His own men called him, ‘The Butcher.'
In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln determined it was time to end the bloody American Civil War; Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, were not of the same opinion. The latter pair were tried to whittle down the resolve of the North and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a George McClellan presidential election, but Grant knew he had more guns, more ammunition, more money, and more men. Lee and the Confederacy were short on all accounts and while Lee was a formidable strategist, there is only so much one general can do in the face of such long odds.
The end result was a grisly series of battles in which Grant threw soldiers' lives away like chattel. He forced Lee to engage and over an eight week period from May 5 to June 30, 1864, the Army of the Potomac lost over 61,000 men. Figures are unavailable for the Confederate forces, but one can safely assume at least a figure of 25,000 plus. That means for the four years the war raged, between 10-15 percent of the total casualties were confined to just two months when Grant earned his not so flattering nickname.
Fast forward 142 years to the game of college football. The generally accepted tactic used in the sport is to find one set of players who are better than the rest and play them against the best players from the other team. Barring mistakes or injury, the best players and best prepared players should win.
In Columbus those tactics are taking a slight hit – if not a full frontal assault.
Hints were dropped before the season started this might be the case, but they were mostly on the defensive side of the football.
Head coach Jim Tressel said following the jersey scrimmage, "I would guess in the first two games at least we are going to have a whole bunch of people playing a lot of positions on the defensive side for sure - for a couple of reasons. One, we don't know for sure (who is the best) and two, I think when you go and play an early September game in Austin you are going to need to roll people in."
He reiterated and expanded upon those remarks following the open night practice at Ohio Stadium: "In the first third of the season we are going to play a lot of guys on the defensive front, offensive front, in the secondary, at linebacker, at running back, (and) at receiver. We are going to play a lot of guys for a couple of reasons. One, we want to see who emerges on game day. Two, we know it is going to be warm at 3:30 on September 2. We know it is going to be warm at 7 o'clock at night central September the 9th. You are going to need to play a lot of guys. I think a lot of guys deserve to play just to see how they will do when the lights come on for real."
Playing a number of players on the defense was not new. Ohio State, following a physical beating of horrendous and memorable proportions to Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, began rotating more linemen nearly a decade ago under now defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. In 2005 and even 2004, Ohio State looked prepared to rotate more linebackers and perhaps try a 3-4 look before injuries first to Mike D'Andrea and then to Marcus Freemen nipped this in the bud. Couple this with the increasing role of the defensive back; at one time teams could drop four men back, two of whom mainly helped support the run while the other two covered receivers. Now, with the importance of special teams and spread offenses all the rage, a team without 5-7 able defensive backs finds itself on the wrong end of the score too often for comfort, and it hasn't been unusual in the slightest to see Ohio State use better than half a dozen defensive backs every season.
Even so, not many outside of the football offices at the Woody Hayes Facility were prepared for a rotation on this scale.
This season, the Buckeye sidelines have often borne more resemblance to a turnstile than a traditional college football team. In the middle of the game against No. 2 ranked Texas, Ohio State's coaching staff sent in not just one or two new offensive linemen but their entire second unit. Several of these players hadn't seen meaningful minutes in a game against Sisters of the Poor U., let alone played on the road against the reigning national champion. They rewarded their coaches for the confidence by driving down the field for a touchdown. In fact, between the special teams, offense, and defense, Ohio State set a goal of playing over 50 players in the first quarter against the Longhorns, and even with Austin far off in their rearview mirror the rotation continues.
The players have taken notice; "It is totally different than it has been," said Doug Datish. "Since I have been here the starters played and if we run it up enough the two's or three's would come in."
Now, it seems to be just the opposite.
So what exactly are the benefits of this rotation, and how is it visibly impacting this team down the stretch?
1. Depth for 2006
In the past month, Ohio State has lost no less than six players (five starters) for parts of or entire football games. Right tackle Kirk Barton had a minor foot procedure and had to be brought back slowly to ensure proper healing. David Patterson, a stalwart on the interior found himself on the bench healing up after a minor knee injury. Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock, a probable All American, suffered a concussion and needed to sit out the contest against Minnesota. Wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Ray Small both left the game against the Gophers after what looked like sharp blows to the head; Small is fortunate to still have a head after the helmet to helmet shot he took. Place kicker Aaron Pettrey had to take a break on kickoffs with a nagging injury, so Ryan Pretorius simply stepped in and filled the void. Nor does this count the loss of starting safety Anderson Russell for the season with a knee injury against Iowa.
In the case of Schafer and Barton, the coaches had long planned on this ‘what if' scenario; said Tressel early in the year, "Both Schafer and Steve Rehring have to be ready to play tackle and they have to be ready to play guard. What we've been trying to do is make sure we even get a series for the entire second offensive line so they've been in there and they've been under duress and maybe even upgraded their preparation knowing that, hey, I'm going to be out there. We're trying to become as deep as we can. We're trying to become as fresh as we can. We need to rotate people around so that when you get into this grinder called the Big Ten, and especially the other factor involved is now you're in a 12-game season that's 12 straight weeks and we think that's important to build that depth and those experiences."
The net result is the Buckeye train didn't even slow. It just chugged and slugged its way on down the tracks. In fact, if one wasn't looking or paying close attention, they wouldn't even have noticed the absence of the starters because their replacements played that well. Brian Hartline looked like a gazelle in the slot with Troy Smith rifling 4 balls to him for 69 yards. Joel Penton has logged extensive minutes and totaled 7 tackles at defensive tackle in the spots of both of his teammates. Tim Schafer, a former starter at guard and tackle, stepped in for Barton to keep opponents off of Troy Smith. Safety Jamario O'Neal has been playing increasingly well and even broke on the football for an interception this past week; that is great news for the defense considering pass defense has been considered his greatest weakness.
With most starters returning healthy soon, Ohio State could probably field two full units of almost equal ability. Very few players on this team are irreplaceable. It could be argued aside from the possible exception of Troy Smith – not one starter could not be lost and ruin a game plan. This is in direct contrast to previous seasons where the loss of a Kirk Barton against Penn State probably cost the Buckeyes the football game (or at the very least directly contributed to the loss).
Said Tressel earlier this year, "We talk to our team all the time about the fact that a lot of guys are going to play and people are going to have to show over time that they may become a starter. And we've still got a lot of positions where we're alternating a lot. I think of Tim Schafer and Steve Rehring who are alternating a lot. (Brian) Robiskie and Hartline are playing out wide a lot. In the running back world, we've got three guys that are very involved. Linebacker-wise, (John) Kerr and (Ross) Homan have been playing a lot interchangeably, (Curtis) Terry and Marcus Freeman up front of course on defense, we rotate just naturally. In the secondary, we've had a lot of rotation, and so we're a long way from being as good as we want to be. We want a two-deep that's ready to be as good as the next guy."
Don't look now, but they are very close to reaching their goal.
2. Team Cohesion
"As an aside, that was probably my favorite part of the game," said Gonzalez. "Once they (the second team line) went in, we drove down and scored. I thought that was awesome."
No, he wasn't talking about the Indiana game nor the Minnesota tilt. Gonzalez was speaking of the Texas contest. Never mind that he had a touchdown and 8 receptions for 142 yards. Never mind his performance came on national television in a 24-7 win over the second ranked Longhorns. Never mind that he had a kickoff return opportunity to push his total yards on the day to nearly 160.
Gonzalez's favorite part of the game was watching his young, mostly inexperienced teammates manhandle the Longhorn defensive front on their way to a touchdown.
Coach John Peterson said, "I think it was a boost to everybody. I know how hard those guys work and the unsung heroes who practice every day. It was great to see them have success on such a tremendous stage that we had."
This season has been littered with such moments. Teammates mobbed Pretorius after he hit a 52 yard field goal attempt against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Justin Zwick found he had a passenger on his back Saturday after scoring his first career rushing touchdown; it was Troy Smith who appeared to celebrate more than anyone. Ray Small was toasted by his Glenville teammates following his score against the Bowling Green Falcons. The entire sideline erupted when Antonio Smith, a current starter but former walk on, intercepted a pass against Penn State in the waning moments and returned it for a touchdown.
These – and other moments like them – give credence to the positive benefits of playing more than just the first string. When a team is busy being a team, they work together toward one goal. There is little (or at least less) grumbling or sabotaging of efforts because each and every player is trying to build up the other. They all understand and know; that might be them on the field next week. First string, second string, and yes, even third string – they may get to play, and they better be ready.
3. Fewer Injuries and Fresh Legs for the Stretch Run
This is not about the season ending or game concluding injuries – though certainly these are impacted. This is about injuries of the nagging, ‘no longer full speed' variety. In very few contests this season have the Ohio State starters logged more than three quarters. Offensively, Troy Smith is competing for a Heisman, but he has spent the equivalent of nearly two games resting and watching teammates.
Smith is fresh as a daisy for the stretch run. With a few questioning why he wasn't running the football more this season, he has started taking off against tired defenses for large chunks of yardage. He put moves on Minnesota defenders on his way to the end zone this week that haven't been seen since the days of disco and Grease.
Meanwhile, no less than three players have been logging meaningful minutes at tailback. Tressel's adage that he picked up from past coaches, ‘A pair and a spare' has proven accurate. Antonio Pittman, the unquestioned starter, has 163 attempts for 894 net yards (99 per game) and 10 touchdowns. His back-ups, Maurice and Chris Wells, have also been busy moving the chains with 530 yards and 5 touchdowns on 121 attempts.
Smiling, Antonio Pittman admitted to reporters one evening that he would, "Rather be worn out," after a 30 carry game, but he knows it is helping he and the team and approaches it from that perspective.
"I feel a lot fresher with (the rotation). It is keeping me – I play about a quarter less (per game) with the rotation of the other two backs, but that's fine. Later on in the season I'll be a lot fresher while defenses are worn down."
That ‘later on in the season' is here, and on just 21 rushes Pittman had 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns this past week. He made it look easy, gaining the outside edge on a tired and beat up Gopher defense and scampering for big yardage.
Doug Datish, the senior offensive lineman frequently seen sprinting down the field trying to get in one more block for his teammates said, "It is totally different (this year) than it has been. Since I have been here the starters played and if we run it up enough the two's or three's would come it, but they (the coaches) are trying to do it to conserve some of the offensive linemen's legs, to give a different look to the defense – make them think about something else that is going on."
Take a look at that offensive front when they line up against the Illini. Yes, they are taped up and braced up, but they lack the limp which accompanies most fronts at this point in the season. They look more like they might in late September or early October than early November.
Defensively, they have played everyone but the kitchen sink and have even rotated linebackers, which, according to Coach Luke Fickell, "You talk to people around college and the NFL, and they don't do that a lot at linebacker. Maybe that's just because of guys getting set in the front, making checks, and making the calls, but right now we are going to keep doing it. Hopefully we can get six or seven guys playing real well and go accordingly. That's the luxury of having six or seven guys who can play now. I think it is going to give us a lot more in the end."
Given the Buckeyes are closing in on their tenth contest ranked number one in the land without losing any starters up front for the year or even more than two games – all the while pummeling their opponents on both sides of the football, it appears to be working.
4. Building for the future
Ohio State looks to be hurting in 2007. The defensive line will lose four seniors up front as well as defensive back standouts Smith and Mitchell, and the offense will be without the services of Doug Datish, Smith, T.J. Downing, Stan White, Jr., Roy Hall, Zwick, and probably Ginn.
Normally this would equate to green players having to fight down nerves while trying to remember what it is exactly they are supposed to do on a given play.
Troy Smith laughingly spoke of freshman tight end Jake Ballard's first experiences playing this season: "We got in the huddle, and I was looking at Jake Ballard's eyes. It was like, I could tell it was a feeling he wasn't used to, and I was the same way. Calling my first play, I was a shambles. I was shaking, I was nervous, and I asked him today, ‘Were you nervous?' He said, ‘Yeah!' I told him, ‘It is all right to be nervous. That is pretty normal. Just the next time, we can't have that again."
Everyone shared a good laugh at the story, but Indiana wasn't laughing when Ballard fully extended and snagged a pass for a touchdown later in the season. Message sent, message received, and Ohio State has added a building block for 2007 while winning in 2006.
Chris Wells, expected to perhaps challenge for a Heisman before he leaves Ohio State, has had his share of growing pains. He has victimized his team on more than one occasion with fumbles, but the coaches have continued to play him. With the confidence of his coaches, he again put the ball on the turf this past week. Pulled out and sitting on the bench until the injury of his running mate, Maurice Wells, he entered the game determined. How determined? His first carry went for nearly ten yards, most of that carrying literally half the defense of the Gophers.
Message sent, message received, and add another building block.
"I think the young guys that are able to come in and give the starters some relief are guys that are going to get playing time in the future," said Smith. "They need that feel, to be in there and feel the crowd, feel the game atmosphere so when they get in there it isn't just a shock."
Hartline, Robiskie, Small, Cordle, Skinner, Mitchum, Robert Rose, Alex Barrow, Andre Amos, Curt Coleman, Doug Worthington, Lawrence Wilson, Ross Homan, and on and on one could go – these players have been seeing the field, adjusting to the initial shock, and have then had to see themselves on film with coaches and teammates.
Sometimes that is a great experience and at others – you can bet it is humbling. That is all part of maturing as a player and learning exactly what it takes to help lead a team to a championship.
Tressel alluded to this dynamic on the defensive side of the ball, "I think the older guys like Joel Penton, Quinn (Pitcock), David (Patterson), and Jay Richardson – I think they've done a great job of setting the tone. ‘Here's how you prepare, here's what you need to do if you really want to be a good defensive lineman in the great history of defensive linemen here.' I think those (other) guys have paid attention, and we do have some young guys that have given us some time and rotated in there. I've liked what I've seen from a standpoint of their willingness to learn and be taught by the guys that really know."
The cynics had seen great Ohio State teams come and go, and they weren't easily convinced. Losing nine starters on defense as well as several like Santonio Holmes and Nick Mangold on offense spelled trouble – or so it was thought. Coupled with the serious gaps in the run defense early, and players were repeatedly pressed to explain why they believed (and why others should believe) this team would achieve its goals. In particular, why was this team different than say the 2003 unit on which several played or even started?
Senior safety Brandon Mitchell probably described it the best saying, "I think the difference between the 2003 team and this one is we had a lot of returning guys. This year if I mess up even as an older guy, if I mess up and have a bad game I know I have guys right behind me who can step in and will start."
Those words, as described above with the depth that has been built have proven to be prophetic.
Mitchell continued, "I think the competition is great. Everyone knows they can't have a bad game or they might not be playing anymore for the rest of the season, or they might lose their starting job. I think the competition is one of the things that will really motivate guys to get better and just be a better team."
Starting linebacker Freeman indicates it isn't even just playing time in the games which is at question, "You know you have to go out there and perform in practice. You can't coast. Just because you have a starter spot that guy behind you or that guy you are rotating with – he is going out there practicing just as hard. In practice there are times when if you mess up the coaches will put someone else in so you just have to go out there and perform the best you can"
Far from being upset or pining over whether he might lose his position, he said, "I think it is going to be a tremendous help for us."
Their words have been proven correct. At no point in the season has players been seen loafing or taking the opponent for granted and only a few times have players been spotted not going 100 percent. They understand that even if the opponent should be an easy mark, if they are not prepared as if they were playing Michigan, they will lose their job. Will – not might – will.
So, every play, every game, every Buckeye is trying to give it his best effort. Opposing teams, used to seeing Ohio State athletes are not used to this full assault for sixty minutes. With no place to run and nowhere to hide, they usually end up hunkering down and taking their beating while hoping the next week is better.