Special Teams Return Units are Special
The game was locked at a scoreless stalemate. Penn State had rammed the football down the throats of Buckeye defenders with Michael Robinson, Tony Hunt, and Austin Scott. Only a timely interception by Ashton Youboty kept the Lions from putting points on the board, and there would be no rest for the weary. The Buckeye offense missed an opportunity to help their teammates on the other side of the football, producing just five yards on a quick three and out. Forced to come back into the game with just one minute (1:01 to be exact) of rest, the defense put forth a Herculean effort to deliver a stop.
One couldn't help but feel that despite the score, the Buckeyes were hanging on by a thread.
Then came Teddy Time.
True freshman Ted Ginn, Jr., a highly acclaimed freshman, set up to return the Penn State punt with Santonio Holmes. The Lions lined up in formation, snapped the ball, and cleanly launched it toward the Buckeyes' end of the field.
Ginn described what happened next: "At first the wind was blowing, so we didn't know which way the ball was going to come. We felt the wind with the ball in the air, and it came to me. I saw a hole, I burst, and that was it."
But despite his statement to the contrary, the play wasn't quite over yet. Ginn was not yet in the end zone. The Penn State punter still appeared to have an angle on him. It is not unusual to see a kicker save the day for their return teams by making the tackle. Buckeye kicker Mike Nugent has in fact saved two touchdowns already this season.
However, when asked about the punter's chances Ginn stated matter-of-factly, "No shot. No shot at all. Once you see daylight - when you see a punter there isn't any reason to put a move on him. Just get to the end zone."
And what about getting caught by a punter? What would happen if the punter were to bring him down?
"That might be embarrassing" said Ginn as reporters laughed.
In just seconds, Ohio State had been transformed from a team on the ropes to a team in command with a 7-0 lead, a substantial mark given the state of both teams' offenses. A tired defense felt the weight of the world lifted from their shoulders. A burdened and burned offense felt a balm pressed on their psyche.
Ginn's play stunned the Nittany Lions - though the Buckeyes appear to have been waiting for him to break out.
Starting safety Tyler Everett has faced Ted Ginn in practice and pointed out, "He's probably the fastest guy on the team. He just has such explosion, but it's noticeable but not very noticeable. Some guys they are going one speed and then you can tell there is a drastic change in speed, but Ginn cruises into it. The next thing you know, he is gone."
Senior fullback Brandon Joe revealed, "We were comparing him on the sidelines to Chris Gamble because their running style is the same. They have kind of the same stride, but he might be a tad faster than Chris Gamble. That's not knocking anything off Chris' speed. He's a fast guy, but man, he's (Ginn) lightning. He sees a slither - he gets through it almost untouched. He's that fast. His burst is that fast that it's kind of like trying to tackle a cat out there is the analogy we make…we've been held speechless the last couple of weeks. He's just doing amazing things out there on the field…the sky is the limit for him."
Even Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel seems in awe of Ginn's abilities: "He's got a gear, with the ball in his hand, you know, and that's -- you know, there are some track guys that are out there masquerading as football players. He's a football player. He has track speed. He -- he's got a gear….He can go. I've never seen one like him."
Starting middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel probably displayed the greatest economy of words when he simply stated, "He's fast, isn't he? I'm glad he's on our team."
Emotionally fired up, the defense went back into the game. Senior defensive end Simon Fraser pointed out just how critical it is to have such a weapon even if he is not on the defensive unit.
"That just builds the momentum (and is) a confidence builder," he said. "It just makes everyone even more excited and want to get out there and make the big play, and you saw a lot of big plays out there today."
Three downs later the Buckeyes made a play. Dropping back for a screen pass, Robinson did not spot safety Tyler Everett sneaking up to steal the ball from the offense. The moment the Penn State quarterback lofted the ball into the air, Everett struck, intercepted the pass, and proceeded to score.
In a span of just under two minutes, the Lions found themselves in a 14-0 hole to the Buckeyes. Considering Ohio State had managed just 5 yards of offense and 61 seconds in time of possession, the situation must have seemed ludicrous to those from Happy Valley.
Refusing to give up easily, the two teams played into the second quarter where the Nittany Lions began to wear down the Buckeye defenders. Soon, the game was 14-7 and the crowd grew restless as it sensed the tide shifting to wash away the foundation for the win.
Enter senior tailback and kick returner Maurice Hall.
Hall started the game just short of the all time return yards mark at Ohio State owned by Kenyon Rambo, and his goals were to win and to break that record.
He broke it in a big way.
Penn State place-kicker Robbie Gould knocked the ball 62 yards, placing it deep within Buckeye territory. Hall fielded the kick and like the cavalry in some John Wayne movie - he charged. Exactly 62 yards of bobbing, weaving, and slashing later, Ohio State's offense found itself the beneficiary of tremendous field position. They wouldn't waste it and scored a touchdown to put the game virtually out of reach for the team from Happy Valley.
"I thank God that I was able to be in a position to get (the record)," said Hall. "It felt good out there. I had a good week of practice and was just ready to go special teams wise and on offense…it is something showing I have accomplished something while I have been here, and I'm thankful for that."
Hall's teammates could not be happier - for the win and for the record he now owns.
"I was excited for him," said Brandon Joe. "He had a 60+ yard return and it just happened to be the one to break the record against the number one kickoff coverage team in the Big Ten. It was a statement. We were excited for him. He was excited, and I just told him, ‘Good job man, you're hard work is paying off."
Fraser focused on the historicity of the moment in Ohio State lore and the realization of at least some of Hall's career goals.
"I think we're all proud of him…He has done a fantastic job for this program, and to be able to have your name etched in the history as the leading kickoff return yardage player ever?" Fraser said. "You think of some of the players who have been returning kickoffs and to have your name up there is a huge honor for him. We are all just so happy that he has been able to accomplish that, and I think that he is real happy to contribute that way to his team. He has attained some of his goals."
When asked about what Hall means to the team Tressel commented, "Mo is a team guy and he'll give everything he's got and he's battled through injuries and, you know, his wheels probably aren't what they used to be, but he doesn't care because he's a Buckeye."
The Tale of Two seasons
Once upon a time just a short season ago, the special teams return units for Ohio State were among the worst in the Big Ten and even the nation. They were anything but special. Despite having great talent, what they produced was harder on the senses than listening an 8th grade band performing Mozart. The returners missed holes, the blockers were manhandled, and opposing teams simply licked their chops in watching game film.
With Chris Gamble, Michael Jenkins, and Santonio Holmes (among others) returning punts in 2003, the Buckeyes averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt and one touchdown. Meanwhile, the kick returners managed a paltry 17.6 yards per attempt with Maurice Hall running on a pair of gimpy knees.
Contrast those numbers with the 2004 edition of the special teams return units. Counting the touchdown scored by Ginn Saturday, the Buckeyes have three scores (in eight games) on punt returns and are averaging 14.8 yards every time they touch the football. On kickoffs, a healthy Hall has made a huge difference as the returners are gaining 25 yards per return. Hall alone is averaging over 29 yards when he opts to bring the ball out of the end zone.
To what do the players attribute this newfound success?
Is it coaching? Is it attitude? Is it a combination of both? The players attribute it to a number of factors including (but not limited to) the aforementioned.
Linebacker Anthony Schlegel commented, "He's (Coach Hazell) really worked - you can tell there is a huge difference between our kickoff return this year and last year. That's just him being a great coach. It's great Mo Hall broke record today, but that just shows our kickoff return team is something special."
Everett seemed to lean toward coaching as well.
"We emphasize it a lot more than we did last year," he said. "Every Thursday meeting after practice, Coach Tressel has three things we have to do to win on the road and in the Big Ten. He says we have to have relentless defense, we have to be superior on special teams, and we also have to have a mistake free, opportunistic offense. Every day we spend at least 30 minutes working on special teams. Thursday we really hit special teams. (All the) emphasizing and practicing just makes us better at those."
Beyond coaching though, Schlegel also sees more effort on the part of players and claims the difference is really one of "attitude. Attitude really because special teams are all about attitude. When you have guys just determined to make plays, and we have some phenomenal athletes handling the ball. As long as you go out there and attack people on special teams, having those athletes - they are going to make big plays. That's the difference. People are just attacking."
Hall would go for a combined position.
"I think we concentrate it a lot more this year," he said. "I think Coach Hazell came in and really concentrated on our kick return a lot. Our punt return has done a good job with Ted and Santonio back there. I think we concentrate on it a lot more and a lot of the players are taking it more serious...there are a lot of people who want to be on that kickoff return team and the people on it try to do the best they can to help us."
The answer might be one of the above, or it might even be as simple as sheer talent. Quick, name another team in the Big Ten with three more explosive or proven returners. Which other team in the Big Ten would not have absolutely crawled across broken glass to have the services of Ginn, Jr.? Michigan coach Lloyd Carr even reportedly offered him a starting position if he would decommit from Ohio State and attend the university in Ann Arbor. What team in the Big Ten could not use Santonio Holmes? Where in the conference would Maurice Hall not line up to return kickoffs given his proficiency there?
Whatever the reason, it is working for Ohio State, and they are using their return units to either score points or win the battle of field position. Teams are unable to avoid one or the other on kickoffs and returns. If one kicks the ball out of bounds on a kickoff to avoid Holmes and Hall, it automatically guarantees the Buckeyes great field position at the 35-yard line. However, kicking it to either player is playing Russian roulette. Trying to angle the punt away from Ted Ginn, Jr. is possible if he is the only returner waiting for the football. The problem for opposing coaches is Santonio Holmes is lined up on the other side of the field. Again - which is better - to kick the ball out of bounds and guarantee the Buckeyes fantastic field position or kicking it and hoping the return men somehow fall short in the law of averages?
Perhaps most importantly for fans and the team is not why or how or even who but that the Buckeyes are using their special teams to vault back into the win column. A little luck, a little more offense, and quite frankly - who knows what might happen. A team that looked destined to watch the bowl games from their apartments just 3 weeks ago might be traveling on New Year's Day…