When Cupcakes Come Knocking

Ohio State’s largely rebuilt football team has played in some difficult games so far this season–including a loss, at home, to a very tough Oregon team and an unexpectedly close win over Tulsa. So I’m pretty sure OSU head coach Ryan Day was happy to see that the University of Akron were the next team on the schedule, because (with all due respect to the hometown college of the city of my birth) the Zips, this year, are the definition of a “cupcake.” And who doesn’t like a cupcake every now and then?

Nevertheless, the Buckeyes fell behind last night, 7-0, which I’m sure had the home crowd wondering what the heck is going on with this team. But then the Buckeyes righted the ship, got defensive turnovers and a score, and steamrolled the Zips, 59-7. The Men of the Scarlet and Gray padded their sack stats, racked up 600-plus yards of total offense, ran the ball at will, and got lots of yards after catches against a totally overmatched Akron defense that simply had no answer for Ohio State’s speed and bulk up front. And we got to see two other highly touted freshman quarterbacks, Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III, as Coach Day gave C.J. Stroud the night off to rest a banged-up shoulder.

So, what do you make of a game like this? I think not very much, although I’m glad to see that the Buckeyes got to play an easy game, everyone got some snaps, and no one got hurt. The idea of a cupcake is to allow your team to get an easy win and, hopefully, approach the upcoming games with a bit more confidence. But it’s also important not to get too excited about the result, or think that some of the problems on the defensive side of the ball have been fixed. For example, the Buckeyes defensive line was able to bull rush the Akron offensive line all night long and get pressure simply by pushing the Zips directly into the backfield. Will they be able to do that against teams where the size and strength and conditioning and talent levels are more equal? I guess we’ll just have to see.

I would make one more observation, as we get ready to move into the Big Ten season, where the fun really begins. I think this season is going to be one long lesson for Ohio State fans about just how good Justin Fields was–how accurate, how smart, how athletically gifted–the last two years. I have no doubt that Stroud, McCord, and Miller are all very talented with lots of upside potential, but so far they are playing a lot like freshmen. After two years of confidence in Fields’ steady leadership and playmaking ability, we’re going to have to get used to wildly inaccurate passes, inexplicable decisions, and other mishaps by guys who are still learning the system and adjusting to football in a big-time program.

But that’s all part of the fun of the college game.

Our New Look Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes played their first game of the new season last night. Watching the game was a different experience, due to the date and time–has Ohio State ever played a football game on a Thursday night before?–and the fact that the team opened the season on the road in the Big Ten, before a packed house of rabid Minnesota Golden Gopher fans, and had to come from behind in the second half to pull out a 45-31 win. But mostly it was a different experience because Ohio State’s starters include a lot of new names, on both offense and defense.

On offense, it’s pretty clear that the Buckeyes have plenty of firepower and weapons galore. They have a new quarterback, C.J. Stroud, who played through some first half jitters and had a bad interception before settling down and making lots of good throws as the Buckeyes pulled away. Give some credit to head coach Ryan Day for continuing to dial up pass plays and give Stroud a chance to show his arm. If Stroud can settle down and throw the ball accurately, he’s likely to put up some big numbers this year, because the Buckeye receiving corps is loaded with talent and speed, starting with veterans Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. And the Buckeyes have a lot of punch in the backfield, too, with Miyan Williams, who rushed for 125 yards on only 9 carries and had a 71-yeard TD burst, dependable Master Teague, and true freshman TreVeyon Henderson, shown in the photo above, who looks like a star in the making.

The defense is another matter. Ohio State’s D was exposed last year by Alabama, and that was a veteran unit. This year’s defense features loads of new players in the defensive backfield and at the linebacker position, and there were some breakdowns last night–including a long run on a gutsy fourth-and-one play by the Gophers–that will need to be fixed. In fairness to the defense, Minnesota had a lot of veteran players at the offensive skill positions and a huge offensive line, and it can be tougher for a defense with a lot of new players to learn to play together as a team. We’ll call the defense a work in progress for now, but we’ll hope that the progress comes quickly, because Ohio State plays Oregon next weekend and the Ducks will be a handful.

It’s the Friday morning before Labor Day, the Buckeyes already have a conference road win under their collective belts, and members of Buckeye Nation have lots to analyze and criticize. It’s not a bad way to start a three-day weekend.

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.

Big Head Syndrome

I’m worried about the Ohio State football game against Penn State on Saturday.

The Buckeyes obviously have a lot of talent this year, and they’ve played exceptionally well so far.  They’re undefeated, have won every game by huge margins, and have risen to the number 1 or number 2 spot in every football ranking service, including the rankings established by the College Football Playoff committee.

chase-young-ohio-state-wisconsin-gettyThat’s great — but it’s also the problem.  Ohio State has been so good during its first 10 games this year that people have started talking about them as if they are one of the historically great teams — not just at Ohio State, but in all of college football.  You’ll see analysis of how the Buckeyes match up with other all-time great teams in terms of statistical dominance, margin of victory, and other metrics.  And one telling measure of the praise that has been gushing around this year’s team is that Ohio State is a 19-point favorite to beat Penn State come Saturday.  That’s right:  Ohio State is expected to beat a one-loss, traditional powerhouse that has played the Buckeyes very close in recent years and that is itself ranked in the top ten — by nearly three touchdowns.  It’s an absurd example of the sky-high expectations surrounding this Buckeye squad.

I think it’s silly to talk compare a team to all-time great prior teams while there are still lots of important games to be played against excellent teams like Penn State and, next week, Michigan.  I also think it’s dangerous.  If you hear about how great and unbeatable you are long enough, you might actually start to believe it — and if you get the big head and start to believe those press clippings, you’re headed for a fall.  Ohio State fans have seen this story before, with the 1969 team, the 1973 team, the 1998 team, and the 2015 team.  Each team had lots of smoke blown up its behind about being the best ever — and then had a horrible stumble.  I’m worried we may be seeing a replay of the same disappointing story this year.

There are young Ohio State fans who have absolute confidence in this team.  Those of us in Buckeye Nation who are old enough to remember the crushing losses of the past, including in games where the Buckeyes were heavily favored, are very wary.

The hype can be a trap.  It will be up to Ryan Day and the other Ohio State coaches to make sure that the players disregard the praise, focus on their prior mistakes and getting better, and come out humble, motivated, and ready to play on Saturday.