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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

(Explanatory details here.)

(Look, for reasons which should be obvious and will become more so the week before the game, I strongly dislike desire to smite flat-out effing hate tOSU. This mostly stems from a trip to Columbus wherein I nearly got in two fistfights because I was wearing the wrong colors and a handicapped guy was beat up.* So you can cry bias here if you like.)

*(Exaggeration. He was shoved to the ground by someone attempting to tackle a friend of mine who--get this--was walking to the game. The nerve. Anyway, Mr. Handicapped has cerebral palsy; he's going to be a pediatrician. I'm not making this up, I swear to God.)

The Story

Last year I was sitting at Arbor Brewing Company, enjoying a beer with a girl I was about to date. I was trying really hard to pay attention to her, but the persistent flickering of the Northwestern-Ohio State game going on behind her head made it near-impossible to do so. I explained my difficulty and my dismay when Ohio State tied the game and sent it to overtime. "They always do this," I said. "They always pull games they have no business winning out of their Katzenmoyer." I awaited the inevitable, improbable turn of events that would result in another victory so stolen you could only buy it from the back of a van. This did not happen. The Wildcats won their first game against Ohio State in over 30 years. We've been married for ten years. (Or maybe we broke up three months later. Deduce!)

It got better. Ohio State proceeded lose to Wisconsin, again, and then was messily beheaded at Kinnick. By the time the Michigan-Ohio State game rolled around, Michigan was 9-1, headed for the Rose Bowl; Ohio State was 6-4, headed for Detroit. Then that happened. That thing. That horrible unexplainable thing with no possible justifications that featured a heavily favored team in the Michigan-Ohio State game going down to ignominious defeat and the newly saved season of the underdog.

There ain't no way around it: we got Coopered.

Ohio State proceeded to nuke Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Almost every starter returns, and those lost (Dustin Fox, the running backs) weren't very good anyway. So. There's reason for optimism in the Worst Place On Earth. But isn't claiming the Buckeyes a national championship contender a fit of irrational exuberance, in the words of Alan Greenspan? Is this not a team that got one good game from a quarterback last year, has a running back situation featuring two freshmen and a sophomore (who has not run for 1400 yards), can't start the same offensive line from one game to the next, has exactly one cornerback and no pass rush? Isn't Ted Nugent gone?

Yeah, everyone's got questions. But those are questions like so: !? Oh, the Buckeyes will be better. But I'll believe Troy Smith, Actual Quarterback when I see it more than once.

Unit By Unit


Are you sure that's the end zone?
Rating: 2. One game against Michigan turned Troy Smith from a really tan version of Steve Bellisari into the next next Michael Vick. But the new Ron New Mexico he ain't. I present to you the Troy Smith Resume:
  • Indiana: (Is Bad At Football.) Smith goes 12 for 24 for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Ohio State wins 30-7.
  • Penn State: Ohio State attempts a total of eight passes. They gain 202 yards and win 21-10 by returning a punt and interception for touchdowns and getting a 35 yard touchdown drive after a long kickoff return.
  • Michigan State: Against one of the worst defenses in the country, Smith goes 13-21 for 138 yards, 58 of which came on a slant where MSU's very special secondary blew the angle on Ginn. His other 20 attempts netted 80 yards. OSU scored on a 17 yard Ginn reverse after a Damon Dowdell interception, a Ginn punt return, a 19-yard drive to get a 53-yard Nugent field goal, the Ginn slant, and a long touchdown run trying to run out the clock.
  • Purdue: Smith completes less than 50% of his passes and throws three second-half interceptions. OSU loses 24-17, though Smith does lead two moderately long touchdown drives.
  • Michigan: Inexplicably explodes for approximately eight billion yards. Drives me to brink of homicidal rampage.
  • Oklahoma State: Watches from bench.
Which of these events appears to be the outlier? Yes. That's correct. I will grant you that quarterbacks improve with experience and time. I will grant you that Smith made a number of big plays against Michigan. But that's it. Without drastic improvement, Smith is an erratic thrower prone to poor decisions who's a good runner. This makes you walk on water against Michigan and the Keystone Klinebackers, but it does not imply success against other teams. Ohio State's offense was terrible last year, and Troy Smith was a major reason why. This is not a strength.

Then there's the other guy. Justin Zwick lost his job to that guy after completing just over half his passes and throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions early in the year. He was totally overwhelmed in his first year as a starter. Because Troy Smith accepted $500 from a booster (there's that poor decision-making again) after the Michigan game, Zwick started the Alamo Bowl and will start against Miami (Ohio) in the opener. He may play against Texas. Zwick's essentially a version of Smith that can't run.

Running Back
Rating: 2. The Buckeyes are young and unproven at this position. Three mediocre seniors graduated, leaving two freshmen and a sophomore competing for the job. The presumed starter is Antonio Pittman, the Buckeyes' second leading rusher last year with, uh, 403 yards on 72 carries. That is a healthy 5.3 yards per carry, but that's highly distorted by his 20 carries for 144 yards against Indiana. Now, everyone gets to play Indiana or teams like them, but a set of rushing statistics featuring more than a quarter of the carries and a third of the yards from a game against the Hoosiers is optimistic. He's speedy but not the kind of guy who can pick through the carnage the Buckeye offensive line let through last year. He can't possibly be worse than the departees--the season will tell whether he's any better.

True freshman Maurice Wells, one of those 5'9" scatback types, may be the best bet for a competent running back in Columbus this year. Wells rushed for some ridiculous number of yards in a game last year--a quick check reveals it to be 429--and was one of those Rivals 100 guys. If he picks up the offense (and how hard can it be to pick up the Buckeye offense) he will definitely get a shot at the starting job.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 5. Well, Ginn and Holmes are good if OSU can get the ball in their hands--which they will. Expect Ginn to be the recipient of all manner of screens, reverses, handoffs, shovel passes, and honest-to-goodness downfield receptions. The problem is that if there aren't enough of the latter teams will encroach upon the line of scrimmage and limit the effectiveness of the former.

For all the hype surrounding Ginn, it's worth noting that he only caught 25 passes last year and a good number of those were screens or short, simple routes. Ginn has yet to display any route-running acumen, ability to adjust to a deep ball in flight, or sticky hands. The jury is still out. Sure, the jury's probably going to come back and say OMG TED GINN IS FAST, but I'm just saying: he's not the best receiver in the conference yet.

Santonio Holmes is, at least to NFL draft types. In fact, some people believe him to be the best receiver in the nation (in what appears to be a really weak year for wide receivers in general). He's certainly your prototypical WR, big, fast, and a good route runner, but he didn't really knock anyone's socks off last year. He had a huge game against Marshall (224 yards) but was hardly utilized in the Big Ten after the opening loss to Northwestern when he had 99 yards. His next best game was a three-catch, 50 yard performance against Michigan. If the quarterback situation doesn't improve it'll probably be more of the same. Ginn will get all the short screeny stuff and Holmes will run downfield, wondering what the point of it all is.

Ohio State apparently believes that every wide receiver on the roster would start for most teams nationwide, but, uh, probably not. There's good depth here, but that won't be the issue. The issue will be getting it in #1 and #2's hands often enough to make a difference.

Offensive Line
Rating: 3. When you finish 98th in total offense there's plenty of blame to go around. The offensive line was confused, porous, and generally bad despite having a couple of extremely talented players--Center Nick Mangold and newly-switched left guard Rob Sims are both seniors who will probably be drafted by NFL teams next year. It's just the other three guys that are the problem, whoever they are.

Ohio State played musical chairs all year trying to find a combination that worked. Three players took turns screwing up at right tackle before then-sophomore Kirk Barton took hold of the job five games into the season, but that didn't prevent OSU coaches from tearing the redshirt off Steve Rehring halfway through the year and playing him. The left guard spot was absolute chaos all year. TJ Downing started three of the last four games and appears to have a hold on the starting job going into the season. Mike Kne, a former walk-on who transferred from mighty Fordham, started at right guard.

The chairs have already started rotating again this year. Sims has been moved to left guard, bumping Doug Datish out of a starting spot. Sophomore Rehring is the new left tackle--either a disaster waiting to happen or a great sign that Rehring is going to be an All Big Ten-type down the line. Only the season will reveal the answer. So, you've got Sims and Mangold as solid starters, a new guy at LT, Downing at LG, and Barton at RT. The Buckeye coaches have faith in two of these guys. Better than last year. Not great.

Defensive Line
Rating: 4. There's no Will Smith for the Buckeyes this year but the line will be all right. Three of four starters return. Quinn Pitcock had a nice year as a redshirt sophomore last year and Mike Kudla was effective when he recovered from a pinched nerve sustained earlier in the year, but the line did not put up particularly impressive numbers as individuals. As a unit, however, the defensive line has to be given some credit for aiding Ohio State's run defense. No one yields 3.5 yards a carry and just 3.2 in conference without a front seven that's solid all around. The linebackers are the primary force behind that but not the only one.

The run defense will be good to great this year, but there's still the matter of that pass rush. Kudla managed 4 in his injury-hampered year but nobody else who returns had more than 2 except linebacker Anthony Schlegel, and a full quarter of OSU sacks (6) came against lowly Indiana. Someone has to step up here to pair with Kudla, be it Vernon Gholston or Jay Richardson.


If only OSU had a linebacker named "Animal"
Rating: 5.Duh, right? AJ Hawk, Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter, etc. All rack up huge numbers of tackles and are the real reason the Buckeye defense was so stiff against the run last year. mgoblog specifically remembers the first play of the second half in last year's Michigan-Ohio State game. A run blitz picked off Mike Hart's lead blocker but a cavernous hole opened up on the weak side of the line. AJ Hawk filled it, thumped Hart, and it was second and ten. This was in marked contrast to what usually happened when Mike Hart found a linebacker in the hole: Hart would do something totally sweet and disappear while the linebacker sat there with a big question mark over his head, Looney-Tunes style. It was also typical of Hawk and the Borg linebackers OSU has rolled out for a while now--efficient, no nonsense, impossible to destroy even with, like, photon torpedoes and stuff.

There won't be any drop off. Everyone is back this year. Hawk is the favorite for the Butkus and despite the fact that Mike D'Andrea is probably going to have to take a redshirt this year because of a serious injury he sustained, there's plenty of depth. This is the best linebacker corps in the country and it isn't particularly close.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 3. The dirty secret of the Buckeye defense last year was that they weren't that good defending the pass. Kyle Orton and Brandon Kirsch combined to go 29 for 42 and threw three touchdowns. Drew Tate nuked the Buckeyes, going 26 for 39 and putting up 331 yards. Chad Henne was 27 for 54 and threw for 328 yards. He also threw two interceptions that were more due to bad reads than anything else. Hell, even wobble-armed Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez went 24 for 44 and put up 278 yards. Ohio State crushified the passing offenses of its nonconference foes, but in the Big Ten they gave up 235.1 yards per game, better than only Minnesota and Indiana.

Some of that yardage was definitely caused by teams avoiding the Buckeyes' fierce run defense. They were significantly better in efficiency terms, but still only fifth in the conference and not too far (1.1 points) off of seventh, despite having 11 interceptions. Ohio State let its opponents complete 58.4 percent of their passes, third from the bottom in the league. Add it all up and you get a pass defense that was thoroughly meh.

The primary reason for this seems to be that Ohio State, much like Michigan, has a major issue at the "other" corner spot. Junior Ashton Youboty (4 int, 14 PBU) is a rising star destined for the EDSBS All Name Team, but converted safety Tyler Everett, who missed spring practice, is the projected starter opposite him and it's anyone's guess what's going on past him. Everett's move seems like a bit of a panic decision. He's a senior who has played safety his first three years; strange to move him now unless there's a serious hole opposite Youboty; there is. The safeties are thumping run defenders but not great in coverage. Last year Nate Salley and Donte Whitner, who both missed two games, combined for 134 tackles... and 6 pass breakups. Whitner contributed one of those.

Past the four starters there is junior safety Brandon Mitchell and a bunch of freshmen, redshirt and true. Obviously, no one other than Mitchell has any experience whatsoever, but there are enough numbers (six in total) to expect a player or two to emerge. Jamario O'Neal, he of the yielding 255 yards and 3 touchdowns to Mario Manningham (maybe "Ja" means "toast" in Afrikaans), will also see playing time. Hopefully directly opposite Manningham.

And then there's that Ginn dude. Given the fact that Ginn is still a very raw receiver, it would be surprising to see him play extensively at defensive back this year. The alarming lack of depth could necessitate him seeing the field in nickel or dime situations late in the year, however, if no one steps forward.

Return Game

You ain't kidding.
Rating: 5. Ted Ginn, and how. Ginn returned 15 punts last year, 4 of them for touchdowns, and averaged over 23 yards a return. Ridiculous. He's already Ohio State's career leader in punt return touchdowns. Santonio Holmes didn't do so badly himself, averaging over 10 yards a return and scoring a touchdown of his own.

The question here is how many opportunities will Ginn get this year? If the OSU offense limps along as much as it did last year kicking away from Ginn will be a no-brainer. It may even be a good idea if Troy Smith improves.

Rating: N/A. Mike Nugent is gone. So is punter Kyle Trappasso. Nugent's replacement, sixth-year senior Josh Huston, is reputed to be pretty good, but it's mgoblog policy to not speculate on kickers, who are about as reliable as the Des Moines Register. (ZING!)


OSU is featured in the premiere nonconference game of the season when it takes on Texas. That's a home night game and thus many ascribing a huge homefield advantage to the Buckeyes, but Texas is not going to go away easily. No doubt OSU's linebackers will do a better job against Vince Young than Michigan's did, but there's a definite possibility that he is a superhero who cannot be stopped. The Longhorns return about as much as OSU does and have definite advantages at offensive line, defensive line, the secondary, and quarterback. It'll be close, but I don't think OSU wins.

The Big Ten schedule isn't terrible. OSU misses conference contender Purdue and Wisconsin; the Badgers have owned the Buckeyes in recent years. The Big Ten schedule opens up with a tough stretch: home games against Iowa and Michigan State with a trip to Happy Valley in between. After that there are road games against Minnesota and Michigan with Illinois/Indiana/Northwestern creampuffs scattered in between.

Keys to the Season

Don't Get Arrested All At Once okay, okay... seriously...

Sophisticate. At some point Ohio State is going to have to come to the conclusion that whatever Jim Tressel is doing on offense just isn't working. The Buckeyes have been a disjointed Keystone Kops operation far too often for a major college program. Another 8-4 year featuring the head-bonking exploits of an incompetent two-headed quarterback and Jim Herrmann will have some company on the "hot-seat-but-never-fired" bench.

Cease The Musical Chairs. Some shuffling at the beginning of the season is par for the course for most offensive lines around the country, but the revolving door at every position except LT and C last year severely hurt the Buckeyes' attempts to, you know, score and stuff. This year they've already shifted Rob Sims, a two year starter, inside and promote Steve Rehring to a starting job. Troy Smith is not going to be the type of guy to lead you down the field in 15 yard chunks without the aid of a significantly improved running game, which rest heavily on the shoulders of the offensive line. It was a makeshift, patchwork unit last year. They have to find some stability here or the running game is going to languish and the offense is going to be stuck hurling it to Ginn and hoping.

You can cross the line of scrimmage. Ohio State is going to need a strong pass rush this year to have a chance of shutting down your Drew Tates and your Chad Hennes. Ashton Youboty can only cover one of Hinkel/Solomon and Breaston/Avant. Mike Kudla showed some pass rush flair last year but was basically the only one. OSU needs to find another player who can put heat on the quarterback or they're going to be staring at the back of Tyler Everett's jersey far too much for taste this year.


Worst Case: If the quarterback situation does not improve it won't matter how brilliant Ginn is, because he has to be given the ball somehow. Ohio State should be a better team this year, but the nonconference game against Texas is nasty and if the Real Troy Smith turns out to be the guy who played against Michigan State instead of Michigan, Ohio State could well stumble to 6-5 if its fortunes in close games (and there will be a ton of close games) take a turn for the worse. A team so heavily dependent on one player has a huge potential swing; see Michigan State.

Best Case: If Troy Smith is the quarterback that took the field against Michigan... well, he's not. Let's just end that speculation right there. If Troy Smith is reasonably efficient and competent, the Buckeyes have a lot of the pieces to make a serious run this year. But to be a real contender they need to ramp their defense up to a dominating level--which means finding, like, three corners and getting a pass rush--or have something approximating a modern offense--meaning an offensive line that doesn't shuffle itself every game, a running back who's not really terrible, and a quarterback with a clue. I don't think either of those things will assemble itself enough for the Buckeyes to scrape through this year undefeated, but 10-1 is a possibility.

mgoblog says... the hype being extruded by CFN and their ilk about the Buckeyes is incorrect. They will be a good team, a better team than last year. But they are scrambling for an answer at cornerback and their offensive backfield appears to be one of the worst in the conference. The offensive line will be okay but that's all. If Ohio State is expecting Ginn's performance to scale proportionately with his playing time they'll probably be disappointed. His punt return exploits from last year are not reproducible. As a receiver he is still unproven. Yes, he's really good. He's not that good. No one is.

Is this Ohio State offense going to perk up? Probably some, but not much. The defense will be very, very difficult to run against, but Ineffective Pass Rush + Thin Secondary + Toastmario O'Neal == More Big Passing Days Against.

Texas beats OSU out of conference, and then OSU embarks on another highwire act of ugly games won and lost on punt returns, long field goals, and turnovers which they mostly end up on the good side of, but not always. OSU loses two games in conference, probably against Michigan and one of Penn State, Michigan State, or Iowa. 8-3, 6-2 Big Ten, 3rd place.