderful match-up, all the way up and down the lineups. Who wouldn’t want to see Aaron Craft and Keith Appling go head to head, or watch the defense-oriented Buckeyes try to figure out a way to guard Adreian Payne? Who wouldn’t want to see whether the Buckeyes can avenge the football team’s bitter loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game? You have to give Michigan State, which has played a much tougher schedule than the Buckeyes and is playing at home, the clear edge, but this game should tell the Buckeye Nation a lot about how good this team might actually be.

So why in blue blazes does the game have to start at 9 p.m.? C’mon, Big Ten — how about having some pity on us working folks who need to get up early tomorrow?

C’est La Vie

I was rooting hard for Ohio State to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night.  But Michigan State is no Duke, and my wishes went aborning.

IMG_1822I give all credit to Michigan State, for a game well played.  I wish we had just pounded the ball after we took the lead in the second half, but I am not a coach.  Michigan State won, fair and square.  Tonight, they were the better team.

The holiday season beckons.  We’ll play in a bowl game, but not in a national championship game.  As I communicated to Uncle Mack during the game. c’est la vie.

I’m still proud of this team, and this season.  Don’t get down!

Irresistible Force And Immovable Object

Saturday night, the Ohio State Buckeyes will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten championship game. It should be a classic matchup in which strength is pitted against strength — and correspondingly, weakness against weakness.

This season, Michigan State’s defense is the immovable object:  the number one defense in the country and third-best scoring defense. You can argue about the weakness of the Big Ten this year, but Michigan State’s gaudy defensive stats would be impressive under any conditions.  The Spartans stop the run, rush the passer, guard receivers like glue, and consistently play tough, disciplined defensive football.  In their signature game against interstate rival Michigan, the Spartans dominated physically, limited the Michigan rushing game to a ridiculous -48 yards on the ground, and beat down Wolverines QB Devin Gardner with sack after sack.  Michigan State held Michigan to 168 yards, offensively, and won convincingly, 29-6.  Against Ohio State, by contrast, Gardner and Michigan put up huge numbers, scored 41 points, and almost won.

The Buckeyes offense, on the other hand, has been the irresistible force.  No one has come close to shutting down the two-headed Ohio State rushing game behind power runner Carlos Hyde and elusive quarterback Braxton Miller.  Ohio State features an experienced offensive line and receivers who can spread the field and present a meaningful deep threat.  All together, it amounts to the third-ranked scoring offense in the land, one that has put up more than 30 points in every game this season.

What will happen when this immovable object confronts the irresistible force?  Which team will win the physical battle at the line of scrimmage and wear down the opponent as the game progresses?  And, when the Spartan offense faces Ohio State’s defense, which team will have the advantage?  Michigan State has struggled on offense, and Ohio State’s defense looked like the Keystone Cops against Michigan.  Their battle also looks to be evenly matched.  Both teams are well coached, and those of us in Buckeye Nation still have a soft spot for Spartans head man Mark Dantonio, who coached the stout Buckeyes defense when Ohio State won the 2003 national championship game.

In any rational world, people would be amped and anticipating what should be a terrific battle.  Unfortunately, the game has been overshadowed by incessant yammering about the BCS and which two teams deserve the nod for the championship game if Ohio State, Florida, and Auburn all win tomorrow.  It’s unfair for both Michigan State and Ohio State, which deserve to be evaluated in their own right on their own, exceptional records.

Commentators may be able to make the ludicrous assumption of a victory against this hard-as-nails Michigan State team, but Ohio State certainly can’t.  I hope Coach Urban Meyer and his staff — and the Buckeye senior leaders — have Ohio State focused relentlessly on this game and the challenges posed by a rugged Spartans squad.

A Gameless Weekend

The Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t playing this weekend.  After a grueling last few weeks in the Big Ten meat grinder, and some hard work in pulling out a win over Northwestern at Evanston, the Buckeyes are getting a well-deserved rest.

IMG_3108We fans, however, are pining for a weekend game.  I enjoy the adrenalin rush the games provide, and I rationalize that the spikes in my blood pressure caused by bad calls from referees during an OSU game probably are good for my system.  Every once in a while, you want to make sure that your body can withstand various stresses.  Isn’t that what those doctor-supervised stress tests are all about?  Getting seriously into a Buckeyes game is just the self-administered version.

Still, in a way it’s also nice to have the weekend off.  We get to see other teams play without having an enormous emotional investment in the outcome.  Today I’ll watch the Michigan-Michigan State game.  Whatever the result, it will help the Buckeyes in their quest for a higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament.  If Michigan loses, they drop below Ohio State in the loss column; if Michigan wins, Michigan State joins Ohio State and Michigan with five losses in the conference.

So today I’ll watch the games with a relaxed attitude.  I’ll be husbanding my emotional and stress-related resources for Tuesday night, when Ohio State travels to Bloomington for a make-or-break game against the top-ranked Hoosiers.

The Big Ten Tightens Up

This year’s Big Ten has got to be the most entertaining basketball conference in years — and, perhaps, the best conference as well.

Over the past few days, the top three teams in the conference — Indiana, Michigan State, and Michigan — all have lost.  Ohio State’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday wasn’t that much of an upset, but Minnesota’s win over top-ranked Indiana last night was a real surprise, and Penn State’s victory tonight over Michigan, in a game in which Michigan frittered away a double-digit lead, is an absolute shocker.  Before that game, Penn State hadn’t won a conference game all year.  As a result of the upsets, Indiana leads the conference race with three losses, Michigan State and steady Wisconsin are right behind with four losses, and Ohio State and stumbling Michigan are one game farther back.

College basketball is a lot of fun because the players are kids, the students watching the game are into it, and emotion can play a significant role.  When a conference has have a bunch of very good teams, some good teams, and some teams that can rise to the occasion when their home court advantage comes into play, you get lots of surprises and unexpectedly close games.  The last few games of the conference regular season over the next week and a half are likely to be a free-for-all.  If a team like Ohio State wants to stay in contention, it had better be ready to play every game against every opponent — starting tomorrow night, when it travels to Evanston to play Northwestern.

After the regular season finally ends, we’ll have the Big Ten Tournament.  There’s a reason why this year’s tournament is the first one ever to be sold out:  it should be a very good show.

Handling The Sunday Curse (II)

The Sunday curse has finally been exorcised!

IMG_3102Today, the Buckeyes played a tough game in the second half.  After trailing by six at halftime, the Buckeyes reacted to a well-timed timeout by coach Thad Matta, ratcheted down on defense, and played a great second stanza.  Riding a career performance from Aaron Craft — who simply would not be denied on his drives to the hoop — the Buckeyes topped no. 4 Michigan State, 68-60.  Evan Ravenel, Sam Thompson, Deshaun Thomas, and Amir Williams played very well.  Buckeyes fans can hope that this team is starting to find its heart.

The win gives the Buckeyes 20 wins for the year, and also means that they will have a winning record in the very tough Big Ten.  There’s still a long way to go, but beating Michigan State is a huge win for Ohio State.  Great win, Buckeyes!  Now, keep it up!

Big Win To Start The Big Ten

I didn’t get to see most of yesterday’s Ohio State win over Michigan State — I was at a wedding, thank you very much — but that doesn’t mean I can’t savor the sweet taste of a hard-fought and much-needed Big Ten triumph.

Michigan State clearly is one of the better teams in the Big Ten, so any victory over the Spartans is one to be prized.  Beating the Spartans in front of the Michigan State faithful is so much the better.  Ohio State’s defense played its best game of the season — holding Michigan State to 34 yards on the ground makes a serious statement — and the offense played well enough to somehow overcome three turnovers.  How often do you see a team lose the turnover battle, 3-0, on the road, and still pick up a win?

That reality, in fact, might be the ultimate story of this game.  Last year, Ohio State found ways to lose games they should have won.  Yesterday they found a way to hang on to a win that easily could have been a loss.  Winning breeds winning attitudes, and winning attitudes and confidence breed more victories.  Now, if Ohio State could just figure out how to hold on to the football. . . .

The Buckeyes will need to make every possession count next weekend, when Nebraska comes to town for a night game at the Horseshoe, fresh off a come-from-behind home win over a Wisconsin team that let a big lead melt away.  (Sound familiar, Buckeye fans?)

Hearty Buckeye thanks to Mike N., who went to yesterday’s game, for taking the photo of the scoreboard shot that accompanies this post.

The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

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.