Tag Archives: Nebraska

This week in the Big Ten extolls nuance

So the intention is intended to be a weekender type thing, but sometimes life or other jobs get in the way, so here you go a little late…  

We start with one championship-winning football coach from northeast Ohio passing some heavy praise on to another as Jon Gruden called Urban Meyer’s 2014 “the greatest coaching job of all time.”

I can admit I was a doubter prior to the Wisconsin game, and I declared Meyer should be the unanimous national coach of the year if the Buckeyes won that game, so I am inclined to agree with Gruden here. But more interesting than his declarative about what Meyer did as far as a coach is what Gruden said about Meyer’s recruiting.

“I think what happened at Florida, he won the national titles, and then he wanted to be the No. 1 recruiting coach in the league and probably signed some players that didn’t fit the Urban Meyer profile. 

“When he went to Ohio State, I think he learned a little bit from that. He’s looking for guys that fit a certain profile, and he’s going to build his team around those guys. That’s clearly what he’s doing.”

This could be interpreted as a type of talent, but I think it’s more about personality. Meyer was so obsessed with putting together all-star teams at Florida, he ended up with a roster he couldn’t control. Now, every roster is going to have some questionable characters, in part because coaches are almost always willing to take a chance on a guy with talent and also because sometimes people just change — especially between the ages of 17 and 22. The best kid in high school could still turn into a problem in college when he gets away from his home and vice versa. That goes for those who grow up in Upper Arlington or South Florida, but the Ohio State players from Florida I’ve talked to over the years took pride in the chippiness and attitude their state is known for.

Meyer has to spread his recruiting over a larger geographic area, but he might find it easier to put together a more balanced roster at Ohio State than at Florida. This was something I’ve been curious about since the day Meyer took over in Columbus

Further discussing the silly freshman ineligibility discussion with some interesting spins last week were Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports and Matt Hayes of Sporting News. Mandel wondered about the real motivation regarding starting discussion about something that won’t happen while Hayes suggested it’s just the first shot over the bow in an effort to overhaul things.

Essentially the idea is administrators are going to start paying players more but feel that means they also have to emphasize the student part in student-athlete more, whether that is for the good of the game, the good of their business or the good of the players. It’s probably all of the above.

The business goes kaput if they have to go to an open market because too many schools would be priced out and too many fans would lose interest if they began believing all that was going on was minor league football or basketball. Some fans would still watch because they like the sports and the competition, but the golden goose would be dead.

FWIW, I do think the administrators truly care about academics. They want there to be a balance. Like anything, there are pros and cons to the arrangement that has evolved over the decades since college sports went from pastime to big business. I even think the vast majority of coaches care about academics to a significant degree, though under the auspices that winning is not optional of course.  And players care about academics, at least as much if not more than the average student…

Outside the sports world, the ever-changing fate of journalism and writing as a whole generally fascinates me, and Newsweek provided a moment that was even more ironic than it probably realized or intended over the weekend.

The magazine republished a column from 1995 titled, “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana” that as you might expect contained a bunch of amusing predictions about the Internet that turned out to be false and are thus hilarious to look back at 20 years later.

The writer mocked the idea of telecommuting, growth of virtual communities and the rise of online shopping and e-books. He was wrong to question the usefulness of making government data and documents available online (eventually), but I’m not too sure the Internet has improved democracy overall. It’s just made cheating a little harder to get away with (not to mention having a civil discussion about politics, but I digress…).

Most ironically he declared “no online database will replace your daily newspaper,” although I’m pretty sure magazines like Newsweek are in even worse shape, and it’s probably remarkable newspapers have held on for 20 years hence if we’re being honest.

Computers have enhanced the educational experience, but I think most would agree a good teacher still trumps learning from a computer as much as it does getting everything out of a book.

A “network chat line” beats being alone, but it is in fact “a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”

So like most things, this story had plenty of bad but plenty of good as well. A piece by piece examination could be rather fascinating, but i guess the person who runs the Newsweek Twitter feed didn’t agree.

I guess nuance is just not something we do on the Internet in 2015. Did Clifford Stoll predict that?

2014 Big Ten football picks

I think this will be one of the better Big Tens we’ve seen in the past decade or so, but I’m not sure there is an elite team in the league. There should be depth, and that could set things up for a strong 2015, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Ohio State is rebuilding on defense, but that unit could hardly be worse than it was when the ’13 season concluded, so it’s hard to count that as a negative. Michigan State’s offense was a sore spot early last season but finished on a high and returns almost everyone of consequence. They’ll have some new faces on the offensive line, but that unit wasn’t great anyway so they can probably get by with an average front again this season all things considered. Teams may play them differently now that Connor Cook is a known commodity, though. How he responds to that will tell a large part of the tale this season. Recent conference history is littered with quarterbacks who looked good early in their career but plateaued. Big Ten logo

Michigan State is, pardon the pun, green in some spots on defense, and it is unlikely the Spartans will be as tough there regardless of how good coaches Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi have proven to be on that side of the ball. The same can be said of Ohio State’s offensive line, though, so it all could be a wash when the teams play Nov. 8. Continue reading 2014 Big Ten football picks

Big Ten West spring football review

After a bit of a delay for some NFL draft coverage, we have finally wrapped up our spring review for Big Ten football at BuckeyeSports.com. Big Ten logo

Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.

Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders.  Continue reading Big Ten West spring football review

Ranking help Ohio State football needs to get into the BCS

Quickly now let’s rank by importance the BCS help the Ohio State needs in the second half of the football season: BCS national championship logo 2014 Rose Bowl

1. At least three of the foursome of Alabama, Oregon, Clemson and Florida State take losses. 

I don’t think the Buckeyes’ schedule is going to be strong enough on its own merits to get them into the title game ahead of any of those teams if they remain undefeated.

Stanford’s loss to Utah on Saturday was nice for Ohio State because it means Stanford could take out Oregon without being a serious threat to be ranked ahead of the Buckeyes. The winner of this Saturday’s Clemson-FSU clash is pretty much certain to be ranked ahead of Ohio State this time next week, but obviously there will still be a lot of season left to play. Perhaps the Buckeyes will benefit from both teams having historical out-of-conference rivals to deal with on the last week of the regular season, not to mention a tough potential matchup with Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.  Continue reading Ranking help Ohio State football needs to get into the BCS

Ohio State football by the (advanced) numbers so far

Yesterday we took a look at the Ohio State-Northwestern game through the eyes of advanced statistics from Football Outsiders.

Today, we examine where the Buckeyes rank halfway through their season based on FO’s measure of play-by-play efficiency known as S&P+ (later in the season they will add drive efficiency measures, but those aren’t up yet for this season). It should also be noted that garbage time is weeded out of these numbers before rankings are determined. Continue reading Ohio State football by the (advanced) numbers so far

Overheard at Ohio State: Nebraska Week

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

Urbanisms

Asked what he said to Braxton Miller after carrying the team offensively but committing three turnovers last week, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer replied, “I love you to death, but protect the ball.”

Nobody is perfect, but he is playing hard and he’s only a sophomore. On his interception, he should have thrown the ball to the flat. He jammed his knee on the second fumble, and that looked bad because it was right in front of Meyer, but he needs to hang onto the ball.

Meyer knows Miller’s high school coach, Jay Minton, very well and spent a good bit of time with him in January getting to know more about Braxton, who has spent a lot of his life getting away with things he shouldn’t do on the field because of his athleticism. He is perhaps more humble than anyone else Meyer has seen.

Meyer’s philosophy is to coach a team really hard after a win. They might be fragile when coming off a loss, but Tuesday’s practice was supposed to be one of the toughest of the year.

Nebraska has a dynamic quarterback in Taylor Martinez and a very good defense that brings some unique looks. The defensive line plays two gaps a man and the backfield engages in pattern reading, kind of like a matchup zone in basketball. That makes it hard to run some of the Buckeyes’ base passes, so they have to do some different things.

He thought the count of times they had the OSU DBs in press coverage against Michigan State was 26 (MSU ran 64 plays). That is much more than previous weeks. Meyer felt good about how the defense played other than one play.

He has a good relationship with Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who was on the team in 1987 when Meyer was an OSU grad assistant. They coached against each other when Pelini was defensive coordinator at LSU and Meyer was head coach at Florida. He was a real tough guy as a player and that is reflected in his personality today as a coach.

Meyer loved the reaction of the offense when it got the ball back with a chance to run the clock out in East Lansing. They were excited after seeing MSU would have to punt.

The offensive line still has only five guys they can rely on (he wants eight), but those five are doing very well. Reid Fragel, the former tight end, has really become an Ohio State offensive lineman the last two games. That is a powerful statement, Meyer said.

Zach Smith is doing a good job as wide receivers coach. His guy, Devin Smith, caught a touchdown pass to win the game last weekend, obviously. He has been coaching hard and now has developed a big-play guy in Smith and a reliable option in Corey “Philly” Brown, who is putting up numbers. The young guys are coming along, and Meyer pointed out Smith also runs the punt block team. “We finally got a frickin’ punt here,” Meyer said.

Serious injury is a concern for Miller after he went out of the last game a couple of times. He recalled the plight of Oregon when Dennis Dixon blew out his knee late in the season and the Ducks lost the rest of their games. He observed that Dixon originally committed to him at Utah before opting for Oregon. Kenny Guiton was cool and ready to go when Miller got hurt. He was already getting warmed up before the coach called for him. Guiton isn’t as talented as Miller, but the is very functional.

He wasn’t sure who would mimic Martinez on the scout team, but the defense has experience against a quarterback like him from facing Miller in the spring and preseason.

The Buckeyes came together last week in facing MSU, and he was very fired up about that.

The linebackers played better, including Ryan Shazier, a sophomore who is one of his favorite guys. Meyer didn’t realize how little Shazier played last year at first. He is someone Meyer will listen to because he talks like a man.

Regarding the video issue with Michigan State, Meyer said he asked a member of the video staff about it and it had been taken care of last Tuesday. He also said he believed the Big Ten had been made aware of the video going around of a Michigan State offensive lineman trying to poke Johnathan Hankins in the eyes.

Meyer joked he would tell Brown it is OK if he breaks a tackle at some point after catching a screen pass. That is part of the spread offense, a chance to make something happen in a one-on-one situation. They need guys who can do that. They’re an “on schedule offense” right now. They can’t rely on big plays, and they aren’t good enough to overcome being behind the chains so they can’t take a lot of big shots down the field.

The team wasn’t very close when he got here, for whatever reason, but they are now. This staff pushed the envelope and they came together over the weekend. You’re more likely to see things like that when you win against a good team on the road. Zach Boren showed his manhood with his leadership. Only six or seven of the 20-some teams he has been part of as a coach came together, so it is not a given.

This is not a great team, but it has a chance to do something special.

He regretted how vehemently he went after an official who called a personal foul on Carlos Hyde after the Buckeye running back hit an MSU punt returner above the shoulders after he fielded punt. Meyer thought the flag was for kick catch interference but saw later it was a proper call for unnecessary roughness.

Nebraska has a dynamic offense that will turn a mistake into an 80-yard gain, not eight.

Offensive line coach Ed Warinner was happy for his guys to get the player of the week recognition on offense. It validates the hard work they have put in since January. They have played hard and shown lots of improvement, but there are still things to clean up as they move forward. They understand what they want to do offensively, and that’s be physical. It was nice to finish out the game the way they did.

He was confident they would be able to run it out when they took the field and smiled to himself about it on the sideline. A lot of guys were competing in that last four minutes, including the quarterback, tight ends and running back.

The growth of the team speaks volumes for the development the staff is working on in all phases of the game. He can see confidence developing in the wide receiver and the offensive line, two position groups that got a lot of criticism in the offseason.

They are building momentum now.

Fragel works hard and is starting to play well. It’s tougher on the line than at tight end. He had to grind it out against MSU star end William Gholston, and that will be the case again against Nebraska’s ends.

That was like a 12-round boxing match for the team. There were a lot of plays that could have gone either way.

There was a lot of success here followed by a tough year and then a change in doing business. That is hard to deal with. He’s a grown man and he has been through it before, but that’s not the case for the players. They bought in quickly, maybe faster than he expected.

Warinner knows the Nebraska coordinators well from his days as a coordinator at Kansas.

They are very sound and physical. The defensive tackles will knock the guards back and the linebackers play downhill. Then they play varying coverages in the backfield. That is what Bo Pelini is known for.

He is sure the offensive line knows it has been picked on over the years here. There is a scab that is healing now. They won’t be pushed around anymore. The line wants to be able to carry the team instead of having to rely so much on the quarterback. It’s good for them to gain confidence.

Defensive line coach Mike Vrabel remembers the team being ready to go at the start of the Nebraska game last year but being deflated when Miller went out with an ankle injury. He suggested that reaction might have been a result of youth. Then they got steamrolled as no one could make a play to halt the Husker momentum.

Nathan Williams is getting better as he gets farther and farther from major knee surgery, but they are still managing his health. He has done a hell of a job for them. He puts the team first. He cares about his teammates and it shows. The coach also said it is important Williams is able to practice. He can’t just get by with gaining experience in games, as Williams said he was pretty much doing the first couple of weeks.

Hankins is getting comfortable and starting to recognize plays so he can react to them. He conditioning is good, not great.

Someone asked about things that go on in piles during a football game, and Vrabel said it is pretty much anything goes as long as a ball is involved. There is no place in the game for cheap shots, chop blocks or eye-pokes in the game. He tells guys nothing is worth a 15-yard penalty.

Nebraska has a patient offense. They are really comfortable doing what they do. They will pound and pound until they break through, but they can also go over the top.

OSU had a good understanding of what Michigan State was going to do on offense, and the Buckeyes got a lift from the offense scoring right away.

Martinez’s speed makes it imperative everyone has their “fit” in the running game (that means gap covered).

Mike Bennett is coming along healthwise and adds depth for them. The other young guys are still developing.

Quarterback Braxton Miller knew something was wrong with Gholston when he was lying on top of him after a play because he wasn’t saying anything. The referee told him to lie still and not move until they could figure out what was up. Miller is glad he could get back up.

He feels better throwing the deep ball thanks to continuing to practice it.

He was mad at himself for not being able to go back in the game at Nebraska last year. He remembers they had a good game plan.

He wasn’t that sore after the game. You take big hits in the Big Ten.

He hasn’t felt like he has been overused.

He expects a crazy atmosphere at Ohio Stadium under the lights Saturday night.

Wide receiver Devin Smith said he loves making big plays, especially for his teammates. He is more than just a deep threat, though. He can make guys miss if he gets the chance.

He enjoyed the crowd last year at night against Wisconsin but expects it to be bigger this year.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier said they got lazy at times against Nebraska last year. They were lackadaisical. Remembering how that game went does provide motivation, as was the case last week with Michigan State.

He expects the stadium to be jumping Saturday with everybody into it.

The linebackers felt like they were a weak point for the defense but they have improved. They got stronger against MSU. Coach Luke Fickell has been tough on them, telling then they can be great but they weren’t showing it.

My 2012 Big Ten Football Picks

You should check out the Buckeye Sports Bulletin football preview issue for my full view of the race, but here is how I see the top of each division shaking out. 

The Division That Should Be the West: 

Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska should stage an interesting battle for divisional supremacy.

MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will miss All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, but the front seven is remarkably deep as several years of strong recruiting seem to be paying off on the line and at linebacker. Worthy was a fine player, but some of his success might have been a product of the overall quality of the unit. William Gholston has the makings of an even bigger star at defensive end while Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are special talents at linebacker.

There are major questions on the other side of the ball in East Lansing, but I think they can get by with a so-so scoring unit thanks to the ‘D’. Dantonio claims to have supreme confidence in sophomore Andrew Maxwell, but he is an unknown at this point. All of his targets at receiver and tight end will be new, too, but new wideouts DeAnthony Arnett and Tony Lippett along with tight end Dion Sims are considered potential playmakers.

Junior running back Le’Veon Bell is an impact running back, but the Spartans have questions on the offensive front.

I was only one of many caught off guard by Michigan’s success last season, and I am still a skeptic of the Wolverines in 2012. They played far better fundamentally on both sides of the ball last season, but they also benefited from a remarkable run of beneficial bounces.

Even as a senior, I think Denard Robinson remains a wild card. He has dynamic talent but probably can’t get away with throwing another 15 interceptions this time around, as he did in 2011. Offensive coordinator Al Borges did an admirable job bending his pro-style attack to Robinson’s skills, and it will be interesting to see how that evolves this season.

Defensively, Michigan should continue to mature in the back seven, but the Wolverines will be green at key spots up front.

Ultimately, I believe the loss of All-America center David Molk and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Mike Martin will be tough to overcome, leaving the Wolverines vulnerable in the trenches, where depth remains a question until Brady Hoke’s recruiting classes get some seasoning. That could change if five-star defensive tackle prospect Will Campbell finally lives up to his billing. The bet here is that he won’t. Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum, to now seldom-used, is the choice to replace Molk.

Then there is Nebraska. I picked the Cornhuskers to win the Big Ten in their first season in the league, but head coach Bo Pelini’s team faltered down the stretch and finished a disappointing 9-4 with three conference losses.

Year two in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s unique option scheme should be better than year one, but will Taylor Martinez ever grow into a consistent passer? I am not sure that he will, but it might not be necessary if he and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead can scare teams enough on the ground. The offensive line, with its fondness for cut blocks, could become a plug-and-play unit, while a callow group of receivers could show some improvement this season.

Things could look a little different on defense with new coordinator John Papuchis in charge, and that might not be a bad thing after the famed Blackshirts gave up 44 more yards and six more points per game than in 2010. Pelini hopes more experience will help in the secondary while better depth improves the front seven. Expect the coaching staff to use the benefit of a year’s worth of familiarity with league opponents when it comes to game-planning.

Division That Should Be The East:

While many expect Wisconsin to run away with the division as Ohio State and Penn State (who will probably be terrible) ineligible, Purdue and Illinois both have some darkhorse potential.

The Boilermakers have never been able to quite get over the hump in Danny Hope’s three seasons at the helm, but things might break right for him in 2012. He has three quarterbacks with starting experience – Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry – and a handful of potential contributors at the skill positions. If the offensive line improves, Purdue could have a puncher’s chance to reach the top of the division. Nine starters return on defense, including defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen, two players among the best in the league at their positions.

Talent is less an issue than discipline and consistency for the Purdue during the Hope years.

Similar sentiments could apply to the Fighting Illini, but they are under new management this season in the form of head coach Tim Beckman. The former Ohio State assistant has solid building blocks on both sides of the ball: quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton on offense with linebacker Jonathan Brown, linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and cornerback Terry Hawthorne on defense.

The onus is on Scheelhaase to pick up a new spread offense and lead on his side. He should get some help from running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young as well as multitalented Miles Osei.

If the offense can improve from one of the worst in the country last season to even decent, it could offset graduation losses from what was a top 15 defense nationally in both yardage (seventh) and scoring (15th).

Then there is Wisconsin. The Badgers are two-time Big Ten champs and a fashionable pick to go for three, but that will be easier said than done. Stopping senior running back Monte Ball is a formidable challenge for any defense, and the Badgers figure to be strong as usual on the front line. However, expecting Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to replicate the success of 2011 sensation Russell Wilson might be asking too much. O’Brien is a solid passer, but Wilson’s ability to freelance and create big plays after the initial plan broke down will certainly be missed. Will Jared Abbrederis step up as the No. 1 receiver with Nick Toon having graduated? Can Abbrederis, a former walk-on, replicate his 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns without Toon to draw attention on the other side?

My guess is the offense will not be as unstoppable as it has been the last two seasons, but it should still be quite good. The stop unit is another story. The propensity to put up huge point totals has masked a decline in defense the past two seasons, and another year of maturity might not do it for the six returning starters. Head coach Bret Bielema is banking on a big impact from defensive end David Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith from injury, but neither of them were exactly All-Big Ten Players before they were sidelined. Last year teams like Ohio State and Oregon made the Badgers look slow on defense.

In conclusion… 

I think Michigan State will get just enough on offense to ride that defense to a 7-1 mark in the league with its only setback coming against the Cornhuskers. That could include close calls against Michigan and Ohio State, however, not to mention the annually kooky contest with Northwestern (set for the penultimate game of the regular season and the Spartans’ Senior Day this time around).

Illinois’ conference schedule is front-loaded with trips to Wisconsin and Michigan in early October, but the Fighting Illini could lose those games and still find time to come together down the stretch and get back into the race with Wisconsin. However, because of tiebreakers the Fighting Illini will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way if they lose to the Badgers and Wolverines, and I am not ready to say they will be able to pull that off. Thus, I’m going with Wisconsin.

The Spartans prevail in Indianapolis this time and go on to the Rose Bowl while Nebraska benefits from sitting at home on championship weekend and having a huge fan base, thus getting an at-large bid to the BCS.

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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Final thoughts on OSU-Nebraska

After watching the game again, I think I get why Ohio State’s coaches decided not to spend a lot of time reviewing it with the team.

The main lesson, particularly on defense in the fourth quarter, is just this: You can’t win playing like that. I’m sure the coaches learned a few things schematic and technique things from combing through the tape, but the bottom line for the players is they just have to make the plays when they are on the field.

To beat a team like Nebraska on the road, you have to execute. Make tackles. Defeat blocks. Make blocks. Complete throws.

There were a few schematic things, but mostly the game was there and Ohio State just let it go.

Like most people, I believe they screwed up by going away from the run after Joe Bauserman came in the game. With the way the game was rolling downhill, bowing your back and deciding you’re going to make yards on the ground was the way to go, especially as long as Bauserman basically refuses to put the ball into a tight spot. Of course, I guess I can’t blame him because he doesn’t seem really good at doing that, but that’s another issue. I think his ultra caution is actually worse than occasionally rolling the dice.

I’m not sure they would have been able to run the ball so well they could have run out the clock – I doubt it, actually – but it might have helped slow the game down, and shaving a couple of minutes off the clock might not have let Nebraska be so comfortable to continue mostly running itself.

Of course, if Ohio State needed to throw it, there were easier ways to do it than they tried with Bauserman. This staff has never quite learned to be patient in the passing game. They have always maintained the old school mentality of running for show and throwing for dough, and generally that is fine, but it has hurt them in certain situations. Nebraska was playing soft enough coverage they could have completed some easy throws – quick screens, slants, etc. – but those were never attempted. So, to a certain extent, the offensive staff made it harder than it needed to be. Not the first time we have seen that.

On the other side of the ball, Nebraska did perplex them with the formation I’ll call an inverted pistol wishbone: three backs surrounding the quarterback, one to each side and another behind him. I guess others have called it a diamond formation, but I’m not sure if there is an official name.

It was a balanced formation, and Ohio State didn’t seem sure how to align to it. On the touchdown, the ball was in the center of the field, and Nebraska ended up running away from the strength. That limited the number of players who needed to be blocked, and Martinez’s speed was clearly evident as he outran the angles on Christian Bryant.

Those things are going to happen, but someone has to step up and decide when enough is enough. There is a talent deficiency at linebacker, but I think the bigger factor was just the complete lack of anyone making a play. Bryant tried to stop the bleeding but made things worse, being in the middle of two long touchdowns because he lost his discipline. He also appeared to draw a questionable personal foul when leading with his head along the sideline.

As I wrote in my column, Bryant will be fine, but the leadership issue must be addressed if this defense wants to reach its potential any time soon. The problems at linebacker and the lack of an elite pass rusher probably mean this can’t be a great defense, but it can be very good, good enough to win most games the offense scores 27 points. It did not play at that level on Saturday night, however, and it has two more big challenges coming up the next two games.

I think evaluating every player every week will get tedious, but I’ll highlight Johnathan Hankins, John Simon, Andrew Sweat and Bradley Roby on defense as players I gave more pluses than minuses in going back over the game.

Hankins looks better every week – did you see him toss a blocker back five yards into the quarterback on a rollout? It was amazing – and I thought he and Simon showed the most consistent energy on the night for the defense. Roby did a good job coming up to stop the run and didn’t give up anything I coverage, and Sweat is the only linebacker they are using right now who can run down a play away from him.

Offensively, Braxton Miller had a few hiccups but overall looked the best of his young career. He needs to smooth out some of those throws, but he will as he relaxes. Obviously he has to get stronger with the ball, too.

Bauserman, of course, was just not good enough. I had him down for one good play, his completion, and that was on a simple hitch pattern.

I thought tailbacks Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde were pretty much flawless, and Zach Boren was his typical self. Philly Brown had a nice return from injury, and Chris Fields looked the best he has looked all season. Fields got on top of a couple of cornerbacks and avoided the big penalties he committed the previous two weeks.

Facing a pretty good Nebraska front, the offensive line was solid at the first level but had very little success getting to the Cornhusker linebackers. Nebraska was content to use only seven defenders against the run until the fourth quarter, and the result was what you would expect to see: Ohio State made some yards early but could not take advantage of the adjustment when Bauserman came in.

Jake Stoneburner got to show off his jets on his touchdown run as he got to the goal line ahead of the Husker safety, and he was solid blocking. Reid Fragel teamed with Shugarts to open up the hole on Hyde’s long touchdown run.

Random thoughts:

  • I think one area this team’s youth is noticeable is their ups and downs in pursuit. The coaching staff complained about a lack of gang tackling at Miami, and that was a problem again at Nebraska. Rarely were there multiple people around the ball carrier Saturday night.
  • They had a hell of a time blocking Baker Steinkuler. I was also impressed with how many plays linebacker Will Compton was in on. They did a lot to complement the performance by Lavonte David, whose contributions were clear the first time around.
  • The swiftness of the first two touchdown drives are why I put most of the blame for this loss on the defense. At that point, they should have been fresh yet the first two touchdown drives were incredibly easy. The second one went 80 yards in less than three minutes. That’s what really opened the game back up, made it harder for the offense and gave Nebraska the momentum. The defense had multiple chances to nip the comeback in the bud and completely failed.
  • I feel like in multiple areas this coaching staff does not trust the players to accomplish what needs done, and that has held them back. They haven’t seemed to show much trust in Miller or a handful of young defensive players they keep saying they need to get on the field or even the sophomore kicker, for that matter.

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.