Tag Archives: Illinois football

Ohio State Football Week 11 (Part 1): Gimme Back My Bullets

This week’s column looks to Lynyrd Skynyrd for inspiration as we examine why the Buckeye defense has looked more like its old self the past couple of weeks. Hint: It’s really not that complicated. With Ohio State off this week, we also take a look at the most interesting Big Ten matchup on tap while also keeping an eye on the Buckeyes’ next opponent.

What we learned this week: It’s amazing what better players can do for a defense.

That Ohio State is playing better when the other team has the ball is no coincidence when you look at the players in the lineup.

There is no doubt they were missing Nathan Williams, who was not there for Indiana, and they needed players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington to step up.

Perhaps the unit would have rounded into form sooner with the improving play of Etienne Sabino against Michigan State and (a very good) Nebraska offense, but his injury set them back yet again before that debacle in Indiana on Oct. 13.

Zach Boren’s move to linebacker from fullback was necessitated by the broken bone in Sabino’s leg, and the Boren of the 52-22 win over Illinois is a better player than the one of the 52-49 win over the Hooisers three weeks earlier.

Don’t forget CJ Barnett was out of the lineup for a few games and needed a little time to get re-acclimated with the rest of his teammates in the speed of the game, too. That was key as it allowed Orhian Johnson to return to Star, where he has been the most productive player at the position this season.

I hate to sound like an excuse machine for the coaching staff, but sometimes people go a little overboard in looking to blame people when something goes wrong. Often there really are reasonable explanations for why things don’t turn out exactly how they’re expected to.

On top of all that, you’ve got a new staff learning what each member knows, what the players can do within that knowledge and how to put it all together.

I like the potential of the quarters coverage that they went into the season wanting to play, but I can see where it could be a dicey situation, with a variety of people learning it all at once. I like the different options it gives you, and I think it’s just about the best coverage out there – when played correctly – but then I’m a little old school in defensive philosophy. I grew up in an old-fashioned 5-2 set that involved hitting, reading and shedding blocks at every position up front rather than all of mostly anchoring one spot. I get the ups and downs involved. I see that it puts a lot of responsibility on each individual player, and that it leaves the door open for one guy’s mistake to make more of a negative impact on a play, but done right it’s pretty dang hard to beat because when you have so many guys playing two gaps, you’ve got multiple outs all over the field. It can work out to be the equivalent of having extra defenders out there, a reverse of what the offense is trying to do with the zone read and option stuff that hs become so prevalent in the past decade.

To their credit, the coaching staff never seem to panic. They’ve all been through transitions like this before, and surely they had seen some of the similar struggles. They knew it wouldn’t happen overnight no matter how badly everyone wanted it to.

Urban Meyer’s greatest strength as a coach is undoubtedly his passion, but sometimes I think that gets him in a little trouble. And I’m not just talking about his famous bout with burnout, I’m talking about even just with the things he says.

As a member of the media I certainly appreciate his bluntness and honesty with us in terms of a lot of different things he says, but I think sometimes he gets a little ahead of himself. Sometimes we hear him talking about what he wants to see in an ideal situation, but I am pretty confident he’s realistic enough to know he’s going to have to settle for less than perfect on a regular basis, particularly in Year One, whether he likes it or not. That usually comes out through the course of a 30-minute press conference, but sometimes it gets lost in our little soundbite world that we now live because the first thing is often what gets highlighted even if the next sentence hollows it out a little bit and brings it back to the center.

Slowing down that Illinois offense is no great feat in and of itself, but holding any team under 200 total yards is to be commended. It’s more than we probably would have expected to see from this Ohio State unit even against a bad offense prior to this week, so in a world where average is somewhat understandably surprising to see, we should know when the defense turns in a dominant performance.

Meanwhile, the offense putting 50 points on the board without Braxton Miller going absolutely crazy is noteworthy as well. It speaks to the development of a lot of guys around him. The offensive line obviously did a lot of work to make holes for Carlos Hyde, and the junior running back did his best to take advantage.

Meyer sounded a little bit sour after the game, but when you can nitpick a specific part of the passing game after quarterback throws for 220 yards and a touchdown, you must be living okay. Don’t overlook the fact he was complaining about only the drop-back passing game, not the play-action part that was just fine, and quite productive as a matter of fact.

Bottom line: Players are developing and/or getting healthier on both sides of the ball, and that usually makes coaching a lot easier to do.

What we can expect to learn this week: How good is Wisconsin’s defense in space?

The Badgers have stopped a two-year slide in effectiveness of their stop unit this season, but I’m not sure how tested they truly are yet.

Nebraska spent half its win over the Badgers in late September running into itself and shooting itself in the foot and still gained 340 yards and scored 30 points in the conference opener.

Since then, Wisconsin’s defense has played somewhere between well and okay, but the competition still hasn’t been much to be scared of, particularly as far as passing goes.

Purdue has good threats on the outside, but hapless Danny Hope played around with his quarterbacks that afternoon and probably hurt the chances of his team getting into any type of rhythm. As against Ohio State, the Boilermakers picked up almost all of their yards on a handful of big plays. Wisconsin picked off two Minnesota passes, but that was against a true freshman in his first start. Andrew Maxwell, the league’s No. 10-most efficient passer at the moment, threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns without an interception as Michigan State beat the Badgers in overtime two weeks ago. The Badgers slowed down Le’Veon Bell, but most good defenses do because of the poor quality of the MSU offensive line.

And why does this matter? Because Indiana has the best passing game in the Big Ten and plays host to Wisconsin this weekend in what could turn out to be a de facto Big Ten Leaders division title game.

Not only are there high stakes, the noon game is of added interest because the Buckeyes are idle and Wisconsin is their next obstacle to a perfect start under Urban Meyer.

If Indiana can stretch the Badgers out from sideline to sideline, and execute consistently, there should be plenty of opportunities to make things happens. Running back Stephen Houston is a weapon as well on the inside for head coach Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers.

The Buckeyes have to like their chances against that Wisconsin defense if it has problems dealing with improving Indiana. Although what they want to accomplish with their formations is different, the Buckeyes will be able to provide some of the same problems in space in two weeks in Camp Randall Stadium when they look to improve to 11-0.

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Overheard at Ohio State Football: Illinois Week

Cleaning out the reporter’s notebook after another week on the Ohio State football beat. 

URBANISMS

Ohio State’s head football coach started out by stating his appreciation for the environment at Penn State. The students treated them well, and everyone was classy. The Buckeye players respected that and responded well overall to the whole deal. 

They got their best team win at State College. The defense has shown much improvement by maintaining leverage and tackling better. They also blitzed more than they have all year and played a lot of man coverage.

Zach Boren played well at linebacker but did not grade out as a champion, so Meyer wishes he would get even better. The coach has great respect for him.

Someone asked if the increase in pressure defense and man coverage came from Meyer, and he said he wasn’t sure that was the case even though he had been pushing for it. Getting C.J. Barnett back helps, too, because that is one more guy who can get in there and man up. They have always had confidence in the corners to play man, but everyone has to do it, including safeties and linebackers.

Asked about having a heart-to-heart with Jake Stoneburner a few weeks ago, Meyer said there is nothing worse than false confidence that comes from people telling you how good you are. People talked a lot about how great he was even though he had never really done a lot. Stoneburner wasn’t playing well or as involved as he wanted to be, and Meyer told him not to make excuses but to take ownership in the situation. He moved to wide receiver and had to learn how to contribute there. He is a smart kid, and he has gotten it turned around. Now Meyer sees potential for Stoneburner to play in the NFL. That is a goal of the staff, to get him there.

Someone asked if this team has the potential to be special, and he said yes. They are dealing with a lot of adversity, and there are a lot of intangibles in the locker room now. Guys are fighting for each other and refusing to lose. There is a blue collar attitude and a desire to get better.

He has no concerns about facing a friend in Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. He loves him and his dad, though.

Asked if he has a problem with Braxton Miller being too competitive at times, perhaps trying to make too much happen, Meyer said no. It is harder to teach a tiger to bite. He prefers to teach them when to bite.

Miller’s progression as a quarterback so far has been “ok.” He is a better thrower, but they are struggling to find time to work on his fundamentals to increase his improvement even more.

Talking again about the Ohio State defense, Meyer said he always had respect for the Silver Bullets even when he was watching from afar while coaching elsewhere. He feels much better about their fundamentals now. They have been working on fundamentals for 10 minutes or so a day and that seems to have had a positive effect.

Momentum is everything in college football, and that goes for not only wins but also recruiting and roster development. They aren’t looking at next year as they work on this one. They are just trying to win as many games as possible. That momentum shows up in recruiting because it makes them that much more enthusiastic about making calls to kids when they are talking about another great win.

Revisiting the Stoneburner issue, someone asked if the player had to come to grips with a new role. Meyer replied yes, and that was the problem. He should have just gotten to it, not thought about it. NFL teams tell guys what to do and move on if they don’t. Stoneburner is a really smart guy, and he might have overthought this one initially.

Miller was more confident in the second half at Penn State. It is hard to stay settled down in that atmosphere. His footwork was bad, and he was pulling away from the center too fast and panicking on his throws.

Illinois has players, but it has not played well at times this year. Meyer pointed out Illinois has had more high draft picks in recent years than Ohio State (this is true, at least if you’re just counting the first two rounds in the past three years – 7-2).

He loves seeing players develop in his program. For example, Chase Farris is “on fire” right now. He is going to be heard from at some point for Ohio State on the offensive line after converting from defense.

Regarding special teams struggles, he pointed out they have had seven different lineups for the punt team. In replacing Etienne Sabino and Zach Domicone, they have put in some guys who weren’t aware of what they needed to do their first time in there.

Upon being prodded about Miller being a candidate for the Heisman, Meyer acknowledged he does have the look of one. The quarterback still needs to play a lot better, but he must be a candidate with his production for a team that is 9-0.

Meyer has always been a huge Notre Dame fan since he grew up in a Catholic family It is great for college football when they are good. He’s seen them on some crossover film (presumably from Purdue and Michigan State) and they look very good. It is a polarizing place. When you walk into a high school wearing Notre Dame gear, people either love you or throw stuff at you.

Someone asked if he will ever manipulate the clips of the opposing team they show to the players in order to make them look better or worse than they might really be, and he said yes. He didn’t do that this week, though. (I think the gist was that he acknowledged sometimes you just include the clips of a team doing things well so your players don’t overlook them and other times you might even show mistakes to humanize the opponent and make sure they don’t seem invincible.)

He is concerned about how many punts they have had blocked, and other teams probably sense blood in the water now. They put in a different type of punt last week just to change things up. He didn’t want the punter to be just a sitting duck. He hasn’t been getting great hang time. Buchanan can do the roll kick, but they still have to protect it. They put Devin Smith on the punt coverage team because he is the fastest guy on the team. The ultimate goal is to get guys down the field to force a fair catch every time, but it isn’t happening right now.

 

Defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said the staff decided that a few weeks ago Penn State decided not to be a game-plan offense. They identified things they do well and stuck with them every week so they could get good at them.

Freshman Noah Spence is coming on now and he understands getting onto the field is a process. He has to do stuff to earn the trust of the staff. Everybody is fast and athletic in college, so young guys have to learn techniques and whatnot.

They are excited to have Zach Boren on defense. He gets better with every rep, and he is an inspiration to the other guys. One time in particular stuck out on the film when he ran past a blocker and made a hit on the wide screen pass.

Nathan Williams has a great attitude. He is dedicated to learning and studying. Nobody plays harder. He throws his body around. There are still things he is working on in terms of technique.

They need Mike Bennett to play better. That allows them to deploy various packages based on matchups and situation. Bennett is a guy with good speed and power for his size.

The defensive staff continues the process of developing what it wants to do and what the players are capable of doing. Some carry over from past weeks has helped the scheme evolve.

Like Spence, Adolphus Washington is a young guy who has to go through the process of learning how to play at this level. He is a big, athletic guy who needs to learn to play physical and relentless. Everything was easy for him in high school. He is making progress and earning more time in various situations. Vrabel isn’t sure what will be Washington’s ultimate position, tackle or end.

Williams is trying to make the NFL, and the staff supports that. He has dedicated himself to the team, to working hard and flying around and leading.

They are approaching everything week to week and finding ways to win. Guys are believing in themselves. Last week the defense started to realize the offense will win them the game if they just get the ball back for them.

This year is important because it is much easier to get the players to believe in the process when they see results.

 

Wide receivers coach Zach Smith said Stoneburner was always an athletic receiving tight end, but he had to get used to dealing with better athletes when he moved to receiver. He had to run better routes to beat quicker guys, basically. He couldn’t just run around them. Smith and Meyer addressed that with him and he keeps getting better ever since. Because of his progress, they work harder to get him opportunities to contribute.

Evan Spencer, who caught three passes last week, has built up more of the coaches’ confidence, so they are more apt to go to him, too. His best attribute is his commitment and his passion for the game. You can tell he is a coach’s son. He has upped his film study and is hard on himself and wants to get better. His parents raised him to be a great young man, and he understands what he needs to improve as a football player.

The team is 9-0 through the guys coming together when they’ve had to because of chemistry. They don’t want to let each other down.

Regarding the fake punt by Penn State that failed, Smith said they always practice for the base stuff a team does with its punt then watch for tips if they might do something tricky. Penn State lined up differently, so the staff alerted the players.

The wide receivers are getting better as a whole and the staff is developing confidence in more of them, so they are more comfortable with more of them playing. For example, Smith felt comfortable with Chris Fields going into the Purdue game when Philly Brown got hurt because Fields had been doing well recently in practice. Playing more guys also helps morale overall when guys actually feel like they contributed to the win rather than just being there and singing the fight song.

Devin Smith has embraced the role of gunner on the punt team, and Zach Smith would be disappointed if it were any other way.

They moved Stoneburner to wide receiver because they wanted to get him on the field and they had depth at tight end. As a consequence, he had to learn how to use his skills in a different spot on the field.

The receivers like to play with Miller because he will get the ball out quickly when he needs to and hit them with catchable passes. They also raise their play because they know even if they are running a control route (like going deep to pull coverage way from someone else) they could still end up getting the ball if Miller scrambles.

Miller has improved with his progressions. He is getting more productive each week on third downs, although Smith doesn’t grade that specifically.

 

Quarterback Braxton Miller said he thinks about sliding now more, unless he is close to a first down.

Asked about being a Heisman Trophy candidate, he said it’s an honor to have his name mentioned but he just tries to work hard every week and then you never know what will happen. He conceded that the style of offense Ohio State is playing will produce big plays and stats that lead to awards.

He knows he has to keep working to progress as a passer. It isn’t easy.

In regards to slow starts, they just need to stay with the game plan and get guys going.

He didn’t have any theories about why they haven’t played as well against weaker teams on the schedule, but the team does not feel any pressure being 9-0.

Cornerback Bradley Roby said every time he sees Vanderbilt highlights on ESPN he thinks about what it would be like if he had stuck with his verbal commitment to go there as a wide receiver instead of taking Ohio State’s offer to play cornerback. He doesn’t think about it long, but it is there.

He’s noticed Illinois’ receivers are struggling to get established without Jenkins (who he made some headlines about last season when he said he was nothing special). The group does look talented even though it is young.

Scheelhaase is mobile and can be dangerous if they don’t contain him.

The team has talked about not playing so well against lesser teams. It has involved some mental mistakes. They have watched teams like Alabama play at a high level every week and strive to achieve that. He feels Ohio State should dominate teams, but it hasn’t happened much this season.

The defense has been simplified and that’s helping them play more aggressively. There are fewer checks to worry about and more man coverage. It’s easier. They have fast pass rushers in John Simon, Nathan Williams and Steve Miller plus Ryan Shazier at linebacker, so that lets them pressure while the backs cover.

The defense is on the right path, but it is not perfect and needs to keep getting better.

They dominated much of the game at Penn State but let up late. They need to keep pushing through to the end in the future.

He is definitely looking forward to the open week in the schedule. He could use some rest and relaxation. He seemed to wish it had come a little earlier in the season.

Offensive lineman Andrew Norwell said he recalled sitting in the stands rooting for Illinois when the Fighting Illini knocked off the undefeated, top-ranked Buckeyes in 2007. His brother was a starting defensive lineman for that Illinois team and a very good player. Andrew wasn’t thinking about where he would be going to college at that time when he was in high school.

They’ll talk a little trash before the game, but he knows his brother will be rooting for him because blood is thicker than water.

Ohio State Football Week 10: Something Like That

I have often thought of a Tim McGraw song when picturing how Urban Meyer views Braxton Miller, and Saturday was another reminder of why as the scintillating sophomore did some more things “a heart don’t forget”…

What we learned last week: Players trump momentum, and it doesn’t hurt to be lucky sometimes, either.

We already should have known these things, of course, but sports has a way of providing us with reminders on a regular basis.

Braxton Miller struggled early in the game last Saturday night at Penn State. There is no denying it. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket, and he had a hard time finding running room as the Nittany Lions smartly sold out to stop the powerful Ohio State rushing attack.

The Buckeyes’ quarterback also flirted with disaster on more than one occasion as a pair of throws were nearly intercepted and returned for touchdowns by Penn State defensive backs.

Miller also cost his team six points when he missed a wide open Philly Brown on a vertical route in the first quarter, but as they often have this season, eventually Miller’s “dids” overcame his “wouldas” and his “couldas,” and the Buckeyes never looked back.

It’s funny how that happens to the freakiest of athletes more than anyone else, isn’t it?

With a few tweaks from Urban Meyer and Tom Herman, Miller suddenly found some room to run, and he did not waste it.

He also got some help from Carlos Hyde, a running back who has already proven he is a difference maker with his size and speed, and Rod Smith, one who is reputed to be able to do the same thing and gave more glimpses he really is in Happy Valley.

Add it all up and a good half of defense went up in smoke for the Nittany Lions, who looked as helpless against Miller in the third quarter as they did dominant in the first and for most of the second.

When he gets locked in, he is just about impossible to stop. Nobody has as much magic in his feet as Miller, and he’s dangerous as a passer despite his inconsistency.

It really is a marvel to watch him grow up on this stage, to see how much he can accomplish on instincts and a sense of what he’s being taught by a new set of coaches. Dare to imagine how he’ll look by the start of next season after he has had more time to digest it all? I’m sure you probably already have, but feel free to do it again.

Of course, it wasn’t only Miller whose ability could change a game. Saturday night was another affirmation that Ohio State has better players than the rest of the Big Ten at this point in time.

Even with injuries biting a few positions, the Buckeyes have a lot of guys that can play. Not enough to be considered national title contenders yet, but enough to continue to carry the conference as we wait to see what the ceiling of Brady Hoke’s Michigan program is going to be.

What we can expect to learn this week: I hate to go back to this well, but the question is how the Buckeyes handle prosperity because at the end of the day, they still only have so much to play for.

Last week, I wrote that the biggest factor was going to be Ohio State’s mood. It has been that way all year as the Buckeyes have lost focus at times and made mistakes that cost them in the points column.

Some of the letdowns were understandable even though they are never acceptable. Human nature tells us getting fired up to face Indiana isn’t automatic. The same could be said for all of the nonconference games, truth be told, because none were brand names. Even Cal’s best recent success came when the current players weren’t very old.

But then going to Penn State was another matter. Not that the Buckeyes view Penn State much differently than any other conference foe, but the Nittany Lions seemed to be developing a bit of swagger while winning five in a row. They looked sharp on film dispatching Iowa a week earlier (though the Hawkeyes had a hand in that, to be sure), and the game was at a place that has caused opponents fits in the past. Beaver Stadium was also one that the Buckeyes could look at and be confident they could win because they had done it on their past two visits, but actually being there can be energizing if handled correctly, something the few veterans on this squad have seen first hand.

And so history repeated itself, and talent won out. Ohio State’s very good offensive line outplayed Penn State’s very good front seven. Matt McGloin made some plays, but not enough for his team when the game was still in doubt. Miller made them, too, and he got help from his buddies in the backfield. They also managed to provide enough of a run threat to create opportunities in the passing game, and they hit one of those when they needed it late. Jake Stoneburner’s 72-yard touchdown catch was another example of superior skill, too, as he simply won a one-on-one battle with a safety.

So where does it leave Ohio State now? The Buckeyes seem primed for another letdown with an emotional win in the rearview, a weak opponent front and center and a week off around the corner prior to two matchups that should get everyone’s blood pumping again. While I’ve said clunkers are inevitable, I still think this team has tended to turn in too many uneven efforts.

Winning out would be a great source of pride, but it probably wouldn’t result in much more than that.

And this week’s opponent is a terribly disappointing squad from Illinois, another that has given the Buckeyes plenty of fits in the past few years but that looks awful so far this season.

Before the season, this looked like a trap game, but I’m not sure the Fighting Illini are good enough to spring it, so how will the Buckeyes react? Will they smell blood and finally put a team away early, or will they mess around and wait for someone else to do the job until things really start to get dicey?

Eventually, this team needs to iron out some of its mental issues. Motivation is a constant struggle with the age group, but by next year they will need to bring a more consistent effort to the park every week because style points will matter, maybe more than going undefeated in and of itself. And the schedule might not be so kind, depending on how things develop in Ann Arbor and Madison.

The need for Miller to share the burden of moving the ball is real, too, as is avoiding big plays in the secondary.

But for now this particular ride continues, and the chance to go 10-0 is less than a week away.