There are a few certainties that came out of this loss for Ohio State, number one being that the Buckeyes were soundly defeated by a better team. There are no national title hopes for this team, but can Ohio State regroup and win the Big Ten title?
Before looking that far ahead, let's take a look back at Saturday's loss to Miami and try to determine what went wrong for Ohio State and what can be done going forward to get the ship righted.
TRESSEL FACTOR: Before asking if this was the worst offensive performance by Ohio State dating back to the beginning of the Tressel era, there are two losses that come to mind that mirror the Miami showing. First off, is the game at UCLA during Tressel's first year, where the Buckeyes lost 13-6. Ohio State completed five passes (sound familiar) and mustered a whopping 166 yards of offense. The Buckeyes only score came on a punt block for a touchdown, and the offense wouldn't have scored if they had played until the California street lights came on. There is also the debacle in Arizona where Ohio State laid an egg in the national title game against Florida, once again completing a whopping total of four passes and never mustering any semblance of an offense.
To suggest that Jim Tressel could have never presided over a loss like the Miami game is ridiculous, because he most definitely had similar losses in his career. Blame Luke Fickell all you want, but we've seen this type of egg laid before from The Vest himself.
OFFENSE: On the positive side of the ledger, Ohio State moved the football on the ground most of the night thanks to some stellar offensive line play. Both quarterbacks had time to throw for the most part, although they only completed four passes, all to runningbacks. Jordan Hall might have played his best game as a Buckeye, and Carlos Hyde was serviceable once again. The return of Corey Linsley added depth to one of the top offensive lines in the country, and they will get a similar boost in a few weeks with the return of Mike Adams. The Ohio State offensive line is playing like one of the top units in college football, opening holes for runningbacks and giving the quarterbacks time to throw. There isn't much more they can do.
The wide receivers were not able to get open for the most part, and there four dropped dropped passes. Had Stoneburner been able to come up with a catch on a ball thrown behind him, Ohio State would have trimmed the Miami lead to 14-10 with a few minutes left in the first half. Verlon Reed struggled to get open and contributed two dropped passes. Evan Spencer had a drop as well. Add in the quarterback struggles and you end up with no completions to a wide receiver or tight end. Devin Smith gave up on a pass in the fourth quarter, but he showed the ability to get open and he is probably Ohio State's most talented receiver other than DeVier Posey. There is nothing Reed can do better than Smith, so it might be time to let the freshman take snaps as the number one wide receiver option.
DEFENSE: This group played extremely hard, never giving an inch, even though they knew they were fighting a losing battle. The execution, however, did not match the effort level, although the defense gave a winning performance. Ohio State was rarely blown off the football, but there were some poor angles and missed tackles. Overall, it's tough to pin anything on this side of the football, and it has to be frustrating giving the ball back to this offense knowing full well you will be back out on the field in three plays. This isn't like getting the ball back for Andrew Luck. When times get tough, and Ohio State has been going through tough times all of 2011, you look for letdowns in the effort area. There was no letdown last Saturday.
Christian Bryant flashed his talent against the Hurricanes, and is probably ready to see more game action going forward. Bradley Roby showed his hustle and speed by tracking down a stumbling Lamar Miller on his long run early in the first quarter. Roby is only a red-shirt freshman, and the future is quite bright for him. Travis Howard played well in his first game action following his suspension, and should be better down the line as he plays more.
The linebacker group might not have the speed of previous units, but Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Tyler Moeller and Storm Klein played their collective tails off against Miami. They played physical, down-hill football and made most of the plays they needed to make. Until Denard Robinson, Ohio State won't face a speedier talent than Lamar Miller, who is an amazing player. Miller got his yards, but didn't dominate the contest. Had the Buckeyes mustered any offense at all, it would have forced Al Golden to put the ball more in Jacory Harris' hands, rather than in Miller's. That would have been a good thing.
Johnathan Hankins and Johnny Simon were both very good once again, as was the entire defensive line. You aren't going to shut down this offense completely, but the front four battled all game long and gave a winning performance. It would have been nice to have Nathan Williams on the field, but you line up and play with who you have available.
COACHING: There will never be a loss for Ohio State where people praise the coaching staff, and this won't be one either. The overall effort of the players was an A+, and in a season flooded with distractions you have to look there first. But after you get through lauding the team's effort and the defensive play, you are stuck with the fact that Ohio State had no chance offensively to compete in this game. And it's definitely not an offense without talented parts. When you have a good-to-great offensive line, you should be able to move the football enough to compete, regardless of the other players on the field. The runningbacks certainly played well enough, and the receivers were average at best, so that leaves you staring squarely at one position: the quarterback. Were they coached up enough? Were they given a game-plan that allowed them to succeed? Was the two-quarterback rotation the way to go? These questions need answered by the offensive staff, but scoring six points against an average defense is unacceptable and this is where you pin this loss. They either get it fixed moving forward or there will be more losses, because Ohio State won't win a game on the schedule if they have a repeat offensively.
The decision to leave a tired defense on the field to take shots and give up a score on the last drive, without calling any of the three timeouts is an insult to your players that gave you all they had. Give them a chance to hold them to a field goal, and keep it a two-score game with three or four minutes left. Even if you have given up on the game, get your exhausted defense a few breaks in the action, so they can regroup and get a stop. The defense deserved at least that much from the coaching staff.
OVERVIEW: Where does Ohio State go from this loss? Can they regroup and win the Big Ten once again? That will depend entirely upon how the Buckeyes move forward offensively, specifically at the quarterback position. There is help coming in Herron, Adams and Posey, and the conference isn't one of the elite in college football, so Ohio State definitely has a great chance to put themselves in the Big Ten title game. There is no game left on the schedule that cannot be won, but unfortunately without better quarterback play there probably isn't one they can't lose either.
There will be proclamations made all week that the Miami game is proof positive that Luke Fickell cannot be a head coach at this level, which of course is ridiculous. There will come a time when the answer to that question will be obvious, and it isn't after three weeks. What could Ohio State do anyway? Fire the interim coach and name another interim coach to coach the team for three more weeks?
Luke Fickell deserves an entire season to have his performance evaluated. He took the job under horrible circumstances, and he certainly never asked to be in the position he finds himself today. After understanding fully that fans are all about winning, whether it's Bobby Bowden coldly being shown the door or Joe Paterno causing Penn State fans pain, so Luke Fickell certainly gets no break or sympathy. But he will be the head coach for the entire 2011 season, and if things turn ugly he will bare the brunt of criticism from the fan base, not Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, Gene Smith or Gordon Gee. And that will be sad.
A win over Colorado this week should give Ohio State the opportunity to get things worked out offensively. The biggest change will probably be Miller taking over as the starting quarterback. Will he become an offensive threat, or a turnover machine? There is only one way to find out, and that process needs to begin with the first snap this coming Saturday.