A June Football Fix

Sure, it’s baseball season, and the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs are on, but those of us who are college football fans are pining for some gridiron activity. Early June is truly the slack period in college football, about midway between the spring game and the start of fall camp. The only real college football news is speculation about recruiting, and it really doesn’t fill the void.

Fortunately, the Big Ten Network Twitter feed is there to help out Ohio State football fans who are looking for their early summer football fix. Above is a link to a recent Twitter posting by BTN of video of every one of the 44 touchdowns that Ohio State has scored against That Team Up North during the Buckeyes’ current eight-game winning streak over the Wolverines.

Speaking as someone who cut their teeth on Buckeye football during the Woody and Bo Ten-Year War era, it’s still hard for me to believe two parts of the sentence immediately above: 44 touchdowns and an eight-game winning streak. How things have changed since the ’70s!

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

Born A Buckeye

During football season, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, only a short distance away from Ohio Stadium on the Ohio State University campus, has a tradition of swaddling newborn babies born at the facility in scarlet wraps that cheer on the hometown Buckeyes before big games. This year, in the days since Ohio State topped Clemson to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the infants have been sporting messages that urge the Buckeyes to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The scarlet swaddling is a good way to make sure that these newest members of Buckeye Nation get off to the right start in their sports fandom and gives their parents a great keepsake — and who can disagree with the message? Go Bucks! Roll the Tide!

Ohio Against The World

I first saw the slogan “Ohio Against The World” at the Sugar Bowl game against Alabama years ago. Ohio State had just made a great play, and the TV broadcast showed this shot of the two guys above, screaming their brains out at the prospect of a colossal Buckeye upset in the making. I was screaming my brains out, too, but nevertheless retained the ability to think rationally to myself: “Wow! That’s a very cool shirt.” I loved the sentiment of the shirt in the context of that particular game, where Ohio State was a huge underdog against a great Crimson Tide team. Of course, Ohio State went on to win that game, and then won the next game, against Oregon in a game I got to watch in person, to take home a national championship.

I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the shirt. The “Ohio Against The World” shirt and slogan, which were the work of a guy from Cincinnati, caught on. The creator aptly described the slogan as a “battle cry for the underdog,” but it goes beyond that. The phrase captures deep-seated beliefs about disrespect, and being dismissed, and not being given a chance, and being the subject of withering criticism when the weaknesses of other teams, and their conferences, seem to get a pass. And, because Ohio is part of “flyover country” and the so-called “rust belt,” the shirt no doubt transcends college football to tap into much deeper wellsprings of feeling on the part of residents of the Buckeye State.

People outside of Ohio and Buckeye Nation believe it’s odd — and, apparently, a bit brittle, and even phony — that one of the most successful college football programs in history believes it has been disrespected. Before the game against Clemson, an ESPN writer wrote about how Ohio State and its fans almost seem to search for “perceived slights” to get amped up for big games. The underlying notion was that other teams wouldn’t really care that the opposing coach ranked them at number 11, or campaigned against including them in the playoffs in the first place. I can attest, however, that the touchiness about disrespect is definitely real and not feigned — and when opposing coaches or commentators hit that nerve, the Ohio State football team and its fans are going to take notice and react.

Did the Clemson coach’s ranking, or the questions raised about the validity of including Ohio State in the playoffs in the first place, actually affect the outcome of the game Friday night? I can’t say for sure — Ohio State simply seemed like the better team that night — but I have to believe it sure didn’t hurt.

I note that Ohio State has been installed as a very significant underdog — I understand the betting line now favors Alabama by 8 points — in the National Championship Game. The storylines are very reminiscent of that last game against Alabama, or the National Championship game against Miami before it. Ohio State is once against the David standing against the seemingly unbeatable, juggernaut Goliath.

I imagine this Ohio State team is very comfortable with the fact that it’s “Ohio Against The World” once more. Members of Buckeye Nation can get their OATW gear here, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t delivered in time for next Monday’s kickoff. I’m guessing the company has seen a lot of orders recently.

The Year Without The Game

With all of the other bad things that have happened during this ill-fated year, I think many of us had a sneaking suspicion that the Ohio State-Michigan football game — known around these parts simply as The Game — would fall victim to the coronavirus, like so many people and traditions and parts of American life have fallen victim before it. Yesterday, that suspicion was confirmed, when a coronavirus outbreak at the University of Michigan caused The Game to be canceled. And so, for the first time in more than 100 years, in 2020 we won’t be able to watch the latest installment of the greatest rivalry in sports.

It’s a tough development to swallow in a year that has brought a lot of hard things to take.

It’s difficult to describe the Ohio State-Michigan game experience if you haven’t lived through it, aren’t invested in it, and haven’t been immersed in it. Let’s just say it’s unique and — during the week of The Game, at least — pretty much all-consuming. Fans of both teams look forward to The Game with a mixture of anticipation and dread — anticipation, because you hope for a victory, and dread, because you hate the very idea that your team might lose to its hated rival. The outcome of The Game pretty much makes or breaks the year. Victory is sweeter than you can imagine, and defeat is like a sucker punch to the gut that leaves that achey feeling at the back of your throat.

This year, as Michigan has struggled and Ohio State is considered to be in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs, some people have suggested that UM used COVID-19 as an excuse to avoid The Game and complicate Ohio State’s potential path to a role in the playoffs. I would never say that. A big part of The Game is the respect that the two schools, and their fans, have for each other. I suspect, instead, that the opposite is true: those inside the Michigan program were looking forward to the Ohio State game as a chance to redeem a disappointing season, which has happened repeatedly in the history of the rivalry. But player safety and public health concerns have to take precedence.

With The Game being cancelled, what other traditions are at risk? Say, how is Santa’s health these days?

Playing In A Pandemic

Yesterday, the Ohio State Buckeyes beat in the Indiana Hoosiers in a matchup of two top ten teams. It was an entertaining game, we learned that Justin Fields is in fact a human being, and the Buckeyes hung on to win, 42-35, and remain undefeated. As is always the case with Ohio State, some fans were dissatisfied that the Buckeyes didn’t win by a larger margin.

After the game, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day — pictured above in masked mode — commented that people don’t understand the sacrifices these college students have made in order to play football games in the midst of a global pandemic. He was not offering the comment as an excuse, but as an observation — one that people should consider the next time they are thinking about criticizing their team.

In the case of Ohio State, virtually everything we associate with the team and the game and the whole Ohio State experience isn’t happening this year. There is no tailgating, no Skull Session, no walk through cheering fans to the Stadium, no ramp entrance, or Script Ohio, or band, or tumbling cheerleaders. Games are being played in an empty Stadium, with piped-in noise. It’s a dramatically different, and decidedly less energetic, environment, and it’s got to have an impact on the players.

But that’s only the gameday tip of the iceberg. For the players, there’s the isolation from the rest of the student body, in hopes of avoiding infection. There’s the monitoring of symptoms and periodic testing. There’s the uncertainty of whether or not the upcoming game will be played or cancelled because the other team has COVID issues — which has already happened once this season. And many, perhaps most, of the players and coaches have family members and friends who may be sick, and perhaps seriously ill, with the coronavirus at any given point in time. It’s not exactly an ideal environment for intense focus on the upcoming athletic contest. And when gameday arrives, and the experience is so utterly different, the point that this is a surreal time has to be driven home, again. The difficulties no doubt help to explain why some traditional powers, like Penn State and Michigan and Michigan State, are struggling this year.

I’m grateful that the Buckeyes are playing football, because we could all use a diversion, and there’s nothing like sports to provide it — even if the games are stripped of the “color and pageantry” we have come to know so well. But I’m also going to try to stay appreciative of the sacrifices of the players and coaches, on both teams, as I watch the games. They are undergoing pressures and difficulties most of us can’t even fathom.

Back To The Big

Yesterday Big Ten football returned, in earnest, across the Midwest. In our household, for the first time I can remember, I was able to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play an in-conference game with a Zen-like calm. It was eerie, because normally when I watch a game I’m an agitated, fingernail-chewing, shouting-at-the-TV wreck. I’m guessing my weirdly peaceful game-watching experience was attributable to a deep inner gratitude that Big Ten football is being played at all. With everything else that has happened, and is happening, in this ill-fated year, having some college football to watch is such a welcome diversion.

Even though Ohio State fell behind early yesterday, and the game was tied in the second quarter and remained in the balance for a while, I was able to maintain my tranquil disposition throughout the contest. It’s pretty clear that the Buckeyes have some things to work on — the offensive line still has to jell, and there is work to be done on defense — but this is a team with lots of extraordinary talent, starting with quarterback Justin Fields and his cadre of excellent receivers, and I’m perfectly content to let Ryan Day and his coaches work on ironing out the kinks and getting the team to play at its maximum capability. It’s all part of maintaining my new, zen-like ‘tude about spectator sports.

It will be interesting to see whether my new mindset will be able to survive a few bad calls from the refs, or unlucky bounces, or — God forbid! — losses. But for now, I’m just glad that Big Ten football is back, to add a little fun and fanship when it is needed the most.

A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

The Context Of A Season

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Clemson Tigers in the first round of the College Football Playoffs. As a lifelong Buckeyes fan, I’ll of course watch the game, and I’ll be doing my part to move the karma dial in favor of the Men of the Scarlet and Gray by wearing the lucky hat I wore when I witnessed Ohio State beat Oregon for the National Championship and carrying two lucky buckeyes I picked up at our place in Maine.

Of course, a game like this is about players and coaches, not fans. Ohio State has released an epic hype video for the game that is so good even people who hate Ohio State are raving about it. The video is an adrenaline-pumper that does a great job of capturing the game in the context of a season — a season that, for the players and coaches, covers off-season conditioning, spring practice, fall camp, and three months of games leading up to this one. It’s been a fabulous season, and you know in your heart that the players and coaches will make every effort to see that season extended to include one more game.

No doubt Clemson players and coaches feel the same way. They’ve won a ridiculous 28 games in a row and are the defending national champions. That’s why the game tonight promises to be a classic.

In the context of a season, it’s a game, but it’s also another step in a long journey marked by hard work, effort, practice, and teammates helping teammates. May the Ohio State journey continue!

On To The CFP

It was nail-biting time for members of Buckeye Nation at about 9:30 ET last night.  A talented and gritty team from Wisconsin came out swinging in the Big Ten championship game, and when the Badgers scored an improbable touchdown to go up 21-7 at the end of the first half Ohio State fans had visions of past disasters against Iowa and Purdue dancing in their heads.  But the Buckeyes made adjustments at halftime and righted the ship, scoring 27 points and shutting Wisconsin out in the second half to win, 34-21, and take home their third straight Big Ten crown.  Although the Buckeyes ultimately won by double digits, the Badgers fought until the final minute, and held the high-powered Ohio State offense to two field goals when touchdowns would have put the game out of reach.

ohio-state-2019-big-ten-championship

As the seconds ticked down to zero, I thought that Ohio State had been truly tested by a very good football team, and that the Big Ten championship game had taught us something about this Ohio State team — they don’t wilt in the face of real adversity on a big stage, the coaches and players are adept at making adjustments and game plan modifications under pressure, and the whole team can draw upon an ample reserve of inner toughness and guttiness.  And we also learned, again, that head coach Ryan Day has a bit of riverboat gambler in him, as his fake punt call showed.  Ohio State should be grateful to Wisconsin for making the Buckeyes draw deep and for providing a very stern test that will foreshadow what lies ahead.  Last night’s game showed why fans of the Big Ten like the conference and its particular, hard-hitting brand of football — which continued up until the final play, when the Ohio State defense gave the Wisconsin quarterback a tooth-rattling hit as the clock ran out.

Although things looked dicey at halftime, by winning Ohio State undoubtedly punched its ticket for the College Football Playoffs.  The big question to be answered by the CFP Selection Committee in a few hours is whether the Buckeyes will go in at number one or number two — or even number three, and that’s what the talking heads on ESPN and Fox Sports will be debating this morning.  I may be alone in this, but I really don’t care where the Buckeyes end up.  Ohio State clearly is an excellent unbeaten team, but so are LSU and Clemson — and I think all of this talk about “resumes” and “performances against Top 25 teams” and various weird computer metrics is kind of silly when the questions about who is more deserving will be resolved with actual games in about three weeks.  I also think such argument just puffs teams up — and that might not be good in the long run.  If I were Oklahoma, the likely number four seed and a great team in its own right, all of the talk about how important it is for other teams to make it to number one so they can play the Sooners rather than somebody else would be doing nothing except providing motivation and some prime locker room bulletin board material.

The reality is that there are many very good, well-coached teams in college football — Wisconsin is one of them, by the way — and if you’re going to win the national championship you’re going to need to beat a bunch of them.  Regardless of exactly who the top four teams are or where they are ranked, they’re going to need to beat two more great teams to get to the ultimate goal.  If Ohio State ends up playing Clemson in the first playoff game — and thereby lines up with a team that is the defending national champion and has never lost to the Buckeyes and pulverized them in the playoffs a few years ago — there is no chance that Ohio State will not go into that game emotionally pumped and ready to play.  That’s what I want to see.

So the selection show and final seedings announced today will be interesting, but I’m more focused on the fact that the Buckeyes won a very challenging game, are Big Ten champions, maintain their perfect record, and are moving on with a chance to get to their goal.  The members of Buckeye Nation are grateful that we get to watch the Men of the Scarlet and Gray continue their quest to be the best.

Enjoying The Day After

There’s something magical about the day after the Ohio State-Michigan game — when your team wins, that is.

michigan-fans-2015This year, the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines, 56-27.  And, they did it at the Big House, in a game where Michigan came in playing their best football, with a chance to ruin Ohio State’s season and atone for years of losses.  For a time, Michigan looked like it could play with the Buckeyes . . . but eventually the Michigan mistakes piled up, the Wolverine defense had no answer for the multi-dimensional Ohio State offense, and before you knew it Ohio State had sprinted to a 20-point lead and the game was effectively out of hand.  By the end of the game, the camera was showing sad Michigan fan faces, and the “OH – IO” chant was reverberating around Michigan Stadium thanks to the hardy members of Buckeye Nation who went to support their team in enemy territory.

For Michigan, it’s the kind of brutal loss that sticks with a team and a program and a fan base, and leaves them searching for a way forward and wondering when — if ever — the pain will end.  For Ohio State fans who spent their own time in the desert during the ’90s, those shots of sad Michigan faces, and the message board and YouTube rants of disappointed Michigan fans, will always be sweet.

As I watched The Game with Russell, I mentioned how different the rivalry is now from when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.  In those days, the Ohio State-Michigan game was typically a tough defensive struggle between two evenly matched teams.  In the last two years, in contrast, Ohio State has scored 118 points and beaten Michigan by more than three touchdowns each year.  Ohio State has now triumphed over the Wolverines eight years in a row and 15 out of 16.  It’s amazing.

I’ll take it.

Let The True Season Now Begin

Kudos to the Penn State Nittany Lions for playing a very tough, gutty game today in cold, rainy Columbus.  Fortunately, for Buckeye Nation, Ohio State was able to overcome lots of turnovers and sloppy play and continue their quest for a slot in this year’s College Football Playoff.

osu-michigan-banner-1024x700But that’s for another day.  As the seconds ticked down this afternoon, all true Ohio State fans felt a little shiver in their spines and a quickening of their pulses.  With the Penn State game behind us and a W secured, we knew deep in our guts that the greatest rivalry week in college football — really, in all of sports — is now upon us.  And we also know that this year The Game is set up to be an absolute classic.  Ohio State hopes to continue its march to the National Championship, and Michigan — which has an excellent team — knows that it can derail those hopes, and break the hearts of Buckeye fans everywhere, if they can just win this year’s edition of The Game.

Next week Ohio State will head to That State Up North to take on the Maize and Blue.  The teams and their fans despise, but somehow respect, one another.  Players who have taken the field in The Game say that it is one of the hardest-hitting, but cleanest, games they’ve ever experienced.  Both teams want to win, but they want to win the right way.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Michigan Week.  Brace yourselves!

Kings Of The Big Ten . . . Again

Yesterday Kish and I drove over to Indianapolis to join friends and watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. We had a lot of fun, and I’d recommend the experience to any members of Buckeye Nation.

The only downside was that I was seated next to Mr. Negativity during the game. He was the kind of angry, muttering jerk who talked non-stop about how much he hated watching the team and voiced loud obscenities after even marginal plays, like a run for no gain. He added a decided element of danger to the game, because you never knew when a bad play might make him start swinging. Fortunately, the Powder Keg never was fully set off. I wonder if he even dimly realized that everyone sitting nearby thought he wasn’t a “fan” at all, but rather a colossal ass.

As for the Buckeyes, it’s been an interesting and successful season. The team is now 12-1, beat Michigan, and topped a gutty and game Northwestern team to win the Big Ten Championship Game. Dwayne Haskins dissected another tough defense and has rewritten the record books, too. Now we’ll just have to see whether the College Football Playoff Committee is considering this question: wouldn’t it be interesting to see what Dwayne Haskins could do against Alabama, and vice versa?

Laying A Pumpkin

The Ohio State Buckeyes went to West Lafayette, Indiana last night hoping to play a football game. They laid a colossal pumpkin instead. And not just any pumpkin — an evil, grinning, death’s head pumpkin that was grimly reminiscent of last year’s debacle in Iowa City.

This year’s team has had serious issues on both sides of the ball, and hats off to the Purdue Boilermakers for ruthlessly exposing all of them. Now maybe the Buckeyes will stop thinking about their recruiting ratings and start focusing on becoming a football team that plays defense, runs the ball, and actually blocks and tackles. Otherwise, we members of Buckeye Nation are going to have to deal with more muerte pumpkins in our immediate future.