The Facts Man: Ohio State Making Progress

Things weren't as bad as they seemed for Ohio State in the win vs. Cincinnati, at least when it came to the pass defense, and the offense hit its groove. BSB's Mike Wachsman gives his take on the 50-28 victory and looks at the troubles in Ann Arbor.

I had a friend way back in high school who was always complaining that his parents never appreciated what he did. He worked hard, stayed on the straight and narrow, and brought home A’s and B’s with the exception of the occasional C or D in a random subject.

Rather than compliment him for a job well done, the parents would instead focus on the negative, asking him what happened with the bad grade.

I ran into him recently and asked if his parents grew up to rule Buckeye Nation, because that’s a microcosm of how OSU fans reacted after the Buckeyes better-than-it-looked win against Cincinnati.

Forgive me for not joining the “sky is falling” Chicken Littles out there because the game I saw was markedly different than the one they saw.

What I saw was an NFL quarterback in Gunner Kiel making three excellent throws, two against busted coverages, that resulted in touchdowns. On the Bearcats first long score, Vonn Bell was right with receiver Chris Moore, even getting his arm into Moore’s chest, but failed to look back at the ball.

Those TD throws amassed 221 yards, all to Moore. Kiel’s other 18 completions were for 134 yards, an average of just over 7 yards per completion. The Buckeyes were more often than not in the right position and even knocked down a couple of laser strikes from Kiel, who is the best quarterback they will face all season.

Getting burned in man coverage and not getting safety help on another are correctable mistakes – at least in theory. Maybe the right guys aren’t on the field, maybe the new Chris Ash scheme is too complicated for them to grasp, or maybe they are young guys, four games into their careers, who made mistakes. Not all of them are great immediately, especially in the secondary.

So it was basically three plays that had Buckeye Nation talking afterward, but the conversation should have been about the offense and the otherwise solid – not great, but solid – job the defense did.

Urban Meyer was in the former camp, which you might expect from a head coach.

“Defensively, we’re back to the drawing board,” he said. “And pass coverage, a couple of corners got beat and we gave up big plays. You can say other than that, but that’s what we’ve got to get fixed. You can’t play championship football until that gets fixed.”

Meyer is right, but the Cincinnati game was progress.

Last season, watching the OSU pass defense was akin to having a root canal. The players were out of position, the scheme was all wrong, and teams marched up and down the field at will. Against the Bearcats, defenders were where they should have been, they recognized where the ball was and generally tackled well. Cincinnati’s big plays came on first down (twice) and second-and-short, when the playbook was open for anything.

Maybe the Buckeyes were back on their heels or didn’t realize how good Cincinnati’s receivers were, but whatever the case they allowed big plays. And while that can be a touch worrisome, it should be noted that outside of opening Big Ten foe Maryland, there really isn’t a team in the conference that lives and dies by the long passing game.

Still, there is always room for evaluation, and Meyer sounded like that was definitely on the docket after the UC contest.

“Other than me saying we have to get the corners off a little bit, I don’t micromanage,” he said. “I felt like when they started running by us, that’s a problem. So we’ll just have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with and make sure we’re giving our team the best opportunity to win.

“I was pissed (after UC cut into the lead). Great teams don’t do that. I didn’t want to take away anything from UC because they are legitimate, probably the best throwing team we’ve faced since we’ve been here. When (Cincinnati head coach Tommy) Tuberville says he’s got the best group of receivers he’s ever had, everybody takes a deep breath and goes, ‘Really?’ But he’s got a good team. But we’re Ohio State, too, so we better learn how to play pass defense and get that fixed.”

The Buckeyes have gone from a team that played a lot of soft zone last year, with horrible results, to one that has gone to a more aggressive press-man style, with mixed results. The funny thing is, Buckeye Nation doesn’t like either. Folks, it’s either zone or man, there isn’t a third option. The first way wasn’t working, you complained, the coaches changed it, now you don’t like the change. Fans can’t have it both ways, though many want to.

“I think we do (have the personnel to play press coverage),” Meyer said. “But obviously I saw what you saw. I want to challenge throws and play bump and run. If you have the personnel, keep doing it. If you don’t, you’ve got to adapt. And our guys hang in there with (our receivers), so maybe Cincinnati’s receivers are that much better than Ohio State’s receivers. I don’t know. That’s just something we’ve got to evaluate. It’s still early. But it’s not like this is not going to be addressed and get worked on.”

The Ohio State coaching staff said it would be tested by Cincinnati, and it was. While it was a win, it certainly wasn’t A-level stuff. The breakdowns in pass defense weren’t great but shouldn’t cloud the overall grade of the defense, which is roughly a B-minus, maybe a C-plus. That, of course, is coming from someone who didn’t have Buckeye Nation as an overbearing parent. I’m sure the view from that camp is radically worse.

But if the wins keep coming, that talk will slowly fade into the atmosphere.

A Work In Progress
The open playbook that was shown against Kent State continued to be used against the Bearcats, and that was refreshing. Of course, the UC defense was nearly as hapless as Kent’s, so maybe we shouldn’t get too excited.

But there were short timing passes, intermediate throws (even to the tight ends!) and a nifty 34-yard scoring pass from J.T. Barrett to Devin Smith, though not without an anxious moment before Smith clutched the ball in.

Meyer and company are doing a much better job of utilizing the weapons at their disposal, and maybe, just maybe, they won’t go into a shell against some of the better teams they face along the Big Ten road.

“When you have a horizontal and vertical punch, that’s the hardest offense to defend,” Meyer said. “Our first year our horizontal offense was Braxton Miller, and then you go recruit a Dontre (Wilson), recruit a Jalin (Marshall), we’re starting to hit you, start making them defend. Like they were playing wide defensive ends. and that was giving us the interior run. The minute they tightened down, we hit the edge. That’s what we’re trying to be.”

Barrett continues to play well beyond his years, though there were a few moments where the coach was on him about being more vocal.

“I still get when you see false starts, they said they couldn’t hear him,” Meyer said. “I kept screaming ‘Peyton Manning’ at him because when I study or just get to watch games, Peyton Manning’s still as good as I’ve ever seen in taking control. And J.T. is not there yet, so take control of the offense. Other than that, he was very accurate today throwing the ball.”

Barrett is impressive in the way he goes through his progressions, keeps his feet moving during the play, and either fires a rocket or takes off the with the ball. While no one will mistake him for Miller, he has more than held his own as a runner. The bad decisions that plagued him early in the year seem to be history. Could they return? Of course, he’s a first-year starter still finding his way.

But this much is certain: What many thought was the one thing standing in the way of the Buckeyes challenging for the Big Ten title – quarterback play – is no longer a concern.

Big Blues At The Big House
I’m not of the group that uses the “well, at least we aren’t so and so” when justifying things, figuring that just because it’s going on someplace else it isn’t necessarily right. But it’s hard to keep from piling on Michigan football, especially since the Wolverines have plumbed to new lows, including being shut out by rival Notre Dame and getting housed at the Big House by Minnesota. Say that again – Minnesota.

For those keeping track, that’s two bad coaching hires in a row for the folks in Ann Arbor, and they may have to go to Plan C the next time around after failing to secure Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh in recent searches.

Brady Hoke talked a good game upon his hiring from San Diego State, where he had one good season amid a sea of mediocrity, but it has obviously gone awry as the Wolverines have regressed (badly) in each of his seasons. Things have gotten so bad that Big Ten shill Lee Corso even said on ESPN’s “College GameDay” that the Wolverines will be lucky to win four games.

How bad has it gotten? Michigan had less than 200 yards of offense against Minnesota, lost its second straight at home and earned its ninth loss in its last 13 games. It also fell to a Gophers squad that it had beaten 43 of the last 47 contests. It is also the first time in school history Michigan has lost three times before October.

The Wolverines are losing, and in colossal fashion. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that apathy has set in, and when that happens at a proud program, that program is swimming upstream. Where it’s most pronounced is with students, who are staying away in droves. If you don’t have student support, you have nothing.

“I keep hearing about students who quit going to games, but that’s not here,” Meyer said after the Cincinnati game. “The minute we quit appreciating students – I told our players, you bet if I ever hear about you not being gracious to a student, thanking that student, you won’t play here. I love our students – 29,000 strong support the football team. And that just makes my job easier. You take away those students, you try to go motivate that team and it’s a little more difficult.”

Hoke said after the Minnesota loss that, “I think this team can still win this championship.”

What wasn’t asked is whether Hoke still believes in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.

While there is some joy in seeing the Wolverines, who have been the epitome of arrogance seemingly forever, get kicked in the teeth, there is a part of me that says the Big Ten is better when the Wolverines (and to a slightly lesser extent Penn State) are good. That’s certainly true from a national perspective. We are talking about the winningest program in college football history, after all.

Whether you like them or not, programs such as Michigan and Notre Dame and Texas and USC make college football more enjoyable and much more dramatic when they are all good. There is nothing good emanating from Ann Arbor right now. Games are drudgery, and that’s never acceptable. Talent is either not being recruited or not being developed, and both of those are on the coach.

It will be interesting to see what the Michigan administrators do after the season because it’s painfully obvious Hoke isn’t long for the job. There is, however, talk that the administration, most notably AD Dave Brandon, is a big part of the problem. So maybe it won’t matter whom the Wolverines bring in to “rescue” the program, as long as Brandon is around.

The drama is at least as good as anything on network TV.

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