There can't ever have been a week like this in the history of Ohio State football.
I've certainly never seen anything like it since I started hanging out in the press box more than 10 years ago
Sometimes for better and unfortunately sometimes for worse, uncertainty is a big motivation in following sports. That's why I'd rather watch even a random West Coast basketball game than most scripted events on TV. I want to feel like I know what's happening but with the assurance truly no one does because it hasn't actually been determined.
We take history and apply it to the present all the time in an attempt to better understand what we are seeing. Sometimes that works better than others. Sometimes it's a total waste of time. But really, what else were we going to be doing? As long as it helps pass the time, we should be relatively satisfied. That's another thing -- passing time -- we follow sports to do. At least I do, anyway.
So this Ohio State win over Michigan had plenty of similarities to the recent past. It featured an Ohio State team winning against a surprisingly spry group of Wolverines. It didn't have quite the same juice as some of the previous contests have, but there was still no denying it felt different than any other game of the season. It was still The Game. Students still rushed the field when it was over, and everyone took a moment to drink it all in.
The Wolverines were surprisingly competitive but ultimately came up empty, as was the case last season and the year before. Like 2009, they were rewarded with the end of their season. Like 2010, they came with a head coach who was by all appearances a dead man walking. Also like that season, it felt like Ohio State won without even playing very well.
Like last year, the game was entered into, played and completed with the knowledge that another would come next week with something more at stake. That didn't make The Game an afterthought, but it did make stopping to appreciate it more of a chore.
Unlike last year, the Wolverines were able to deal a potentially crippling blow to Ohio State's hopes of winning a Big Ten or national title, although they didn't do it on the scoreboard.
I guess if no one was quite sure how to react to J.T. Barrett's injury Saturday, that is to be forgiven. Who has dealt with something like that at this point in a season?
The Buckeyes and their coaches had all the right things to say, and it sounded like more than lip service. They have already replaced one quarterback this season and thrived. No reason for them not to believe they can't do it again. What's the alternative? While fans, reporters, bloggers and everyone else can lament the loss of a player and predict doom and gloom, there is not much utility in that for the men who will be in the action Saturday in Indianapolis. They have been taught to embrace adversity, to use it as something to be overcome. It's easier to get motivated that way anyway, and motivation is a big deal when teams are in the same stratosphere talent-wise.
Ohio State has an offense built to be able to exploit any weakness in any defense anywhere on the field -- if it has the right guys in the right spots. That it has turned many of Urban Meyer's quarterbacks into big stars may be somewhat coincidental, although that is not to take away from the talents of Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett.
For a while now the trend in football at the levels of football below the NFL is to put the team's best athlete at quarterback, give him room to operate and get out of the way. It makes sense when you can't as conveniently and completely pick your roster like you can in the pros, especially with many high school and college coaches having much more varied backgrounds than their NFL counterparts.
So Meyer's marriage of those two prevailing concepts -- get your best players the ball as much as possible and spread the field to make defenses have to cover more ground -- only makes sense.
But the offense is still intended to be egalitarian. Any man can get the glory if he is better than the one across from him. The quarterback most often wears the laurel of hero because he most often has the ball, and if he is good at simply getting the ball to the right guy -- even if that is him -- he will put up big numbers that everyone sees and can digest.
Against a lot of teams on the typical college football schedule, Ohio State can win with its talent at the skill positions even if the quarterback is just an average guy with a basic understanding of the principles of the offense. He also needs to be able to at least outrun defenders who don't quite pay enough attention to him, but that description fits just about everyone coming out of high school with quarterback experience today.
Just snapping the ball to a great player and letting him make things happen is enough to beat a lot of teams as long as you can block. Just throwing the ball to a fast and/or quick guy in space is enough to beat a lot of teams, too (just ask Purdue of the 1990s or just about anyone currently in the Big 12). So is just handing it off to someone if he is fast and the offensive line is good. Or you can just snap the ball to him, too.
Beating a top 20 team while only able to do one of these things well is a different task, though. It's easy to forget this because of how rarely Ohio State plays such squads, but it is true. Not everyone is Braxton Miller physically or J.T. Barrett mentally, and both of them got more dangerous as they developed the other's prime skill.
Where does Cardale Jones fall on this scale? I think he's more like Terrelle Pryor in that he's a physical freak but doesn't have as many functional football skills as Miller or Barrett. Being quick of foot or mind is really better than being strong and fast when it come to being a quarterback, which is why Barrett passed up the cannon-armed Jones on the depth chart in the first place. That's also why Miller put up better numbers than Pryor without the NFL wide receivers.
Replacing Barrett with Jones is about as different from replacing Miller with Barrett as one could imagine. Barrett's success was mostly on his mental and physical ability, but it was enhanced by the fact the Ohio State coaches spent the offseason working on making sure the emphasis of the offense was on Miller needing to be his spectacular self a little bit less. The whole deal had been moving in that direction since the end of 2012, but a lack of weapons outside slowed progress. That became a greater necessity when his spectacular self was gone altogether.
I think Jones can do some spectacular things, but not as many as Miller. Is he as good as involving his teammates as Barrett? I tend to doubt that as well. What about as good as 2012 Braxton? Jones will at least have more options, but it's still no sure thing.
Miller the magician and Barrett the distributor made Ohio State pretty good. They were more than enough to beat most of the teams they play. But the last three times they beat ranked teams, it was because of a combination both types of success -- individual and collective. That would be Barrett's games against Michigan State and Minnesota this year -- and Miller against Wisconsin last year.
What we can expect to learn this week: If the Buckeyes can run the ball well enough to win without passing and if the defense can play well enough for that to matter.
These Badgers are not world-beaters, but they are much better than almost anyone Ohio State has faced in recent history. They are one-dimensional on offense, but it's the dimension Ohio State has struggled with since pretty much the last time they played Wisconsin.
The Buckeyes changed their general approach that night, a gamble that paid off but just barely. On the bright side this time? Wisconsin never really found a replacement for Jared Abbrederis. Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin offensive line are better now, though, so containing him is going to be harder.
Urban Meyer said struggles of the run defense could at least be partly ascribed to a concern with opposing passing games, something I am willing to give some credence to. Although it would have stood to reason that the Buckeyes would be more worried about the running game against Minnesota and Indiana, two teams that can't really throw, the proof is in the pudding. They were not selling out to take away those running games. And against Michigan the bigger threat was Devin Gardner, but I still think if you look at the way the Wolverines got the Buckeyes blocked up there is reason to wonder how things are going to go this weekend.
The last thing is the idea that the defense will raise its level of play in response to what happened to the Ohio State offense. I am also willing to believe that that's a possibility, and I think it may actually end up being a necessity.
We'll find out this weekend.
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