Ohio State hit the midway point of the season with an audible thud. Where do the Buckeyes go from here? It’s really up to them. This week we find inspiration from Stealer’s Wheel as we look back at what was a 34-27 loss at Nebraska and ahead to what the rest of the season might hold.
What we learned last week: That we probably won’t know what this team is all about until the last down has been played.
Nebraska has some flaws, but the Buckeyes’ domination of them for about 35 minutes should not be brushed aside. Luke Fickell’s players reminded us they do have a lot of talent even if there are holes in the roster we’re not used to seeing. They have the raw ability to play with a lot of teams, certainly to be worthy of a top 25 ranking, but their mental state has not let them exhibit it enough times it was necessary, and so they sit here at the halfway point with a well-deserved 3-3 record.
When you cut right down to the heart of the matter, not a whole lot should be surprising about this team. Everyone knows it is young, and youth brings with it emotional ups and downs.
Joe Bauserman’s flaws have been evident throughout his career as a backup. After briefly looking in control during training camp and the season opener, water found its natural level. Miller has looked exactly like what he is: A very talented, very raw prospect. He has not had the same early success as Terrelle Pryor, but their situations are very different. Miller has already been asked to do more difficult things with less help than Pryor did for the majority of his freshman campaign (but let’s not get sidetracked there today…), and the results have shown that. The wide receivers looked bad in the spring, slightly better in the fall and have mostly struggled come game time. The inconsistency of the offensive line is something of a surprise, but they have not been helped much by the scheme or the players around them. Some of the players they have struggled against are very good, too. The running backs have been good overall, as expected.
Defensively, the young secondary has been inconsistent, looking a lot like a unit replacing three multiyear starters. The linebacker unit consists of one senior who has played well when healthy, one junior who is limited physically and had his growth stunted by health issues last season and this spring and another junior who has left little doubt why he lost a battle for a starting spot in 2009 and 2010. Behind them, two highly rated guys who could have at least added depth are gone and the next players in line are true freshmen. I can’t image installing a first-year coach with no experience working with college kids on a daily basis is helping that group’s development, either. The defensive line has been pretty good overall despite being pretty young, too, and missing its oldest, most explosive player since week one. Of course, the best coach on the staff is leading them, too.
From a schematic standpoint, I think the defense has been somewhat vanilla, but that is the M.O. of this staff when it is that young. I am perplexed about taking the guy who might be the team’s best playmaker – Tyler Moeller – and not giving him many chances to attack the line of scrimmage. The unit has played well overall but fallen short at some critical moments, too. Long term, they will be good, but they haven’t been as good as the team needs so far this season. That standard may be impossibly high, but it is what it is.
Then there’s the offense… It has looked like a unit missing the two coaches regarded as having the most to do with its success the past few seasons.
That’s what we know so far…
What can we expect to learn this week: Bottom line? I thought before the season this team would be 3-3 at this point, but I don’t feel very confident about my prediction at that time for a 6-0 finish.
I think I gauged a fair amount of things correctly on this team with the exception of Miller’s readiness to play and the staff’s ability to design a simple yet effective game plan for him. Those things of course go hand in hand. They have had the biggest impact on the team so far and will continue to as it keeps getting colder outside.
Looking back again at last week for a second, I really like the overall composition of the Nebraska offense. It is truly imaginative in the way it mixes and matches various concepts, but I think that also brings about some complications. Like Ohio State’s offense during the Tressel era, it looks like sometimes they have so much to use they aren’t sure what to go to first. The first half game plan by Nebraska was perplexing because it did not include enough of the option. Perhaps they were surprised Ohio State played so much zone and thought they would need to throw to loosen things up, but that would represent an odd miscalculation on the part of the Pelinis. No matter, they showed in the second half they have some weapons and an offense that can be explosive if schemed up correctly.
Basically, the Cornhuskers gave Ohio State chances to blow it in the second half and the Buckeyes did just that.
This OSU team is talented – not supremely so, but enough to make a January bowl game – but young and mercurial. I think the mix of a young team and a young coach has not been a good one. We haven’t seen these types of mood swings in an Ohio State team since 2001 when Jim Tressel was working hard to rein in John Cooper’s talented but eccentric bunch left behind.
I think Luke Fickell is grinding, but it’s just tough to learn on the job, especially when there are very few people in the locker room who have ever been leaned on before and seem ready to assume that type of role.
The Buckeyes did not play Ohio State style defense in Lincoln. They panicked when the tide started turning against them. They started thinking then over reacting, which is unfortunate because pretty much everything coordinator Jim Heacock preaches about is opposed to playing that way.
Christian Bryant is an interesting representation of what is going on with this entire team. He is a really talented, charismatic and confident guy. I think he can be a big star. Much like a guy who used to wear No. 2 and play safety and Star for the Buckeyes – Mike Doss – he’s still figuring things out on the fly as a youngster. Doss, you may remember, blew a coverage as a sophomore at Purdue that put Drew Brees in the Rose Bowl and sent Ohio State on its ill-fated Outback Bowl trip that cost John Cooper his job.
Bryant is learning how to balance his natural gifts and instincts with playing within the defense, and he hurt the team twice by failing to do what it needed to prevent big plays. First he was caught flat footed looking in the backfield on Taylor Martinez’s touchdown pass over the top, then he got out of control and completely whiffed on Rex Burkhead in the flat on what ended up being the game-tying touchdown.
Bryant will be fine, and ultimately so will Ohio State, although this defense has a deficiency at linebacker that probably won’t be filled until next year at the earliest.
The same is true of the shortcomings of the offense. This staff seems to struggle majorly with changing course in the middle of the game. They came up with intelligent ways to use Braxton Miller, but I’m not sure how they got so carried away with what to do when they had to start calling plays for Joe Bauserman while still maintaining a lead. The game really got away from them at that point. Attacking is important, especially against a sub-par secondary like Nebraska’s, but they let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction.
Not thinking ahead to set up a field goal chance for Drew Basil while still up seven was a mistake. They looked at where they were on the field and apparently did not realize all the options they had. Run the ball on third down, set up a shorter kick and keep the clock moving. Playing for the punt can’t have helped the psyche of a young team that is struggling to find direction.
I think we also saw another case of the type of people Jim Tressel brought into the program. There are very few big personalities on this team. There’s talent, there are hard workers, but there aren’t a lot of take-charge people. That was usually Tressel’s job when he was in charge. Exceptions came with Troy Smith, Craig Krenzel and a variety of defensive players – Doss, James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk, Malcolm Jenkins. Those personalities helped Tressel’s teams get over various humps they faced through the years. Mike Brewster is the type of guy who can do that, but he is one of the only older players who fits the bill, and he can’t do it alone.
At the end of the day, there are enough pieces and enough (just barely, perhaps) ideas to put it together and win more than they lose the rest of the year, and a smart hire could make this nothing more than the one-year drops we’ve seen in a multitude of programs across the country, but there are going to be a lot of hard days in the immediate future.
A lot of people need to look in the mirror and decide what they want this season to be remembered for.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Martinez and Burkhead form quite the two-headed offensive monster for Nebraska. Everyone knew they were a double-barrel threat in the running game, but a lot of people have to be surprised with the damage they did through the air.
Defensively, the Cornhuskers still have some big questions, but we have to give props to Lavonte David, who showed a playmaker’s sense of the game when he stole the ball from Miller to spark the Nebraska comeback. Fellow linebacker Will Compton also payed a hard-nosed game inside, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste has to get a mention for going up to get that interception that further let the wind out of Ohio State’s sails.
This week I’m also going to recognize the opposing kicker. Brett Maher was very impressive getting the Huskers on the board with a 50-yard field goal in the first quarter, and things would have been even more dire for the home team without his performance in the first half.
DVR Directions: Normally this is where I suggest recording Ohio State’s next opponent, but only check in with Wisconsin’s game against visiting Indiana (Noon, ESPN2) if you’re a fan of slasher flicks. That one should be ugly. I suspect the best game of the noon window will be Michigan at Michigan State on ESPN.
Big Ten Picks: Obviously, I expect the Badgers to roll over the Hoosiers, but the other three conference games not involving Ohio State are all intriguing.
Purdue should be feeling good about itself after rolling over hapless Minnesota, but Penn State is coming off a surprising win against Iowa. I’ll go with the Nittany Lions at home. Iowa heads home where it will find its surprising nemesis Northwestern, and I expect the Wildcats to be the ones who bounce back in a battle of teams coming off disappointing losses.
And what about the Wolverines and Spartans? I am still not buying Michigan, and Michigan State has not only had their number but also is coming off a nice week off after a program win at Ohio State. The Spartans slow down the Wolverine offense again and win comfortably as long as Kirk Cousins does not implode against a still terrible but now opportunistic Michigan defense.
Last week: 2-2. Season record: 6-2
Cus Words Power Poll (last week)
- Wisconsin (same)
- Michigan State (same)
- Illinois (same)
- Nebraska (same)
- Michigan (7)
- Ohio State (8)
- Penn State (9)
- Northwestern (6)
- Iowa (5)
- Purdue (10)
- Indiana (11)
- Minnesota (12)
Ohio State gets a first-hand look at how good Illinois really might be this week in a game that is important for both teams’ reputations. With the Illinois defense looking better than expected and Nebraska’s being worse, I am giving the Fighting Illini the benefit of the doubt at this point. Beyond the Huskers, there are a lot of flaws from 5-9.