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.

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