Gutting It Out

Ohio State survived a scare in Champaign today, beating a fine Illinois team 24-13.  Some of the scare came from the fact that Terrelle Pryor was injured and missed part of the third quarter, although he was able to return to the game and lead the team on two crucial scoring drives.  The rest of the scare was delivered by the Fighting Illini, who scrapped and clawed and played tough for four quarters before falling short at the end.  A loss is a loss, but Illinois showed to anyone who wanted to watch that they have a good team and lots of promise.

I am sure that many commentators will argue that this victory shows that Ohio State is weaker than people thought.  They may be right; only time will tell.  In my view, however, today’s performance instead showed a lot of strength, both in terms of strength of character and strength of will.  The Buckeyes faced a fired-up opponent in a hostile environment.  Illinois had two weeks to prepare for the game and had developed a good scheme on both sides of the ball.  The Buckeyes fell behind early.  Their best offensive player got hurt, and his back-up promptly came in and threw a bad interception.  Any one of those developments could cause some teams to lose heart; not many teams could overcome them all in combination.

Yet Ohio State did overcome them.  The defense rose to the occasion time and again, stuffing the Illinois running game and holding the Illinois offense to 250 yards, some of which came after the Buckeyes went into a prevent mode after the game was finally put out of reach.  Terrelle Pryor showed real guts by getting back onto the field and quarterbacking the team to its final two scores.  The special teams avoided a breakdown that could have quickly changed the tone of the game.  And, most importantly, the offensive line and Boom Herron, who lived up to his nickname today, led the Buckeyes on time-consuming drives, running the ball again and again into the teeth of the Illinois defense when every Illini defender knew that another running play would be called.  Ultimately, the Buckeye offensive line broke down the spirited Illini defense, and Herron’s tough running — including a huge bounce-out run for a key first down that allowed the Buckeyes to keep running the clock — put the game out of reach.

Daniel "Boom" Herron

I think Jim Tressel is a good coach who also is a good teacher.  I wonder whether he wanted his Buckeye offense, which has struggled to develop a tailback-oriented running game in the first few games, to dig down deep and show that they could block and run for first downs under adverse circumstances, when their star quarterback was gimped up and any failure could put the game at risk.  The offensive line and Boom Herron did so, and now the Ohio State offense will always know that it can run the ball when the going gets tough.  I think that experience and resulting understanding will serve this team well as the Big Ten season continues.

There will be time enough to focus on negatives from this game.  For now, the Buckeyes should savor a road win in the Big Ten that allows them to remain undefeated and on task to meet their goal of winning another league championship.

A Trip To Champaign

On Saturday Ohio State makes its first road trip of the season.

The Buckeyes travel to Champaign, Illinois and Memorial Stadium to take on the Fighting Illini and play once again for the Illibuck trophy.  Illinois is one of those teams that is a bit of a cipher in this early part of the season.  They’ve only played three games and come into the game with the Buckeyes at 2 and 1.  In their opening contest they lost to Missouri, 23-13, in a game where they led at halftime.  (Missouri, incidentally, hasn’t lost a game this season.)  In the last two games the Illini have spanked Southern Illinois and beaten Northern Illinois 28-22.

Mikel Leshoure

It’s tough to draw a lot of meaningful guidance from those games, but it is clear that Illinois prefers to run the ball.  They have a big, mobile running back, Mikel Leshoure, who is 6-1 and 230 pounds.  Leshoure has run for 100 yards in each of Illinois’ three games, has scored three touchdowns, and has broken some big runs.  The Illini quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, is a rangy freshman who is the second leading rusher on the team.  With Leshoure and Scheelhaase leading the way, Illinois ranks 18th in the FBS in rushing yards per game.  The passing attack, however, is a little less robust, averaging 130 yards per game to rank 112th in the FBS.  On the other side of the ball, Illinois’ defense seems to be improved over last year, when they gave up an average of 30 points a game.

How will it play out? Playing on the road in the Big Ten is tough, and Ohio State always draws a big, hostile crowd and a fired-up opponent looking to make a statement.  In such situations, senior leadership is crucial; fortunately, Ohio State has a number of upperclassmen who knows how to perform on the road.  I think the key for Ohio State will be avoiding turnovers and avoiding special teams mistakes.  Ohio State’s goal will be to get ahead early, force Illinois to abandon its running game, and make Illinois’ freshman quarterback carry the load.  If they can accomplish that they will put themselves in position to win the ballgame.

Beating Illinois on the road will be a challenge, but it is a challenge the Buckeyes have to overcome if they want to contend for the Big Ten championship.

Grinding Some Meat

Yesterday’s game between Ohio State and Illinois was a good example of why Big Ten football teams need to be able to execute simple running plays if they want to be successful. For much of the game the rain was coming down in sheets, which put a premium on being able to move the ball on the ground. Ohio State was able to do so; Illinois wasn’t. Ohio State took a commanding lead, Illinois made mistakes trying to catch up, and Ohio State pulled away to a convincing 30-0 win.

I know many national sports fans find Big Ten football boring because the offenses are so run-oriented. (Maybe if I hadn’t been born and raised on Big Ten football I would, too.) I think such fans simply don’t appreciate that those offenses are well-suited to the prevailing weather conditions in the upper Midwest. In every season, Big Ten teams will play several games in the rain, sleet, and snow, when hands and footballs are cold and wet. Those conditions pose enormous challenges to offenses that rely heavily on glitzy ball-handling or run-and-shoot passing schemes to move the ball. Teams that can move the ball up the middle and rack up first downs when the defense knows that a run is coming are the teams that will be contending for the Big Ten conference title at season’s end. And the focus for every program should be to contend for the conference championship — not to impress ESPN commentators by piling up points during the warm, dry second week of the season only to have your offense fall apart in a blizzard of interceptions and fumbles and dropped passes when the conditions turn cold and wet.

Woody Hayes called this kind of up-the-gut run-oriented offense “grinding some meat.” In my view, Ohio State’s ability to “grind some meat,” particularly during the series in the first half when Brandon Saine got the ball repeatedly in downpour conditions, was the single most encouraging thing about yesterday’s game. There is a special beauty in a well-schooled offensive line getting a push in the trenches and opening holes that skilled running backs exploit by running with vision and power, fighting for every yard. I appreciate it; I don’t particularly care if talking heads behind a desk in Bristol, Connecticut can’t (or won’t). If Ohio State can continue to successfully “grind some meat” when it must do so, it will have a good season.

Some other observations on yesterday’s game:

The Ohio State defensive line looks strong, fast, and deep. They seemed to wear Illinois down during the second half and really disrupted Illinois’ offensive scheme. This is a good thing, because I continue to have unanswered questions about Ohio State’s defensive backfield. If Ohio State plays a team this year that has an offensive line capable of giving its quarterback sufficient time to throw, Ohio State might be in trouble.

Boom Herron and Brandon Saine are both good, tough runners. If they can avoid getting injured — which is always the question for good, tough, fight-for-every yard runners — they will give Ohio State a very effective one-two punch this season.

Everyone forgets that Terrelle Pryor is just a sophomore, but sometimes he plays like it. He needs to understand that not every play must gain 30 yards to be successful; a six-yard gain can be a tremendous positive under the right circumstances and should be taken as such. He also seems to be a bit more adventurous with his passes this year. Last year he often waited to throw until receivers were wide open, but this year he has made some throws where he really tried to fit the ball through small openings in the defense. On one play in particular, where Pryor was running to his right and tried to throw back to the middle, he was lucky that his throw wasn’t picked off. Figuring out the best decision under such circumstances is part of the maturation process for a quarterback, and Pryor is still a work in progress in that regard.

Even within a run-oriented offense, there is room for innovation and surprise. Ohio State introduced a tight end blocking approach yesterday that was tremendously successful and also gave its fullback a bit more to do in the offense. Those little wrinkles may pay dividends in the future, when defensive coordinators for opponents must decide how to defend against the Ohio State offense.

Let The Big 10 Begin

The Illibuck

Tomorrow the Buckeyes play the Fighting Illini in their Big 10 opener.  And, as important a game as USC was, as fun and patriotic as the Navy game may have been, the Big 10 is where the rubber meets the road.  We remember when the Buckeye defense could not stop Juice Williams two years ago; we remember when, in times past, the Illini beat the Buckeyes.  We remember when the Illibuck went to the men of Champaign-Urbana.  And so, we want the Buckeyes to stomp the mortal piss out of the Illini come Saturday.  We want Terrelle Pryor to have an excellent game; we want Boom Herron to pound the middle and burst through for a touchdown or two, and we want the Ohio State defense to shut down the Illinois offense and humble Juice Williams, as he should have been humbled two years ago.  We want to bring home the Illibuck.

This is what we want, and what Big 10 football is all about.