If you think the country is divided less than a week before the presidential election, you haven’t taken the pulse of the Buckeye Nation lately.
After Ohio State fell 13-6 at home to third-ranked Penn State, battle lines that had been forming since the team’s mid-September loss at USC are now fully defined. It seems that the Scarlet and Gray fan base is evenly divided – either you’re with Jim Tressel or you’re against him.
Those with Scarlet Fever point to Tressel’s many accomplishments including four Big Ten championships or co-championships in the past seven seasons to go along with the 2002 national title. Additional talking points include more first-round NFL draft picks in the last couple of years than any other program, victories in 42 of the team’s last 49 games and trips to three of the last six national championship games.
Then there are the Gray Grumblers, who admit that while Tressel’s team have achieved quite a bit over the past several seasons, there is this nagging feeling they could have accomplished so much more. They grouse about unimaginative play calling, vanilla defensive schemes and a perceived staleness quality on the coaching staff, favoring a platform that includes an infusion of fresh ideas from innovative young up-and-comers.
Once upon a time, you were hard-pressed to find anyone willing to admit they held membership on the Gray side. Tressel banked a tremendous cache of goodwill during the 2002 season, allowing all hungry Ohio State football fans to dine from a tasty buffet that was 34 years in the making.
Since that time, however, small chinks have begun to pierce what once was believed to be the coach’s impenetrable armor. It began with the Maurice Clarett debacle in 2003 and continued with a litany of off-the-field problems, most of which have disappeared in recent years.
But while the problems away from the gridiron have all but gone away, the Buckeyes have experienced trouble between the lines. There were three straight losses to begin the 2004 Big Ten season, a prime-time loss to Texas in 2005, the home loss to Illinois last year and the back-to-back beatdowns absorbed at the hands of SEC powers Florida and LSU in the most recent national championship games.
Then there was another trip to the woodshed, this time courtesy of USC on Sept. 13, and finally the most recent loss, a 13-6 defeat at the hands of Penn State.
As a result, the Grays have increasingly grown in number and have become emboldened to speak out more and more. They remain vastly outnumbered by those in the Scarlet camp, but the Grays seem to have a counter for every point on the Scarlet side.
Their rebuttal to the high number of NFL draft choices centers on selections along the offensive line that seem to have underachieved the past few seasons at Ohio State. They take the argument about Tressel’s excellence in recruiting and pose the question about diminishing returns despite so many four- and five-star prospects on the roster.
And quite naturally, the pluses about getting to national championship games are quickly erased by the minuses of losing badly in those contests.
There is absolutely no arguing Tressel’s overall success since he arrived in Columbus. His run of four conference titles in seven years in the best for the program since it won or shared six Big Ten championships in a row from 1972 to ’77. He reached 80 victories faster than any other Ohio State head coach. And he did coach the program’s first national title team since 1968.
Yet in a what-have-you-done-lately society, each of Tressel’s accomplishments seem to get muddled when the argument is made that his program may have plateaued. If you at least allow the notion that the Gray movement has even a shred of validity, the questions they ask begin to seem less belligerent and more of a cogent variety.
For example, how can a team with so many returning starters seem so out of sync at times? How much longer can a play-calling philosophy be defended when it has produced three games so far this season with no offensive touchdowns? Those are but two of the itchy scabs that continue to nag at Tressel and his 2008 team.
To which party do you belong? Scarlet or Gray? Do you believe the Buckeyes played well against the No. 3 team in the nation and only one mistake meant the difference between winning and losing? Or are you of the mind that if the team wasn’t so conservative and didn’t play things so close to the sweater vest, one mistake wouldn’t mean the difference between victory and defeat?
The Buckeye Nation is rapidly becoming divided along deep-rooted lines and it doesn’t look to me like that division is going to repair itself anytime soon.
A HEISMAN IS BORN?
If you’d like to take something positive away from the loss to Penn State, try this: The last time the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes, they did so by causing a game-altering fumble by Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.
You remember the play. Early October 2005, Happy Valley, time running out, Nittany Lions ahead by seven. Smith had driven the Buckeyes out from the shadow of their own goal post and into Penn State territory. He rolled out of the pocket on a second-and-7 play only to be steamrolled from behind by defensive end Tamba Hali. The force of the hit caused Smith to fumble, and the ball rolled around for several agonizing seconds before being recovered by Lions defensive tackle Scott Paxson. Game, set, match.
In the locker room after the game, a disconsolate Smith put the blame for the loss squarely on his own shoulders. Sound familiar?
After that loss to Penn State, Smith went on to lead the Buckeyes to 19 consecutive victories, winning the 2006 Heisman Trophy in the process.
Is that what lies in store for Terrelle Pryor? You may want to blame him for the latest loss to Penn State, and there is no denying his fourth-quarter fumble set up the Nittany Lions for the game-changing touchdown.
Still, there was an awful lot to like about Pryor’s performance in the contest. He proved – not that he really needed to – that he possesses an accurate arm, dropping several of his pass attempts right on the money. At this point in his development, the freshman has already shown he can throw deep, he can throw short, he can wind up and throw a seed, and he can get just the right amount air under a touch pass.
He is also a competitor. Like Smith before him, Pryor commands respect from his teammates just because of his raw ability. Once he gets more game experience and learns that he can be more vocal, his obviously leadership qualities will be readily seen even more.
After the game, Pryor was nearly inconsolable. It was, after all, the first time he had tasted defeat as a starting quarterback since the final game of his junior year in high school. After a week off to reflect, I would expect him to return with a renewed vigor by the time he faces Northwestern.
And if someday he is standing in New York City, smiling and holding a rather large bronze trophy, will Pryor think back to a chilly October night against Penn State when he fumbled away his team’s chances for victory? Maybe. It’s happened before.
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State defensive tackle Pete Cusick. Born Oct. 27, 1952, in San Bernadino, Calif., Peter Martin Cusick moved with his family to northern Ohio and was a high school star at Lakewood. He signed with the Buckeyes in 1971 and became a three-year starter at defensive tackle from 1972-74. Cusick was a third-round draft choice by New England in the 1975 NFL draft and played 13 games for the Patriots in ’75. That was his only pro season, and he later returned to his native California to enter the business world. Cusick is currently group vice president of the Southern California division of Maritz Inc., a sales and marketing service company.
Among the others celebrating birthdays this 27th day of October: TV actress Nanette Fabray is 88; Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Ralph Kiner is 86; film actress Ruby Dee is 84; former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is 83; actor, writer and Monty Python founding member John Cleese is 69; country singer Lee Greenwood is 66 (“God Bless The U.S.A.”); film producer and director Ivan Reitman is 62 (“Stripes,” “Ghostbusters,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”); E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent is 59; author Fran Lebowitz is 58; guitarist and Judas Priest founding member K.K. Downing is 57; Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni is 56 (“Life Is Beautiful”); TV actor Robert Picardo is 55 (he portrays Richard Woolsey on “Stargate SG-1” and “Stargate Atlantis”); Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon is 50; conservative blogger Matt Drudge is 42; TV personality Kelly Osbourne is 24; and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn is also 24.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
** You can debate Pryor’s decision to break his quarterback sneak to the outside, but I liked the go-for-it mentality of the play. If he makes just one more guy miss, chances are he’s headed to the end zone with a game-breaking touchdown. As it was, credit is due Penn State safety Mark Rubin for causing the momentum-changing fumble. But if Pryor has that chance again, I hope he takes it.
** OSU receiver Brian Robiskie hasn’t had the kind of season he probably hoped for, but the senior co-captain came up big for his team against Penn State. He made a leaping stab of a jump ball late in the first half for a 33-yard reception that set the Buckeyes up for their first field goal. And in the third quarter, he kept his toes inbounds while corralling an important 17-yard catch that eventually led to the team’s second field goal and a temporary 6-3 lead.
** For the most part, the OSU-Penn State game was a pretty clean one with only four penalties (all on the home team) accepted. It didn’t start out that way, though. Ohio State senior Curtis Terry and Penn State senior Cedric Jeffries tangled with one another on the opening kickoff, eventually wrestling one another to the ground before officials finally separated them. For the record, in their last three games against the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions have had only five penalties marked off against them for just 29 yards.
** You practically need a Ph.D. to figure out the BCS, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Even though the Buckeyes now have two losses, they cannot be counted out of the mix for a BCS bowl berth. Obviously, they have to win their final three regular-season games. After that, the prevailing notion is that the Big 12 and SEC will each land two teams in the BCS. Since no conference can send more than two teams to BCS games, and the Pac-10 and ACC seem unlikely to get anything more than their automatic berths, that would leave Ohio State competing for the final at-large spots with the likes of Utah, Boise State or maybe TCU. You have to believe any bowl committee with those kinds of choices would opt for the Buckeyes and the amount of cash generated by their fan base.