A Solid Win

Things looked dicey at halftime, but the Ohio State Buckeyes bounced back from some self-inflicted wounds and pummeled a game Virginia Tech team in the second half to win, 42-24.  The win avenges Ohio State’s only loss from last year.

This was a good win on a number of levels.  The quarterback controversy is finally over.  Urban Meyer went with Cardale Jones as the starter, and Jones played a pretty good game, throwing for two TDs (against one tipped interception) and rushing for almost 100 yards and another touchdown.  Equally important, for the first half, at least, Ohio State didn’t look like the invincible juggernaut that a lot of people were touting.  The OSU coaches will have a lot to talk to the team about after this win, because there is definitely room for improvement.

Virginia Tech is not an easy place to play for a visiting team, and when the Hokies took the lead just before halftime before a roaring home crowd, some teams might have folded — but not Ohio State.  They obviously have a lot of leadership (something Urban Meyer consciously tries to instill in his players) and a lot of talent, and you saw no panic on the Buckeye sideline.  A few dazzling Braxton Miller plays later, and OSU was on top and pulling away.  The fact that the Buckeyes’ defense knocked the Hokies’ starting quarterback out of the game didn’t hurt, either.  (The drop-off in talent between Virginia Tech’s starter and back-up just shows, again, how special the performance of Ohio State’s QB back-ups was last year.)  By the end of the game, a bunch of Buckeye back-ups were on the field, getting game reps in a hostile environment — something that also will probably pay dividends in the future.

In all, a nice, solid win in a tough venue that had its character-building elements as well.  It’s not a bad way to start the season.  Bring on Hawaii!

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All About The D

From the hype leading up to tonight’s game, everyone seems to be talking about who Ohio State’s quarterback will be and how they will fare against the Virginia Tech defense.  I’ll be focused, however, on the other side of the ball — on Ohio State’s defense.

Much as Cardale Jones deserves credit for stepping in and leading the OSU offense, the real key to last year’s National Championship, in my view, was the Buckeye defense.  The defense gave up a lot of points during the regular season and was gashed repeatedly by a mediocre Michigan team, which caused many fans — me included — to fret about how Ohio State would perform against Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers.  But it was like a light bulb was suddenly turned on after The Gamne, and against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon the defense played lights out.  The D held up and repeatedly delivered crucial stops even though, against the Crimson Tide and the Ducks, they had to deal with a lot of offensive turnovers that put the opponents in good field position with the games on the line.

We know that Virginia Tech has a good defense, and it will be interesting to see whether Ohio State can move the ball against the Hokies and exorcise the demons of last year’s sack-filled debacle.  But for the Buckeyes’ long-term success, I think the defense is the key — tonight and for the rest of the season.  During the last three games last year, the Buckeyes managed to get great pressure with a four-man rush, cover opposing receivers, and shut down three of the Heisman Trophy finalists — all at the same time.

The defense has lost some starters from last year’s squad, and Joey Bosa is out tonight due to a one-game suspension.  Can Darron Lee, Adolphus Washington, Josh Perry, and Tyvis Powell inspire and lead the defense to play like it did in those three unforgettable games?  I think that is the question.

One Week To Go

A week from today, at 8 p.m. on September 7, the Ohio State Buckeyes kick off their 2015 schedule against Virginia Tech, and the college football season will begin in Columbus.  I’m feeling as excited as a eight-year-old who’s on the final countdown to Christmas.

Of all of the sports I follow, college football is my favorite.  I admit it — part of it is that, as an Ohio State fan, I’m fortunate to root for a team that consistently is good, and anyone whose team is coming off a championship season is bound to be excited.  Speaking from the bitter experience of Cleveland sportsfanship, it’s easier to follow winners than perennial losers.  But there’s more to it than that — college football, and college sports generally, is just more fun than the professional variety.  The players are younger and more excitable, and there’s an alma mater element that simply isn’t found in the professional game.

IMG_1815I know that some of my friends (and I’m thinking of you, here, JWR) will argue, quite correctly, that college football is just as much about generating cash as the NFL.  I concede the point, but I also think that, for all of the money and scandals and boosters and cheating, college athletics still is built on a hard kernel of simple state and school pride.  Anyone who grew up in Ohio knows what I mean.  We care passionately about the Buckeyes because it’s kind of what Ohioans do.  It’s a tradition passed down from generation to generation, and we want to hold up our end of the bargain.

The Big Ten Network is running an interesting program called Scarlet and Gray Days, about Ohio State’s training camp for the upcoming season.  If you want to get a better understanding of the deep connection between Ohioans and the Buckeyes, watch the first part of the first episode — it captures some of the gut-level feelings that members of Buckeye Nation know all too well.  And the rest of the show is pretty good, too.

Next Monday night can’t get here soon enough.

The Curse Of Overconfidence

On September 7, the much-anticipated 2015 version of the Ohio State University Buckeyes will take the field for the first time — in Blacksburg, Virginia, against Virginia Tech.  The Hokies handed the Buckeyes their only loss last year, beating the Men of the Scarlet and Gray soundly here in Columbus.  Of course, the Buckeyes rebounded and went on to have a legendary season that ended with a glorious and dominating three-game run that produced a National Championship.

Buckeyes fans are eager for the new season, but the hyperbole surrounding the team is making me queasy.  You regularly see articles asking whether Ohio State will have the greatest offense in the history of college football, or have one of the best teams ever.  The overwhelming self-confidence — hubris, really — among many members of Buckeye Nation and even some members of the news media is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Fortunately for Ohio State diehards, fans and reporters don’t play the games.  Perhaps the biggest challenge for head coach Urban Meyer and his assistants this year — aside from figuring out who will be the starting quarterback — is to keep the players from reading their own press clippings and getting swelled heads.  Of course, you want players who are hungry, highly motivated, and working as hard as they possibly can for themselves and their teammates; those who are convinced that they are already among the greatest probably aren’t going to give the necessary extra effort to get the most out of every drill.

Urban Meyer, who got his bachelor’s degree in psychology, is a master motivator who seems to have an almost intuitive grasp of how young athletes think and a deep sense of how to appeal to their competitive instincts.  If anyone can keep Ohio State’s talented players on task and on point, it’s Coach Meyer — and the fact that the Buckeye roster seems very deep, with lots of gifted athletes competing relentlessly for starting positions, has to help.  Even if you’ve read article after article about your own greatness, it’s not easy to slack off when you know firsthand that the guy behind you also has enormous skills and would be perfectly happy to step in and take your place while you revel in the hype.

The Challenge Of Trying To Stay On Top

When you are on top, staying there can be a challenge.  Suddenly there are all kinds of distractions.  People who previously lean and hungry may develop a more complacent frame of mind.  And there is every temptation to start believing your press clippings.

The current national champion Ohio State Buckeyes are learning this life lesson.  If they are listening to the over-the-top accolades and compliments that every casual fan and professional pundit is throwing their way, their heads have probably already swollen to the bursting point.  They’ve been picked for all kinds of preseason award lists and slotted in to the next round of college football playoffs before one down has even been played.  And this week, one of those dreaded “distractions” occurred when four players — including All-World defensive end Joey Bosa and three players who were expected to make big contributions on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams — were suspended for the first game against Virginia Tech for violating an unspecified policy or policies.

Fans grit their teeth at these kinds of off-field activities, but it seems entirely predictable in the modern world of high-powered college sports.  For the Buckeyes, they will just have to figure out a way to overcome the loss of four key players — or not.  It’s a kind of initial test in a season of impending tests, where the enemies will be the opposing teams but also overconfidence, clashing egos, petty jealousies, and concerns about future pro careers.

I’d rather the Buckeyes not have to deal with suspensions, but if they are going to happen — and, realistically, they are — I’d rather the process start now, before the season begins.  Last year, Ohio State’s players adopted a “next man up” mentality that required every player to be ready to step in and pursue the team’s lofty goals, and it served the team well.  At the quarterback position the next man up — and the next man up after him — in fact had to rise to the challenge and perform in the clutch.  I’m hoping that Urban Meyer, who knows a thing or two about encouraging motivation and focus with student athletes, can use this incident to good effect in getting the team mentally ready, again.  It wouldn’t exactly be seemly for the supposed Team of the Century to stumble out of the gate.

The Bloody And Battered Big Ten

Rutgers and Maryland may want to reconsider their decision to join the Big Ten, because apparently the Old Conference really sucks this year.

Saturday, September 6, 2014 was an embarrassing bloodbath for the Big Ten.  The top teams — including, unfortunately, the Buckeyes — all lost convincingly.  Virginia Tech came in, pulverized the overmatched Ohio State offensive line, sacked poor redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett more times than you can count, and came out of the Horseshoe with a tough, physical win.  Kudos to them for a great victory.  Meanwhile, Notre Dame beat the tar out of hapless Michigan, shutting out the Wolverines 31-0 and leaving Brady Hoke looking sweaty and bewildered, as always, on the sideline.  Oregon put on a track meet in the second half and drubbed Michigan State, 46-27.  Purdue got crushed by Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois beat Northwestern.

Even the wins that Big Ten teams racked up yesterday were pretty lame.  Nebraska needed a last-second miracle to beat McNeese State.  Penn State squeaked by Akron, and Minnesota slipped past Middle Tennessee.  Maryland and Rutgers, at least, held up their end of the bargain and won.

The season is young, of course, and I’m hoping that the Buckeyes get better.  They’re young, and without Braxton Miller to energize their offense with his special talents I wasn’t expecting them to contend for a national championship.  But there’s no doubt that, after yesterday’s crippling losses, the Big Ten has taken another black eye and its national reputation, which already was battered, has slipped another notch.

I hope I don’t have to take any trips down to SEC country soon.

Four Years Later, The Feds Fine Virginia Tech

Four years ago, in April 2007, Virginia Tech experienced the deadliest school killings in American history.  Gunman Cho Seung-Hui shot more than 40 people, killing 32.  The rampage began when he shot two students in a dormitory.  Two hours and 15 minutes later, the University sent out an email advising that there had been a shooting on campus.  A few minutes after that, Cho resurfaced and began a bloody massacre that resulted in most of the student deaths.

Now, four years later, the federal Department of Education has advised Virginia Tech that it will be fined for violation of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires timely reporting of crimes on campus.  The amount of the fine is a paltry $55,000 — the maximum permitted under the law — although the Department of Education letter to the school helpfully says that “Virginia Tech’s violations warrant a fine far in excess of what is currently permissible under the statute.”  Virginia Tech could have been stripped of some of the $98 million in federal student aid it receives, but the Department of Education decided not to take that step.  Virginia Tech has said it will appeal the decision.

Does anyone else find this situation farcical?  A horrific tragedy occurs, 32 people are killed, and four years later the federal government levies a $55,000 fine?  The whole situation is so ludicrous it seems like an insulting joke.  If it takes the feds four years to fine Virginia Tech such a paltry sum for such a colossal loss of life, what is the point of having a federal role at all?  And really, what is the federal interest in crimes committed on a college campus?  That some of the students who were shot down will be unable to repay their federally guaranteed student loans?

This is another example of the absurdity of the federal government’s continuing intrusion into all facets of American life.  The response to most criminal acts, like Cho’s rampage, should be a matter for state law and state courts.  There is no need for a federal role — and certainly not when the federal government moves with such leaden speed, and assesses such a ridiculous fine for such carnage.  Does anyone doubt that the amount spent on the federal investigation into the Virginia Tech shootings far outstrips the negligible $55,000 fine?