On paper, it had the makings of a blowout.
A highly rated Ohio State team was playing at home, finishing off its nonconference schedule with a MAC team. They had already taken care of two ranked foes, and Bowling Green wasn't expected to be a problem.
At least, on paper.
Then the whistle blew and the Buckeyes found that paper didn't mean very much. In fact, it didn't mean anything at all.
Ohio State escaped according to Joel Penton; "We gave up 17 points, and it actually came down to the wire. I remember we were in a two-minute situation just trying to keep them out of the end zone."
Senior safety Brandon Mitchell remembers, and he isn't keen on seeing the scene repeated; "I'm the only one back there (in the secondary) who has seen exactly how good the Bowling Green offense is. A lot of people may think ‘Oh, this is just Bowling Green.' These guys are good, and they are well coached. Their offense is high powered. For us it is going to be like a track meet out there because they don't huddle very much. I think the first thing I have to do is just convey this is a good team and get them prepared for the game."
Mitchell went on to say, "All of our safeties that have been playing, even Anderson, we went back and looked at the Bowling Green game from '03. I admittedly played a terrible game that day. You probably didn't see me after that game on film for the entire season. So, those guys looked at the film, and they know it is going to be a tough game. They know we were out there missing tackles, so we have to be focused. In 2003 we didn't play as sharp a game as normal, and they know the game was close."
It was close – closer than most probably remember. The Falcons actually out gained the Buckeyes 366 to 323 yards in total offense, and they had 21 first downs to just 17 for their supposedly superior Big Ten foe.
"We actually struggled for a while in 2003 against this Bowling Green team," admitted Penton. "We are to have to play really well. (We have to) continually go back to things like that -- go back to the Wisconsin game in 2003, go back to the Michigan game of 2003, and all those things will help (avoid a let down)."
What likely tipped the balance was in fact the same thing most have been talking about with regard to the current Buckeye defense – turnovers. Ohio State came up with 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery that afternoon. Those big plays combined to hide the other team weaknesses and allowed them to escape with a win.
The chink in the armor of this edition of Ohio State's defense, as strong as they are, has been the run defense.
The Falcons, though they often line up in what appears to be an open backfield, are a rushing team. Bowling Green's redshirt freshman quarterback, Freddie Barnes, is second in the nation among rushing quarterbacks in yards per game with 78.4. Anthony Turner, their redshirt sophomore quarterback rushed for 127 yards against Buffalo and added 204 through the air for good measure. Starting tailback Chris Bullock has rushed for 213 yards in just the last 6 quarters. As a team, they are 12th in the nation rushing the football with 208.2 yards on the ground per game.
That just might spell trouble for an Ohio State defense which, depending on the play can do anything from catch the offense behind the line of scrimmage to allowing them to burst through the line for chunks of yardage.
With a strong secondary, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis on the Butkus watch list, and perhaps its strongest defensive line since, well, 2003 – what in the name of defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is happening?
"We are still somewhat of a young defense," said Penton. "We have some breakdowns. We have some missed assignments. So, sometimes it is (inconsistent). It can vary which group, but I think each week we are getting that much better at the run. I think as the season goes on the need to stop it is going to be that much greater and our ability is going to be that much greater."
What, in his estimation, will be the keys to stopping the run consistently?
"It is a combination of perfect execution, (and) also tough, physical, violent play. It takes the whole combination of all the various aspects of defense to stop the run."
Bowling Green will aim to make sure that doesn't happen, and they will hope the defense that allowed Garrett Wolfe to roam free at times is the one that shows on Saturday.
"Any time you make mental mistakes and miss tackles in a game you have a chance to lose," admitted Mitchell. "So, what we have been trying to do – coach Heacock has done a good job telling everybody about – staying with the fundamentals and doing the little things and not worrying about going out and ‘trying' to make an interception and not worrying about trying to make a play. Just do your 1/11th of the job."
Doing that 1/11th of a job will include replacing starting safety Anderson Russell with Jamario O'Neal.
His teammates, Mitchell especially, have confidence he can do the job; "I think Jamario just has to play his game. He is a great athlete. He just has to calm down and play his game. He knows the defense. He is a great athlete. I think this week of practice and studying the Iowa game film will help him out a lot."
Then there is the outside linebacker position, where players are rotating in and out based on situational needs. In short, none of the players at those two slots have been able to take the role on a full time basis.
According to Tressel, "The outside backer situation, Curtis Terry has been playing the bulk of it when we're in base people, and when we're in nickel, Marcus Freeman. On the other side, John Kerr and Ross Homan when we're in base have been getting fairly equal snaps according to drive length and so forth."
Said Tressel evaluating the defensive performance up to this point and against Iowa, "We've got work to do. No one walked out of Iowa City saying, hey, we've arrived, because we've got a lot of work to do."
Mitchell echoed those thoughts; "I think we still have some work to do…the number one rule of the game as a defensive player since the start of time is to stop the run. I don't think we have successfully stopped the run completely. There are a lot of things we have been working – and making tackles. We had a couple of missed tackles this week. I think coach said we tackled at an 84% ratio, but those two things which are fundamental things – we definitely have to do."
The question is – will it get done? Saying and doing, as everyone learns in life, are two different animals entirely.
"There is never a time you can back down; every team can beat you," said Penton in summing up the upcoming game. "We are to have to play our best every week."
Still, if Ohio State comes in prepared to play their best, recognizing the Falcons will test their resolve, this one should be over in the third quarter if not before.
How it Will Play Out
Ohio State will likely emerge a bit sluggish after a September slate which would try the courage of the ancient Spartans; Bowling Green may even get an early touchdown from a blown assignment or mental lapse. They will most certainly attack the new starter, O'Neal, to see if he has learned from his propensity to bite on a play action or stop the run while leaving his man in the secondary. However, that will likely be the last points for the Falcons against the first team defensive unit in Scarlet and Gray. The Buckeyes will grimace, tighten their chin straps and play a little football.
Reality is the hype is just that – hype.
The last time these two teams met, Ohio State's offense was a train wreck with multiple injuries including starting quarterback Craig Krenzel. The fullbacks and tailbacks were all either unable to play or injured, and the offensive line was thin with regard to depth. This time around Troy Smith looks more than healthy. All of the tailbacks and fullbacks are not just whole but are actually a tremendous upgrade. The offensive line has such depth that they played their second unit against Texas, at Austin, when they scored their first touchdown.
Expect to see the Buckeyes throw deep as well as practice their rushing attack. If Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall can gain nearly 200 yards on Bowling Green behind a patchwork line and less than stellar fullback play, then look for Pittman and Chris Wells to bust out the whuppin stick behind Steve Rhering, Alex Boone, Stan White, Jr., and Dionte Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State defense will place intense pressure on the Falcons' quarterbacks – without having to rush more than four on most downs. This means space to run – or pass – is likely to be at a premium. Watch for negative yardage plays as well as several forced turnovers. Those will increase as Bowling Green finds itself falling further and further behind. It is the old ‘adding fuel to the fire' adage which will ring true.
As Mitchell said on Tuesday, "We were talking to James (Laurinaitis) the other day. A lot of his picks have come just because the quarterback has thrown it right to him. The quarterbacks have done that to a lot of guys just because the defensive line is getting pressure throughout the game. I think that is why we get a lot more interceptions in the fourth quarter because the defensive linemen have been hitting the quarterbacks in the first and second and third quarters. By the time the fourth quarter comes, when they see an Ohio State player coming at them, they just want to get rid of the ball, and it forces them to make mistakes."
By the early portion of the third quarter, the Buckeyes will pull away like a thoroughbred from a plow horse.
The coaches will substitute liberally to rest legs as well as take one final look at what they have available going into the stretch run.
This team has its eyes on the prize, and Mitchell and the other seniors are making sure the underclassmen remember, "Great teams – a lot of people think the championship is ours to lose now, especially the Big Ten Championship – but you know, great teams go out and take the championship. We have to continue to be aggressive and not put the car in cruise control and say, ‘Well, these are going to be easy. Sit back, relax, and put your hands behind your head.' You just have to stay focused, keep playing, keep your foot on the accelerator, and keep trying to get better."
Look for the Falcons to go splat on the Buckeye windshield this week as they accelerate down the freeway toward their match up in East Lansing next Saturday.
Ohio State 47 – Bowling Green 16