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.

Survive And Advance

For the first time in years, the Ohio State Buckeyes played on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. Today they were fortunate to win a squeaker, 63-61, over a game Purdue Boilermakers team that gave the Buckeyes all they could handle.

The Buckeyes have been a cipher for months, and today was no different. For stretches they look putrid, then then look pretty good. They can’t make a three-pointer, and their free throw shooting is abysmal. Today they were 1-14 from behind the arc — that’s a nifty 7.1% for the mathematicians out there — and a limp 64% from the free throw line. Once again, they missed free throws that could have put the game away. They also turned the ball over 12 times, and a lot of those turnovers were simple mental mistakes. It’s got to be maddening for Coach Thad Matta when March rolls around and those mistakes keep being made.

With such miserable shooting, it’s amazing that Ohio State won today’s game. If they’d played a better team — Purdue finished last in the Big Ten — they probably would have lost. But the Buckeyes survived and advanced, which is all you can ask for when tournament time rolls around. We can be sure of one thing, though: if they don’t play better, they aren’t going to advance very far. Maybe this game is the one you somehow win when everything goes wrong, and now everything will click into place. Or, maybe this is just another reflection of a team that can’t shoot straight.

Another Reason Why You Don’t Give Up And Leave Early

Today Ohio State fans learned a valuable lesson:  you don’t give up and you never, ever leave a game early.

The Buckeyes were stumblebums for most of the game.  The offense sputtered.  The defense gave up an 83-yard TD on Purdue’s first play from scrimmage.  Purdue returned a kickoff more than 100 yards for a touchdown.  Braxton Miller was injured (no report yet on how seriously, but it didn’t look good).  The Buckeyes had a field goal hit the upright and gave up a safety due to a holding call in the end zone.  And, with 40-some seconds left, the Buckeyes were behind by 8, with no timeouts, trying to rally behind their second-string quarterback.  By then, many fair weather fans had already left, and only the diehards remained.

Yet somehow, improbably, the Buckeyes came back to win.  Kenny Guiton, the backup QB, led the Buckeyes on a drive that saw them score the crucial touchdown with 3 seconds left, and then gain the essential two-point conversion with a beautiful play that featured Guiton throwing a fine touch pass to his tight end.  And so, improbably, the Buckeyes sent the game into overtime, where the Buckeyes scored on their possession and Purdue didn’t — and that was the ballgame.

I always stay at games until the end.  I’m there to see the game, and the last seconds of a loss are as much a part of the game as the first few plays.  I’ve also seen enough football to know that anything can happen . . . and today it did.  It gives me some pleasure to know that the early departees are kicking themselves for giving up and missing the chance to witness one of the most unbelievable comebacks in Ohio Stadium history.

As far as the Buckeyes go, this is a team that still needs a lot of improvement on both sides of the ball.  For now, though, I’m going to enjoy a game that showed you should never give up, whether you are a player, or a fan.  Go Bucks!

Where’s The Defense?

Today the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Purdue Boilermakers.  I’ll be there, in what is likely to be a very soggy Horseshoe, looking to answer one question:  what the heck has happened to the Ohio State defense?

Ohio State is undefeated, but I doubt if any Ohio State fan feels real good about that.  Last week the Buckeyes gave up 49 points, and almost 500 yards of offense, to Indiana.  The defense fell apart at the end of the game, giving up 21 fourth-quarter points and two late touchdowns that turns a comfortable win into a 52-49, recover-the-onside-kick-or-die nailbiter.  The indiana debacle is just the worst performance of an Ohio State defense that has given up a lot of points and a lot of big plays.  Is it the defensive scheme?  Injuries?  Poor tackling techniques?  Players who aren’t playing up to their capabilities?  Bad angles and coverage breakdowns?  This defense is so bad right now that it is undoubtedly all of those things — and probably a few more besides.

The embarrassing performance of the defense is particularly galling for two reasons.  First, Ohio State has traditionally prided itself on playing stout defense; during the Jim Tressel era the Buckeyes were a mainstay at the top of the college football scoring defense and total defense rankings.  With that history, it’s tough to see players blow assignments, miss tackles, and take bad angles that turn short gains into big ones.  Second, the lack of a defense this year is hard to swallow because the Ohio State offense is playing so well.  If the Buckeyes defense were good, this team might actually be in the conversation about the best teams in the country.  You just can’t include a team that gives up 49 points and had an end of game meltdown against Indiana in that conversation, however.

Today’s opponent, Purdue, is a bit of a cipher.  The Boilermakers looked good in their early games and lost a tight one to Notre Dame, but have been blown out in their last two games, against Michigan and Wisconsin.  In those games the Boilermakers have struggled to run the ball and put up points and have been gashed on defense — particularly on the ground.  When the Boilermakers have the ball, will the Buckeyes defense look better against what appears to be a weak offense, or will the Boilermaker offense feast on the offerings of a feeble Ohio State unit that will feature the team’s fullback playing middle linebacker?

Purdue always makes me uneasy, too, because it beat the Buckeyes in 2009 and last year.  I don’t want to see another loss to these guys.

Dodging A Late-Night Bullet

I hate college basketball games that start at 9 p.m.  After last night’s close shave against the Purdue Boilermakers, I’m guessing the Ohio State Buckeyes feel the same way.  The Buckeyes barely pulled out a win, 87-84, to keep their home court winning streak alive and stay atop the Big Ten.

After a series of games in which they shut down their opponents, the Buckeyes were porous indeed against Purdue. The Boilermakers’ fine coach, Matt Painter, figured out a high ball screen approach that consistently got Purdue players opportunities for easy layups and dunks or open three-pointers, and his players executed.  D.J. Byrd and Kelsey Barlow, in particular, seemed unstoppable — but the Buckeyes also seemed to be confused and a step behind on defense.

Offensively, the Buckeyes played a good game, ran well-designed set plays, and crashed the boards to get second-chance points.  With Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft on the bench with foul trouble, the Buckeyes rode senior William Buford, and he carried them to victory with 29 points.  Equally important, the Buckeyes performed under pressure in a close game, sank free throws when they needed to, and executed with less than two minutes to go — which was a good thing, because Purdue continued to drain three-pointers until the very end.

The college basketball season is a long one.  As it progresses, teams can improve or regress, or be distracted by looking around at how others are doing.  Lots of Ohio State fans and TV commentators have talked recently about how the Buckeyes stack up against other highly ranked teams. Last night’s game just shows that such talk is pointless.  Ohio State doesn’t have Kentucky or Syracuse on its schedule. Instead, it’s only going to be playing Big Ten teams for a while — and as last night’s great Purdue performance showed, the Big Ten teams present plenty of challenges.

I’m sure Coach Thad Matta will be talking to the Buckeyes about learning from last night’s close call, redoubling their efforts on defense, and focusing exclusively on their next Big Ten game and giving a better performance.  And a better performance will be needed, too, because the Michigan State Spartans, who are battling the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead, are coming to town on Saturday.

Roll On, Big O-SU

The Ohio State Buckeyes spanked Indiana today, while Purdue crushed Michigan State.  Their victories set up what should be an interesting final week of the Big Ten regular season.

The Buckeyes close at Penn State, on Tuesday night, and then finish at home against Wisconsin on Sunday.  Purdue, in the meantime, hosts Illinois on Tuesday and then ends the season at Iowa on Saturday.  Although there will be a Big Ten Tournament the following weekend, and the winner of that tournament will be deemed the Big Ten championship for purposes of the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, every true Big Ten fan knows that the regular season title is the more important one.  There is a lot of pride involved in surviving the rugged life on the road in the Big Ten and winning enough away games to claim the regular season title.

This year, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin clearly are the class of the conference.  Ohio State fans hoped that Purdue might stumble in East Lansing, but instead the Boilermakers drubbed the struggling Spartans.  That win means the Buckeyes will have to win out to claim the regular season title, and Ohio State held up its end of the bargain today by clubbing the Hoosiers at Value City Arena.  Indiana is a good example of a once-storied program that has fallen on hard times.  Although the Hoosiers may bounce back next year, when they have a good recruiting class coming in, right now they just don’t belong, talent-wise, on the same floor as Ohio State, Purdue, or Wisconsin.  They are cannon fodder, like the Washington Generals or the anonymous masked wrestler who gets trounced by Hulk Hogan in the run-up to Wrestlemania.

The game at Happy Valley Tuesday night will be a huge one for both teams.  The Nittany Lions need a win to build their resume for an at-large NCAA bid, and the Buckeyes need the win to stay ahead of Purdue in the race for the regular season Big Ten crown.

Showdown In West Lafayette

Tomorrow afternoon two teams will play a game that will go a long way toward deciding who will be the regular season Big Ten basketball champion.  Ohio State travels to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers.

A lot is on the line.  The Buckeyes are 12-1 in the conference and have a two-game lead over second-place Purdue.  In their last outing, the Boilermakers won a huge home game against Wisconsin to take sole possession of second place.  They now look to topple the Buckeyes and pull within one game of the Big Ten lead.  They also will be looking for some revenge against Ohio State, which crushed Purdue 87-64 when the teams matched up earlier this season at Value City Arena.

The last game between these two teams is meaningless.  It was one of those magical games where everything went right for Ohio State and everything went wrong for Purdue.  (I have the game DVR’d and will probably not erase it for months; it is too much fun to watch.)  The rematch undoubtedly will be different.  Mackey Arena is one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten, and this year Purdue is undefeated at home against Big Ten opponents.  In the first game between these teams, JaJuan Johnson played well and scored 22 points, but he was almost a one-man team.  The Buckeyes managed to marginalize Purdue’s excellent shooting guard E’Twaun Moore and neutralize the Boilermakers’ waterbug-quick point guard, Lewis Jackson.  Aaron Craft had a breakout game for the Buckeyes, playing hard-as-nails defense and blowing past the Boilermakers’ defense for some embarrassingly easy layups.

Craft and the Buckeyes won’t surprise Purdue this time.  Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten and he will have the Boilermakers ready for this game.  Moore and Jackson, in particular, will be pumped for a chance to redeem themselves against the Buckeyes.  I expect another very difficult road test against a well-coached opponent that will be playing with a lot of talent and a lot of pride.