One of the benefits of bowl preparation is that it gives the team extra time on the practice field. Junior defensive end Mike Kudla says OSU is making the most of this additional practice time.
"It's going real well so far," Kudla said. "The coaches are getting on us and are putting a good game plan together, and the guys, we're healthy and running around. It's been one of our better bowl practices since I've been here."
Kudla started the season slow, then was forced to deal with a neck injury and missed two games. However, he really came on towards the end of the year. He finished the regular season with modest statistics (26 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks), but showed the talent that made him such a highly sought-after recruit coming out of high school.
"It came on a little bit in the second half of the season," Kudla said. "I started playing real well. The main thing was I got healthy again and the coaches let us go out there and play and we started having fun and it turned out to be a good season."
Actually, the entire OSU defense played better the second half of the season. Kudla says one of the major reasons for the turnaround was that the Buckeyes decided to simplify things.
"We sat down after our losing streak and we said, you know, ‘What are we trying to do?" And we were trying to correct things by putting more in," Kudla said. "And it came down to, ‘We need to go back to what we're supposed to do. Back to base fundamentals.' Once we started simplifying things and letting guys go out and create plays, we did better. And the coaches really pushed us hard and got us in the film room and worked with us on an individual level. And man, it really turned around real quick."
Kudla is looking forward to taking some time off, but football is always on his mind. "Usually when I go home, I still work out," he said. "You see your family, you haven't seen them that much, and catch up with old friends. A lot of guys are back from college or whatnot. So, you see and kind of reflect, but in the back of my mind, I've always got the next big game on my mind."
The Buckeyes are going to San Antonio on a business trip. Their main goal is to win the Alamo Bowl over Oklahoma State. However, it's not all business. The players want to have some fun as well. But how do they balance business with pleasure?
"When you're at practice, you've got to have your mind on football," Kudla said. "And when you're in meetings, you've got to concentrate real hard. When the coaches give you time to relax and enjoy the experience, that's the time you've got to let your guard down a little bit and enjoy what you're doing right now because you know it's a once in a lifetime experience. So, when it comes time to take care of business, this group has a real good focus. So, I'm sure when we've got to go, we'll be able to go."
Ohio State is coming off its best game of the season – the 37-21 victory over Michigan. The bowl game is a good opportunity to build on that performance, and get some momentum heading into next season.
"That's true, but no one has really said much about building for next year because we want to let these seniors go out on a winning note," Kudla said. "But, it's going to be a big challenge for our defense. Oklahoma State is really good offensively. They're extensive on the run and they're real physical. They'll line up and tell you where they're going to run. So, it's going to be a good testament for our defense to see how they play. They run a physical-style offense and that's what we're used to seeing, so we're excited about the challenge. Personally, I can't wait for it. I just want to get out on the field and play again and do the things that we like to do."
Kudla and the Buckeyes will have their hands full with Cowboys tailback Vernand Morency.
"It definitely sets a goal for you," Kudla said. "It's a big challenge and that's what we like to go up against. We know he's a great runner, very explosive, so it definitely sets us a goal that we can go out and achieve and work for during bowl practice. We want to limit him and try and contain their offense."
Kudla admits it's tough having such a long layoff between games. "That's the thing. You sit around and talk to the guys, everyone is really hungry to get out there and start playing again. That's why these bowl practices have been a lot of fun because everyone is out there competing and trying to get better and everyone's pushing each other."
YOUBOTY RETURNS TO TEXAS
Ohio State sophomore cornerback Ashton Youboty moved to Klein, Texas in eighth grade and his parents still live there. He is excited to return home and play in front of some familiar faced.
"Yeah, it will be fun," Youboty said. "I think it's about three and a half hours from my parents' home. I actually need about 30 tickets for everyone."
Youboty seemed to improve with each game this season. His performance in the Michigan game was especially impressive, considering the fact that Braylon Edwards did not catch a pass when Youboty was matched up against him. Edwards is the top receiver in the country and will likely be the first WR taken in the NFL draft (likely he or Mike Williams).
"Personally, I think I did a good job on him," Youboty said. "But, I mean, he's a good player and he's been doing it for four years. I have a couple years left to prove myself."
Is Edwards the best Youboty has faced?
"So far, but I haven't had that much time in college," he said. "(Taylor) Stubblefield from Purdue, he was pretty good, and N.C. State had a couple good receivers also, but (Edwards) was pretty much the top one."
Some of OSU's players have asked Youboty what to expect in San Antonio, but they'll have to find a different tour guide.
"I told them the only time I've been to San Antonio was when I went to Six Flags over there," he said.
Youboty thinks that the Cowboys will have more fans than the Buckeyes in the Alamo Dome.
"Our fans will be there, but a lot of those kids from Oklahoma State are from Texas, so there will be some crazy fans down there," he said.
The corner was asked to compare Ohio's football fans, to Texas' football fans.
"Both states have big time college football and big time high school football, so I think they're comparable," Youboty said. "But, who's crazier about football? I don't know. I'll leave that up to them."
Youboty is going to enjoy his brief time off from football.
"Yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to it," he said. "We're practicing pretty hard right now, so I think those six days – even though we won't get Christmas off – will be good for us.
"But you never forget about football. Once I get home, I'm going to get football questions. People that are not from Ohio want to know everything, so you're always talking about it. But, football wise, I'm there for a break, so I'm going to try and make the most of it. But, once we get back together in San Antonio, we'll be ready."
Will Youboty still workout during the week off?
"If they give us a workout plan, maybe." Yuoboty says the bowl game is a reward for the players.
"Coach (Tressel) says all the time that it's a privilege to go to a bowl game and last year I had a lot of fun in Arizona," he said. "So, I'm looking forward to it. It's my home state, so I know a lot of my family and high school teammates are going to be there. They're coming to the game."
But it won't be all fun and games. The Buckeye defense will be facing a good Oklahoma State offense. The Cowboys like to pound the running game, then occasionally try and burn teams with the deep pass.
"Exactly," Youboty said. "They run the ball a lot and they have a really talented group of running backs, and they have a fast quarterback (Donovan Woods). They try and run the ball, and our defense is based on stopping the run.
"I know when they throw it, it's probably them going for a big play. So, I just have to be patient and not fall asleep out there. Get ready for any passes. I know on 3rd-and-10 they have to pass it, but you just have to be ready for anything."
Some of OSU's receivers were having some fun Tuesday, claiming that they were so fast they could blow by fast defensive backs like Youboty and Dustin Fox in practice. But Youboty disputes those claims.
"I don't know about blowing by us in practice," Youboty said with a laugh. "They might have their plays here and there, but overall, yeah, they're a fast group. Defensively speaking, the DBs and receivers, we're pretty much even. You've got people who are a step faster here and there. I mean, we were running sprints the other day and our last one was a full sprint. When I looked to my left and right, it was Ted (Ginn) and Tony (Gonzalez) right next to me, so."
Youboty was asked how he would try and slow down OSU's receivers if he was playing against them in a real game.
"If I was Oklahoma State? Don't get beat deep," he said. "They're going to get their routes. They run good routes, so they're going to get open, you just have to limit the big plays. That's how I would defend them."
Would he used some bump and run coverage?
"I wouldn't do that either," Youboty warned. "Just eliminate the big plays. Don't get beat deep."
Like Kudla mentioned, OSU's defense played better late in the season, after it decided to simplify things.
"Yeah, the coaches did go back and simplify our defense in several ways," Youboty said. "But I think the biggest thing was, as a unit, we started figuring out what we can do, or what we can't do. What blitzes (defensive coordinator Mark Snyder) can call and when he can call them. So, our coaches started calling the game a little different and I think overall that helped us."
The injuries to Fox (arm, groin) allowed some young players to get additional playing time. Fox's first injury led to Youboty's move to the starting lineup, and he's never giving up that starting spot.
"I think the playing time gave us a chance to prove what we had," Youboty said. "Prove what we can do. You saw Donte (Whitner) come up big and Harlen Jacobs got in there in the nickel package. So, the coaches saw what we could do in practice, but they got a chance to see we could do it out on the field also."
Youboty was recruited by several Texas schools coming out of Klein High School, but obviously decided to come north.
"Yeah, I was recruited by both states, and my decision came down to where I felt I could live for four years, and it was here," he said. "The final two were Ohio State and Penn State. I also considered Tennessee. They were third."
Did Youboty like the Buckeyes from the start, or did they make a late push? "Actually, my very first scholarship offer was from LSU," he said. "So, they were pretty much top notch and my first choice. So, then Oklahoma came, then from there all the Texas schools – UT, A&M, and all them. Then, it went to Arizona schools. Then Tennessee offered.
"I actually didn't start getting offers from the Big Ten until I came to Ohio State's football camp before my senior year (2002) and then went to the Penn State camp. Once Ohio State offered me at the camp, Penn State offered me at the camp. Then Michigan started looking at me and they offered. So, it was like a domino effect."
It is obviously a big adjustment going from high school ball, to college. But Youboty has made a smooth transition.
"Well, being a good cornerback in high school, you know you're confident," he said. "You have no lack of confidence. You don't even know if they are going to throw the ball your way.
"The first guy I covered in college was Mike Jenkins and I was nervous. And then once I felt I could run with him, it was back to being like a senior in high school. Felt comfortable in your stance and just play ball. Once you become comfortable, I think it's just normal football. Playing corner, it's all about confidence."
Snyder says Woods reminds him of Ohio State starting quarterback Troy Smith.
"Oh, absolutely," Snyder said. "Coach Tress brings our twos down and brings Troy down and we have a little special segment for him and it's great for our defense."
Snyder had some growing pains this year, but did a better job of calling the game as the season progressed.
"Well, I think it's been a team concept," he said. "I think everything's kind of come together for us. Offense, defense and special teams. But, yes, I think our defense has gotten better."
Many of OSU's defensive players – like Kudla and Yuoboty – credit the defense's turnaround to the fact that it simplified things. But Snyder doesn't put much stock in that.
"No, we really didn't change much," he said. "We just wanted to do what we did better." Ohio State played a lot of young players on defense this year, something that bodes very well for the future.
"Yeah, no question," Snyder said. "Those guys had to come together, which will help us some next year and hopefully in this game."
Even OSU's defensive players who don't play much are getting a lot from bowl practice. It is a time for them to improve and show the coaches that they deserve a spot in 2005.
"Yeah, absolutely," Snyder said. "This is like an extra spring for them. I mean, you have to have this for those guys. We've gotten those young guys a lot of work. A lot of crucial work that will help them a lot going into spring and next season."
Prior to the announcement, it was clear that OSU would face either Oklahoma State, or Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl, two completely different styles of offense.
"Night and day," Snyder said. "But I don't think our guys prefer either way because in our conference, in our schedule here at Ohio State, we play them all anyway. About the only thing we don't see is the wishbone."
Snyder was asked to compare Oklahoma State to another team.
"They're a lot like Wisconsin," he said. "If you're going to compare them to somebody, they're Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, those kind of teams.
"They're a zone (blocking) team. Get them up blocking and get a thousand hats at the point of attack and make you all those hats at the point of attack. Then, if you go doing that, the quarterback takes over."
Snyder is impressed with Morency.
"Good back," he said. "He's just a good back. Those backs in that conference, they're daggone good. I mean they are good."
Ohio University hired Frank Solich as its football coach Wedneday, so one rumor can be put to rest. But is Snyder considering any head coaching jobs?
"No," he said.
Does he want to leave OSU anytime in the near future for a head coaching job?
"No. I'm happy here," he said. "I just want to win this bowl game and recruit."