77

Ohio State played the Toledo Rockets, one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, last night. The Buckeyes were a heavy favorite, but this season many college football favorites have gone down to ignominious defeat at the hands of an underdog–and for a time, shifty and speedy Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn gave the Buckeyes’ defense fits. In a normal game, his playmaking ability would have been a cause of concern.

But this was no normal game. Finn’s heroics didn’t really matter, because the Ohio State offense played about as close to perfection as human beings can get. They scored 77 points against a pretty good team, and their offensive metrics were unbelievably gaudy. The team racked up more than 760 yards in total offense, including 482 yards passing and 281 yards rushing. The Buckeyes scored at least two touchdowns in every quarter–including four touchdowns in the first quarter and 42 points in the first half–and responded to every great play by the Rockets quarterback with another score.

If I recall correctly, the Men of the Scarlet and Gray scored on 10 of 12 possessions, with the 12th possession focused on running out the clock at the end of the game. None of the touchdowns were on fluke plays or short fields; the team repeatedly put together long drives and chunk plays that shredded the Toledo defenders. The offensive line opened big holes for Ohio State running backs, protected their quarterbacks, and had only a few modest penalties. The Buckeye starters looked great, the back-ups looked great, and the back-ups to the back-ups–including freshman running back TC Caffey, pictured above, who kept his legs moving, escaped the pile, and took a 49-yard carry to the house–looked great. Coaches always find some flaw, less-than-stellar blocking technique, or missed assignment to coach up, and I’m sure the Ohio State offensive coaches will, too–but they are going to have to truly scour the game film to find much to discuss.

The Wisconsin Badgers come to town next Saturday, and with that game the Big Ten season will begin. Playing sound defense will be a lot more important, touchdowns will no doubt be much harder to come by, and last night’s performance against Toledo will fade into the background. But while the memory is fresh, I hope Buckeye Nation pauses for a moment and appreciates just how amazing last night’s offensive performance was. It truly was a game for the record books.

Mr. Loudmouth Comes To The Horseshoe

We went to the Ohio State-Notre Dame game last night. It was a great, hard-fought game between two of the most storied programs in college football. The Fighting Irish lived up to their name and put up a tough battle, leaving the game in doubt until the Ohio State offense finally found its footing in the second half, the Buckeye offensive line asserted itself, and the running game helped the team grind out a clutch, 90-yard drive that finally put the game away, leading to a 21-10 win. I’m an old school football fan, and any game where good defense and the rushing attack make the difference is just fine with me.

But, speaking of old school, this fan who went to his first Ohio State home game more than 50 years ago was struck by the atmosphere and the hoopla surrounding the game itself. If you haven’t been to a game at the Old Horseshoe recently, you might be surprised by the in-game experience. Some might call it a feast for the senses; others would say it has become a cluttered confusion geared for people with short attention spans, where the new stuff is threatening to crowd out the traditional elements of a college football game.

Don’t get me wrong, some of it was cool. Last night’s game began with a pinpoint Navy parachuting exhibition, where the parachutists dropped into Ohio Stadium at high speeds and landed flawlessly on the field to the cheers of a huge crowd. I particularly liked the member of the parachute squad who swept into the stadium and onto the field trailing an Ohio State flag, as shown in the first two photos above. I also liked the concept of the drone formations that accompanied the band’s halftime show–although we couldn’t see most of the drone stuff, from our seat in B Deck, which made me wonder how many of the fans outside of the closed end had an unobstructed view–and also the mass cellphone flashlight waving, which made the ‘Shoe look like it had been invaded by a million lightning bugs. The South Stands, in particular, embraced the flashlight waving with gusto, as shown in the bottom photo of this post.

I was also happy to see that some of the traditional elements of a home Buckeye football game remain. The band’s ramp entrance, seen above, remains a central focus, and it never fails to get the fans amped. Script Ohio and a Sousaphone player high-stepping and dotting the i will never get old. The team’s rush onto the field has been jazzed up, with fire blasts, billowing smoke, and fireworks, but at least the band and cheerleaders are still part of it. I like that they continue to use at least some of the breaks during the game to trot people out onto the field for recognition; yesterday’s game honored a 100-year-old World War II vet, the OSU women’s hockey national championship team, and Coach Jim Tressel and the 2002 Buckeye national championship football team, among others. And singing Carmen Ohio with the team and the band at the end of the game is a sweet way to celebrate a win.

But there are other things that this old codger found annoying. Ohio State has hired some loudmouth guy with a microphone who presumed to instruct those of us in the crowd about what to do–like barking out commands for fans to “show their Buckeye spirit” or trying to start O-H-I-O chants as t-shirts are hurled into the stands–as if we really need to be told to cheer and get loud during an exciting football game. Couple Mr. Loudmouth with blasting rock and rap music during some breaks in the action and a few dumb on-field activities, like a relay race between teams encased in large inflatable balls, and you feel like some master planner believes that the fans will become hopelessly bored unless something really loud is happening at every second. And, if you haven’t been at Ohio Stadium since beer sales became part of the experience, be ready to stand up constantly for the beer drinkers in your row to pass by for repeated replenishment and depletion. Some of the guzzlers in our section went by so often we wanted to install a turnstile and charge a fee to let them pass.

I don’t think an Ohio State home game, in one of the most storied venues in college football, needs all of this sideshow stuff. It crowds out the opportunities for the band to play and for the cheerleaders to do some of their routines in front of the fans–which are two of the key things that distinguish a college sporting event from the pros. All of the noise also interferes with another nice part of the Ohio State football experience, which is to talk to surrounding fans, who are typically pretty knowledgeable about football, about the game itself. What a novel concept: football fans wanting to talk about football during the game without being prompted to do something by a loud guy with a microphone! I’d vote to give Mr. Loudmouth his walking papers, ditch the inflatable ball races, and let the band play.

The Power Of “THE”

As a matter of the English language, “the” is a definite article. Dictionary.com explains that “the” is “used, especially before a noun, with a specifying or particularizing effect, as opposed to the indefinite or generalizing force of the indefinite article a or an.”

Of course, any graduate or fan of The Ohio State University knows that “THE” is used with “a specifying or particularizing effect.” And, as of this week, so does the rest of the world–because this week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registered “THE” as a trademark of the Ohio State University when that word is used on branded products associated with and sold through athletics and collegiate channels. That recognition reflects the efforts and emphasis of the many Ohio State athletes who have identified their alma mater as “THE Ohio State University” on sports broadcasts.

I think it is great that Ohio State has successfully registered “THE” as a trademark for THE University, because it bugs the crap out of other schools–like TTUN. Let those other schools stumble along with their indefinite articles or prepositions! Ohio State may not win the national championship, or even the Big Ten, every year, but we’ll always be “THE.”

The Angst About The Game

It’s the week of The Game. That’s the football game between Ohio State and That Team Up North, of course. In the Midwest we like to say it’s the greatest rivalry in all of sports (although I suspect that Army and Navy and the Red Sox and the Yankees might disagree with that), and every year this week features its unique, The Game-specific mixture of angst, fear, and loathing. Both members of Buckeye Nation and fans of the Maize and Blue know what I mean because they feel that unsettling mixture of emotions deep in their bones.

The loathing part is obvious: we hate (but nevertheless respect) the opposing team. But the angst and fear part require some explanation.

This is a rivalry game where both fan bases are haunted by memories of past losses and disasters, to the point where we each have sports-related PTSD. No Buckeyes fan who lived through the catastrophic failures of the ’90s will ever be comfortable about any game against TTUN; traumatic experiences have taught us, again and again, that calamity lurks around every corner. Fans of our opponents have the same feelings, only about the more recent games. That’s where the heavy, oppressive sense of angst comes in.

The fear, on the other hand, is that our greatest rival will ruin a fine season, and give bragging rights to the opposing fan base. This year is a good example. As has often been the case with The Game, the Buckeyes and TTUN will be playing for all the marbles: the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship Game and, potentially, the College Football Playoffs. But that’s not all. Every fan of either team knows a number of ardent fans of the opposing team, and we know that if The Game ends with a loss we’ll be hearing about it, in the most pointed, terrible ways imaginable, from now until next year’s contest offers a chance at redemption. We dread that awful possibility.

Angst, fear, and loathing: it’s the holy trinity that dominates our characters during the week of The Game, and it will always be thus. Go Bucks! Beat the Blue!

A “Holy Buckeye” Anniversary

You could argue endlessly about which specific play is the greatest single play in the long and storied history of Ohio State football–Zeke Elliott’s run through the Alabama defense would be right up there, as would Joey Bosa’s scoop and score against Wisconsin, among many others–but no one would question that “Holy Buckeye” is in the conversation. Craig Krenzel’s perfect fourth down throw to Malcolm Jenkins for a touchdown to put Ohio State up on Purdue kept the Buckeyes in the mix for a spot in the National Championship game after the 2002 season–a championship game that the Men of the Scarlet and Gray later won against the supposedly unbeatable Miami Hurricanes.

I love the “Holy Buckeye” play not just because of Brent Musberger’s terrific call, but because it refutes all of the conventional wisdom about Jim Tressel’s supposedly conservative play-calling. When the game was on the line and all of the marbles were in play, Coach Tressel made a gutsy call that the team executed perfectly.

“Holy Buckeye” happened 19 years ago today. For members of Buckeye Nation like me, watching it never gets old.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Ohio State has won two tough, physical games in the last two weeks. By winning at Lincoln, Nebraska today the Buckeyes stay atop the Big Ten East and remain in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

And yet, if you go to Ohio State message boards today, you would think the sky is falling.

Here’s some news for the spoiled, irrational members of Buckeye Nation: winning football games against big-time programs is hard. Winning on the road is hard. Winning with a freshman quarterback is hard.

And yet, Ohio State is doing it.

I’m not saying the Buckeyes will win it all. But expecting the team is win every game by 60 points is simply self-defeating, and ridiculous.

Me? I’ll take the win and move on.

A Hot One In The Shoe

Russell and I had the chance to go to the ‘Shoe last night and watch a classic Big Ten game with more than 102,000 of our closest scarlet-clad friends. The game started with a great fireworks display and ended with fans flooding the field to celebrate a hard-fought Ohio State victory as the Buckeyes pulled out a 33-24 win.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who wonder why Ohio State didn’t march up and down the field on offense and rack up another blowout win. The reason is: the Buckeyes were playing Penn State, and Penn State always plays Ohio State tough, whether the game is in Columbus or Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions have a great program and a lot of pride, and it seemed clear that Penn State’s surprising loss to Illinois was caused, at least in part, because Penn State was focused on this game against the Buckeyes. With all due respect to Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten doesn’t really begin until you start to play teams like Penn State, Michigan State, and That Team Up North. Last night’s game was what the rest of the season will be like–tough, hard-hitting, and closely contested from the kickoff–and I was happy to see the Buckeyes display some grit as they pulled out a win. So it didn’t surprise me that the Buckeyes didn’t put up gaudy numbers on offense or defense.

The Buckeyes have some things to be happy about, like our placekicker, who really came through in the clutch, and a defense that made some key turnovers, and some things to work on, like way too many penalties, a surprisingly unimaginative red zone offense, and figuring out how to play pass defense in the middle of the field. But I think a game like this is good for a team and may cause the Buckeyes to stop worrying too much about press clippings, Heisman campaigns, and hypothetical future matchups with Georgia and get back to focusing on the next opponent, because the next opponent has the ability to derail all of your hopes. I’m confident that Ryan Day and his staff will take the film of this game, study it, figure out how the Buckeyes can deal with those issues and continue to improve, and get the players to sharpen their focus.

Kudos to Penn State, their quarterback, who played a great game, and their defense, which gave the Ohio State running game fits and kept the Buckeyes’ offense off-balance the entire game. The Big Ten season has now officially begun.

Actual Versus Virtual, Again

It seems as though we are confronted with the conversion from actual to virtual at every turn these days. It has happened with newspapers, with meetings and conferences, and now it is happening with sports tickets, too.

I’m taking some client friends to Saturday’s Ohio State football game against Penn State. In the old days this would involve collecting physical tickets, like those shown above, and a physical parking pass to allow us to park in a good spot come Game Day, and then distributing the actual tickets to the members of the group at the pre-game tailgate so they could get through the gates of Ohio Stadium and get to their respective seats by kickoff.

But, with Ohio State at least, those physical ticket days are gone. Now the tickets are virtual, and you gather and transfer them electronically. It involves downloading yet another app, establishing a Ticketmaster account, directing Ticketmaster to distribute the tickets, and then entering email addresses so the ticket recipient gets notice of the transfer and can claim them. So far I seem to have been able to follow the instructions and successfully make the transfers, but the rubber won’t really meet the road until we get to Ohio Stadium Saturday night and start trying to scan in using bar codes on our phones. I sure hope everyone in my group remembers their cellphones and keeps their phones adequately powered!

I’m sure the virtual tickets are cheaper for the University, and the process has the added virtue of gathering email addresses that can be used for future notices and alerts. I still prefer the actual, physical tickets, however. It was comforting to have the tickets in hand and ready to hand out, and the glossy cardboard ducats themselves made nice souvenirs of your visit to the ‘Shoe. The cardboard parking pass had the added handy feature of a map on the back side that could guide you to your lot.

But those are the old ways, and they are going, going, gone as our worlds become increasingly centered on the apps on our handheld devices.

Million-Dollar Students

I guess I realized that the Supreme Court case upholding a lower court’s invalidation of certain NCAA rules, and the decision by the NCAA to changes its rules to allow student athletes to earn income from their name, image and likeness, would change the world of college sports forever. I just didn’t realize how fast it would happen,

The magnitude of the change was crystallized for me when Alabama’s head football coach, Nick Saban, announced recently that the team’s new quarterback, Bryce Young, is nearing a million dollars in payments on various NIL deals. Young is a sophomore who has never started a game—but he’s going to play quarterback for the defending national champions, and now he’s going to be rich. Young signed with an agency when the NCAA loosened its rules to allow athletes to receive NIL compensation so long as they comply with applicable state law, and Young happens to play in a state, Alabama, where the law allows him to receive such compensation. More than half of the states have enacted similar laws, and Ohio is one of them. (It’s amazing how quickly legislatures can act when something important like college football is involved, isn’t it?)

The ramifications of some college athletes making huge sums in endorsements are mind-boggling. Of course, only the big revenue sports, like football and basketball, are likely to be significantly affected. If you’re a college football coach, I think it has made your job a lot harder. Now you’re not only going to be recruiting the star athletes on the basis of your school’s tradition, and facilities, and educational quality, and ability to prepare the athlete for life and a potential professional career–you’re also going to be noting how well some of your current and former athletes have done in the money game. And as a coach you might well also be recruiting local car dealers, insurance agencies, and other boosters to reach out to the sports agencies representing your athletes to sign up for endorsements, so your stars have marketing deals that are competitive with other athletes on other teams at other schools.

Part of the motivation for Savvy Old Coach Nick to mention Bryce Young’s million-dollar deals is no doubt to communicate that other stud players who are choosing between Alabama and other schools should come to the Crimson Tide to maximize their NIL value and enjoy a lucrative college education. This kind of news is bound to have an impact on competitiveness, because not all schools can offer the alumni and booster and endorsement base that is found at Alabama, or Ohio State, or the other perennial college football powers.

And finally, what does having a million-dollar quarterback who hasn’t even started a game do for internal team dynamics? How are the offensive linemen who aren’t likely to rack up endorsement deals, but are getting battered on every play, going to feel about the money discrepancy? Will savvy quarterbacks make sure that their endorsement deals include the big guys who are blocking for them? Will players try to establish their individual brands in on-field play to attract more attention and increase their NIL value? And how will players feel about having limited roles that might not be as noticeable to the endorsers, but crucial to the team’s potential success?

I don’t envy the college coaches who are dealing with these issues, and I wonder if the college sports world is going to look a lot different in the future. Who knows? The 2020 COVID season, with its weirdness and uncertainty and cancellations, might end up being the last “normal” college football season.

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?