One game against a decidedly weaker opponent does not a coaching legend make, but more and more Luke Fickell seems to be easing into the job that was thrust upon him.
Undoubtedly one of the most intense individuals I have ever met, Fickell seemed perfect as an assistant coach but I wondered if his head might not explode (literally not figuratively) if he was ever assigned the top job. I was afraid the meltdown had already begun during Fickell’s earliest appearances after being named the 23rd head coach in Ohio State football history.
At his introductory news conference June 13, Fickell seemed uncharacteristically nervous. You could forgive a case of the jitters giving the circumstances, but the new coach seemed overly uneasy especially for someone who had been fairly used to the white, hot television lights during nine seasons on Jim Tressel’s coaching staff, the last six as co-defensive coordinator.
But even if you could chalk that first news conference up to a case of the nerves, there was the grimace-inducing appearance six weeks later at the annual Big Ten Media Days when Fickell admitted confusion about the format and exactly what was expected of him in Chicago. He seemed more than a little ill at ease while reporters fired question after question after question – often times repeating the same question someone had asked only a few minutes earlier – and developed what someone described as “a thousand-yard stare,” a piercing, far-off glare that seemed to indicate the new coach was thinking of about a million other places he would rather be.
Since then, however, Fickell has slowly but surely become more comfortable as he faces the daily grind of his new position, especially the constant demands of dealing with the media. His firmly locked jaw has given way to a smile or two, and he has even started to crack a few jokes. During his weekly Tuesday news conference with reporters on Sept. 6, for example, the mood was lighter than it ever was under his predecessor. Fickell even tossed a few gentle jibes at some reporters, including longtime beat writer Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch.
Following his opening remarks, Fickell looked over the assembled media and said with a faint trace of a grin, “I’ll open it up now (for questions) and we’ll just start with Tim because he’s usually the first question anyway, right?”
While May smiled and nodded his head in agreement, laughter permeated the room – again, something that was seldom (if ever) heard when Tressel was running the show.
While Fickell continues to hone his public persona, he appeared to have retained a close relationship with the players on his team. While many head coaches are looked upon as authoritarian father figures, Fickell plays a role more akin to an older brother. Not that he is any less of a disciplinarian than Tressel, but there is a major difference between angering your father and disappointing your older brother. You can make your dad angry and he’ll quickly get over it. Disappointment lingers much longer, so you want to try and avoid that at all costs.
As a first-team head coach, Fickell relates surprisingly well to his team and he relates on several levels. As a former Ohio State player, he knows what it is like to be a Buckeye. He knows the perks that come with that as well as the pressures. At only 38 years old, he remains young enough to remain in tune to the ever-changing culture of his players. Additionally, he had a personal hand in recruiting many of them, so he knows their backgrounds, their family situations, what makes them tick. And he has that intrinsic inner fire that makes his players want to play for him, want to excel for him, want to make him proud of them.
The metaphor here is that Ohio State has fallen into a sewer and come out with a pocketful of fish. After pretty much botching the entire situation surrounding Tressel, the university has stumbled upon what looks so far like a perfect successor.
I have no idea how many victories Fickell has to total this season to merit a second season as Ohio State head coach. I have heard disturbing rumblings around Columbus that it doesn’t matter how well the team does this season. University power brokers have already decided that Fickell, his staff and any other remnant of the Tressel era will be swept away in 2012 in favor of Urban Meyer or some other “name” coach.
If that is truly in the minds of those who could make it happen, they should take a step back and understand – truly understand – exactly what would mean. You have handed the keys to your besieged football program to a loyal alumnus, a guy who is not only a former player and four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, but a Columbus native who is Buckeye through and through. You have told him that the house is on fire and literally begged him to put it out, all the while tying one hand behind his back by giving him a one-year contract opposing schools are already using against him on the recruiting trail.
What happens if he puts out the fire and saves the program? Will his reward be a contract extension or a hollow thank you note accompanied with a request to step aside in favor of Meyer?
That seems unimaginable at Ohio State, especially if Fickell’s team achieves nine or more victories this year. Of course, when you remember the way the university has handled its most recent problems, you cringe and realize anything is possible.
** Following last week’s 42-0 shutout win over Akron, Ohio State looks to go 2-0 for the sixth consecutive season. The last time the Buckeyes failed to open the season with two victories was 2005 when they lost a 25-22 decision at home in week two to eventual national champion Texas.
** Ohio State hasn’t started a season with back-to-back shutouts since 1963. That season, the Buckeyes took a 17-0 win in the opener against Texas A&M and followed with a 21-0 victory at Indiana.
** The Buckeyes are 2-0 all-time against Toledo and both games have been shutouts. OSU took a 49-0 victory at Ohio Stadium in 1998 and won by a 38-0 score in 2009 in a game played at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
** Something will have to give Saturday. Toledo has never scored in two previous games against Ohio State, but the Rockets are on a current streak of eight straight games in which they have scored at least 30 points.
** With last week’s win over Akron, Fickell joined 20 other men who enjoyed a victory in their first game as head coach of the Buckeyes. OSU has had only 23 head coaches in program history and Fickell’s win over the Zips ran to 21-1-1 the opening-game record for first-year coaches. The only two coaches who failed to win their Ohio State debuts were Jack Ryder (a 40-0 loss at Oberlin in 1892) and Paul Bixler (a 13-13 tie with Missouri in 1946).
** While 20 OSU head coaches have won their inaugural game, only 12 have gone on to win their second game as well. The school record is held by Carroll Widdoes, who won his first 12 games as head coach of the Buckeyes in 1944-45.
** The Rockets are led by third-year head coach Tim Beckman, who has a record of 14-12 at Toledo. Beckman served two seasons as cornerbacks coach on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State in 2005 and ’06.
** Ohio State is working on a streak of 57 consecutive regular-season victories over unranked nonconference opposition. The last time the Buckeyes lost in the regular season to an unranked foe was a 42-10 loss at Pittsburgh in 1988.
** OSU has won 58 straight games at home against unranked nonconference opponents. The Buckeyes haven’t lost to an unranked nonconference team since a 34-17 loss to Florida State in 1982.
** The Buckeyes are looking for their 30th victory in 31 all-time games against current members of the Mid-American Conference. The only loss was a 12-6 defeat to Akron in a game played Sept. 15, 1894, at the Ohio State Fair.
** The last time Ohio State lost to an instate opponent was a 7-6 decision against Oberlin in 1921. Since then, the Buckeyes are 42-0-1 against other schools from Ohio. The only blemish on that mark is a 7-7 tie with Wooster in 1924.
** The Rockets are 6-14 all-time vs. teams currently in the Big Ten, but Toledo has had more success in recent seasons. They are 2-2 since 2008 and that includes last year’s 31-20 win over Purdue in West Lafayette.
** Toledo is also a respectable 6-8 all-time against top 25 teams. Unfortunately for the Rockets, most of the success in that record has come at home. Toledo is only 1-7 when playing ranked teams on the road.
** Toledo has undertaken an ambitious nonconference schedule. After taking on the Buckeyes, the Rockets host Boise State on Sept. 16 and then travel to a much-improved Syracuse the following week.
** The Rockets entered 2011 with a streak of five straight seasons during which they have enjoyed at least one victory over a BCS conference school. Only TCU (nine) and Navy (eight) entered this season as non-qualifying BCS schools with longer such streaks
** OSU tight end Jake Stoneburner more than doubled his previous career touchdown total when he caught three scoring passes against Akron. Stoneburner now has five TD catches for his career, halfway to the school record for touchdowns by a tight end. If you know who holds that record, consider yourself a true Buckeye fan. The answer comes a bit later.
** This could be the week when we discover how well Ohio State has shored up his kick coverage units. Toledo return man Eric Page is his team’s career leader in kickoff return average at 28.9 yards. He is also the only player in school history to return two kickoffs of touchdowns in the same game, chalking up returns of 99 and 95 yards during last year’s 42-31 win over Central Michigan.
** Page is also one of the best receivers Toledo has ever had. He enters the game fourth all-time in reception yardage (2,324), fifth in total catches (186) and eighth in touchdowns (16). Page has caught at least one ball in 26 consecutive games and that is tied for the fifth-longest streak in UT history.
** Toledo created five turnovers during its season-opening win over New Hampshire and that was no fluke. The Rockets led the MAC in turnover margin last season and finished 15th in the nation. They were plus-9 in the turnover department last year with 14 fumble recoveries and 20 interceptions. Against New Hampshire, Toledo recovered three fumbles and picked off two passes during a 58-22 win.
** Those 58 points were the most by a Toledo team since a 70-21 win over Northern Illinois in October 2007.
** The victory over New Hampshire was Toledo’s first season-opening win since a 62-14 triumph against Western Illinois to kick off the 2005 season.
** The all-time leader for more touchdown catches by an Ohio State tight end is John Lumpkin, who had 10 for his career from 1996 to ’98. For those of you who guessed John Frank (1980-83), he finished his OSU career with nine touchdown receptions.
** The game will be televised by the Big Ten Network with Tom Hart handling play-by-play duties. Former Minnesota tight end Derek Rackley will offer color analysis and former Northwestern women’s soccer and basketball player Lisa Byington will report from the sidelines. Kickoff is set for shortly after 12 noon Eastern.
** Next week, Ohio State takes to the road for the first time this season and travels to Miami (Fla.) to take on the Hurricanes. The game will be telecast by ESPN and is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
** On Sept. 8, 1984, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie kicked off his Heisman Trophy-winning season by throwing three touchdowns passes and rallying the Golden Eagles from a 31-14 deficit to a 38-31 upset over ninth-ranked Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham.
** Also on Sept. 8, 1984, George Dwarn and Otis Cheathem became the first opponents ever to crack the 200-yard mark in rushing in the same game. Swarn totaled 239 for Miami (Ohio) while Cheathem ran for 219 as his Western Michigan team scored a 17-13 win over the RedHawks (who were the Redskins at that time).
** On Sept. 9, 1972, UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon led the Bruins – who had won only two games the previous season – to a 20-17 upset win over preseason No. 1 Nebraska. Yes, that’s the same Mark Harmon who stars as Special Agent Gibbs on the CBS drama “NCIS,” not to mention the same Mark Harmon who is the son of 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon of Michigan.
** On Sept. 9, 2006, it was Overtime Saturday all across college football. A record seven games went into overtime, including a double-OT thriller when Boston College blocked an extra point to upset No. 18 Clemson, 34-33.
** On Sept. 10, 1966, Baylor shocked No. 7 Syracuse, taking a 35-12 victory in Waco in the season opener. Bears QB Terry Southall threw for four touchdowns in the game while tailback Floyd Little rushed for 102 yards and a score for the Orange. But a fumbled pitch to Little early in the game set the tone as Baylor scored to take a lead it would never relinquish.
** On Sept. 11, 1993, a then-NCAA regular-season record 106,851 fans were on hand as No. 10 Notre Dame scored a 27-23 upset over second-ranked Michigan. The Fighting Irish took a 24-10 lead at halftime and coasted the rest of the way, finishing the season with an 11-1 record and a No. 2 ranking in the season’s final poll.
** On Sept. 11, 1982, Michigan State kicker Ralf Moisiejenko cranked a 61-yard field goal on his first career three-point attempt, but it wasn’t enough as Illinois dealt the Spartans a 23-16 loss in Champaign.
** On Sept. 12, 1987, Michigan committed seven turnovers in a 26-7 loss to Notre Dame, the first season-opening home loss ever for head coach Bo Schembechler.
** On Sept. 13, 1986, Hayden Fry became the winningest coach in Iowa history when the Hawkeyes took a 43-7 win over Iowa State. The victory was No. 53 for Fry, who passed Forest Evashevski for most wins in school history. Fry was to coach 20 seasons in Iowa City and retired with 143 victories with the Hawkeyes.
** On Sept. 13, 1980, Louisiana-Lafayette managed to overcome an NCAA record-tying five lost fumbles in a single quarter to beat East Carolina, 27-21.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** CBSSports.com analyst Jerry Palm, who basically devised RPI for college basketball teams, is taking a stab at predicting which teams will play in which bowls. Palm has Oklahoma and Alabama squaring off in the BCS National Championship Game (a lot of people do), but he has Ohio State playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston on Dec. 31 against Baylor. That game features the sixth Big Ten qualifier against the sixth Big 12 qualifier. Discuss.
** While you are discussing that one, here’s another: Palm has Texas A&M playing Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, calling the Wolverines “the second-best team in the Big Ten.” Discuss further.
** Congratulations to Penn State return man Chaz Powell, who ran back the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown during the Nittany Lions’ 41-7 win over Indiana State. It marked the second year in a row Powell had returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Penn State’s season opener.
** Congratulations also to Michigan linebacker Brandon Herron. He returned an interception 94 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, and then took a recovered fumbled 29 yards for a second in the third period of the Wolverines’ weather-shortened, 34-10 win over Western Michigan. Herron became the first U-M player in the modern era to score two defensive touchdowns in the same game.
** Wisconsin got things started for the Big Ten this season with a Thursday night victory over UNLV in Camp Randall Stadium. The 51-17 blowout marked career win No. 50 for UW head coach Bret Bielema, and also ran his record to 21-0 vs. regular-season nonconference opponents. That is the third-best start to a coaching career in Big Ten history, trailing only Fielding Yost of Michigan (41-0) and Joe Paterno of Penn State (23-0).
** The Big Ten has a reputation for being a run-oriented conference, yet the first week of play this season found five players with 100 yards or more receiving and only three players who cracked the century mark on the ground. Moreover, only two of those players – Ralph Bolden of Purdue (120 yards on 17 carries) and Silas Redd of Penn State (12 carries, 104 yards, two TDs) – are running backs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was the other with 135 yards and three touchdowns during his team’s 40-7 win over Division I-AA Chattanooga.
** Evidence that Oregon is little more than the product of overblown hype: Since 2009, the Ducks sport a 22-5 record. In their 22 wins, they have averaged 47.5 points per game. In their five losses – to Boise State, Stanford, Ohio State, Auburn and LSU – they have averaged 22.6 and that includes a 51-42 shootout loss to Stanford in ’09. Oregon has averaged an anemic 17.8 against the Broncos, Buckeyes, Tigers and Bayou Bengals.
** North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner had a pretty nice first start last week against James Madison. Renner completed 22 of 23 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns as the Tar Heels rolled to a 42-10 win. Technically, Renner completed all 23 of his attempts – he also had one interception.
** In case you’re wondering, no, Renner does not lead the nation in pass efficiency after that performance. Robert Griffin III of Baylor, who was 21 of 27 for 359 yards with five TDs and no INTs tops that list. Chandler Harnish of Northern Illinois (12-19-195-5-1) is second, Joe Bauserman of Ohio State (12-16-163-3-0) is third and Renner is fourth.
** Griffin’s performance came during a 50-48 victory over TCU, a decidedly unusual offensive explosion against the Horned Frogs. TCU finished last season as the nation’s No. 1 team in scoring defense, allowing an average of only 12.0 points to 13 opponents. The Frogs hadn’t surrendered 50 points in a game since a 51-50 overtime win over BYU in September 2005.
** The University of Texas at San Antonio set a modern-era NCAA attendance record by a first-year Division I program last Saturday, drawing 56,743 fans to the Alamodome for its inaugural game against Northeastern State (Okla.) of Division II. The Division I-AA Roadrunners, coached by former OSU assistant and Miami (Fla.) head coach Larry Coker, scored a 31-3 victory in their first game.
** Kudos to our old friends at Wittenberg. With last weekend’s 45-28 win over Capital University, the Tigers became the first Division III team to reach 700 victories all-time. The program, which began in 1892, boasts a record of 700-347-32, a tidy .664 winning percentage. Three of those victories came against Ohio State when the two schools used to play one another in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wittenberg was 3-12 against the Buckeyes between 1893 and 1929.
To say the weather was wacky during the first weekend of the 2011 college football season was an understatement. While sun beat down on a broiling hot Ohio Stadium, monsoons and lightning storms ravished such venues as Ann Arbor, South Bend and Morgantown.
As a result, some games were called because of weather problems, sending Vegas into a tizzy because they won’t pay off (or collect) on a game that doesn’t reach its conclusion. That wiped out a couple of games we picked against the spread, so the opening-week ledger was 4-6. Straight-up, we went a near-perfect 11-1 with the only miss coming with TCU’s 50-48 loss at Baylor. At least the game was entertaining as hell.
Here are the games we’re watching this week:
Oregon State at No. 8 Wisconsin: The Badgers couldn’t have looked much better during their 51-17 squashing of UNLV while the Beavers couldn’t have looked much worse in a 29-28 overtime loss to I-AA Sacramento State. Oregon State does have the services of freshman tailback Marcus Agnew, who ran for 223 yards and three TDs last week, and rushing defense was probably the only weakness Bucky showed last week. That should make the final score close(r) … Wisconsin 45, Oregon State 14. (12 noon ET, ESPN)
Florida Atlantic at No. 17 Michigan State: The Owls are in the middle of a grueling early-season stretch that has them in East Lansing one week after playing at Florida and one week before traveling to Auburn. It is part of a five-week road trip to start the season, which will be the final one as head coach for the legendary Howard Schnellenberger. FAU may be just what a somewhat shaky Spartans defense needs right now. The Owls managed only 30 yards on 30 carries during last week’s 41-7 loss to the Gators … Michigan State 30, Florida Atlantic 13. (12 noon ET, BTN)
No. 3 Alabama at No. 23 Penn State: Since the Crimson Tide is still breaking in a new starting quarterback, a lot of observers think the Nittany Lions are keep this one close. We don’t happen to be in that camp. Despite pronouncements to the otherwise, Penn State is about the same defensively as it was a year ago when it ranked seventh in the Big Ten against the run. No matter who the Tide trots out there under center, they still have Trent Richardson at tailback and that will be more than enough … Alabama 31, Penn State 17. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)
No. 6 Stanford at Duke: The so-called SAT Bowl is likely to be a huge mismatch. Preseason Heisman favorite Andrew Luck engineers the potent Cardinal offense, and last week he barely broke a sweat while throwing for 171 yards and two TDs while his team rolled to a 57-3 win over San Jose State. Those numbers will likely increase this weekend against the Blue Devils, who surrendered 193 yards through the air during their 23-21 season-opening loss at home to I-AA Richmond. This is one of those games that will be as lopsided as the visiting team wants it to be … Stanford 45, Duke 7. (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Nevada at No. 13 Oregon: For every fan who laments their favorite team’s soft nonconference schedule, we give you the Oregon Ducks. One of last year’s national championship game participants has very little chance to make a repeat appearance after being exposed during last week’s 40-27 loss to LSU in the season opener. Returning home to face a rebuilding Wolf Pack might help the team’s psyche a little bit. Nevada went 13-1 last year, but lost both of their 1,000-yard rushers to graduation including veteran QB Kolin Kaepernick. Also, playing at Autzen Stadium is never any bargain for the visitor … Oregon 51, Nevada 10. (3:30 p.m. ET, FX)
New Mexico State at Minnesota: How about some love for Goldy? Minnesota went the L.A. Coliseum last week – a recent Little Shop of Horrors for Big Ten teams – and nearly came back with a huge upset of USC. The Gophers eventually dropped a 19-17 decision, but it was still a moral victory for a rebuilding program eager to build some kind of foundation. Better still, that kind of performance should help from a confidence factor. Sure, the Aggies have lost 12 straight road contests and 11 of their last 13 overall, but Goldy wasn’t exactly stellar at home last year, losing six of seven in TCF Bank Stadium. Something tells us that turns around this year under new head coach Jerry Kill … Minnesota 35, New Mexico State 23. (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN)
No. 12 South Carolina at Georgia: How hot is the seat under UGA head coach Mark Richt right now? Hot enough to fry eggs, bacon and whatever else you’d like for breakfast. Making matters worse for the Bulldogs is that they lost inside linebacker Alec Ogletree to a foot injury during last week’s 35-21 loss to Boise State. The Gamecocks will try to exploit that loss with sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore, who had 182 yards and two TDs during last year’s 17-6 win over Georgia. Even with that loss, the Bulldogs have won seven of the last nine in the series and hold a lopsided 46-15-2 edge overall. Still, the Roosters seem clearly the better team, so … South Carolina 22, Georgia 17. (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Fresno State at No. 10 Nebraska: Here is probably all you need to know about this game. Last week, with an almost completely-rebuilt offensive line, the Bulldogs managed only 68 yards on the ground during a 36-21 loss to Cal. Meanwhile, the Black Shirts limited Chattanooga to just 60 yards rushing during a 40-7 victory. There are several well-worn adages in football and one of them says, “You can’t win if you can’t run the ball.” Therefore … Nebraska 41, Fresno State 10. (7 p.m. ET, BTN)
Notre Dame at Michigan: The first-ever night game at the Big House will serve as a huge measuring stick for these two teams. This was supposed to be a resurgent season for both the Irish and the Wolverines, but only U-M was victorious in week one. Notre Dame turned the ball over five times in a 23-20 home loss to South Florida while Michigan was dodged heavy rain and lightning before its 34-10 win over Western Michigan was called in the third quarter. One would have to assume the Irish will play better against a U-M defense that remains highly suspect. A win by either team would not be surprising, but we have to pick someone … Notre Dame 28, Michigan 27. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Toledo at No. 15 Ohio State: We’re not exactly sure why, but there is an underlying tone of gloom this week in Columbus. Perhaps it’s just a component of the rainy weather and gray skies, but there are a lot of people who believe the Rockets have a legitimate chance at scoring the upset. There is no doubt that Toledo possesses a potent offense – scoring 30 points or more in eight straight games in testimony to that. But as defense-minded as head coach Tim Beckman is, the Rockets are not the strongest defensive team in the world. They surrendered 332 yards and 22 points to Division I-AA New Hampshire last week, and are coming off a 2010 season when they ranked seventh in the MAC in total defense and ninth in scoring. Toledo will likely get on the scoreboard for the first time ever against the Buckeyes, but the defense will not be able to hold up its end of the bargain … Ohio State 34, Toledo 14. (12 noon ET, BTN)
Here are the spreads for the above games: Oregon State at Wisconsin (-20½); Florida Atlantic at Michigan State; Alabama (-10) at Penn State; Stanford (-21) at Duke; Nevada at Oregon (-26½); New Mexico State (+21) at Minnesota; South Carolina (-3) at Georgia; Fresno State at Nebraska (-27½); Notre Dame at Michigan (+3½); Toledo at Ohio State (-17½).
Enjoy the games and we’ll visit again next week.