Ohio State Already In Rebuilding Mode?

If we were giving out grades to the Ohio State football team for the first quarter of the 2008 season, they wouldn’t be pretty.

I don’t think I’m belaboring the point by saying the team that will open Big Ten play on Saturday bears little resemblance to the one we thought would make a run at a third straight national championship game. The veteran team we thought we were getting has quickly morphed into rebuilding mode right before our eyes.

Gone is the starting quarterback, replaced by a talented freshman. After 13 games last season, 20 practice sessions in the spring and nearly 30 more this fall, the offensive line resembles nothing of what most people thought it would. The team’s Heisman Trophy candidate hasn’t played in nearly a month, the veteran defense cannot get any kind of a meaningful rush on opposing quarterbacks and the kickoff return game is nearly nonexistent.

The cold, stark, black-and-white of the matter appears to show a team that felt all it needed to do was show up, hand the ball off to Beanie Wells 30 times a game and the opposition would fall at their feet. While it might have been nice to have witnessed what might have been had that been possible, it remains extremely mystifying why this team has appeared to struggle with the likes of Ohio and Troy while getting blown off the field at USC.

The mark of a good team, one that aspires to win championships year in and year out, is one that can overcome its problems. While I continue to believe a healthy Wells is one of the premier running backs in college football, I wouldn’t have thought he was the player the Buckeyes could least afford to lose.

Depth at the tailback position was supposed to be a thing of the past, but from what I have seen in the subsequent weeks since Wells was hurt is a coaching staff that has targeted redshirt freshman Dan Herron as the go-to guy. There’s nothing wrong with that mentality because Herron has proved that he can carry the load. But for all of his gifts, Herron is no Beanie Wells. There is an intrinsic difference between firing a 5-10, 193-pounder between the tacklers and unleashing a 6-1, 237-pound monster on opposing defenses.

Did the Ohio State coaching staff get caught off-guard when Wells got hurt? I think they did. I think they geared so much of their offensive game plan to featuring the tailback, they had no backup plan when Wells went down. That was painfully obvious against Ohio when no running back rushed for more than 50 yards, and it was even moreso the following week during the ill-advised quarterback merry-go-round at USC.

Last week against Troy, Herron carried 20 times for 94 yards – both career-high numbers – while Terrelle Pryor scrambled around for 66. (Take away his ill-advised sack at the end of the first half and the total would have been closer to 85.) That’s a good start, and Pryor’s ability to slide out of impending danger makes an offensive line look better than it is at times.

I’m still left wondering, however, what has happened to Brandon Saine. We continue to hear that he was shuffled back in preseason because of an injury. OK. That was preseason. One-third of the 2008 regular season is already in the books, and I’m still waiting for this explosive pony offense or pistol formation or whatever they want to call it that features Saine as a complimentary running back.

We all saw how Saine can stretch the field in the passing game with his 44-yard reception against LSU, and most have forgotten he turned a short pass into a 35-yard gain last year against Kent State. We know that when he was Mr. Football in Ohio at Piqua High School, Saine was a back who got better the more carries he got. Yet, after four games, he has only three more carries this season than Wells.

If Saine is hurt, OK – he’s hurt. But how can he be hurt and have played all four games so far? It seems to me a team that currently ranks seventh in the Big Ten in rushing and dead last in passing could and should use all the weapons at its disposal, especially when the main one shelved since opening day.

And then there’s the defense.

There seems to be no consistent pass rush, very little in the way of press coverage and a prevailing mentality of bend but don’t break. The 6 to 8 yards given up in zone by the Ohio State cornerbacks has already been exploited by lesser teams on their schedule, and I shudder to see what teams like Penn State, Illinois or even Minnesota this weekend can do with a defense that essentially surrenders yardage until you get into the red zone.

Perhaps the worst thing of all is the way the Buckeyes tackle – or more to the point, the way they don’t tackle. Last week against Troy, receiver Jerrel Jernigan took a short pass and ran through linebacker Marcus Freemen, safety Kurt Coleman, safety Jermale Hines and Coleman again near the goal line to score a 45-yard touchdown. Plays like that are painful to watch, especially when you understand that tackling is mostly made up of a mental approach to technique.

This team still has more interceptions (7) than sacks (6), and if you are going to continue to play a soft zone, you are simply going to have to tackle better.

There does appear to be some stirring in the defensive strategy, especially where spread teams are concerned. The Buckeyes will feature a starting lineup Saturday against the Gophers with Thaddeus Gibson and Lawrence Wilson on the edges while Doug Worthington and Cameron Heyward man the interior positions. In essence, you have four defensive ends in the game at the same time to give OSU a little more flexibility, a little more agility and a little more speed to contain quarterbacks who like to move around.

Nevertheless, that sounds to me like a defense predicated on containment, not attack. Those of us who long for the Silver Bullet days when Ohio State defenders were raining down on opposing quarterbacks from everywhere on the field are evidently going to have to keep longing.

Perhaps all of this critical analysis will fade over the next few weeks as Pryor gets more comfortable as the starter and has Wells in his backfield. As I said several weeks ago, a Beanie Wells at 70 percent is better than no Beanie Wells at all.

This week could be the week we get to see the Ohio State football team we thought we’d see all along in 2008. On the other hard, if the Buckeyes insist upon sleepwalking their way through the next four games the way they did the first four, it is difficult to believe they can successfully defend their Big Ten championship.

OHIO STATE-MINNESOTA MINUTIAE

** Ohio State has won 40 of the previous 47 meetings between these two schools including each of the last five and 21 of the last 22. The Gophers last tasted victory in the series in 2000 when they pulled off a 29-17 upset win in Ohio Stadium. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1949 to find a Minnesota victory in the Horseshoe.

** Since joining the Big Ten in 1913, the Buckeyes are 68-23-4 in conference season openers. Tressel is 6-1, losing only a 33-27 decision in overtime at Northwestern in 2004. The last time Ohio State took on Minnesota in a Big Ten opener was 1980, and the Buckeyes scored a 47-0 home victory.

** OSU is a three-time defending Big Ten champion, including two outright titles in a row. No team in the history of the league has ever won three consecutive outright championships.

** The Buckeyes are also trying to become only the second team in Big Ten history to win four or more consecutive titles on multiple occasions. Ohio State captured a league-record six straight championships from 1972-77, while Michigan has won four or more titles in a row on five different occasions.

** If Ohio State can win a fourth straight championship this year, Tressel would become only the fifth coach in Big Ten history to accomplish that feat. The others are OSU’s Woody Hayes (1972-77) and Michigan’s Fielding Yost (1901-04), Harry Kipke (1930-33) and Bo Schembechler (1971-74).

** Minnesota has come a long way from losing 11 of 12 games last season. The Gophers are 4-0 for the first time since 2005 and even earned a couple of votes this week in both the AP and USA Today national rankings, a first for the program since November 2005.

** One reason for the Gophers’ undefeated record so far is turnover margin. They lead the Big Ten and are fourth nationally in that category, creating 13 turnovers while giving away on one fumble and one interception for a plus-11 rating. The Buckeyes are tied for third in the conference with a plus-3 turnover ratio.

** Minnesota head Tim Brewster likes to keep his assistant coaches on the sidelines during the game. Only offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar and DBs coach Ronnie Lee spend the game in the pressbox. Tressel divides his staff almost evenly during gamedays – five on the sideline and four in the box.

** Brewster is 0-1 against Ohio State in his brief tenure as Minnesota head coach, but he had better success against the Buckeyes as a player. Brewster played tight end at Illinois from 1982-83 and helped the Illini take a 17-13 victory over OSU in ’83, catching six passes for 52 yards in the game.

** Minnesota is currently in its 125th season of intercollegiate football. Only Rutgers (138), Michigan (128) and Navy (127) have played more.

** His Gopher teammates must have known quarterback Adam Weber was going to have a breakout season. They elected him one of four team captains prior to the season, making him the first sophomore in Minnesota program history to earn that distinction. Weber has responded by throwing for a league-best 967 yards and seven touchdowns so far.

** Weber’s backup, senior Mike Maciejowski, is the son of former Ohio State quarterback Ron Maciejowski. The elder Maciejowski was a backup quarterback for the Buckeyes from 1968-70, but played a vital role in the Michigan State and Wisconsin victories during the ’68 national championship run when starter Rex Kern was sidelined with injuries.

** Minnesota is 15 for 16 in red-zone opportunities this season, and 14 of those scores have been touchdowns. Ohio State is 10 for 12 in the red zone – five TDs and five field goals.

** OSU senior receiver Brian Robiskie needs only one more reception to become the 13th player in school history to have 100 career catches. David Boston (1996-98) is the all-time leader with 191 receptions. Additionally, Robiskie needs 65 more yards to become only the fifth Buckeye ever with 1,000 career receiving yards. Boston also holds that record with 1,435.

** Despite the perception that the Ohio State defense is playing a little soft this season, the fact remains the Buckeyes rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 10 nationally in pass defense. Moreover, OSU has surrendered only two touchdowns in three home games so far this season.

** Former Ohio State player and assistant coach Glen Mason will serve as honorary captain this week. Mason, of course, was also head coach at Minnesota from 1997-2006 and ranks third in all-time victories with the Gophers.

** Kickoff against the Gophers is set for shortly after 12 noon Eastern. The Big Ten Network will once again staff the game with the announce crew of Thom Brennaman (play-by-play), Charles Davis (color analysis) and Charissa Thompson (sideline). Mason is also scheduled to help with color analysis.

** The game will also be broadcast on Sirius satellite radio channel 123.

** Next week’s game at Wisconsin will kick off at 8 p.m. Eastern. (That’s 7 p.m. Madison time if you’re going to the game.) It will either be on ABC or ESPN2 – the determination will be made after Saturday’s games.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former punter Tom Orosz. Born Sept. 26, 1959, in Painesville, Ohio, Thomas Paul Orosz played at Ohio State from 1977-80 and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1978. His career average of 41.8 yards per punt still ranks seventh all-time in OSU history. Orosz later spent four seasons in the NFL – two each with Miami and San Francisco – and he was the Dolphins’ punter during their Super Bowl season of 1982. His pro career average for 188 punts was 39.8 yards per punt.

Others celebrating birthdays today include: Sixties television actress Donna Douglas (Elly May on “The Beverly Hillbillies”); Seventies TV actor Kent McCord (Officer Jim Reed on “Adam-12”); South African anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela; film producer Jerry Weintraub (“The Karate Kid,” “Oh, God!” “Ocean’s Eleven”); prickly TV host Anne Robinson (“The Weakest Link”); singer, songwriter and former Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry; former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman; country singer Lynn Anderson; pop singer Olivia Newton-John; actress Linda Hamilton (the original Sarah Connor in “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”); TV hostess, “Fox NFL Sunday” weathergirl and current NutriSystem spokesperson Jillian Barberie; nine-time Grand Slam tennis champion Serena Williams; and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. If there is a poster boy for clean living and exercise, it would have to be LaLanne. He celebrates his 94th birthday today.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** College Football Hall of Fame coach Lee Tressel was honored with several surviving family members last Saturday with the dedication of Tressel Field at Baldwin-Wallace’s George Finnie Stadium. Jim Tressel shares with his father the distinction of being part of the only father-son duo to have won national college football championships.

** Congratulations to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. He has his Wildcats at a perfect 4-0, the first time they have started a season with four consecutive victories since 1962. That year, Northwestern won its first six games and finished 7-2 under head coach Ara Parseghian.

** The Wildcats are one of only 27 remaining undefeated teams at the Division I-A level. The others: Alabama, Ball State, Boise State, BYU, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Penn State, South Florida, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech, Tulsa, USC, Utah, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Wisconsin.

** Congratulations also to Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer. After rushing for 201 yards and two touchdowns last week against Notre Dame, Ringer became the first player in Big Ten history to capture three consecutive offensive player of the week awards. He also became the first player in Michigan State history with back-to-back 200-yard games.

** Only four of the 11 Big Ten coaches have won league championships and Tressel leads that list with four. Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and Joe Paterno of Penn State have two each and Joe Tiller of Purdue has one.

** Speaking of Paterno, he passed Bobby Bowden of Florida State last week for the all-time lead in career victories among Division I-A coaches. Paterno now has 376 wins to 375 for Bowden, whose team lost to Wake Forest last week while Penn State was rolling over Temple.

** Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter needs 150 yards this week to become only the fifth Big Ten player in history to amass 10,000 or more yards of total offense. The top four: Drew Brees of Purdue (12,692, 1997-2000); Brett Basanez of Northwestern (11,576, 2002-05); Antwaan Randle El of Indiana (11,364, 1998-2001); and Chuck Long of Iowa (10,254, 1982-85).

Painter has 57 career touchdown passes and is four away from cracking the Big Ten top 10 in that category. Brees is the all-time conference leader in touchdown passes with 90.

** Michigan State and Notre Dame have agreed to continue playing one another at least through the 2025 season. The two rivals have played one another 72 times with the Spartans’ 23-7 victory last Saturday their third win in the last four meetings. The Irish, however, still holding a commanding 44-27-1 lead in the series that began in 1897.

** With the final game played in Yankee Stadium last weekend, there were countless stories written about the venerable old stadium. Here is a bit of trivia I’ll be you didn’t know. The school that holds the record for playing the most college football games in Yankee Stadium is New York University, which played 96 times there between 1923 and 1948. NYU, which no longer fields an intercollegiate football team, had a 52-40-4 record in Yankee Stadium.

** Thirty-seven years ago today, Colorado engineered one of its biggest upsets ever and it came at the expense of Ohio State. On Sept. 25, 1971, the Buffaloes knocked off the No. 6-rated Buckeyes by a 20-14 score, handing OSU only its second regular-season loss in 33 games. Colorado wide receiver Cliff Branch’s sixth career kickoff touchdown return helped the Buffalos take a 13-0, and quarterback Ken Johnson added a fourth-quarter touchdown to secure the win. Colorado guard Bud Magrum led his defense with 20 tackles, and the Buffaloes stopped Ohio State twice inside the 5-yard line.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Sept. 22, 1956, SMU upset Notre Dame by a 19-13 score, handing the Irish their first-ever loss in the month of September; on Sept. 24, 1966, future Florida State president T.K. Wetherell returned a kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown to help the Seminoles to a 23-20 victory over instate rival Miami (Fla.) in the Orange Bowl; and on Sept. 28, 1892, Mansfield State Normal (Ohio) played Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) in the first college football night game. The contest, played at the Mansfield Fairgrounds, used generators to light the field with banks of 20- and 30-watt bulbs. But when the low-wattage bulbs failed to deliver enough light to see properly, the game ended at halftime in a scoreless tie.

Change Coming For Ohio State, Tressel

From last week’s blog:

(Todd Boeckman) is most definitely staring his destiny squarely in the eye. If he cannot produce Saturday night against USC, he must know that Tressel may try to jump-start the offense with freshman Terrelle Pryor.

If that happens, the writing is on the wall for Boeckman no matter how Pryor performs. If he can’t get anything going, it probably spells defeat for the Buckeyes. If the freshman succeeds, it could mean the beginning of the end of the Boeckman era. And if you don’t think they replace senior co-captains as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, ask Greg Hare. He started for the Buckeyes in 1972 and was voted team captain in 1973 only to cede his position to sophomore Cornelius Greene.

The bottom line is this: Is Boeckman the next Craig Krenzel or the next Greg Hare? Most people think they already know the answer. We’ll see on Saturday night.

I’m not trying toot my own horn as much as I’m trying to make a point. In his seven-plus seasons as head coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel has made no secret of his affinity for upperclassmen, especially seniors who have paid their dues. He has stuck with several of them over the years when it seemed the more prudent thing to do – at least in terms of winning ballgames – was to replace those seniors with a more talented underclassman.

Now comes the all-too-clear indication that Tressel is not only thinking about supplanting Boeckman as his starting quarterback, he is sharing those thoughts with the media.

Earlier this week, when asked about the starting quarterback situation, the coach first reverted to his tried-and-true mumbo jumbo known in most circles as Tresselspeak: “The nice thing about football,” he said, “is you probably need to think that the only thing that’s important is what I need to do better. But the reality is what we all need to do better is going to make the difference and all of that will help Todd, all of that will help Ohio State, all of that will help our defense and on and on.”

Later, he stripped away a little of the varnish.

“If we had a game last (Monday) night with what we were planning to do,” Tressel said, “we envisioned that it would be 50/50 (playing time between Boeckman and Pryor). But it will be affected by what we do in practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and obviously what occurs during the course of the game.”

Then Tressel became even more to the point, praising Pryor’s play last weekend against USC and underlining Boeckman’s mistakes.

“Terrelle has progressed with the lack of snaps in practice and the game more than you think he would,” the OSU head coach said. “I’ve seen a freshman get thrown into the fire and grow every practice and grow every game because he got so much experience. (But) I’ve seen (Terrelle) grow with a little bit less experience, which means he’s done a good job of learning by observing, which is the hardest thing for a player to do. … That’s been impressive to me about Terrelle – he’s had limited snaps yet considerable improvement.”

As for his senior co-captain, Tressel mentioned the sack that caused Boeckman’s fumble in the third quarter. While some offered the opinion that left tackle Alex Boone missed a block or tailback Dan Herron blew a blitz read, Tressel confirmed the mistake was made by Boeckman.

“It was the quarterback’s hot read, and unfortunately the play before they had brought a similar look, but they peeled off on the back,” Tressel explained. “Todd incorrectly assumed that they were coming with the same one, and so as he peeked at his hot read, he thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to peel off on the back again,’ and he thought, ‘OK, I’m safe back there.’ He took his eyes off of it, and he erred.”

Finally, we got as close to public criticism of a player that we have ever gotten from Tressel. When asked if he was surprised at how the quarterback situation between Boeckman and Pryor has evolved so quickly, he replied, “I don’t think at the outset I thought, ‘OK, now this might happen because what you practice and what you talk about and so forth is not having interceptions and is not missing a read, a hot throw or whatever.”

There is no doubt that Tressel is still in firm control of the Ohio State football program. Those who opined in the aftermath of the USC loss that he would be forced to make changes in his approach or coaching staff were either talking out of their hats or guilty of wishful thinking. While losses in the last two national championship games and the big nonconference battle at USC are troublesome for the national perception of OSU football, the fact remains that Tressel’s team remains positioned for a fourth straight Big Ten championship and a seventh victory in eight years over archrival Michigan.

While it is the order of the day to level criticism at the program, it is doubtful that many in the Buckeye Nation ever want the day to come when winning the Big Ten title and beating Michigan every year isn’t good enough.

But make no mistake here: We may be seeing a significant change in the Jim Tressel we think we’ve come to know. He has had talented freshmen on his roster before and been reluctant to use them in place of more veteran players. That philosophy may have gone out the window at USC.

As interesting as watching a potential national championship season unfold would have been, it may be even more intriguing to watch the transformation of a veteran head coach who appears ready to get the future of the Ohio State football program started immediately.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Luminaries celebrating birthdays this Sept. 19 include baseball writer Roger Angell; “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton; Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider; Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN analyst Joe Morgan; former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott; TV actor David McCallum (Illya Kurakin on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in the Sixties and currently forensics specialist Dr. Ducky Mallard in “NCIS”); singer Bill Medley (the bass half of The Righteous Brothers); composer Paul Williams (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Just An Old Fashioned Love Song,” and the theme to the TV show “The Love Boat”); Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons; eponymous model Twiggy (born Lesley Hornby); TV hostess Joan Lunden; former Saturday Night Live cast member Cheri Oteri; fellow former SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon; musician/composer/producer Nile Rodgers; country singer Trisha Yearwood (also Mrs. Garth Brooks); CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien; Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell; and actor Adam West, the one and only original Batman.

AND FINALLY

** When third-ranked Georgia travels to Arizona State this weekend, it will mark the Bulldogs’ first regular-season trip west of the Central Time Zone in nearly 50 years. UGA last traveled west during the regular season in 1960 when the Bulldogs fell 10-3 to Southern Cal in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

** Former Arizona State and Ohio State head coach John Cooper will be honored during that contest in recognition of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes from 1988-2000, was head of the Sun Devils’ program from 1985-87.

** Despite almost constant national criticism, the Big Ten features six of the remaining 39 undefeated teams at Division I-A. Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin are each 3-0 while Indiana is 2-0. The Big 12 and SEC lead the way nationally, each with eight undefeated teams.

** Think there might be something to this SEC media bias thing? Five conference teams are ranked in the AP top 10 this week – No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 LSU, No. 9 Alabama and No. 10 Auburn. That marks the first time in history that’s ever happened for the SEC.

** Care to hazard a guess as to the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation so far? That would be Iowa, which has given up only eight points so far in three games.

** Is it time to begin a Heisman Trophy campaign on behalf of Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer? After rolling up a career-high 282 yards last week against Florida International, Ringer has 498 yards in three games and ranks third in the nation in rushing with an average of 166.0 yards per contest. He is also the nation’s top scorer after three weeks with nine touchdowns. Another big performance this week against a still-suspect Notre Dame defense should begin to get Ringer some notice.

** Last week’s victory over Washington gave Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops his 100th career win with the Sooners. Only three other OU coaches have ever eclipsed the century mark in victories – Barry Switzer (157, 1974-88), Bud Wilkinson (145, 1947-63), and Bennie Owen (122, 1905-26). Switzer, Wilkinson and Owen are all College Football Hall of Fame members.

** A record Jones Stadium crowd of 53,383 turned out in Lubbock last Saturday to watch Texas Tech roll to a 43-7 win over SMU. The fact that the game was played at all was a minor miracle. Crews from the Lubbock Fire Department assisted school officials in pumping out over 300,000 gallons of water from the playing surface after torrential rains from Hurricane Ike overwhelmed the stadium’s drainage system.

** Air Force had 380 yards of total offense – all of it on the ground – last Saturday in a 31-28 win over Houston. Because of windy and rainy conditions caused by Hurricane Ike, the Cadets ran the ball 71 times in the game and failed to complete any of their seven pass attempts.

** Boise State has evidently started a trend with its blue “Smurf Turf” playing surface in Bronco Stadium. In preparation for resurrecting its football program in 2009, the University of New Haven, a Division II school whose alumni include Dallas Cowboys head coach Tony Sparano, recently installed the blue Sprinturf surface in its Ralph F. DellaCamera Stadium.

** Nine years ago yesterday, Cincinnati engineered one of the biggest upsets in program history. On Sept. 18, 1999, the Bearcats stunned ninth-ranked Wisconsin at Nippert Stadium, stopping the Badgers and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne by a 17-12 score. It marked the first victory in UC program history over a ranked opponent. Wisconsin went on to finish No. 4 in the final rankings while the Bearcats wound up with a 3-8 record.

** Also occurring this week in college football history: On Sept. 15, 1973, Northwestern snapped a six-game losing streak in season openers with a 14-10 win over Michigan State in Evanston; on Sept. 20, 1997, Florida State receiver Peter Warrick rolled up 372 all-purpose yards during a 35-28 win over Clemson, giving head coach Bobby Bowden his 200th win at FSU; and on Sept. 17, 1994, UNLV receiver Randy Gatewood set new NCAA single-game records with 23 receptions for 363 yards. The Rebels established six other national or conference records for offense in the game, but they somehow lost a 48-38 decision to Idaho.

Ohio State’s Reputation At Stake Saturday

Saturday night’s game against Southern California could be the Ohio State football program’s last chance for quite some time to become more than just a footnote in history.Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, reputations are at stake – reputations for the program, the players and the head coach. If the Buckeyes find a way to do what few other teams have been able to accomplish – beat USC at home – they will have gone a long way toward rebuilding what has become a tarnished image.

As much of a shock to the system that national championship game against Florida was, it will be nothing compared to what will happen if something similar happens this weekend. You can dust off your 2002 championship hats, sweatshirts and DVDs all you want, but that storybook run will be further ridiculed as nothing more than a fluke that was punctuated in the title game by a questionable pass interference call.

The notion will be that Ohio State cannot win a game on the big stage and the program’s prosecutors will have the Florida, LSU and USC games as Exhibits 1, 2 and 3.

By losing to the Trojans on Saturday, many of the players who returned to the Buckeyes for their senior seasons will likely take a hit in the wallet. Over the past several years, Ohio State has been able to keep up with Southern Cal in terms of the overall number of NFL draft picks. But over the past five drafts, USC has totaled 22 picks in the first and second rounds while OSU has counted 12 such picks.

A loss this weekend will put another crack in the once-invincible armor of Jim Tressel. With 210 victories and five national championships during a 23-year career, Tressel’s record speaks for itself. But ask yourself a question. When was the last time his team won a big game? – and I mean a really big game, not the one in Texas in 2006 against a depleted Longhorns squad that was breaking in a freshman starting quarterback.

I suppose you could make the case that every Michigan game is a big game although the Wolverines have finished with three losses or more every season that Tressel has been in Columbus except one. You could make the big-game argument for the 42-39 win over a previously undefeated U-M team in 2006 or the 34-20 victory over Brady Quinn-led Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. As difficult as it may be to remember, the Irish were ranked No. 6 in the country at that time.

Still, I think you have to go back to the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to find the Buckeyes rising to meet the challenge of playing and beating a team no one gave them a chance to beat.

Obviously, no team can expect to win every “big” game in which it is involved. For that very reason, Ohio State has won only four of 12 contests when it played the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. Likewise, if the desire is to continue to be thought of as one of the elite programs in college football, sooner or later you must win a nationally televised game against a higher-ranked opponent that is perceived to be the stronger team.

Will that be Saturday night for Tressel and the Buckeyes? I thought so until last week when they stumbled all over each other before taking a disinterested 26-14 victory over Ohio University. Now … I’m not so sure. In fact, I’ve got a bad feeling about this game. Then again, I felt good about Ohio State’s chances against Florida and LSU, so what do I know?

KEY MATCHUPS

I know every college football writer from Astabula to Anaheim is going to analyze this game six ways to Sunday.

They’re going to obsess over the health of Beanie Wells. (Hint: He played rather well against LSU and see where that got the Buckeyes.) They’re going to tell you to watch for USC’s Joe McKnight on kickoff and punt returns. (Don’t waste your time – Tressel isn’t going to kick to him). And they’ll wring their hands in anticipation of matchup between laid-back surfer Pete Carroll and straight-laced, sweater-vested Jim Tressel. (Neither guy is going to play a single snap.)

For me, the game comes down to just a handful of key matchups.

1. Todd Boeckman vs. Mark Sanchez – Quarterback performance is going to go a long way toward determining how this game plays out. Based upon what has been seen so far this season, the edge has to go to Sanchez.

Despite suffering a dislocated kneecap in fall camp (an injury that sounds painful just thinking about), Sanchez completed 26 of 35 attempts for 338 yards and three touchdowns in USC’s opener, a 52-7 piledriver at Virginia. The 6-3, 225-pounder wore a brace on his bum knee, but looked none the worse for wear. The few times the Cavaliers mounted any kind of pressure, Sanchez simply rolled out and away from the rush. The one time he did scramble, he picked up 6 yards.

Of course, you really don’t know what kind of competition Virginia gave to Sanchez and his teammates. We do know the kind of competition Boeckman has faced so far in completing 30 of his 45 passes, good for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps best of all, the 6-4, 244-pound senior co-captain has yet to throw an interception.

But make no mistake – Boeckman did not look particularly comfortable in the pocket in either the 43-0 opener against Youngstown State or Saturday’s mish-mash against Ohio. He appears to be thinking too much rather than letting his ability dictate the natural flow of the game. He sometimes locks in on a primary receiver, seems to be paying far too much attention to his footwork, almost stubbornly refuses to throw the ball away when his receivers are covered, and evidently would rather take a big hit from an opposing linebacker or safety rather than safely slide after a scramble.

I have been one of Boeckman’s staunchest supporters. I went so far last year as to suggest that he might be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2008. But the Ohio State quarterback is most definitely staring his destiny squarely in the eye. If he cannot produce Saturday night against USC, he must know that Tressel may try to jump-start the offense with freshman Terrelle Pryor.

If that happens, the writing is on the wall for Boeckman no matter how Pryor performs. If he can’t get anything going, it probably spells defeat for the Buckeyes. If the freshman succeeds, it could mean the beginning of the end of the Boeckman era. And if you don’t think they replace senior co-captains as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, ask Greg Hare. He started for the Buckeyes in 1972 and was voted team captain in 1973 only to cede his position to sophomore Cornelius Greene.

The bottom line is this: Is Boeckman the next Craig Krenzel or the next Greg Hare? Most people think they already know the answer. We’ll see on Saturday night.

2. James Laurinaitis vs. Rey Maualuga – These two guys are purportedly the best linebackers in college football, and they get to make their respective cases on Saturday night.

Maualuga had a relatively quiet game against Virginia with only two solo tackles, but both were bone-jarring stops – the kind designed to get and hold the attention of anyone who would dare come into your area again. He is a 6-2, 260-pound ball of dynamite who is coming off a Rose Bowl performance against Illinois during which he forced a fumble, registered three sacks and picked off an interception. Simply put, Maualuga loves to blitz, loves to make big hits, and the Buckeyes had better account for him at all times.

Likewise for Laurinaitis, who comes into the game as Ohio State’s leading tackler even though 10 of his 14 stops have been assists. In the first two games, the Buckeyes have run most of their blitzes from the edges with cornerbacks, safeties and defensive ends. That could be why the defensive unit has more interceptions (4) than sacks (3) at this point. And while Laurinaitis remains an important part of pass coverage, especially on running backs and tight ends – and USC throws effectively to both – a great tone-setter would be the 6-3, 240-pound senior co-captain shooting a gap early in the game to knock Sanchez into next week.

Then again, we could just put these two guys in an octagonal cage and let them decide things UFC style.

3. OSU’s OL vs. USC’s DL – As far as I’m concerned, you can take all of the analysis you’re going to hear about this game and stuff it in the garbage can. This is the key matchup in the entire game because if Ohio State can’t protect Boeckman and create holes for Wells, the Buckeyes cannot win this game.

Specifically, the right side of the OSU line – guard Ben Person and tackle Bryant Browning – must play the games of their lives. Last week, during the Buckeyes’ first offensive possession, Ohio came with a third-quarter blitz that resulted in a sack. That blitz came right at Browning, who was double-teamed and in a split-second of indecision let the defenders play him.

The Buckeyes had better prepare for that to happen again Saturday against the Trojans until they prove they can stop it. Obviously, Browning is a good, young talent, but he can’t take on a double-team by himself. That will require help from Person, who will be locked up with responsibilities of his own, as well as chip blocks from whichever tight end happens to be on that side.

In one way, USC’s speed rushers could mean a long night for Browning and his line mates. In another way, if Ohio State manages to use the Trojans’ speed against them, it could be a key to victory. Under a hard rush, the Buckeyes would be wise to scrap their deep passing game and attack the short and medium-range zones. Quick passes to hot receivers can keep a speed defense honest and also help open the running game.

Of course, if Tressel decides that he can beat Southern Cal with only what he has shown so far offensively against Youngstown State and Ohio, it may be a long night. Here’s hoping it isn’t.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Sharing birthdays today: country singer George Jones; former Canadian heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo; former welterweight boxing champion Wilfred Benitez; Eighties TV actress Linda Gray (Sue Ellen on “Dallas”); former MLB pitcher Mickey Lolich;  TV and film actor Joe Pantoliano;  TV and film actor Peter Scolari;  U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.); former NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd; singer/songwriter Ben Folds;  2007 U.S. Open golf champion Ángel Cabrera; former Penn State and Cincinnati Bengals running back Ki-Jana Carter; American Idol second season winner Ruben Studdard; Oscar-winning actress/singer Jennifer Hudson (Effie White in “Dreamgirls”); country duo Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles; and NBA star center Yao Ming.

Today also marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of one of Ohio State’s greatest athletes of all-time: Jesse Owens. James Cleveland Owens was born Sept. 12, 1913, in Lawrence County, Ala., and moved with his family to Cleveland at a young age. Owens grew up to become a world-class track athlete, setting three world records and tying at fourth at the 1935 Big Ten track meet, and then winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Owens died of lung cancer in Tucson, Ariz., in 1980 at the age of 66.

AND FINALLY

• Congratulations to the Big Ten, which went undefeated this past weekend for the first time in two years. Doing that one better, though, was the Big 12. Its teams went 12 for 12 on Saturday, the first time that has ever happened since the conference realigned 13 years ago. (If you want to get technical, the Big Ten won 11 games last weekend on the same day for the first time ever. In 2006, the conference went perfect in nonconference games but two of those wins came on Thursday night.)

• Purdue hosts No. 16 Oregon this week in Lafayette and a victory would give Joe Tiller his 85th victory with the Boilermakers. That would allow Uncle Joe to pass Jack Mollenkopf and become the winningest coach in Purdue football history.

• NCAA and Pac-10 representatives are saying that the excessive celebration penalty called last weekend against Washington quarterback Jake Locker was correct. In case you haven’t seen the play – the one that ultimately cost the Huskies in a 28-27 loss to BYU – Locker jubilantly flipped the football high in the air before celebrating with his teammates after he had scored a late touchdown. Out came a penalty flag, U-Dub was backed up 15 yards on the PAT, and the kick was blocked. Enough of this “that was the rule, so it had to be called” BS. If that is a rule, it needs to be changed. You can never eliminate emotion from college football, and I wish the powers-that-be would stop trying.

• Thanks to that victory over Washington, BYU was able to extend the Division I-A’s longest current winning streak to 12 games. Oklahoma currently has the longest home winning streak after extending it to 20 with last week’s win over Cincinnati.

• Think that Florida’s 26-3 win over Miami set a trend? Well, you’re half right. The Gators did manage to break the Hurricanes’ six-game winning streak in the overall series. But the victory by the Urban Legends kept alive another streak – the higher ranked team has now won nine straight in the series.

• When East Carolina rolled to a 24-3 win over West Virginia, it was the first win for the Pirates over a top 10 team since 1999. That season also marked the last time now No. 14 ECU was ranked.

• Twenty-six years ago today, USC suffered one of the biggest upset losses in its history when unranked Florida pulled off a 17-9 win over the No. 10-ranked Trojans. Florida linebacker Wilber Marshall – who would go on to a stellar NFL career with the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins – was a one-man wrecking crew for the Gators, registering 14 tackles and four sacks. The Trojans totaled only 84 yards rushing in the game.

• Also happening during this week in college football history: On Sept. 8, 1990, Virginia ended a 29-game losing streak to Clemson by handing the Tigers a 20-7 loss in Charlottesville; on Sept. 10, 1983, Ray Perkins won his debut as Alabama head coach (and Bear Bryant’s successor) with a 20-7 victory over Georgia Tech; on Sept. 13, 1986, Lou Holtz became the first Notre Dame head coach since 1934 to lose his debut game in a 24-23 loss to Michigan in South Bend; and on Sept. 14, 1991, San Diego State freshman Marshall Faulk came off the bench to rush for seven touchdowns and a NCAA-record 386 yards in a 55-34 win over Pacific.

• Also, just to prove the theory that seemingly unbeatable No. 1 teams do get upset, on Sept. 9, 1972, unranked UCLA stunned No. 1 Nebraska, 20-17, ending the Cornhuskers’ 23-game winning streak. QB Mark Harmon engineered the final scoring drive for the Bruins that resulted in a 30-yard field goal with just 22 seconds remaining. Yes, that’s the same Mark Harmon whose dad was Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, and the same Mark Harmon who now stars on television’s “NCIS.”

Ohio State Eyes Milestone Victory

Lost amid the mass hysteria surrounding Beanie Wells’ big toe is the fact that Ohio State is playing for history on Saturday.

No one seems to realize that the Buckeyes are seeking program win No. 800 when the Ohio Bobcats come to town. Unfortunately, most fans don’t seem to understand just how big of a deal it is to win 800 games on the college level. Only four other programs in the long history of the sport have ever broken through that plateau and young men have been playing college football in one form or another for the past 139 years.

With its 800th victory, OSU will join an elite club that includes only Michigan (869), Notre Dame (824), Texas (821) and Nebraska (818).

For the Buckeyes, everything started on a May afternoon in 1890 when the university’s first organized team notched its first victory in its first-ever game. Ohio State traveled the short distance to Ohio Wesleyan and came home with a 20-14 victory. The squad would have to wait another 18 months for its first win at home, an 8-4 decision over Denison on Nov. 28, 1891.

Win No. 100 was achieved on the road at Vanderbilt on Nov. 14, 1908. The Buckeyes erased a three-game losing streak with a 17-6 victory over the Commodores, putting the program’s overall record at 100-62-12, a winning percentage of .609. Since that game, OSU has posted a 699-242-41 mark, a .733 winning percentage.

Twenty years later, Ohio State achieved win No. 200 in Columbus with a 41-0 win over Wittenberg in the 1928 season opener. It began the final season of head coach John W. Wilce, who piloted the program for 16 seasons that included the team’s first Western Conference championship and the program’s first-ever victory over Michigan. The same day the Buckeyes were beating Wittenberg, old rival Ohio Wesleyan upset Michigan, 17-7, marking the Wolverines’ first loss on opening day in 46 seasons.

OSU chalked up win No. 300 on Oct. 27, 1945, with a 20-7 upset win over fifth-ranked Minnesota. Ollie Cline, Dick Fisher and end Bud Kessler all scored touchdowns for the Buckeyes that afternoon, and Max Schnittker kicked a pair of extra points. Schnittker’s brother Dick also played football and basketball for the Buckeyes, going on to a six-year NBA career, mostly with the Minneapolis Lakers. Their cousin, Brandon Schnittker, also played for Ohio State from 2002-05.

One of the sweetest milestone victories for the Ohio State program was No. 400. That game was played Nov. 25, 1961, in Ann Arbor and the Buckeyes pounded out a 50-20 victory over their archrivals. Fullback Bob Ferguson rushed for 152 yards and scored four touchdowns for the Buckeyes, while halfback Paul Warfield raced 69 yards for a score, the second-longest run from scrimmage in an OSU-Michigan game.

That was also the contest in which Woody Hayes went for a two-point conversion near the end of the game with his team firmly in command at 48-20. At the time, Hayes explained that he wanted the final score to add up to 70, honoring longtime assistant coach Ernie Godfrey, who would turn 70 years old the next spring. However, years later, when pressed about the subject, Hayes admitted that he was trying for a little payback from 1946 when the Wolverines ran up a 58-6 score on the Buckeyes. When asked why he went for two, the old coach replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

The Buckeyes’ 500th victory came during a late September afternoon in 1975. OSU rolled to a 32-7 win over North Carolina, the team’s 20th consecutive win at home. It was a record-setting day for two Ohio State players. Fullback Pete Johnson set a single-game mark by scoring five touchdowns and tailback Archie Griffin rushed for 157 yards and became the school’s all-time leader in total offense.

OSU put an exclamation point on win No. 600 with a 64-6 whipping of Utah in September 1986. The Buckeyes rolled up 715 yards of total offense to set the modern-day record for a single game. The all-time mark is 718 against Mount Union in 1930.) The team totaled 394 of those yards on the ground and 321 through the air marking the first time in program history the team had ever topped the 300-yard mark in rushing and passing in the same game. Vince Workman ran for 168 yards and three TDs, Jaymes Bryant added 145 yards and fullback George Cooper tacked on four touchdowns.

Win No. 700 came on Nov. 15, 1997, when the Buckeyes rolled to a 41-6 victory over Illinois during a Columbus snowstorm. Pepe Pearson ran for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the quarterback tandem of Stan Jackson and Joe Germaine combined to throw for 189 yards and three scores.

About a decade or so from now, someone will be chronicling these games again along with win No. 800 as the program looks toward 900 victories.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former OSU receiver Drew Carter. Born Sept. 5, 1981, in Solon, Ohio, Christopher Drew Carter was a standout in football, basketball and track for his hometown high school, and signed with the Buckeyes in 1999. Injuries plagued him through his college career – he missed all of the 2001 season with an ankle injury and the last five games of his senior year in ’03 after tearing up a knee. Carter totaled 41 catches for 632 yards and one touchdown as a Buckeye. He was a fifth-round selection by Carolina in the 2004 NFL draft and missed that entire season with another knee injury. Carter finally made his pro debut in 2005 and since then has totaled 71 receptions for 977 yards and eight TDs. This past March, Carter left the Panthers as a free agent and signed with Oakland.

Also blowing out candles on their birthday cakes today are such luminaries as: former U.S. Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volcker; Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski; former MLB pitcher and current Cincinnati Reds analyst Jeff Brantley; former NFL quarterback Billy Kilmer; former NFL receiver, world-class hurdler and Olympic bobsledder Willie Gault; television and film actor William Devane; TV and film actress Rose McGowan; one-time Bond actor George Lazenby (he portrayed 007 in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”); longtime soap actress Kristian Alfonso (Hope Williams Brady on “Days Of Our Lives”); cartoonist Cathy Guisewite (“Cathy”); versatile actor Michael Keaton (“Night Shift,” “Mr. Mom,” “Batman,” “Batman Returns,” “Beetlejuice”); musician Dweezil Zappa; former WNBA player and current ESPN sideline reporter Stacey Dales; one of my all-time favorite comedians Bob Newhart; and another of my all-time favorites (for different reasons, obviously) actress Raquel Welch.

TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY

While Lazenby celebrates his 69th birthday today, Sept. 5 has other significance where fans of the James Bond movie series are concerned.

On this day in 1988, actor Gert Fröbe died in Munich, Germany, of a heart attack at the age of 75. Fröbe portrayed one of the greatest Bond villains of all-time, tycoon Auric Goldfinger in the 1964 classic “Goldfinger.”

"No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die."

Fröbe was born Feb. 25, 1913, in eastern Germany and made his film debut in his home country shortly after World War II ended. He appeared in his first Hollywood movie in 1953, a drama called “Man of a Tightrope” directed by Elia Kazan and starring Fredric March.

The portly Fröbe appeared in several more films, including the star-studded “The Longest Day,” before being cast as Goldfinger. Due to his thick German accent, Fröbe’s voice was dubbed in the movie to make his character better understood. So when Sean Connery’s Bond asks Goldfinger, “Do you expect me to talk?” it is British actor Michael Collins’ voice you hear replying, “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

AND FINALLY

** Even if Joe Paterno doesn’t return to Penn State next season, senior quarterback Daryll Clark probably will. The school announced Wednesday that the NCAA had granted Clark a fifth year of eligibility, allowing him to return for the 2009 season. Clark did not qualify academically as a freshman and spent a year at a prep school before enrolling at Penn State. He spent two years as Anthony Morelli’s backup before winning the starting job this season. Last week during the Nittany Lions’ 66-10 win over Coastal Carolina, Clark completed 11 of 14 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown.

** Congratulations to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. His team’s 30-10 win over Syracuse last weekend made Fitzgerald a perfect 3-0 in season openers since he took over for the late Randy Walker in 2006. The last time a Northwestern head coach won his first three season openers was more than 70 years ago when Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf did it in 1935, ’36 and ’37.

** Miami (Ohio) got swamped last week by Vanderbilt, surrendering 360 total yards and committing three turnovers in a 34-13 loss. The RedHawks actually had the lead in that game at one time, a 3-0 advantage early in the first quarter courtesy of a 37-yard field goal from kicker Nathan Parseghian. If the last name sounds familiar, that is because Nathan is the great-grandnephew of former Miami, Northwestern and Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian.

** Speaking of kickers, Alex Henery of Nebraska last week became the first kicker in NCAA history to make four field goals in four tries from the exact distance in the same game. Henery booted four field goals of 44 yards each during a 47-34 win by the Cornhuskers over Western Michigan.

** Florida teams helped a pair of Big 12 members set home attendance records last week. Texas defeated Florida Atlantic 52-10 in front of a crowd of 98,053 in Austin, said to be the largest crowd ever to see a football game in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, Kansas welcomed 52,112 fans to Lawrence to watch a 40-10 win over Florida International.

** Thirty-four years ago this weekend, ABC tried something new for its college football telecasts – a roving sideline reporter to provide news from field-level. On Sept. 7, 1974, the network employed Jim Lampley during the Tennessee-UCLA game in Knoxville, a game that ended in a 17-17 tie. Volunteers QB Condredge Holloway, who had torn knee ligaments on the second play of the game, returned from a hospital emergency room to rally his team to an 80-yard touchdown drive that tied the score.

Monday Morning Quarterback – Ohio State vs. YSU

Each Monday during the 2008 college football season, the blog will take a look at each facet of the Ohio State game the preceding Saturday and break things down position by position. Here are our thoughts on the Buckeyes’ season-opening victory, a 43-0 shutout of Division I-AA opponent Youngstown State.

Quarterbacks – Ohio State would appear to have the luxury of three quarterbacks each of whom seems capable of running the offense. Starter Todd Boeckman had another of his workmanlike games, completing nearly 75 percent of his passes for modest yardage and a couple of touchdowns. Best of all for me was Boeckman throwing balls with more authority. That would include a 47-yard completion that hit Brian Hartline in mid-stride and the 31-yard touchdown dart to Brian Robiskie. I still would like to see Boeckman dump the ball and throw it away when there is nothing there, but he threw zero interceptions so we won’t quibble.

Backups Terrelle Pryor and Joe Bauserman looked pretty much at ease in their first meaningful games in the Horseshoe. Bauserman was on mop-up detail, but he still showcased a good arm and excellent pocket presence. As for Pryor, he looks every bit as good as advertised. If that was just a small taste of what he can do, imagine what will happen when he really gets comfortable.

Running Backs – It’s hard to find fault with an attack that averaged 5.8 yards on 43 carries, so I won’t try. A backfield that features the power of Beanie Wells and the fluid elusiveness of Pryor would be something the Buckeyes haven’t had since Cornelius Greene, Archie Griffin and Pete Johnson were punishing Big Ten defenses in the mid-1970s.

Hopefully, Wells won’t be shelved too long but even if he is, I get a feeling the Buckeyes will be better than a lot of people think. Boom Herron has had an excellent fall camp, and with Brandon Saine and Maurice Wells getting healthy after being nicked up in the preseason, OSU still has a lot of weapons. Throw a scrambling Pryor into the mix, let him run the option, and the possibilities are positively mouth-watering.

Offensive Line – Like any game, you can find fault with the offensive line if you look hard enough. For example, the Buckeyes had to settle for first-half field goals when they couldn’t convert a trio of first-and-goal situations – two from the YSU 9 and the other from the 5. In other words, the short-yardage package may still need some work.

But there were other times – the majority of the game – when the Ohio State offensive line had its way with the Penguins. On Beanie’s 43-yard touchdown in the first quarter, the entire left side of the line parted the Youngstown State defense like Moses parting the Red Sea. Obviously, it was a mismatch physically. But it was a good jumping-off point for a veteran offensive line that will need to shoulder the load at USC.

Receivers – I heard some criticism about the OSU receivers being unable to get separation from the Youngstown State defensive backs, but I’m not sure what game those people were watching. On Robiskie’s touchdown, for example, he got YSU cornerback Jarvis Richards completely turned around at the line of scrimmage and kept that advantage all the way to the end zone.

Robiskie is rapidly becoming a question mark because of a lingering shoulder injury, but Hartline is getting more and more passes thrown his way and he seldom lets one get by. Add in a rejuvenated Ray Small, an obviously talented DeVier Posey (he would appear to be the next big thing) and young threats like Lamaar Thomas, Dane Sanzenbacher and Taurian Washington, and the Buckeyes have plenty of weapons at the receiver position. Now, if they can just keep the tight ends in the passing game …

Defensive Line – It was difficult to get a true assessment of just how the line played because it so outmanned its opponent. Probably the most welcome sights were the return of Lawrence Wilson and Rob Rose, budding stars who have the ability to make Ohio State better on the defensive line. Wilson has the chance to make for a seamless transition from Vernon Gholston, while Rose reminds a lot of people of Kenny Peterson. I also like the raw enthusiasm of Thaddeus Gibson, who looks like he could pile up a lot of sacks if he’s allowed to run free this season.

The tackle positions need to up their production this year and they each seemed to be in on their share of stops in the opener. Todd Denlinger and Dexter Larimore earned the start, but Nader Abdallah needs to continue improving and even Doug Worthington emerged from the doghouse to see some late action. I liked what I saw from these guys on Saturday, but I want to see even more.

Linebackers – Tackle totals can be deceiving, and I think that’s what happened against the Penguins. Marcus Freeman tied for the team lead with six, but I caught Freeman several times doing what he used to do – taking a poor pursuit angle and making a grabbing tackle from behind. I thought that he had ended that bad habit last year.

As for the other starters, James Laurinaitis and Ross Homan, it wasn’t exactly a showcase. Then again, it wasn’t meant to be. Guys like Austin Spitler – whom I contend could start for most Big Ten teams – like to get in there and mix it up as often as possible, and that’s pretty much what they did.

Secondary – Ohio State did a pretty good disguising coverages in the defensive backfield, confusing YSU’s trio of quarterbacks and allowing the Buckeyes to hide any deficiencies connected with the absences of Kurt Coleman (sprained ankle) and suspended veterans Donald Washington and Jamario O’Neal. At one of the corner spots, senior Shaun Lane did a more than capable job – even though he dropped the best chance he’s probably ever going to have at an interception return for a touchdown. Sophomore Devon Torrence also looked at ease in the secondary since his move from wide receiver this fall.

The Penguins managed to complete 12 of 18 passes during the game, and that’s a fairly decent 66.7 percent. But none of those completions went for more than 15 yards as Youngstown State simply didn’t have the manpower on its offensive line to allow for the deep ball. Ohio University is supposed to have a much better passing game, so maybe we’ll see more of a test next week.

Special Teams – So far, so good. The snaps looked good, the holds looked good, and Ryan Pretorius was a perfect 4 for 4 on field goals. That included a 50-yarder that didn’t look like it cleared the line of scrimmage by all that much. Later, Aaron Pettrey blasted a 54-yarder that looked like it would have been good from 65. (In case you’re interested, Tom Skladany has owned the school record at 59 yards since 1975.) A.J. Trapasso didn’t get a chance to punt in the game, but anytime your team doesn’t need the punter, that’s a good thing.

Meanwhile, the return game seemed to have much more life than last year. Small averaged nearly 20 yards on four returns, and broke one for 45 yards. It would have been even longer had a penalty not wiped another 15 or 20 yards. And Saine returned the opening kickoff 28 yards – not great but certainly better than last year’s team average of an anemic 17.6 yards for the entire season. Again, good foundations to build on for next week and beyond.

Coaching – I’m going to resist the temptation to criticize Tressel for having Wells in the game midway through the third quarter of a blowout. Football is game in which an injury can occur at any time. Besides, if Wells was truly going to have a Heisman-winning season, he had to have more than a dozen carries and just over 100 yards.

Very pleasing to see was the use of a lot of players at different positions. If I have had one major criticism of Tressel’s philosophy over the years, it has been his reluctance to use younger players in games that were well in hand. That didn’t happen against Youngstown State, especially with the number of talented freshmen who saw action.

Also satisfying to see was Pryor’s debut and the number of actual plays he has in the OSU playbook. He would appear to have the total skill set to throw and run the ball with equal ability. And if you throw in that option, it gives the Buckeyes an added dimension they can throw at opposing defenses to keep them off-balance.

The team only needs to keep using those things rather than simply showcasing them early in the season and then turning conservative come crunch time.

Summing Up – About what you would expect when the No. 2 team in the nation hosts a lower-division opponent. Simply put, it was the first of two glorified scrimmages that happen to count in the overall standings. Realistically, nothing gets settled until week three in Los Angeles.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among the worldwide luminaries celebrating birthdays on this first day of September: Sixties TV actor George Maharis (“Route 66”); 1966 PGA Championship winner Al Geiberger; actress/comedian Lily Tomlin; Tae Bo entrepreneur Billy Blanks; Grammy-winning singer Gloria Estefan; Bee Gees lead singer Barry Gibb; ESPN sportscaster Kenny Mayne; former NBA star Tim Hardaway; former Denver Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg; ex-Iowa and Kansas City Chiefs running back Ed Podolak; Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas; Washington Redskins defensive end Jason Taylor; Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis; former seven-time world boxing champion Érik Morales; Fall Out Boy lead guitarist Joe Trohman; and eponymous TV shrink Dr. Phil McGraw.

Several well-known people who have passed into history also shared Sept. 1 as birthdays. They include: actress Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily on “The Munsters”); country singers Boxcar Willie (born Lecil Travis Martin) and Conway Twitty (né Harold Lloyd Jenkins); former Texas Gov. Ann Richards; and former heavyweight boxing champions James J. Corbett and Rocky Marciano.

AND FINALLY

** It wasn’t a very good debut for several new college football head coaches. Rich Rodriguez of Michigan led a parade that included Mike Sherman at Texas A&M, Paul Wulff at Washington State and Art Briles of Baylor whose teams suffered opening-week losses. All four teams lost at home, including A&M which had won 20 straight home openers.

** Duke head coach David Cutcliffe bucked the trend, leading the Blue Devils to a 31-7 victory over James Madison in his first game. It marked Duke’s first win in a season-opener since 2002, and the first Blue Devils coach to win his debut since Fred Goldsmith opened the 1994 season with a victory over Maryland. Duke entered the game having lost nine games in a row and 31 of its last 32.

** Georgia is going to have a tough time defending its No. 1 position in the polls if it keeps losing stud linemen to injury. First, offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant went down with a knee injury in preseason, and now the Bulldogs have lost defensive tackle Jeff Owens. He tore the ACL in his right knee during Georgia’s 45-21 win over Georgia Southern on Saturday, and will be out for the remainder of the season.

** By the way, in case you missed it, former Ohio State quarterback Antonio Henton made his Georgia Southern debut in that game and completed 10 of 18 pass attempts for 102 yards, one TD and one INT.

** OSU’s other transfer quarterback Robby Schoenhoft also made his debut with his new team Saturday, completing 14 of 22 passes for 128 yards, no touchdowns and one interception for Delaware as the Blue Hens dropped a 14-7 decision to Maryland.

** They say you’re only as old as you feel, but I felt really old yesterday when I read Jim Thome tied Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list. As unbelievable as it sounds to someone my age, Mantle’s 536 career homers is now good enough only for a 14th-place tie on the all-time list. The Mick still boasts more round-trippers than any other switch hitter in history and figures to hold onto that distinction for awhile. The closest active switch hitter to him is Chipper Jones, who has 406.

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