Welcome to the great unknown.
If the Buckeye players and coaches have offered a pervading thought on what they expect from the Cincinnati offense this Saturday, it is quite simply – they really don't know. While a new staff is normally at a disadvantage against one that has been in place multiple years, their trump card is generally found in their lack of game film with their new team. This leaves an opposing defense – such as Ohio State's – waiting and wondering just what they might have to face on Saturday.
"It's different," observed Simon Fraser. "This has been a little different for us, especially on the defensive side of the ball not knowing what to expect. We have game tape of the players that are coming back, but we don't have any game tape of necessarily what they're going to do."
Linebacker A. J. Hawk has been left guessing as well.
"We don't know exactly what to expect," he said. "We do know what Coach Dantonio likes to do. I'm sure they will show a lot of the same characteristics. I know when he was a defensive coach here, the biggest thing we had to do was stop the run. They may try to run the ball against us, like every other team does."
When asked to discuss possible game plans, Fraser and Jim Tressel deferred repeatedly. About the most detailed response came from Dustin Fox, who said, "I expect to see a lot of spread offense, a lot of getting the ball to different guys in different situations – especially some quarterback runs because he [Guidugli] is tough and can make some runs. A lot of it is up in the air, and we'll see."
As general as that sounds, that's actually specific by way of comparison.
That may cause some angst for Ohio State fans, but for Fraser, this is simply par for the course.
"I think you face that in every opener," Fraser said. "You have a new guy who comes in for the opponents, and you're not sure what capability they have or what schemes they are going to come in with. You'll have the unknown in the first series and then sit down and focus on what you have to get done."
So where do you go from there? How do you determine what the Buckeyes will see and how they might react? Really, you don't. The only known facts for this game are that neither side has any definitive game film to study and halftime adjustments are likely to be critical.
Buckeye Defensive Line
This has been a different sort of camp compared to the one in 2003.
"Last year we had three starters and were mainly focused on finding the backups," Fraser said. "This year, we had to find out who was ready to play and go from there."
There might not be a Will Smith in that lineup, but the coaches' strategy at this point is likely to be a deep player rotation. According to Coach Heacock, "We lost three great players. We're going to have to make up that edge with numbers I think. We'll try to stay active and keep a lot of fresh players on the field and let them go have some fun." He later elaborated, ". I think strength in numbers has to be our motto for the year. We have to keep running them in and get about eight to ten guys ready to go and play them hard."
Who do those players look to be right now? Simon Fraser is of course a given. The only returning starter, Simon's play was limited last season with a fractured kneecap. This year, aside from the average bumps and bruises, he is healthy. Next to him will be Marcus Green and Quinn Pitcock, both of whom have extensive game experience from last season. Manning the last starting spot is the defensive hero of last season's Purdue game, Mike Kudla. Backing up those players will be Jay Richardson, David Patterson, Joel Penton, and Vernon Gholston respectively. Running behind that group but candidates for playing time as well are Sian Cotton (DT) and Jason Caldwell (DE).
Should Buckeye fans be nervous? The coaches aren't. Co-Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder commented, "I'll say this – the great thing about college football is guys graduate and move on. I remember being here a few years back when Will Smith, Tim Anderson, and Darrion Scott stepped up. These guys need to step up. We lost some great leaders, some great players, but that's what's great about college football."
- Run defense. Having Tim Anderson in the middle the last few seasons spoiled the Ohio State faithful. Not only was he the immoveable object in the center of the defense, but when the play moved toward the edges of the field, it was not unusual to see him make a tackle clear over on the sidelines because of his dogged pursuit. Watch to see if the Cincinnati offensive line is able to get any sort of push up the middle. If they cannot, then the Buckeyes have succeeded in forcing them to be one-dimensional, and though Guidugli will have some pretty numbers, the Bearcats' chances of success significantly diminish.
- Pass Rush. If there is one area this defense excelled in fall camp practices open to the media, this is it. There is no Smith, but there are a number who have playing time in the Horseshoe and at least one young pup already baring teeth, Vernon Gholston. Expect the Buckeyes to put more pressure on the middle of an offensive line in 2004 with Patterson, Cotton, Green, Penton, and Pitcock. If the Buckeyes can collapse the interior of the offensive line in a pass rush, that not only limits rushing attempts but will create serious problems for a quarterback who needs time to find a receiver.
- The Wild Cards and the Rotation. Jay Richardson has been met with rave reviews in recent years in practice, but he has not yet proven himself on Saturdays. Vernon Gholston is nearly a complete unknown right now other than his high school press clippings. Joel Penton has moved inside from defensive end and Mike Kudla has seen only spot duty. Sian Cotton moves like a man of 230 in the middle of the field, despite his listed weight of 285. These players are wild cards and their play will largely determine the success of this unit. If they step up to the batter's box and hit a home run, the Buckeye defense might be every bit as dominating as in the previous two seasons. Cincinnati could be forced to adjust its play calling and hope to buy enough time for their offense to throw the ball. As a result, they would be praying for enough room to run and by the fourth quarter, it could get ugly. If these Buckeye players are not ready for prime time, it will be the rotation dying an ugly death while Guidugli and the Cincinnati offense slowly pick apart the Buckeye defense.
There isn't a team in the nation with more talent at linebacker than the Ohio State Buckeyes. There is so much talent in fact that the coaches have recently been experimenting with modified 3-4 defensive schemes simply to get the best 11 players on the football field at once. Bobby Carpenter is quite simply a physical freak and would make the average male question his own masculinity. Mike D'Andrea, who appears to have won the battle for the middle linebacker position, has speed, strength, and size. Only tentativeness and injuries sidelined D'Andrea, but if those have been overcome he could remind spectators of some kid named Katzenmoyer. A.J. Hawk, the last but certainly not the least of the starters, does not have the physical size or 40 times of his teammates, but he is a playa and could be the most instinctive Buckeye linebacker since Spielman. Behind them are Thomas Matthews (think Cie Grant), Anthony Schlegel (run stopper), and Marcus Freeman (a future star).
- Rotation and situational substitutions. Unlike most teams, Ohio State has the luxury of tailoring their personnel to the down and distance. If Cincinnati finds itself with a 3rd (or 4th) and short, don't be shocked to see Hawk, Schlegel, and Carpenter on the field to stop the run. If the Bearcats are faced with a 3rd and long, the Buckeyes could counter with either a dime package or by sending in Thomas Matthews (a former defensive back), Mike D'Andrea, and Bobby Carpenter.
- 3-4 defensive schemes. If Ohio State finds itself struggling to produce pressure on the quarterback (or if coaches simply wish to confuse the Bearcat offense), the defense might shift to a 3-4. In such a situation the options are virtually unlimited for creating chaos. Placing Green/Patterson, Pitcock/Penton, and Fraser/Richardson on the line, teams might be hard pressed to decide what the linebackers will be up to on any given play. D'Andrea could be dropping back into coverage or coming at the quarterback. Carpenter might take care of his regular duties or come screaming into the backfield with D'Andrea or Schlegel rotating over to cover his vacant slot. Hawk and Schlegel could man the sides of the field with Carpenter and D'Andrea both blitzing up the middle. Or, the Guidugli could drop back and find every one of his receivers covered and be forced to scramble as the pocket slowly breaks down.
Strong, but perhaps not the strength it could have been in 2003, the Buckeye defensive backs could border on the unreal in 2004. E.J. Underwood might just cause pundits to ask, "Gamble who?" if he plays to his potential. Dustin Fox has been roundly criticized at times for leaving a cushion on his man, resulting in conversions of 3rd and long for offenses (Penn State in particular exploited this tendency), but that might be a practice of the past. Nate Salley made a name for himself as an assassin in the middle of the field by brutalizing multiple wide receivers. The newcomer, Tyler Everett, is actually not so new with appearances in 26 football games in his first two years. Competing for the nickel and dime slots will be Ted Ginn, Jr., Ashton Youboty, Brandon Mitchell, and Donte Whitner.
- Finding the football. The weakness that ultimately knocked Underwood out of the lineup and all the way to the bench (clearing the way for Gamble to become a star) was finding the football once it was in the air. Expect Guidugli to not only test him but the entire group of defensive backs – especially across the middle of the field where there are often gaps in zone coverage. If the secondary for Ohio State searches for and plays the football, it could be a disaster for Cincinnati, but the reciprocal is true as well.
- Tackling. Against Roy Hall in the most recent scrimmage, multiple defensive backs had an opportunity to take him down early on his spectacular catch and run. Instead of wrapping and taking out Hall's legs, they bounced off like bullets hitting superman's chest. With Bearcat wideouts Hannibal Thomas (6-3, 205), Cedric Dawley (6-1, 210), and Bill Poland (6-3, 201) packing solid physical size, the Ohio State defense is in for a long day if they let their fundamentals slide.
Cincinnati is not going to take what the Buckeye defense presents them lying down. On the contrary, they are likely to make use of nine returning starters on offense, including their leader, Gino Guidugli.
Spurned by Ohio State, Guidugli nearly made them pay in 2002. Only the slimmest of margins separated the two teams and allowed the Buckeyes to escape with a victory. He certainly has earned the respect of cornerback Dustin Fox.
"I think he's a great leader," Fox said. "He was a leader in 2002 when he was a sophomore. Imagine 2 more years of experience and success under his belt. I'm sure he's going to be much better…He's kind of a warrior because he's tough. He doesn't get fazed by anything. He just plays – play after play."
It's been that calm under pressure that has allowed Guidugli to lead his team back from seemingly insurmountable deficits since becoming a starter, and he is not likely to lose that nerve Saturday. Though the Buckeyes would not admit as much when asked, you can bet the Bearcats' players are carrying a grudge; the vast majority of them would have dropped Cincinnati like a rock if Ohio State had deemed them worthy of an offer.
Dantonio may be a new coach with a new staff, but Fraser is fairly certain it's going to be a whale of a football game.
"I know that he's going to have their kids ready to go, and they're going to be tough, physical and will play all four quarters," he said.
While the opposition may have a solid grasp on the probable offense of Ohio State, the Buckeyes will be left in reactionary mode.
"We'll find out the first couple of series what their game plan is," said Fraser.
- Misdirection and Quick Plays. When facing a defense as physically strong and aggressive as that of Ohio State, their speed and size must be used against them. Young defensive linemen in particular (and Ohio State has three fresh faces) are susceptible to misdirection plays such as screens, reverses, etc. If Dantonio and his coaching staff can pick their moments carefully and the offense executes, they might gash the Buckeye defense for large chunks of yardage. Where Will Smith, Tim Anderson, and Darrion Scott had seen just about everything a coaching staff could devise to stop them, Pitcock, Patterson, Green, Kudla, and Richardson have not. Further, the Bearcats need to execute quick plays. Shotgun snaps and three-step drops must be a staple of their offense Saturday. This will nullify any advantage Ohio State might have up front in the trenches, possibly slowing the pass rush just enough that by the fourth quarter Guidugli has time to throw and lead one of his patented comebacks if the game is close.
- Finding the Sweet Spot in the Zone. There are weaknesses to every defensive scheme. The zone blitz run by Ohio State in recent years is no exception to this rule. Zone blitzes are particularly vulnerable to a quarterback who can scramble and/or find the soft spots in secondary coverage. Oklahoma's defense has discovered against both Oklahoma State and Kansas State (and nearly Missouri as well) that this combination is as effective as kryptonite. Guidugli must play the game of his life and make the right decisions with the football, alternately burning the Buckeyes with deep pass completions and with short yardage runs when receivers are covered.
- Mental Toughness. Ohio Stadium rattles opponents, especially those who have never played in it before. They may act and speak as though the crowd and venue will not make a difference, but Cincinnati players will almost certainly be awestruck when they emerge to the sound of over 100,000 fans – the vast majority of which will be rooting for the Buckeyes. Despite a senior dominated lineup, these young men have never been faced with a crowd like the one they face Saturday. The average attendance for a Bearcat game in 2003 was 21,837 – roughly 1/5 of that of Ohio State. The crowd noise and jitters nearly always leads to turnovers for opposing offenses. Cincinnati will probably suffer at least one and probably more. They will have to be ready to rebound if that happens. Otherwise, the Buckeyes will lay down the hammer and sprint away on the scoreboard.
- Running the Football. Cincinnati's starter is none other than Richard Hall. Hall, a highly regarded player coming out of high school, was an Ohio State recruit. When matters did not work out with the Buckeyes, he transferred to play for the Bearcats. Hall has the moves, talent, and size to burn the Scarlet and Gray. Even more, he undoubtedly has motivation in spades. Cincinnati must be able to establish the run. Dantonio, who helped design this defense, knows from experience what will happen if they do not. Even if they are not having extraordinary success, the Bearcats must continue to try and gain yardage on the ground and force Ohio State's defense to play honest.
How the game might play out
The Bearcats are going to be ready to play this football game. They have the element of surprise with a new coaching staff, motivation with their players being spurned by the Buckeyes and other powers in college football, and leadership with 17 returning starters (including nine seniors offensively). The question is whether or not they can physically match up with the Buckeyes. In 2002, they did for three quarters but crumbled in the forth.
Both teams will likely feel out one another in the first quarter with Cincinnati looking to establish their offense and the Buckeyes their defense. This will be a battle of wills that ultimately the athleticism of the Ohio State defense will win due to the freakish talent of their front seven. Guidugli will likely press at some point (with the crowd playing a role as well) and toss up an ill-advised pass or hang onto the ball too long. Expect a turnover or two that might lead to quick scores either with a Nugent field goal or a Buckeye touchdown.
On special teams, both punting units will find themselves under fire. Odds are that someone will get a block Saturday. Cincinnati gave up four blocks in 2003 while Ohio State has a new punter in Kyle Turano (or Josh Huston). Whoever gets the block must capitalize on it and stick the football into the end zone. The Bearcats are a senior laden team but will be fighting nerves inside Ohio Stadium, while the Buckeyes are a young team needing confidence.
For the first time since the departure of Nate Clements, the Buckeyes will have a bona fide weapon to return kicks and punts in both Ted Ginn, Jr. and Santonio Holmes. While the previous contest nearly turned on a called back 96-yard touchdown return by Chris Gamble, this time the Buckeyes will be making noise on punt returns. Holmes has been dazzling at times this fall. Expect him to break one either for a touchdown or big yardage. The only way Cincinnati avoids this is to either avoid him or kick the ball away from his vicinity.
Offensively, Ohio State will seek to run the ball first and pass second with a new quarterback in his first start at the Horseshoe. What passing there is will mainly be short dump offs to the backs and tight ends with the occasional bomb to Holmes or Hall if they find themselves open. The Buckeyes will try to remain mostly vanilla if they can do so and win the battle in the trenches. Lydell Ross looks like a different back so far now that he is a healthy senior and recognizes the hourglass is down to its last grains of sand for him in Scarlet and Gray, and Maurice Hall may not be healthy but is reaching the line of scrimmage in a hurry in contrast to 2003. For a change of pace, the Buckeyes will put in Antonio Pittman and allow him to find daylight and run toward it. Without Brandon Joe, the fullback will not receive 5-7 carries (keeping the defense off balance), but Stan White Jr. could make appearances as an H-back.
Prediction and Final Score:
Ohio State is physically too athletic. Cincinnati will give them a challenge but will ultimately fall short.
Ohio State 31 – Cincinnati 22
"Like Coach Tressel says, we've worked real hard, we've done all the preparation we can," opined Fraser. "Now we just have to go out there and play. It's real exciting to have game week."
Indeed it is. Be ready for a classic on Saturday.