Two Halves Make A Happy Whole

Yesterday, Ohio State had its biggest-ever comeback by a Jim Tressel-coached team.  The Buckeyes overcame a 14-3 halftime deficit to crush Penn State with 35 unanswered second-half points and win, 38-14.

The two halves of yesterday’s game could not have been more different.  Penn State dominated the first half.  The Nittany Lions’ defense came up with big stops against a very lackluster Ohio State offense, and Penn State’s walk-on quarterback, Matt McGloin, sliced up the Buckeyes with pinpoint throws and two touchdown tosses.  (He also enraged Buckeye fans like me with his cocky strutting.)  If not for a big fourth-down stop by Jermale Hines and the Ohio State defense, the Buckeyes could easily have gone into halftime down 21-3.

The Buckeyes came out with more fire in the second half, and it showed.  After stopping the Penn State offense on their first series, the Buckeyes marched 96 yards for a score to close the margin to 14-10.  Boom Herron, who totaled 190 yards on the ground for the game, set the tone for a great second half in which he, Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Saine, Zach Boren,and the Ohio State offensive gutted the Penn State defense on the ground.  Then, McGloin went from looking like an apparent Heisman candidate to looking like a walk-on.  He threw an interception that Devon Torrence returned for a touchdown — the first of two pick sixes for the defense in the second half — and the game was off to the races.  McGloin completed only two passes in the second half and ended the game on the bench.

I wrote yesterday about trying to figure out whether this Ohio State team could be great.  Yesterday’s game teaches us, at least, that the team has some character and determination, sufficient to overcome poor play and then blow out a determined opponent that is a traditional power.  The ground game exhibition the Buckeyes put on during the second half also bodes well for the two remaining games, which could easily be played in bad weather.  Let’s hope, however, that yesterday’s game is the last time Ohio State plays a bad half of football.  Against Iowa and Michigan, and in any bowl game, two solid halves of football will be needed.

How Good Are These Guys?

Today Ohio State returns to action after a bye week.  The Buckeyes have played nine games and won eight of them, are tied for the lead in the Big Ten, and are ranked ninth in the country.  And yet, somehow, they aren’t really well defined.  A lot of people are wondering:  how good are these guys?

This is the time of the season when you try to draw conclusions about a team’s relative quality by looking at its schedule.  For the Buckeyes, that indicator doesn’t tell us a whole lot.  Earlier wins that looking impressive — like at home against Miami, or on the road against Illinois — now don’t look quite as meaningful, as those teams have struggled since playing Ohio State.  Sure, the Buckeyes have soundly beaten teams they were expected to beat, but when they went on the road to play a conference foe now ranked in the top ten, they came up short.

You can certainly conclude that Ohio State is a good team.  Can it be great?  We’ll start to learn today, when Penn State comes to the Horseshoe.  We’ll learn still more in the next two weeks, when Ohio State travels to Iowa to play the Hawkeyes and then ends the season against Michigan.  Today’s opponent, the Nittany Lions, stand 3-2 in the Big Ten, having won three straight in the conference.  They have a good defense and an excellent running back in Evan Royster.  They also think they have found a quarterback in sophomore Matt McGloin.  McGloin has played in Penn State’s three conference wins and has thrown for seven touchdowns, including four last week against Northwestern.

In the Jim Tressel era, Ohio State’s matchups against Penn State have tended to be low-scoring defensive battles, so you would expect today’s game to be a good test for the Buckeyes.  Can the offense put up points against the traditionally tough Penn State defense?  Can the defense stop Royster and halt Penn State’s recent offensive resurgence in its tracks?  The answers to those questions will tell us more about how good the 2010 version of the Ohio State Buckeyes really is.

An Impressive, Team Win

Yesterday the Ohio State Buckeyes went to Happy Valley and a stadium packed with 110,000 screaming, white-clad fans and came away with a very convincing 24-7 win. It was a true team win, with good play from the defense, the offense, the return units, and the kicking units. The result was the team’s first “signature win” of the season, obtained against a higher-ranked team on the road in a very hostile environment.

The Ohio State defense was tremendous. The defensive line consistently wreaked havoc with the Penn State offensive schemes, with quick penetration by Cam Heyward and Thad Gibson often blowing plays up before they had any chance to develop. Linebackers Brian Rolle, Austin Spitler, and Ross Homan were all over the field, and the defensive backfield was solid. The only big play for Penn State was a well-executed swing pass that the receiver turned into a 30-yard gain. That play came on Penn State’s only drive, which resulted in an apparent touchdown on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak. In all, Penn State gained only slightly more than 200 yards for the whole game, and the continued three-and-outs delivered by their offense clearly deflated the Beaver Stadium crowd.

The special teams also were solid. The punter kicked well, frequently pinning Penn State deep in its end of the field, and the backup placekicker performed well on kickoffs and converted his lone field goad attempt. Ray Small, in the meantime, had two fine punt returns that clearly influenced the outcome of the game. The first return, early in the game, was a 40-yard speed burst that put Ohio State in the red zone and led to the team’s first touchdown, and the second was a twisting, cutting affair that took Ohio State from close to its own goal line out to midfield.

And finally, the much-maligned offense played a terrific game against a very good defense. The offensive line kept a gimpy Terrelle Pryor from being sacked and opened holes that allowed Pryor, Boom Herron, and Brandon Saine move the ball on the ground. Pryor played perhaps his best game as a Buckeye, throwing sharp passes, avoiding the forced throws that have occurred in some games, and running for crucial first downs and the first Ohio State touchdown. The Ohio State coaches also deserve credit for some nifty play-calling — an end-around, a small pass to the fullback for a first down, an excellent fake dive and pass to Saine for the final, crushing touchdown, and two well-timed deep balls, one of which just missed before halftime and the second of which produced the Buckeyes’ second touchdown and put the game effectively out of reach.

In all, the game was a well-played, well-executed pleasure to watch for any Buckeye fan, and with Iowa’s unexpected loss yesterday it opens the door to the Big Ten championship, if Ohio State can just walk through. Next up are the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Horsehoe.

Hard Test In Happy Valley

The Buckeyes face a tough test Saturday afternoon when they play the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley.  Penn State, ranked #11, features a stout defense and a frequently struggling offense.  When they look to the other side of the field, it will be like looking in a mirror because the Buckeyes also have a fine defense and an offense that often has had difficulty moving the ball. 

This will be a very difficult game for Ohio State.  An offense that has been challenged even in the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium will be on the road in a very loud, aggressive environment.  Another big disadvantage for Ohio State is that its starting field goal kicker is out with an injury, and its punter has been kicking poorly of late — not what you want if you believe, as Coach Tressel does, that the kicking game is an extremely important part of any successful football team.  If Ohio State’s offense regularly goes three-and-out, the punter will be repeatedly tested and will need to come through.

I think the key to the game will be the Ohio State offensive line, which has been a disappointment this year.  The line will need to open some holes for the running game and give Terrelle Pryor time to throw when he goes back to pass — two things they have not been able to do consistently this season.  And, when the offense gets to the red zone, they will need to score touchdowns and not rely on an untested field goal kicker to put points on the board.  The defense and the special teams, on the other hand, will have to play well to keep Penn State from scoring touchdowns.  The nightmare scenario for the Buckeyes will be falling behind and then needing to rely on the passing game to catch up in boisterous, pumped-up Beaver Stadium.

It should be an entertaining matchup.