Coach's Corner: Big Dogs Vs. Little Dogs

Former OSU assistant coach Bill Conley is back with another edition of Coach's Corner. Today, he looks at OSU's season opening win over Cincinnati. He shares points of emphasis on OSU playing Ohio teams as well as how the Buckeyes fared on each side of the ball.

Ohio State gave a big sigh of relief after Saturday's 27-6 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats.

You see, if you're the "big dog" in your state (which Ohio State is) you dread playing a lesser school with lesser talent. The head coach of a "big dog" school can not afford to lose to a team that he shouldn't lose to within the same state boundaries. If that happens too often, your days as head coach are numbered.

George Perles had a respectable record at Michigan State but lost too many times to Mid-American Conference teams in the state of Michigan. As a result, George was out of a job because he was one of the two "big dog" schools in his state and those losses were too embarrassing for the "powers to be" at Michigan State to tolerate. Every head coach likes playing "sisters of the poor" -- as long as those sisters are from out of state.

Playing a lesser school in your own home state is an almost impossible situation to win. If you score too many points, you're running it up. If you score too few, you didn't have your team prepared and ready to play. If you lose, you may be on the next Greyhound out of town.

Ohio State's victory over Cincinnati was just right, about three touchdowns. Three- to four-touchdown victories over intrastate teams mean you've proven your point and you're still a gentleman for not running it up. If you're the coach of the "big dog" school, you want to simply get the game over and start preparing for the next opponent. Hopefully that opponent is not another "little dog" school from the same state.

Defense Steps Up

Defense was the name of the game for the Buckeyes. Playing as many as nine different players on the defensive front, the stubborn Ohio State defensive line completely stymied the Bearcat offense.

The Cincinnati running game was practically non existent and their passing attack was just as pitiful. Even though the Bearcats tried to sprint out to avoid being over-powered by the more physical and athletic Ohio State front, Gino Guidugli was continually running for his life. Defensive line coach Jim Heacock's troops kept the heat on the Cincinnati quarterback for four quarters. Coach Heacock kept a fresh front four in his face and there was nowhere for Gino to hide.

When Simon Fraser, Quinn Pitcock, and the rest of the unmerciful defensive front weren't making the plays, the linebacking corp of Bobby Carpenter, A.J. Hawk and Mike D'Andrea were. These linebackers, arguably the best in the country, were flying around stopping the inside run, containing Gino as he sprinted out, and dropping back in coverage when necessary. These three young men, who were touted as the "best" when we recruited them out of high school, finally had a chance to live up to their notoriety. They roamed from sideline to sideline taking out lead blockers, making tackles and, along with the defensive front, owned the line of scrimmage.

The Buckeye secondary was solid. Even though they weren't tested deep very often, Dustin Fox and company gave great run support all day. They also confused Guidugli by disguising coverages; showing man to man and then dropping back into zone. The Buckeye secondary along with the linebackers covered all the zones of a field that was reduced by Cincinnati's own sprint out game plan.

Offense Gets Started

Offensively, the Buckeyes were able to overcome their own mistakes early to steadily improve as the game went on. A shaky start by Justin Zwick (two interceptions and a fumble) and mistake proof play by Troy Smith keeps the quarterback position one of controversy for at least one more game.

The short passing attack to the tight end, jailbreak screens to the wideouts and dumps to Bam Childress over the middle, were things long called for by the Buckeye faithful. It also allowed the young quarterbacks to be successful. This passing strategy, along with the running attack, allowed the Buckeyes to have the ball for nearly eight more minutes than the Bearcats. The old strategy of throwing short and running long was reignited, especially in the case of Bam. The "yards after catch" is a statistic many times overlooked.

The running of Lydell Ross and Antonio Pittman eventually wore down the inferior Bearcats. The continual pounding by the Ohio State offensive line took its toll on the Cincinnati defensive front as the game continued. This was a physical mismatch Coach Woody Hayes would have loved. Four different tailbacks pounding the ball off tackle, it doesn't get any better than that, just ask Woody!

One of the big highlights of the game was the dominance by Ohio State in the kicking game. Maurice Hall's two kickoff returns were inspiring. Averaging 42 yards per return is like adding four extra first downs to the offensive drive chart. Big kickoff returns not only fire up the offense but also gives them a short field to drive the ball. Mike Nugent was steady, as always, by kicking two field goals and knocking his kickoffs deep into the back of the end zone. An edge in the kicking game will be crucial to continued success in the 2004 campaign.

The biggest internal situation the Buckeyes have to deal with is who is going to be "the guy" at quarterback. You cannot have an outstanding season until this is resolved. It's imperative that Coach Jim Tressel comes up with "the guy" before the Big Ten schedule starts.

Confidence, poise, decision making and productivity are the elements needed by a big time collegiate quarterback. It's crucial that one player emerge before something like an injury makes the decision for the coaching staff. You can't win the Big Ten without one leader under center. Time is of the essence and it will be interesting to see how Coach Tressel uses those two quarterbacks this week against Marshall.

The Buckeyes will fine tune the mistakes they made against Cincinnati as they prepare for a Marshall team that now has something to prove due to their upset at the hands of Troy State.

Ohio State shouldn't have a problem with the Thundering Herd as long as they won't take them too lightly. The Buckeyes are a young team in a lot of ways, so taking a team lightly should not be a problem.

All in all, it should be another victory by "big dog" Ohio State over "little dog" Marshall. Thank goodness this "little dog" is from West Virginia, not Ohio.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Bill Conley spent 17 seasons as an assistant coach at Ohio State. He will contribute columns and conduct Chat sessions for subscribers throughout the season. His next Chat is scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern time Monday. He can also be heard on pregame coverage on WTVN-AM (610) in Columbus and hosts his own radio show on the station each Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to noon.

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