Tag Archives: Luke Fickell

Ohio State Football Week 8: Stop Breaking Down Blues

This week the column takes its title from a Robert Johnson standard that The Rolling Stones (among others) do a great version of. I think it sums up the feelings of Ohio State fans, players and coaches alike as the Buckeye offense roars and the defense struggles.

What we learned last week: Postseason bans don’t do much to dampen expectations at a place like Ohio State.

Sometimes waiting an extra day to write this column pays off in a little extra perspective. Sometimes it might suffer from that, too, but I’ll take the good with the bad.

In this case, the first inclination is to look at the last image of Ohio State’s 52-49 victory over Indiana and hold that up as the representation of the entire night. I’m not quite sure that’s wise, though.

To be sure, this is no great defense Ohio State is fielding in its 100th season in the Big Ten. “Inconsistent at best” is probably the kindest way I could accurately describe it at this point in time.

However, things might not be as dire as some are making them out to be.

I just think in general this team is still working out some of the mental issues that came with the NCAA-related strife of the end of 2010 through last season.

Many of these guys have been through a lot, and those who haven’t are too young to know what they don’t know.

The schizophrenia of this team is mind-boggling at times, but maybe it shouldn’t be. My theory now is that these guys are just showing the signs of any team that falls behind early in a game.

Rallying takes more energy than holding steady or running in the lead. At least that is the conventional wisdom, so let’s take it as fact for the sake of this discussion.

The thing about falling behind is it is stressful. Having stress is more energy-consuming than not because it necessarily means we have more to think about than when we aren’t worrying. And so as a consequence of this stress there is a never-ending desire to exhale. That is where rallying becomes difficult. It is not only an energy drain but also a distraction.

I think the core of this Ohio State team has just been trying to catch up so long it can’t ever get an even keel. Then throw the added stress of having to learn a new system and to adjust to the new psychology of a different coaching staff, and perhaps there just isn’t enough energy to go around.

And so you get what we had there last week.

One of the most easily forgotten parts of sports is the role of human nature. Why do you suppose that is? Shouldn’t it be the first thing we consider when we analyze our games? After all, that’s the stuff that draws us to them in the first place. The raw, honest emotion and the unpredictability of an event without a script. Nothing brings out human nature more freely than that, so why fight the result? But we all do, myself included.

Did the Ohio State defense let up with a big lead last Saturday night? You bet it did. Is that a big surprise? I suppose not.

Is it a bad sign for the future? That remains to be seen. Perhaps it turns out to be a positive. Maybe it’s a wakeup call and such a thing won’t happen again.

Maybe this wounded pride will provide motivation to work harder later this season and yield better results against better opponents.

Or maybe it will go in one ear and out the other, another potential lesson flittering away with the ashes of a disastrous finish to last season when the defense never could seem to get a good grasp on anyone as injuries took their toll down the stretch.

Seeing the same mistakes repeat themselves is striking. I think there are problems with the scheme, but I think they can be worked out. I think there are players who probably should be replaced sooner or later, even if that means next year is the soonest it could happen in some cases.

Such is life in college football, where there are not trade-deadline deals to bolster a roster but sometimes a 19-year-old has the light go on in November. Suddenly things that did not make sense in the heat of August click with the falling of the leaves. Sometimes they don’t.

I guess we’ll have to watch next week to see, either way.

What we can expect to learn this week: Maybe nothing more than what’s next.

Ohio State has defensive deficiencies that aren’t going to be worked out in one week’s time, but the Buckeyes can start the road back to respectability without hesitation if they tighten up their effort and focus.

And as far as troublesome schemes, Purdue practically provides a mulligan for the Buckeyes this week following the Hoosiers’ success with their spread offense.

The Boilermakers bring a better scoring unit (and Indiana’s wasn’t bad) to the Horseshoe this weekend, and they will play a similar style to the one that has been giving Ohio State fits for much of the season. Actually, to be more accurate, Purdue brings better skill players while the scheme might be a bit inferior to that of hurry-up spread guru Kevin Wilson at Indiana. That is really probably splitting hairs, though.

Purdue was also just decimated on defense by a previously struggling Wisconsin team, so there should be another good chance for the Ohio State offense to continue to evolve.

One would think the motivation that was lacking last week is built in this week. That the Buckeyes would have a hard time getting fired up to face Indiana after back-to-back revenge games was practically guaranteed.

By contrast, they play host this week to a team that has tormented them twice in the last three years and therefore could be cruising for a bruising.

There is so much to deal with in a year of transition that expecting all holes that pop up to be filled is probably unrealistic. That’s why teams don’t win national championships in the first year of a new coaching staff.

That said, I think those calling for Luke Fickell’s head on a (pizza) platter are being irrational. The scheme needs some tweaking, but the bigger problems are in execution, experience and talent on hand.

Some of the older players aren’t executing, and some of them don’t have the talent necessary to make an elite defense. Others have the ability but not the knowledge, at least not yet. Again, this is life in college football, and Ohio State is operating on a shorter leash than a lot of teams that fancy themselves top-10 squads thanks to scholarship reductions and attrition from the coaching change.

There seems to be some problems connecting the styles of defense each coach prefers, and that has not helped matters.

They seem to want more than anything to install a system that depends on individuals making reads and winning battles. That is great if it happens, but it can be a pretty big disaster if not.

Then what do you do? Well applying pressure via scheme is not so easy as pressing a button with a controller. It still has to involve players playing off each other, a cohesive plan for a cohesive unit.

And somewhere in there, Fickell and company seem to be getting lost.

They certainly could still find their way, be it now or with the benefit of an offseason to reevaluate things.

I do think he needs to learn to let it go a little more, to trust his guys, be they old or young.

With nothing really to lose this season, one would think that wouldn’t be tough to do, but then again I guess we already learned about expectations, now and forever.

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Overheard at Ohio State Football: UAB Week

URBANISMS

In hindsight, he liked that the Buckeyes’ 35-28 win over California last week was of the come-from-behind variety.

(See BuckeyeSports.com for word on team awards and injuries.)

Jordan Hall looked really rusty, but they are glad to have him back. He told Meyer he saw about 70 yards he left on the field when he went back and watched the film.

Meyer called the penalties committed by the offense very alarming and something he must get fixed as the head coach. They were bad and often ignorant penalties.

Defensively, they have to stop allowing big plays. The offense had too many three-and-outs, and it has not produced as many explosive plays as Meyer wants to see from the running game (aside from Braxton Miller).

They want highlight-reel plays from someone besides Miller and Devin Smith. Hall could be a big-play guy, as could Carlos Hyde. Hall needed to pick up his feet a few times as he was going through the line Saturday and he could have made a few more big gains, but in general they just need to break more tackles and make people miss more often. That’s what is happening to his defense, by the way.

He wondered if perhaps the tackling had suffered because of how much of an emphasis the coaches put on forcing turnovers in the spring and preseason. There were times they went for a strip instead of securing the tackle first. They normally only tackle once a week in practice but could go to twice (More on defensive struggles).

Someone asked about the “pop pass” Miller threw to Jake Stoneburner on Saturday and Meyer explained it came from his days at Utah when he started using a tight end as another direct-snap running threat because Alex Smith wasn’t a great runner. Eventually they added a pass to the package, and Tim Tebow later made this famous.

Left tackle Jack Mewhort has been a model student in his time at Ohio State other than his public urination/fleeing police episode during the summer. That was a stupid mistake, but Meyer liked how he responded and liked how his father responded, which was “not pleasant.” Mewhort has probably been their best offensive lineman so far.

As he has said before, Meyer said the team is average right now. They play fairly well at times but make mistakes others. He is ready for some “non-adversity games” but doesn’t expect any of those the rest of the way with the Big Ten coming up. He likes his team and the way the guys approach getting ready for games, noting he saw a bunch of them loading up iPads with scouting reports Monday on their day off.

The offense needs to take some more shots down the field, but there is risk reward. He wants to maintain a passing percentage of 70 percent and stay on schedule, something that doesn’t happen if you go deep on first down and don’t hit it.

The best thing about the first three weeks on offense is Smith has emerged as a “go get it guy.”

Meyer gets more involved in the play calls late in close games, particularly on offense. The defense is doing fine schematically but needs to play better. One problem teams are giving the Buckeyes is how they attack the OSU defense in the boundary.

He can’t remember being around a defense that has given up so many big plays. The need to be more sound in the boundary.

All three teams they have prepared for so far have come out defensively in something other than they had showed before or last season. That is frustrating, but it probably won’t be true anymore after this week.

He watched some of the Michigan State-Notre Dame game on Saturday night and believes the Spartans have a top-5 or so defense and have for a few years.

The Buckeyes struggled in the third quarter Saturday because of penalties at the wrong time and lack of execution. Those led to a lot of very challenging down and distance situations (third and long).

He has talked to Miller about just playing and not overthinking amid all the talk about his running too much. He doesn’t want him to get in his own head. Going forward he expect teams to defend Ohio State in a way that he has the ball in his hands less. (That could lead to more designed runs for Miller if teams consistently give him a “give” look on the zone read/inverted veer.)

Meyer is impressed with Miller’s progress since last year. A lot of times freak athletes have just been getting by on their athleticism so long they don’t know how to work hard to prepare, but he has made great strides in that regard. He practices better than he did even in the spring. He made two grown-man throws to Smith on Saturday.

He saw in Miller’s eyes after he threw the fourth-quarter interception that he wanted the game in his hands with a chance to atone. Some would shrink from that opportunity.

The game-winning touchdown pass came on a play where Philly Brown was the intended receiver on a short pattern but the defense doubled him and Smith was left wide open deep after Miller broke from the pocket.

Asked about Christian Bryant and his tendency to make both big plays and big mistakes, Meyer said as guys develop as players, they start to see the big picture more and develop a sense of when to go for it and when to be safe. Bryant is a “rock-star type” of player who wants to make things happen, and Meyer has had conversations about that with him. He has been great in those talks about staying within himself and the defense.

He said if the time comes for Miller to be touted as a real Heisman candidate, that could be fun. He liked it in the past with players such as Tebow, but Miller isn’t playing well enough for that talk yet.

Someone asked about facing John Peterson, the former tight ends coach who is now on staff at UAB, and Meyer said he is a great guy who was here as a player when Meyer was a graduate assistant in the mid-80s. He did not retain Peterson because he wanted to have guys familiar with his style of offense so they could be on the same page when drawing things up.

Assistants added:

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said the staff had to adjust on the fly in the first half when Cal came out in a four-man front instead of the “Bear” defense they prepared for. Then they needed time in the third to get switched back to dealing with the Bear, although he said what they were doing in particular was not something he had seen.

Asked what has been good about the offense so far, he said the effort, especially on the offensive line. He is pleased with the growth of the wide receivers. They are not where they need to be but are improving.

When they’re good, they’re really good. Now they need to continue to be good more often. Consistency is key.

Someone asked about the pop pass Miller threw Saturday but I didn’t write down the answer because I thought it was a stupid question.

Asked about going deep, he said they need to analyze when to do it both based on risk/reward and down and distance. How the defense is playing matters, too.

He has seen a mind-boggling variety of defensive responses to Miller’s talents. In general people are trying to come up with different ways to keep 8 and 9 in the box while remaining sound.

He tries to see the game as the quarterback is seeing it, but that is difficult. The challenge every week is to give him only what he can handle. Miller is seeing the field better, and he comes over with a better explanation of what he is seeing when they talk on the sideline and adjustments need to be made. Now Miller can tell him what the problems are, which allows them to figure out how to react.

Herman gets a great vibe from how Miller has responded to learning this offense.

There are no issues with Miller’s upper body mechanics as a passer. He has a strong arm and a smooth delivery. He is still working on keeping his feet calm and getting the timing down with his upper and lower body. He throws better on the run because it is easier to keep all that stuff in balance without thinking about it too much.

He’s good in practice at keeping his feet settled down. Now he has to work on taking that into games more consistently.

Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the defense wants to be sound. That is their No. 1 stress.

They have to keep leverage on the ball. He laid awake at night after watching the film but could not pinpoint one thing. There is no lack of effort. They have to make sure as coaches they stress to the guys what they are supposed to do.

Sometimes they might stress going from Point A to Point B quickly so much that fundamentals suffer. They have to recognize where point B is.

Storm Klein played about eight snaps on defense and Curtis Grant was in for about 12 at middle linebacker.

They need to be aggressive, and they opened some things up last week with some blitzes. That gives the offense more to worry about rather than just setting up for the same thing every play.

He joked that he missed the best part of being a head coach because that comes in the offseason when they get to relax a little and go on sponsored trips and things like that. It was a great experience he will use when he gets another chance. You find out who has your back when you’re in charge like that.

Players sayeth: 

Defensive lineman Nathan Williams pointed out that almost all of the live reps he is getting are in the games, so he has a lot of catching up to do with guys who have been practicing since the beginning of August. He feels he is getting better every day. He practices against the scout team and in drills but not when the first teams go against each other.

His recovery time has been amazing so far. He entered the year thinking he would only play half of the season.

He did not feel he played too many plays against Cal and said people don’t need to worry about that. He was frustrated because the Bears usually ran away from him last week and he didn’t get many chances to be in the thick of things. He was just chasing the ball all day. He is up every morning at 4:30 to get ready to work out and continue to rehab.

Mike Vrabel has a different philosophy than former defensive line coach Jim Heacock, who was a big believer in playing a lot of guys. Vrabel brings a mentality from the NFL in which the best guys play.

His penalty last week (offsetting personal fouls when he got tangled up with a Cal running back) was in the heat of the moment, but he needs to keep his cool.

Those freshmen defensive linemen are behind in most areas, but they are getting better.

Offensive lineman Marcus Hall said line coach Ed Warinner is a high-energy guy who makes sure everyone is pumped up around him.

He feels like he is getting better every game but needs to eliminate mistakes such as missed assignments.

He is playing at about 15 pounds lighter than last year and feels much different.

There was a period of time he was worried if he would be able to continue his Ohio State career as he was sitting out a redshirt for academic reasons two years ago. He had to get back in the classroom and get focused. He would tell a high school recruit to think about more than just football. Getting an education is a serious deal.

He is not a new man, per se, but he has his priorities straight now. He appreciates everything much more after having to sit out that year.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier said UAB likes to take shots downfield and run to the boundary (short side of the field). The latter is something they have seen a lot and struggled with against Cal. As a result, they have moved around and changed some alignments with the defensive line and the linebackers. They are doing something to get the safety to help, too.

It is fun when they play an aggressive style. He wants to see the quarterback rattled.

The Buckeyes have a good mindset and won’t overlook UAB.

They can work on tackling without being truly full-go. They can hit and wrap without going to the ground. They did take guys to the ground a little more this week than usual during the season, though.

He should have wrapped up Bigelow on the 81-yard run, and he slipped and was out of position on the 59-yard run. The coaches said he had a good game, but he feels those things wiped it out.

Linebacker Etienne Sabino said he doesn’t mind the grueling “Bloody Tuesday” practices. That is football. It’s fun to hit. They’re sore from the game but get out there and get going anyway.

The team gets to split its Fridays with being focused and having fun now. They play games like home run derby, hot potato and shoot the football in a basket at the WHAC then go to the OSU Golf Course for their evening meal. It lightens the mood, then they go back to work (team meetings).

Saturday they get up around 7, go to walkthrough then have position meetings and it is time to go.

(Meyer said he picked this up from Sonny Lubick, head coach at Colorado State. He taught him the guys need to get some rest and can’t be too fired up. They call it “the best Friday in football”. He started it at Bowling Green. He wants practice to be terrible during the week then Friday and Saturday are “pay day”. He talks to each guy before they go to bed on Friday night.)

Running back Jordan Hall said he didn’t know he was going to carry it 17 times last week, but he had no problem with it. He felt like he left yards on the field when he tripped over linemen because he wasn’t picking up his feet.

I asked him if getting back a guy like Carlos could give him more chances to get out on the edge and operate in space, and he said it might surprise people but he likes to run between the tackles and being physical. He hopes getting some more reps will make it easier for him to see holes develop and what he needs to do with the ball when he gets it. He feels better with some more practice under his belt.

Wide receiver Devin Smith said the offense needs to be efficient. He didn’t have much reaction when asked if they feel any pressure being 38-point favorites.

UAB looks kind of like UCF on film. The Blazers have some talented guys.

The key to avoiding all the penalties that have held them back is staying focused. That is the message from Meyer. That is what they have been doing in practice. The staff has trained them to play with passion and play their hearts out.

Two Buckeye Football Strategy Tidbits

I was hoping for a little more, but there were two things to latch onto from a strategy standpoint that came out of the 2012 Ohio State signing day press conference with Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell and Tim Hinton last week.

Fickell dodged a question about how the defense might change with him taking over as full-time defensive coordinator and a few new pieces on the staff, but Meyer talked as if the basic front will remain the same with a “Leo” end on one side and a strong end on the other.

“I like to call them an open end,” Meyer said of defensive end Noah Spence. “In our defense we call them the Leo, but he is a guy that lines up outside and acceleration up the field is what you are looking for and he has that. Adolphus (Washington) and Se’Von Pittman are more of the wider body guys that are going to be more power rushers. I think that was the prize of the recruiting class.”

Urban Meyer talks about the 2012 class

Fickell did at least indicate they will continue to have a nose and 3-technique when he talked about Tommy Schutt, a five-star tackle from Illinois.

“Tommy is the one true guy you can say is going to be an inside guy,” Fickell said. “He enjoys that. He doesn’t want to hear about the edge. He could be a nose or a 3-technique. We don’t define that. So for us it gives us a lot of balance. I think Tommy, knowing he’s a true inside guy, Noah being a true outside guy, then Adolphus and Se’Von being guys with great versatility that can be able to play the field or boundary side end, I think the versatility is the thing you like best.”

There is certainly no shortage of candidates to play that big end/5-technique position if that is where Washington and Pittman are headed. It’s been interchangeable personnel-wise with the 3-technique guys the past three seasons, but I wonder if those days are over considering the lack of pass rush the group has generated and Meyer’s love of overall team speed. John Simon, Michael Bennett, Kenny Hayes and perhaps Chase Farris probably can stay outside, but I would not be surprised if Johnathan Hankins’ occasional days at end are over. Ditto Adam Bellamy, who is a good athlete for a 300-pounder but probably better suited to play only inside unless the opponent is running the wing-t. I haven’t seen enough of Darryl Baldwin to figure out where he might fit. I’m going to guess J.T. Moore is likely to flip over to the 5-technique as well, although that leaves only three Leos, one of whom is coming off major knee surgery (Nathan Williams), a highly recruited sophomore who has barely played (Steve Miller) and a true freshman (Spence). Could Etienne Sabino move to Leo? Hmmm….

Senior Garrett Goebel returns at nose guard, where I think we could also see sophomore Joel Hale and Schutt. Maybe Hankins, too? There are some possibilities.

As for point No. 2, Meyer also explained why they need another speed guy on offense, something they had not found yet as of signing day.

“I would say some of the things we like to do offensively that you’re going to hear us talk about, we want the defense to defend the width and length of the field,” Meyer said. “There’s only one way to defend the width, that’s flat speed. We’ve tried it. There’s no other way that you can make a defense defend the entire width of the field.”

“There’s ways to make them defend it vertically. Ideally you’d like speed there, too. We’ve tried it. In our offense, we’re still lacking that game-changer that you can hand the ball to speed-wise. I think we got some bigger guys, but we’re still looking for a difference maker in one of those 10.4 100-meter guys that can change the game.”

I found that an interesting little peak into his philosophy and an acknowledgment of some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both spread and power football. The space you create with the formation is only good if you can take advantage of it by getting there first (beating the defender there). There are, on the other hand, ways to pull defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, thus making it easier to get behind them even without merely winning a footrace, and those are often easier to execute and more effective when you’re more bunched up.

There are plenty of Buckeyes who can burn but no true blazers.

For some perspective, current Buckeye Devin Smith won the Ohio Division I 100-meter championship last spring in 10.74 and fellow wide receiver Philly Brown ran a 10.65 at the 2010 Philadelphia Catholic League championship meet.

Overheard at Ohio State Football: Illinois Week

Cleaning out the reporter’s notebook for another week of Ohio State football, beginning with head coach Luke Fickell’s weekly press conference and moving on to the players and assistant coaches.  

 

FICKELLISMS

Ohio State’s head coach said obviously everyone is disappointed with how they finished the game at Nebraska, but they are ready to move on and will continue approaching the season with the same energy and passion they had before.

Braxton Miller looked more comfortable before begin injured, and that was in part because they did things to make him more comfortably by making plays around him. You could see him growing. He said Miller looked OK physically to start the week but they would have to see how he ran around on it during practice.

Quarterback Kenny Guiton has been getting more reps with the first team offense recently and that would continue. He could also play some special teams (he didn’t say what unit or units).

Someone asked essentially if Joe Bauserman looked as bad on film as he did live, and Fickell said yes. Nebraska changed how it was defending Ohio State when Bauserman came in the game, and that made things more difficult. But everyone could have played better. It wasn’t just him. His attitude is still right, and he wants to do better.

He was asked if the game plan gave the team its best chance to win and he said they evaluate everything, especially when things don’t work. They just needed one more play somewhere along the line to get over the hump. If his interception had been better executed it might have been a touchdown and then been a great move to check out of the run that was called.

The defense was the victim of an unbelievable snowball effect, and it comes down to tackling. The first half they were lights out, played sound. In the second half, Nebraska brought out a different formation and gashed them and the Buckeyes never adjusted. Their tackling then went down the drain. They might have been tired, and they might have been drained mentally.

Asked what the biggest challenge has been so far since he took over as head coach, he said it’s keeping balance in his life and the program. He has to make sure he divvies up his time with the defense well with the rest of the team, and has to do a lot more media and club speaking engagements. That means re-hashing a lot of stuff over and over again. All an assistant coach usually does is go back to work after a game like that. There is nothing else for them to worry about.

Boom Herron will play this week, and the first time we see him might be on special teams. He is a big part of who they are because of his enthusiasm and leadership.

The coaches can help the defense stay mentally strong by being consistent themselves, staying the course. He also said for about the 1,000th time they need to play more guys so they can get as much out of everyone as possible.

Illinois’ success on offense begins with their quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase. The rest of the offense is similar to last year, but he is better as a sophomore. He is a threat as a runner and a passer, and his confidence looks like it is very high. Their defense is sound and mixes up what it does.

The Ohio State offensive line will probably look a lot like it did last week, but it’s nice to have guys available to roll through if they want to.

Nathan Williams is likely out for the year and will need another surgery on his knee, but that was all the information he wanted to give out. Storm Klein is sore after getting banged up at Nebraska but needs to play through it.

Fickell had no explanation for why Illinois has always played Ohio State tough even when there was a big disparity in the teams’ talent level. It goes all the way back to his playing days in the early ’90s.

Guiton has shown them he has a passion to play, and they like to find ways to get guys like that on the field. They tell them to always be ready because they never know when they might be called upon.

Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins is Illinois’ big playmaker, but his chances are often a result of the threat of the running game and the quarterback. He does a good job of taking advantage.

He kind of avoided a question about the defensive line getting handled at Nebraska. He said it was really the whole group struggling. He has been there and knows what it is like when things aren’t going well up front. They needed to settle down and have someone make a play. The coaches need to help them with that, too.

The team overall has been through a lot, but they must get tougher every week. He is confident they are all together. He knows they are hard workers, and that helps him sleep better at night.

They will not revisit the idea of setting permanent captains during the season. They want to keep emphasizing the importance of the group.

Asked abut Jaamal Berry, he said the tailback has ability but is behind some others on the roster based on how they have played. He needs to be ready when the time arises for them to need him. He has a good attitude.

He doesn’t have a problem with the pressure from the fans. He knows there is a lot of passion around the program. That’s why there are 106,000 fans cheering for them every home game. They know who is with them and who is not.

PLAYERS SAYETH:

Tight end Jake Stoneburner said Miller looked OK at practice, although he seemed to hold back when he was in scramble mode. He expects Miller to be good to go.

Illinois has a lot of good athletes, and their 6-0 start is no fluke.

Boom Herron is excited to be back with the regular offense and has been his usual vocal self.

The offense struggled late at Nebraska because no one executed like they needed to.

They don’t feel like they are losing a handle on the season. There is still a lot to overcome and a lot to play for. The mood of the team is fine.

Guiton practiced some with the first team, but it was less than a 50/50 split with Bauserman. He is sure Guiton would do a good job if pressed into action.

Stoneburner has a good relationship with fellow tight end Reid Fragel, and they have their own roles on the team.

Cornerback Bradley Roby said the defense did not feel any effect from Miller’s absence at Nebraska. He sees a lot of positives from the loss to the Cornhuskers, and it is a shame they had to come in a loss. The most important lesson is they have to finish games.

Illinois’ receivers are playing with great confidence, and Scheelhaase looks like he is throwing the ball better than last year.

The defense believes it can play with anybody, but they have to do a better job of maintaining their composure. There were guys who seemed to lose their focus as things started going badly in Lincoln. They were gassed because of how fast the offense was moving, but that is part of the game. That just means they should have worked harder to maintain their focus.

A.J. Jenkins is one of those confident receivers. They get him the ball by moving him around in the formation and creating mismatches with linebackers and safeties. Someone asked if his 7.7 catches and 135.8 yards per game is an indication he is a big-time player, Roby said he looks decent on film but is nothing special. They will want to locate him before every play since he moves around.

The team did not watch the Nebraska film as a unit because they know what they did wrong, but he watched the whole game because he always does. That is because he wants to be perfect in everything always. Asked to name one thing he needs to work on. he said playing lower.

He felt like they did a good job against the Nebraska option until late in the game.

The defense did not change anything schematically, it just stopped executing like it did in the first half.

He sees Guiton as a good quarterback who makes the right reads and does not turn the ball over in practice.

Center Mike Brewster said the team needs to keep winning and see what happens. Their pride is hurt by this losing, but sometimes it happens. They had a great week of practice after the debacle against Michigan State and thus played better against Nebraska.

Herron is a powerful back, and we might see him on the field at the same time as fellow tailback Jordan Hall.

Guiton can run and pass, and Brewster is sure he would be fine if they had to put him in a game. Bauserman is not begin negative right now, he is still moving forward, doing what he can. It’s got to be hard dealing with all the criticism and negativity from the fans, but coming in cold off the bench is harder than people probably realize.

Linebacker Andrew Sweat said Guiton is a great competitor.

He said lack of execution was more of an issue against Nebraska than missed tackles. They did not beat enough blocks up front.

Nebraska changed things up schematically, going with some unbalanced line formation to run their toss play out of and getting the zone read going out of that pistol triangle formation. The Buckeyes knew they could do that but did not execute what they had worked on against it.

He feels terrible for Nathan Williams, who is a good friend of his. He is sure he will be back eventually. He missed part of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, so Sweat knows what rehabbing a bad knee is all about.

Defensive tackle Garrett Goebel said the team’s spirit is good. They need to keep it up.

Scheelhaase is a dual threat, and there is some carry over this week from the Nebraska offense because both runs various types of option plays.

They have good players behind Williams, but he is a big loss. He is disappointed but will get back to working hard. He is still leading in the locker room.

The defense has a lot of vocal guys, even some of the younger members.

Assistants added:

Quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano said Miller looked good in practice these past couple of days and seems to have no physical limitations.

He would not say who is going to be the No. 2 quarterback this week because he didn’t want Illinois to get an advantage in preparation.

The main thing that would limit Guiton if they needed to use him would be inexperience. He knows the offense and what they want to do.

The coaches told Bauserman he needs to keep competing. Sometimes things don’t go your way, and you have to keep your head up. That’s a message for the whole team, too.

He came in saying he felt like the guy wearing a meat poncho in a deodorant commercial, so someone asked if he is feeling any pressure from fans and the media and he said no he was just joking. He doesn’t know what people are saying about him, but he understands the quarterbacks have not played extraordinarily well so far this season and that falls on him.

Miller was more calm at Nebraska than he was when the Buckeyes played Michigan State.

He was asked if Miller might be a guy who needs to learn the difference between being injured and being hurt, and Siciliano said no. He doesn’t know how much pain he’s going through right now, but he assumes he is gutting it out some because he’s been practicing this week.

The biggest thing for a freshman is adjusting to the speed of the game. He thinks Miller understands what it takes to be great at this level.

Ideally they could let a guy wait until his third year to play, but things are what they are. You never really want to have to play true freshmen at any position, but sometimes you have to.

Asked how Miller is handling the overall experience of being a college freshman and a quarterback, Siciliano said pretty well so far. He is very mild-mannered and takes everything in stride.

Philly Brown is improving and will continue to with time. He didn’t have much experience as a wide receiver in high school even.

Siciliano thinks Miller saw the MSU tape and came to practice the week after that realizing someone needed to step up and lead the team and provide a spark, and he seems to have tried to do that.

Lastly, he was asked if the offense misses the influence of Jim Tressel, and he said he isn’t sure. Jim Bollman called 97 percent of the plays last season with Tressel occasionally vetoing. It was always nice to have a guy like Tressel with 40 years in the profession to bounce things off of, though.

Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel said they are seeing a lot they like about the defense. They are giving a great effort and showing toughness but need to play smarter. They do have a lot of guys seeing things for the first time.

Asked about the fourth quarter at Nebraska, he said it just comes down to getting a stop. The momentum changed, and they needed to force a punt but couldn’t do it.

He thinks they are getting better and looking forward to getting to show it.

Scheelhaase is a mobile quarterback who looks to pass first this year. He runs, but his passing differentiates him from Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez.

Vrabel is still learning as a coach, and he is constantly bugging Fickell and Heacock with questions about how to do things and what is going on.

The main difference he has seen between the NFL and college is in college you don’t get to spend nearly as much time with the players. You have to be careful in how you present information to them in a way they can grasp it in a short amount of time.

He is more worried about helping them improve and be ready to play than whether or not this is a fair chance for Fickell to show if he is worthy of being head coach here for more than a year.

Asked about leadership, he said it is still developing. Sometimes it only takes one play for a guy to become one. They are looking for guys who want to win and will call people out when necessary.

Ryan Shazier’s role is developing each week. He is a confident kid, smart and athletic. He smiles a lot and brings a breath of fresh air to the facility. He slithers around blocks. They joke he hits ball carriers a lot harder than he does blockers.

Asked about advice to the players for getting over a gut punch like the loss at Nebraska, he said he called upon the example of his losing the 2006 AFC Championship game with the Patriots. That team went on to win its next 18 games (then lost in the Super Bowl). So they should know they can overcome this adversity.

The guys need to understand that what happened last week or on the last play doesn’t matter for the next play. The next play is the most important.

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Stuck in the Middle with You

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)

  1. Wisconsin (same)
  2. Michigan State (same)
  3. Illinois (same)
  4. Nebraska (same)
  5. Michigan (7)
  6. Ohio State (8)
  7. Penn State (9)
  8. Northwestern (6)
  9. Iowa (5)
  10. Purdue (10)
  11. Indiana (11)
  12. 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.

Overheard at Ohio State Football: Nebraska Week

Cleaning out the reporter’s notebook after another game week in Columbus. 

FICKELLISMS: (a summary of the Tuesday press conference)

Ohio State’s head coach quoted former UCLA basketball mentor John Wooden in his message to the players this week, telling them there is no use in whining, complaining or making excuses.

To have more success this week, the offense needs to get into better situations. The unit’s struggle was a combination of a lot of things, and they need to figure out what the guys they have available do well.

The defense can help out by capitalizing on chances it has to make big plays, too, such as a couple of dropped interceptions already this season that could have provided huge boosts for the team. Ditto coming up with a blocked punt when the ball went through the hands of the Michigan State punter and he had to scramble to get a kick away last week. (This is stretching it a bit to me…)

He does not anticipate having a quicker hook on Braxton Miller this week after pulling him late last week. They just need to put him in better situations to succeed.

The pressure the Spartans got was a combination of sometimes not having enough people to block – at which point the quarterback becomes responsible to get rid of the ball or flee the pocket – and sometimes getting beaten physically. He needs older guys there to step up, and he expects the return of Mike Adams should add some confidence to the group.

He was asked if he expressed some frustrations with the offensive staff this week and said he would not tell the press if he did. However, there have been discussions between them and the head coach. They need to stick with fundamentals and will pound those more than they will worry about Xs and Os.

He doesn’t know Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini all that well. Their Ohio State playing careers did not overlap, but they have met a few times and former Buckeyes always have a connection. Fickell is sure Pelini is unhappy with his team after it was blown out at Wisconsin last week, and he expects them to get back to fundamentals to improve this week.

OSU has done some scouting of what it is like to play in Lincoln, but they won’t really know what it’s like until they get there. They won’t try to do too much specifically to prepare for it. He’s heard it is something like going to Wisconsin at night.

Speaking of his own team again, he said the coaching staff believes the players will live up to what is expected of them. If the staff doesn’t make excuses, the players should not feel like they can. He doesn’t expect to see heads down in practice this week. The group is resilient.

Tough situations happen, and they should make the people involved better. They have never gone through a lot of the stuff that is happening both on and off the field, but there are lessons to be learned from them. His feelings on the NCAA problems the school faces are not different because he’s an alumnus.

He has not heard anything about Nebraska fans being nasty. he has only been there once and it was for wrestling. Fresno State head coach Pat Hill told someone on the OSU staff the Husker fans were loud but not obnoxious when his team played there.

Having an offense that is predictable on offense is a concern, but they have to stick with what they know how to do. They need balance, but they have to balance that with taking what the defense gives them. Some of the runs on Saturday were called pass plays that were checked into runs based on the defensive alignment.

The effectiveness of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez in the running game starts up front with the offensive line. Martinez is very fast, but their attack does not resemble that of Michigan and Denard Robinson. Nebraska is more traditional with a lot of two-back sets and pulling offensive linemen.

He’s sure his offensive players get frustrated when they struggle.

Leadership is continuing to develop. Players are starting to step up.

Nebraska’s defense is aggressive and will press the receivers. They have a physical front.

Asked again about the game plan from last week, he said it was not the time or the place to get into the Xs and Os. When someone brought up the lack of screen passes, he said those are difficult with the way teams defend running quarterbacks because they use control rushers to keep him in the pocket. They are also in position to defend the screens. There were some called Saturday that were busted up by defensive players.

There will be adjustments offensively. They have to attack and make plays. Making plays can cause a team to back off with its pressure, too. They also need to execute better.

He knows that offensive coordinator Jim Bollman knows criticism is part of the job. They have no problem with it, and they know they need to do a better job.

The players are all in. They have worked hard and understand what the staff is trying to do. There is no fragmentation. Bad times bring them closer together.

Asked how the team has improved since the start of the season, he said it is more confident, has better fundamentals and tackles much better.

PLAYERS SAYETH:

Center Mike Brewster said the quarterbacks rotated the same this week with most of the reps going to Miller. The freshman has seemed fine this week and is looking forward to the next game. He is a smart kid who will keep working hard.

The psyche of the team is fine. They are ready to move ahead. He is telling the young guys to stay positive.

He admitted this has been a challenging year for him after coming back for his senior year. Fickell has told them if this is the worst thing that happens to them, they must will turn out to have pretty good lives. His heart hurts for the people in trouble. Posey remains one of his best friends, and he has gotten closer to Boom in the past four years.

Mike Adams has jumped in like he was there all along. He had been working mostly on the scout team and the No. 2 unit before this week. Brewster likes this line – it is big and athletic. The line needs to do a better job of staying calm against pressure this week, even when they know they are outnumbered.

Philly Brown practiced and looks like he should be back. Michael Bennett also practiced today after hurting his ankle against the Spartans.

He’s content with Adams moving in at left tackle while Andrew Norwell slides to guard. Norwell has really battled this year. Jack Mewhort will have to make a bit of an adjustment moving from left guard to right guard, but he should be fine.

He was somewhat surprised by the volume of the blitzes MSU brought, but give the Spartans credit for how they played.

He has heard the criticisms of Jim Bollman but said it’s problematic when they have a young offense. They are getting better and doing their best.

Linebacker Andrew Sweat said the defense has lots of little things to correct after last week.

They have dealt with adversity and it’s time to more forward again. It has made them stronger, and they don’t consider two losses meaning the season is over.

Nebraska gives them a lot to prepare for on the ground: options, tosses, belly plays to the fullback. They need to make sure they identify formations and get in the right defense. Plus they must know what quarterback Taylor Martinez is doing at all times.

Wisconsin was successful by playing downhill – that means beating their linemen to spots on the field, getting into them before they get into you. The line is active and moves a lot.

Despite the adversity they have faced, they still love the game. That’s why they’re here, to play football.

ASSISTANTS ADDED:

Safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said it can take some time to get used to the speed with which Nebraska runs its option offense.

Taylor Martinez brings a big challenge. He has “Teddy Ginn speed”. He can take it to the house if you let him loose. They will have to play assignment football and need to be disciplined.

He thinks they want to establish the run more than they did last week against Wisconsin, when they might have thrown too much. He sees a mentality like Wisconsin from their offensive line.

The OSU secondary needs to stop leaving plays on the field. They have had chances to change games and not been able to do it. The worst thing a DB can do is drop an interception because you never know when you’ll have another chance.

Bradly Roby has done a good job this season. He is still young and sometimes makes young mistakes.

They have not blitzed Tyler Moeller as much as in the past and that has been dictated by the types of offense they have faced. He is playing well though.

He said the Silver Bullet moniker is important and something they talk about all the time, especially now that two members of the coaching staff (Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel) were part of the first group to be called that in 1996. The defense’s goal is always not only to win but be the best in the country.

Running backs coach Dick Tressel said Philly Brown looks good and healthy now and should be ready to go.

After a game like MSU, they always look back and see how they could be better. They look back at things they might have worked on earlier in the year but evolved away from and see if they can go back to fundamentals.

The key is they have to do a better job of making plays when they present themselves (Not sure I agree that’s all there is going on).

He liked the demeanor o the guys on the sideline on Saturday and thinks the mood of the team has been fine this week.

Miller had perhaps the best week of practice he has had this week. Tressel likes the way he responded to adversity, but they will have to wait and see how he responds when the lights go on and it’s time to play.

Jaamal Berry is 100 percent physically and seems composed this week. He has done well the last couple of days. There was a scary period last week when they weren’t sure what was causing his problems.

Overheard at Ohio State Football: Miami Week

Overheard Miami 2011

Every week I clean out my reporter’s notebook to bring you things you may or may not have already seen from coverage of the Buckeyes’ and their next opponent. 
 

FICKELLISMS: (summarizing the head coach’s press conference)

He acknowledged Braxton Miller was dinged up a bit during practice last week but said that was not necessarily the reason Miller never got into the Toledo game. They had a plan that had to be changed (pretty sure this was a result of the third series of the game coming after Toledo took the lead on the blocked punt and two-point conversion). They know he needs game reps because you never know how a player will react to opportunities until he gets them, but he has prepared well and maintained a good attitude. The staff intends to focus on what is best for the team and wants to get him more involved. Fickell said later in the week Miller is full-go and practiced well this week.

Asked about the running game that produced 112 yards on 34 carries against Toledo, he said the Rockets did a good job with twists and other things to keep the OSU’s offensive line off balance. But the Buckeyes need to do a better job.

Finding out the players were still suspended so late in the week last week made it tougher to deal with, but that’s just another bit of adversity they can learn and grow from. They can’t let it affect them.

Joe Bauserman needs to take more shots downfield in the future, but he did a good job doing what they asked of him. He and the offense continue to grow.

Because Miami played its opener against Maryland with a handful of players suspended by the NCAA, the OSU coaches will have to do some guess work in preparation. Playing them last year helps make that a little easier, but the Hurricanes have a new coaching staff and some different personnel.

Jaamal Berry can continue to earn more opportunities at tailback by excelling in non-tailback duties, such as returning and covering kickoffs.

Someone asked a poorly crafted question about criticism of Miller being on the sideline without a headset during the first two games, but Fickell said communication with him has been good. They tell him the play calls so he can visualize the play but don’t want him to wear the headset because he doesn’t need to hear a lot of the mumbo jumbo that goes on between the coaches. Visualization is big with this generation, so it’s better he sees it than hears chatter about it. They think he can learn things better that way.

Miller is learning and the team is learning.

Going on the road for the first time this season brings a different routine than they are used to for the first two games, but they must ignore the distractions and changes. There are no big changes planned from the way the team traveled the past 10 years under Jim Tressel

Special teams are always emphasized, and they will be again this week after a blocked punt led to a Toledo touchdown. They need to work on better fundamentals.

Fickell called Miami quarterback Jacory Harris athletic (he’s not) and said he can spin the ball nicely (that is true) and presents a challenge for his team. He brings a lot of positives to the table.

The head coach is not concerned about sophomore kicker Drew Basil, who is officially 0 for 2 on field goals this season and missed another try that was wiped out by a penalty. Basil had a good preseason and has practiced well. His confidence seems to be fine.

Fickell, 38, was asked about his perception of the Miami program while he was growing up in Columbus and attending Ohio State. He said he probably enjoyed the stories but paid more attention to schools that had both football and wrestling programs. He also mentioned being a GA when the Buckeyes lost to the Hurricanes in the 1999 season opener.

Tyler Moeller had zero tackles last week in part because Toledo’s scheme prevented then from doing as many different things with him as they normally would. The staff will try to come up with a way to plan around that in the future. He’s not worried about Moeller, although he’s sure he gets frustrated when he doesn’t have an impact on the game. He still did little things well last week though.

Miami differs from the MAC teams they saw the first two weeks in that the Hurricanes are bigger up front, faster at wide receiver and deeper overall. He sees the offensive line as a strength of the ‘Canes.

He is looking for the Buckeyes to force more turnovers moving forward and said they have had a few they missed in the first two games.

Going to Miami will be an emotional experience for the Buckeyes from Florida, and that is something they talked about on the recruiting trail, the opportunity to do so.

Players sayeth: 

Running back Carlos Hyde said he saw on film if he would have been more patient he could have had a bigger day against Toledo.

Even with Jordan Hall being reinstated, he feels like there is an ongoing competition for the starting tailback role.

He’s still working on learning to read holes and be patient, and Boom Herron is helping him with that. He figures experience in the system helps develop those things.

He is excited for the game in Miami because his grandmother will be able to attend, but he considers himself more of an Ohio guy because he spent more of his young life here.

He thinks there will be a big impact in Ohio State’s recruiting with the Buckeyes playing down there. If they win, a bunch of young guys will be impressed with a northern team showing out.

Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said Nathan Williams practiced with the team today and looked good, but he didn’t want to guess if he would play or not (He had surgery a day later and is out for a few weeks.)

He figures facing the Hurricane’s power-based offense will be a good matchup. They have a good offensive line and play physical. He is pumped up.

He played pretty well against Toledo. His endurance was good. He’s working on hydrating now in preparation for playing in the Florida heat.

The defense came out a little shaky against the Rockets because although they knew what Toledo wanted to do offensively, they were surprised with how well they did it. Toledo had a good game plan.

He looks for a slower pace from Miami than the Rockets’ sometimes-no-huddle approach.

Linebacker Etienna Sabino said it means the world to former high school teammate and fellow Miami native Travis Howard that he will finally get to suit up this season.

Jordan Hall is athletic and can do a lot for the offense and special teams. Teams have to account for him.

He likes facing pro-style offenses like Miami. The Hurricanes have a smash-mouth attack.

He is working on getting tickets from teammates and is expecting a lot of family to be in attendance.

The heat of the Akron game should help them be prepared for the Miami heat.

Growing up he was a fan of Miami, but he felt like he wanted to leave the state of Florida for college. Now he is all Buckeye. He thought it would be weird facing the Canes last year, but it wasn’t.

The special teams have to step up against a group of great return men from Miami. They know they have to be better than they were against the Canes last year, when they returned a kick and a punt for touchdowns.

Tight end Reid Fragel said the boos of Joe Bauserman were disappointing last week, but they fire him up, too. He likes Joe, and he is happy he has been able to avoid turnovers so far. He knows the crowd is always going to be anxious to see the new guy.

Braxton Miller looked good in practice, back to full-go.

He has talked to former Buckeye Jake Ballard a bit lately as Ballard has moved into the regular rotation with the New York Giants. It is nice to see a former Buckeye succeeding at the next level.

The staff has a jersey he can switch to if they need him to play offensive tackle in an emergency. He has learned some basic stuff with the offensive line. He got some reps with basic blitz pickups earlier in practice, but he has only been working at tight end lately.

He could see himself at offensive tackle down the road, but he prefers to stay at tight end for now.

ASSISTANTS ADDED: 

Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said Miami’s offense is similar to what it was last year schematically. They remain a pro-style offense. They will try to run the ball behind a big, powerful offensive line and get the ball deep to their wide receivers. OSU is familiar with coordinator Jedd Fisch from his time at Minnesota two years ago.

Redshirt freshman JT Moore will start in Williams’ place with true freshman Steve Miller backing him up.

Freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier made a brief appearance on the defensive line last week against Toledo but only as a pass rusher at the end of the game. He hasn’t practiced there. (It seems as though he has a spot in the rarely seen 3-3-5 scheme they call their “dime” package. He’s a rush linebacker in that defense. That’s also how Thaddeus Gibson first broke in, FWIW.

Johnny Simon can also play Leo (Williams’ spot), in which case they would go to a more traditional 4-3 defensive look. Normally the Leo is a linebacker-type who doesn’t have his hands in the dirt. They have that four-man line in their toolbox for teams like this anyway.

Watching the film from the Toledo game showed a young defense that will fight people. They battled hard even though they made some mistakes. There were some problems with tackling and pursuit angles, but those can be improved. They are fundamental things.

On the bright side, they are a fun group to work with as coaches.

He was happy to see Hankins play more than 60 snaps last week. They need a lot from him this season with so many youngsters behind him, and he never seemed to slow down as the film wore on. He’s a great young man and a good student and it’s been fun watching him blossom.

Asked about forcing more turnovers, he said they have missed some and he feels like they have done a good job disrupting things.

Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said Jordan Hall will play a major role immediately this week. He’s a great athlete and a great return man. He later said as far as he knows, Hall is the starting tailback, although Fickell was less clear about that at other times during the week.

The decision to hold Braxton Miller out last week was partly a result of his injury and missing practice time and also about the flow of the game. It was a joint decision, but Bollman and Fickell have the final say. There were other players they hoped to get into the game, too, such as backup center Brian Bobek and reserve offensive lineman Ivon Blackman. He mentioned Evan Blankenship, too, but he wasn’t clear if Blankenship would have been on offense or defense.

Miller is full-go this week and they plan for him to play. He brings athleticism to the lineup, plus they always like to get guys PT early to help them develop.

His best memory from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl was celebrating on the field with his family after the game.

He acknowledged they did not play as well as they could have against Toledo but was sure to credit the Rockets for their performance. The main problem for the offensive line was inconsistency. Many times four guys would do their job and one would miss and that would gum up the whole works. He wishes they could just all make the same mistake on the same play and get it out of the way.

Look for Chris Fields to move into the starting lineup, but he needs all of the young guys to step up along with Verlon Reed. That includes Evan Spencer, Devin Smith and T.Y. Williams. He likes how they young guys are progressing and pointed out they were instrumental in blocking downfield on Hyde’s long touchdown run against Toledo.

Hyde has done a good job and continues to improve in all facets of the game.

Corey Linsley will play this week and play a lot up front (I will speculate he is pushing Marcus Hall for time after the right guard appeared to struggle mightily against the Rockets.)

Miami is really good. They are big up front and have quick defensive ends. Their outside linebackers are excellent, but their backfield is young. They have great speed.

Asked if he is surprised by all the attention that goes into whether or not Miller is playing, he said he does get surprised sometimes at how quickly expectations can build, but he didn’t seem to have any real complaints about the situation.

Asked if they still feel like they need two quarterbacks, he said they always feel that way, including last year.

The more things expand and evolve, the more guys can play, but they have to let things develop. (This is not the first time he and Fickell have said something along those lines that made it sound like they are anxious to see Miller grow into a role, perhaps a major role… but we shall see how it goes.)

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Overheard at Ohio State Football: Toledo Week

Cleaning out my reporter’s notebook after another week on the beat… 

Fickellisms:

The head coach of the Buckeyes was happy only a couple of guys ended up cramping badly during the win over Akron. Meanwhile, almost 100 people had to be escorted out of the stadium with heat-related problems.

The offense played 79 snaps while the defense had only 49.

He said he was happy to turn on the film and find guys still battling in the fourth quarter. That was what he felt best about coming out of the game.

Both quarterbacks played well not just in the obvious ways people could see – completions, TDs, etc. – but also little things like decisions and demeanor and sideline presence. He liked their competitiveness and leadership and said Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller can expect a similar rotation to what they found last week.

Asked about how the various guys filling in for suspended players performed, he said quite well. He was especially happy with how the tailbacks stepped up with only two – Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith – available.

Fickell saw Toledo head coach Tim Beckman – who was on the Ohio State staff with him as cornerbacks coach in 2006 and ’07 – when he was helping with the Buckeyes’ summer football camps but hasn’t done a very good job of keeping up with him.

Asked if he has evaluated his own performance Saturday, Fickell said not really. He realized he needed to be careful how he balanced his involvement with the defense and keeping tab on what is happening offensively. He made some adjustments at times defensively and was part of the playcalling on defense while making sure he listened to what was being called offensively. He will work on trusting others to do their jobs.

He was glad they could get the freshmen some playing time because that shows them the coaches have confidence in their ability to perform. That’s a big thing for a young guy’s piece of mind.

He was happy with how Hyde and Smith played last week, although Smith must tighten up his ball security. Fickell will make sure they all continue to understand they need to master every task of playing the position, not just running the ball.

In terms of things his team can improve moving forward, Fickell identified tackling, takeaways and many technical things. He wants to see better pass rush as well. The effort was what he was looking for overall from the team.

He got lots of congratulatory messages after the game, and director of athletics Gene Smith gave him the game ball, but Fickell wanted to make sure everything continued to be about the players on the team and their efforts.

The players will be aware of Toledo’s status as a giant killer in the past, and they’ll know the Rockets have a good team that includes a dangerous receiver and kick returner in Eric Page. Fickell does not expect the Rockets to be in awe because a lot of them faced Ohio State two years ago. Toledo’s offense does a great job of keeping people honest, and it has more playmakers and a better offensive line than the typical MAC team.

Fickell said he didn’t watch any of Miami’s loss to Maryland on Monday night, but he did hear from one of the other coaches that someone was wearing “wild uniforms”.

He saw what he expected from Bauserman in terms of confidence and demeanor. Miller did a good job and handled the adversity he faced early in a way that made the coach feel good. Miller didn’t get made about the bad snap or the dropped pass or missing his chance for his second series to come in the second quarter because of when the Buckeyes got the ball back. Bauserman is still one of the guys despite being fairly older than all of them, but he might be the only one who owns his own house.

Someone asked him about the postgame exchange with Akron head coach Rob Ianello that supposedly became a bit heated, but Fickell downplayed it.

He was happy his guys heeded his edict to play hard for four quarters and ignore the score (implying that might have something to do with what could have set off Ianello).

PLAYERS SAYETH:

Safety C.J. Barnett wasn’t surprised to see the guys filling in for suspended players play well because Ohio State only recruits good players. They got a chance to prove that.

Toledo is really good and has two good quarterbacks. They like to utilize the quick passing game, and OSU will need to be fundamentally sound. Tackling in space will be important. He knew Toledo beat Michigan a few years ago but wasn’t aware of much of the rest of their history of beating BCS conference teams.

His knee felt fine Saturday, and he even said he feels faster now than before he was hurt. Someone said, “Really?” and he said, “They hooked me up, man,” and everyone laughed.

He pointed out a lot of teams quick-pass them anyway to avoid their defensive line.

He was asked if Christian Bryant and Orhian Johnson were rotating at safety against Akron and said he thought that was the case.

Dominic Clarke also makes those plays in practice, so he wasn’t surprised to see him do it in the games.

Right tackle J.B. Shugarts was already aware of Toledo’s history of success against BCS schools.

He expects an active defensive front from the Rockets, who love to blitz and stunt and twist. They might blitz more than any other team they see this year. On the bright side, Mike Brewster is maybe the best center in the country at recognizing blitzes and making adjustments.

He disputed the idea this is a trap game with Miami coming up next. They know they can’t sleep on Toledo. He did watch Miami on Monday night and saw some good things. He thought they had some younger guys working hard to step up in a tough situation.

Jordan Hall is a great player who is explosive and makes great cuts in the open field.

Linebacker Etienne Sabino played with a pad and a wrap on his broken hand and figures to do that for a few more weeks. He didn’t notice it other than it makes it hard to catch.

The Buckeyes are closer than anyone can understand and they can deal with them.

Both Toledo quarterbacks are dual-threat type guys.

He doesn’t think they will overlook Toledo with Miami on the horizon. He’s been getting grief from Hurricane fans about going to Ohio State ever since he committed back in high school.

The young linebackers played great against Akron last week with Ryan Shazier making plays on defense and Curtis Grant wreaking havoc on kickoffs. He personally had a good game but there is always room for improvement.

The Rockets play at a fast pace and won’t be intimidated. They also have a wildcat formation.

Fickell seemed the same on game day as he did when he was linebackers coach. He was pretty laidback and told them they win with their preparation during the week. Saturday is just the time to let it all out.

He split time about evenly with Storm Klein at MLB. He’s not worried about where he plays as long as he is playing.

Nathan Williams played some Sam linebacker and that fits him well because he is a playmaker and just a natural football player. He could succeed at a variety of positions.

Left guard Jack Mewhort said the team is equally ready to follow both quarterbacks, Bauserman and Miller. They trust the staff to pick the right guy to be back there. Bauserman has stepped up his leadership this year and has a great attitude.

ASSISTANTS ADDED: 

Running backs coach and special teams coordinator Dick Tressel said Jordan Hall will be available Saturday but Hyde will start the game. Hyde earned that with his performance against Akron and his work in practice.

Tressel expects Hall to play well once he gets his chance, but he is excited about what he saw from Hyde and Smith last week. They maintained their focus beyond their years.

He was impressed with the effort on special teams. They weren’t perfect, but the established a good starting point for the rest of the season.

Kick coverage has a big challenge this week in Page, who has a good feel for space and knows how to set up blocks. He can break tackles, too.

Nate Ebner brings a real joy to the field. He loves playing special teams, and you can tell by the neckroll he wears that he really wants to hit somebody whenever he’s out there. He’s a war daddy.

Jaamal Berry’s hamstring is 100 percent healthy, but they had to work this week on getting him game ready getting him as many reps as they can both with the offense and special teams. Fickell said the next day he should play.

All of the running backs worked hard in the offseason as if they were going to play. No one worked kind of hard with their eye on contributing just down the road, so that leaves them in a good position now.

Rod Smith turned it loose a couple of times against Akron. He is an excitable guy, and he has another level he could reach. Both Smith and Hyde did well on their assignments against the Zips. Hyde was 100 percent in pass pro and Smith was almost perfect as well.

Smith changed his number from 24 to 2 because they wanted him to cover kicks but 24 is the number Drew Basil wears. They gave him a choice of a few numbers, and 2 is what Smith picked.

Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said all of the corners are getting reps this week and will be needed with pass-happy Toledo on the horizon.

He is not sure who will start, but Dominic Clarke and Bradley Roby both played well enough last week to maintain their spots in the starting lineup even with Travis Howard back from suspension. They look at a lot of passes going in the air as a lot of chances to make plays. Tackling and discipline will be important this week.

Page is good because his confidence is through the roof.

Johnson figures his guys should all be on alert for attack because they are all young and/or inexperienced. He pointed out even older guys get attacked sometimes, too, such as Malcolm Jenkins… at least until teams figure out they shouldn’t do that.

Howard has had a great attitude since he got in trouble last week and since he returned.

Roby just barely edged Clarke for the starting spot in fall camp but there was not one particular thing that stood out between them.

Johnson talked to Beckman after Johnson agreed to take his current position, which Beckman vacated to become defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Johnson wanted to get to know more about the guys he would be coaching, and he considers Beckman a friend. They also coached against each other when they were at other MAC schools.

He expects Toledo to change personnel some and put the Buckeyes in their base defense at times. Plus, OSU will want to change up looks against them so they can’t get too comfortable, either. He doesn’t see much difference between the two Rocket quarterbacks. The team seems to believe in both of them.

Doran Grant worked his way into the depth chart by learning the system and showing he had the maturity to handle all the things they threw at him. Plus, he’s obviously talented or he wouldn’t have had all those scholarship offers.

Learning To Walk Again

What we learned last week: The kids are all right. At least for now. And that’s as much as anyone can ask after one game, right?

I was impressed with Ohio State’s focus as it took the gridiron for the first time since the loss of Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and the faith of many around the country (whether the last point is of much importance is a debate best left to another day).

I don’t mean to dwell on the nightmares of the offseason since we all finally got to wake up Saturday to a real, live football game and three hours of color and sound and passion in Columbus, but I think maybe one more time this is an appropriate subject.

The Buckeye players and coaches I talked to after the game agreed that no matter how much they tried to block out the pain of the previous few months, they needed a game to truly turn the page. I think that was true of those of us around the program, too.

Talking about what the new season will be like is never the same as actually experiencing it.

Buckeyes prepare to take field for warmups

As I have already mentioned on Twitter, I was struck by the choice of song to begin the warmup period after the Buckeyes took the field in their (now traditional) hive formation. It was a fairly new one by the Foo Fighters called, “Walk,” and it’s theme about moving on from a rough patch seemed quite appropriate.

The tune is also a peppy little thing, a simple combination of guitars and drums to take you through 4:16 of modern rock and repositioned focus. It starts:

I think I lost my way/I’m getting good at starting over every time that I return/Learning to walk again/I believe I’ve waited long enough, where do I begin? Learning to talk again/Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough? Where do I begin?…

Maybe it was pure coincidence, but it hit me again that a new chapter of Ohio State football really was about to begin as the stadium floor filled with the usual array of recruits, alumni and other friends of the program.

Then we all watched the Buckeyes thoroughly thrash the Zips, a team that played much like one you would think went 1-11 last season.

There are lessons to be gleaned from such a performance despite the weakness of the opponent.

I’m sure no Ohio State fans need to be reminded there have been plenty of far less fun afternoons against small-time Ohio college 11s that were just as overmatched when they walked into Ohio Stadium as the Zips were last week.

What I saw was a focused bunch of Buckeyes who took care of business. It was certainly not a perfect performance – is there such a thing? – but the efficiency of both units was striking, especially for an opener involving so many first-time starters and young players under the direction of a new head coach.

And perhaps we should also not overlook the fact few Buckeyes seemed all that affected by the heat. Yes, center Mike Brewster had a hard time keeping his gloves dry enough to snap the ball, but the only Buckeye whom I saw felled by anything that resembled cramps was Philly Brown. I think we all would have understood if there were more than that, but I suppose the relatively clean bill of health is a tribute to the type of work the team put in during the offseason and preseason camp.

In a statement I found somewhat curious, Luke Fickell said he was happy for the heat because it presented his team another challenge to overcome. He’s been harping on toughness and dealing with adversity since taking the job as head coach early in the summer. I don’t think anyone believes he is merely playing lip service, either.

You might recall Tressel said prior to last season, one that began with a real shot at playing for a national title thanks to his dialed up recruiting that followed back-to-back national championship game losses, his No. 1 concern about the team was it might not have suffered enough to that point. I guess that’s an ironic statement as we look back at what happened in the weeks and months to come.

Brewster said more than once during this past summer the troubles with Tressel and some of his teammates could serve as a wakeup call for a program that might have gotten too used to dominating the Big Ten and rolling through the regular season. That’s another statement that almost sounds too good to be true – positive spin in its utmost form – but Brewster is not the type of guy to say things just to hear himself talk. There is no doubt he meant what he said, and I suppose the messages from Fickell serve to confirm Brewster’s feelings a shakeup was something the Buckeyes needed. Tressel’s departure is obviously an extreme move, but it is interesting to think about what might have brought about those perceptions from both the new head coach and his observant long-time starting center.

Wherever the truth lies in those regards, test No. 1 has passed. The Buckeyes seemed on their game mentally and physically, but 11 games remain. On to the next one…

What we can expect to learn this week: Probably more than you think.

With 15 starters back from a team that won eight games last season, Toledo figures to pose as much of a threat as any MAC team to come into the Horseshoe in quite some time.

The Rockets bring to town a pretty veteran group – as many as 20 starters figure to be juniors or seniors – and head coach Tim Beckman’s familiarity with the Ohio State coaching staff from his two years as cornerbacks coach under Tressel should not be overlooked, either.

Toledo was an opportunistic bunch last year as it finished tied for fifth in the nation in takeaways (with 34) and tied for eighth with 20 interceptions. Beckman also has a true weapon in wide receiver Eric Page, a junior who was among the nation’s best kick returners last season.

From the Ohio State perspective, the continued evolution of the quarterback rotation will no doubt be interesting after seniorJoe Bauserman looked surprisingly efficient against the Zips. Freshman Braxton Miller flashed some of the quickness, arm strength and poise that made him a five-star recruit, but will he be able to overtake Bauserman if the elder player continues playing at such a high level?

This week also could be Tyler Moeller’s first chance to really shine as the Rockets’ spread offense should have him on the field pretty much all day. He was in and out last week as the Zips stuck with a lot of two-back sets, prompting the Buckeyes to play a fairly high amount of base defense.

All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: There is little debate that the Zips need a talent upgrade before they will be competitive in the MAC, but I was not terribly impressed with their effort at Ohio Stadium, either. Too many arm tackles for my taste.

As such, my only choice this week is linebacker Brian Wagner, a standout linebacker from Springfield Catholic Central who posted a game-high 15 tackles and seemed to be everywhere when the Buckeyes had the ball.

It’s tough for anyone on offense to stand out when a team gains 90 yards from scrimmage.

DVR Directions: We have another noon start for the Buckeyes (this one on Big Ten Network), but again I can’t say there is a whole lot that deserves to take away precious hard drive space from Mad Men reruns.

Wisconsin’s noon date with Oregon State on ESPN lost some luster when the Beavers fell to Sacramento State last week, and fellow defending conference champion Michigan State gets a Florida Atlantic squad (Noon, ESPN2) that was pounded by Florida in its opener.

I don’t expect Penn State to put up much of a fight against Alabama, but stranger things have happened, so that’s one worth hitting record (3:30 p.m., ABC) if you’re at the Horseshoe or you want to do some future scouting of the Nittany Lions.

Once you’re settled in for the evening, Notre Dame and Michigan should put on an interesting show (8 p.m., ESPN) if the weather cooperates better than it did for either school last week.

Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (Preseason ranking):

  1. Nebraska (same) – So far so good with new (albeit somewhat retro) offense in place
  2. Wisconsin (4) – Great debut by Russell Wilson overshadows questions on defense; maybe like last year that won’t matter.
  3. Ohio State (same) – Efficient offense and stingy defense. Haven’t we seen this before?
  4. Michigan State (2) – Somewhat underwhelming performance in week 1 against FCS opponent. Top four remain closely bunched.
  5. Iowa (same)
  6. Penn State (same)
  7. Northwestern (same) – Big early win without best player against BCS conference team. Bravo.
  8. Michigan (same) – Opportunistic defense could change the equation if it keeps up the takeaways.
  9. Illinois (same)
  10. Purdue (same) – Gutsy finish to pull one out late at home.
  11. Minnesota (same) – Are the Golden Gophers better than we thought or is USC not as good? Time will tell.
  12. Indiana (same) – Yikes.

Summer’s Almost Gone (and College Football’s Almost Here)

With a song from The Doors stuck in my head, here’s the first edition of my weekly college football column: 
 

What we learned last week (or year in this case): Robert Burns knew about what he wrote.

What we might learn this week: As one of the worst teams in the NCAA FBS last season, Akron is not expected to offer much of a challenge, but the Buckeyes have plenty to prove no matter who is on the opposing sidelines. They only get 12 or 13 chances to represent their university on the football field per year, but surely there has not been one in a long time that has seen the school in such need of a good show.

A lively fall camp helped wash some of the bad taste of a nightmarish offseason away, but the healing will not truly begin until the ball goes in the air Saturday for the 122nd season of Ohio State football.

The last time we saw the men of the Scarlet and Gray, they had one more national championship-winning coach on the sideline and one more BCS bowl game MVP quarterback calling the signals, not to mention the graduation of five All-Big Ten defensive starters who were drafted by NFL teams in April and the transfer of two once-highly touted linebackers.

The program might have suffered a black eye with the revelation that a half dozen players were involved in an improper benefits scandal, but that did not stand in the way of a rousing Sugar Bowl win over a 10-win team from the nation’s top conference.

It was nothing compared to the repeated blows that were inflicted throughout the ensuing months. Disclosure of Tressel’s failure to disclose information about potential NCAA violations came as the state was thawing from another winter, and from there the heat would rise to the point he was forced out of his dream job before the official start of summer.

That thrust the program into uncertainty Luke Fickell hopes to eliminate with a steady hand and a vengeful football squad looking to take out its frustrations on a dozen or so opposing teams in the next three months.

He took the reins with a June press conference at which he professed his love for the university and his belief in the power of actions over words. By the time the leaves have changed colors and abandoned the trees, we should have a pretty good idea how good Fickell is at turning words into actions.

Luke Fickell on Ohio State Photo Day 2011

We know already he can keep a group together through an offseason of unexpected departures and sometimes unfair criticisms, but how he gets them to channel their knowledge, frustration and talent for three hours a week every Saturday this fall promises to go further in determining if this is his only shot to prove himself.

A coach, of course, is only as good as his players. Fickell’s college coach, John Cooper, will tell you that still today if you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with him. Off-field problems caused the demise of Tressel and Cooper (though Cooper often points out he never ran afoul of the NCAA), but both coaches left the cupboard quite well stocked.

Tressel’s touch turned Cooper’s kids into not just Big Ten champions but the kings of college football within 24 months of his ascension to the throne once graced by Woody Hayes and Paul Brown.  How will Fickell handle Tressel’s players?

Truth be told, some aspects of Fickell’s job might be easier than the task that greeted Tressel. The new coach knows the kids better this time around, so there should not be the same feeling out process that had to occur in 2001. There’s little if any scheme change.

Fickell also inherits a welcoming group of Ohio high school coaches who exalted in Tressel’s embracing of them after they felt a cold shoulder from Cooper.

What remains to be seen about Fickell is what he will do when the chips are down.

While Cooper’s greatest talent as a college coach was convincing some of the nation’s top players to join his program, his hands-off approach left his teams somewhat mercurial. They usually got out of the gate well but struggled to respond when things started to go bad.

His successor was quite the opposite. There were some slow starts to seasons, but nobody circled the wagons like Jim Tressel. Each of his last six seasons ended with a Big Ten championship, and five of them included a crisis moment or two that could have easily led down a far different path (like one that ends with a Florida bowl game). His 2002 squad seemed to encounter some kind of mini disaster every other week or so but never succumbed to the pressure.

Tressel’s greatest strength was not his charisma nor his offensive acumen, although he probably possessed more of both than he often gets credit. It was the steady way he steered his ships out of trouble that made them seven-time Big Ten champs and eight-time BCS game participants. That’s what kept him from being his one-time boss, “ol’ 9-3 Earle”, or his predecessor, whose teams were famous for Michigan meltdowns.

Fickell has already proven he picked up some of his former coach’s ability to acquire talent. The Columbus native was regarded as the best recruiter on Tressel’s staff, and though he has suffered a handful of in-state losses in the past few months, those are more attributable to the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation (and a Michigan roster that happens to be quite depleted) than to any individual failure on the OSU coach’s part.

He knows this state, and he has a great blueprint to follow for balancing local and national recruiting. The name brand and the facilities at Ohio State go a long way in selling the place, too.

That leads me to conclude Fickell will need to prove he learned a thing or two from his mentor and predecessor about crisis management to turn his one-year audition into something more.

There will be ups and there will be downs. How the new head coach handles them will determine if this is another special year in the history of Fickell’s alma mater or a footnote in a chapter about transition.

I know I’m ready to see what happens. How about you?

DVR Directions: The opening-night slate is pretty underwhelming, but it’s better than nothing, right? I’m sure you will like me take an early chance to start a scouting report on Wisconsin as the Badgers play host to UNLV (8 p.m. EST, ESPN). Michigan State kicks things off one night later with a visit from Youngstown State (7:30, Big Ten Network).

Since you don’t want to get that DVR filled up too fast, I recommend judicious recording Saturday, CFB’s true opening day. The most interesting game of the first viewing window of the day involves Northwestern at Boston College (ESPNU), but you only need to record that one if you’re scouting the Wildcats as potential Big Ten Championship game opponents (maybe stretching it at this point).

At 3:30, save your hard drive space and flip back and forth between Western Michigan at Michigan (ABC or ESPN2, depending on where you are) Chattanooga-Nebraska (BTN). If you’re really desperate during a commercial break, Minnesota will be entertaining USC on the opposite of whatever channel you’re getting WMU-UM happens to be, but I don’t expect the Golden Gophers to put up much of a fight.

For the night shift, you’ll probably want to watch LSU-Oregon on ABC, but keep an eye on the score of Tulsa-Oklahoma. Something tells me the Golden Hurricane might be able this one interesting if only because Gus Johnson will be making his FX college football debut.

All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Check back next week for the first candidates to populate my annual team of the players who look the best against Ohio State all season.

Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll: When I did my initial pre-preseason rankings, I broke it down by division, but I’m switching it up here and just going top to bottom.

  1. Nebraska (Loaded defense and great potential on offense)
  2. Michigan State (Loaded offense and good potential on defense)
  3. Ohio State (Lots of talent but very young)
  4. Wisconsin (Running game shouldn’t miss a beat but defense could struggle without Watt)
  5. Iowa (New pieces are surprisingly intriguing thanks to some cameos past two seasons)
  6. Penn State (Should run it well, but can Nittany Lions stop good teams on defense?)
  7. Northwestern (Must get Dan Persa back to 100 percent, ASAP; Can they keep winning the close ones?)
  8. Michigan (Mismatched offensive personnel and woeful defensive ability)
  9. Illinois (Intrigued by the offense but skeptical about the defense)
  10. Purdue (Will probably run out of knee ligaments by Halloween)
  11. Minnesota (Like Michigan, but much worse)
  12. Indiana (We’ll see if Kevin Wilson is a miracle worker)

I moved Ohio State ahead of Wisconsin based on the improvement Joe Bauserman and the Buckeye wide receivers showed in camp. Questions about the health of Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland in the preseason make me wonder about the Badgers’ defense as a whole. Their playmaking is crucial to the success of a unit that was somewhat overrated last year but didn’t have to do much thanks to the offense.

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