This week we’re thinking of a Johnny Cash song as we look at what we know about this Ohio State football team with Big Ten play upon us.
What we learned last week: Expectations are funny things.
The week leading up to Ohio State’s 29-15 victory over UAB had a definite theme: What is wrong with the Buckeye defense, and how can it be fixed? There was very good reason for this because California had shredded the unit for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns one week earlier.
The exposure of a specific alignment issue the Golden Bears exploited and rumblings of tension on the coaching staff surrounding how the defense should be drawn up also heightened the intrigue around the defense, but I think the reaction was more the result of what people thought they were going to see.
A variety of factors led the offseason conclusion that the Buckeyes would have no problems on defense. Depending on how you count, they had nine starters returning, and well know the default way to look at that is to expect improvement, especially when dealing with mostly highly recruited guys.
Head coach Urban Meyer supplemented the roster with more talented players, too, giving hope for added depth, but Meyer’s greater effect on the perception of the defense came from his bringing his offense to town.
Truth be told, there is only so much attention everyone has to go around, and the great majority (myself included) was put on the arrival of the spread in Columbus. That made it that much easier to forget the OSU defense might have any significant problems.
But you know what? The 2011 Buckeyes were a far cry from the vaunted Silver Bullets we have come to expect for the majority of the past 15 years, and many of their problems of a year ago remain this time around. The pass rush is still so-so. The scheme feels a bit empty. The linebackers aren’t offering a lot of production, and the secondary is still prone to mistakes. Also like last season, health has not helped, but that is kind of a part of the deal in this violent game we love so much.
And yet I come to praise the 2012 Ohio State defense, not to bury it. Missed tackles are a definite cause for alarm as the first month of the college football season winds down, but I think the perception of the Buckeyes’ performance against the Blazers is made much worse by the attitude created by both the preseason assumptions and the pregame concerns.
Overall, the defense got better last week. It adjusted schematically and though medium gains were an issue, truly explosive plays were cut down thanks to better leverage on the ball and good hustle to it. At least there were people around to clean up the messes this time around. They only allowed nine points when all is said and done.
So what am I getting at? The bigger issue last week was the offense. More than 50 percent three-and-outs did the defense no favors. Growing pains persist, and that is to be expected, but the overall production seems to be lessening from week to week.
The only consistent performer is Braxton Miller, but then maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, either. That’s another theme carried over from last season, isn’t it? And there is no getting around the fact the wide receivers had a long way to go – as did the offensive line. Mix in injuries to the top two running backs on the team and a bunch of staff members getting used to each other from week to week, and there is a definite formula for disfunction in the short term.
I guess that means the real No. 1 lesson of last week – maybe of the season so far – is that ineligibility for the postseason isn’t necessarily a big deal for this team because it just isn’t ready for prime time.
What we can expect to learn this week: The mettle of a bunch of the Buckeyes – not to mention Michigan State.
Both teams have shown some obvious warts so far this season, but I still think – as do Associated Press pollsters, apparently – these are the two best teams in the conference. No, that does not say a lot for the state of the Big Ten, but then you probably already knew that.
While Ohio State is still trying to figure out what it wants to be on defense, Michigan State has no doubts there. Head coach Mark Dantonio’s front seven is just plain nasty, not to mention deep. It was young and talented last year. Now it is talented and seasoned.
The Spartan defense overwhelmed the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe in 2011, but that was more than just physical. The Spartans took advantage of an Ohio State offense that was limited in both experience and imagination with Miller starting only his second game at quarterback.
This Ohio State offensive line has looked better so far than the disappointing 2011 unit, but it has not faced a challenge anything like this either in terms of physical ability or fanciness of scheme.
For all the questions surrounding the Ohio State defense, Michigan State’s offense hasn’t been far from a disaster so far this season. The passing game looks a lot like a group that lost literally everyone that played a significant role last season, and the offensive line isn’t good enough to overcome that despite the presence of stud tailback Le’Veon Bell.
I can’t see how this will be anything but an ugly game. If there are fireworks on offense, they will probably have to come from big busted plays because I don’t see either team executing successfully on a consistent basis.
Both offensive lines will have their hands full, and Michigan State will challenge Ohio State’s young and improving wide receivers with tight coverage in all likelihood.
Yards will be at a premium, but only if Ohio State shores up its tackling issues.
Can that be done in a week? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Big Ten Thoughts: At least that was the last Ground Hog Day for the league this year. Multiple Big Ten teams won’t get the chance to fail out of conference again until New Year’s Day, so at least that’s something Jim Delany can hang his hat on while trying to ignore the fact he expanded his league without a real good reason as long as Notre Dame wasn’t coming to the party.
Of course it’s ironic the Fighting Irish have played a large role on the field this season, too, in exposing the many flaws both Michigan State and Michigan have. Not only that, their more-closely-contested win over Purdue three weeks ago might just serve as proof the Boilermakers are no pushover this season.
The interesting thing about the pre-conference season in the Big Ten is that almost no one expected to be in the race appears to have fixed any of the problems that came up during the offseason. By that I mean it seems everyone who was any good who graduated or went pro after 2011 has yet to be replaced in 2012.
Michigan has no new Mike Martin or David Molk, yet. Wisconsin has no quarterback. Michigan State has no passing game at all.
Some flaws are back from last season, too. Denard Robinson still can’t drop back and find open receivers (on his team) consistently. Michigan State still can’t block. Nebraska still isn’t Nebraska on defense.
There are some improvements, the most noticeable being Nebraska looks better on offense with a more efficient Taylor Martinez. The Wisconsin defense has kept the Badgers in games when it might have faltered a year ago.
How will it all shake out over the next nine weeks? That’s anybody’s guess, but I am betting there will be some fun games, especially with Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue showing some signs of being dangerous (but for who knows how long?).
Don’t expect much love from the outside (though ironically College GameDay will be in Big Ten country for the beginning of conference season) for the rest of this season, but then again you’re probably used to that.