Tight Ends Bask In Glory Of PSU Performance

Predicting just when the Ohio State tight ends will have a huge impact in the passing game is like predicting the weather in the Buckeye State; sometimes it's best to not even bother and just wait to see what develops. What did so at Penn State was that the Buckeye tight ends, including Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard, had huge nights catching the ball during OSU's victory.

Rory Nicol talks to his sisters, Ashley and Lisa, quite a bit during the football season, and the Ohio State tight end said the message this season has often been about the lack of respect afforded the No. 1 Buckeyes by fans and pundits alike.

However, after Ohio State's 37-17 demolition of No. 24 Penn State Saturday night, the correspondence between family members was a bit different.

"This weekend was different because they called and told me that they talked about me on the TV for the first time in four years, so I was excited about that," Nicol said. "They were a little giddy this week."

As well they should have been. During Ohio State's nationally televised game, the junior led the Buckeyes with six catches for 39 yards. Three of his catches earned Ohio State a first down, helping keep drives alive for a Buckeye team that would not have to punt all game.

His sidekick at tight end, sophomore Jake Ballard, hauled in two balls for 20 yards, but had one of the games biggest plays, catching a 15-yard touchdown pass from Todd Boeckman to extend Ohio State's lead to 24-7 during the third quarter. The Nittany Lions would not get closer than 14 points the rest of the way.

For Nicol, a Beaver, Pa., native, the performance was especially sweet because of where it happened.

"I was happy as could be," he said. "That's the first time I was there. I wasn't there in 2005. (This year) we smoked them. There's nothing I'd have rather done than that. We played a great game back home. I had some fans that I'm sure were mad as could be, but there's nothing else I would have rather been doing."

That explosion for the Buckeye tight ends against Penn State came one week after an unmarked Ballard caught yet another TD pass from Boeckman, this one converting OSU's opening drive into points to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead against Michigan State.

While it might seem the recent eminence of the tight end in the Ohio State offense came out of nowhere, it was predicted by Nicol himself when talking to reporters a few weeks earlier.

"I told you so," Nicol said. "I don't think we knew it was going to happen (in this game) … but there always is a game. There's a game when someone's going to have to step up at all different types of positions. Saturday happened to be our night."

The performance also caught the eye of the Ohio State linebackers, who practice covering the Buckeye tight ends each week in practice.

"We knew it was coming (at some point) because we practice against them every day and you see how impressive they are and how good they are," linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "They proved this week how impressive they can be."

The fact of the matter is that there seems to be a game each year where it's up to the big guys with the soft hands to make an impact. A year ago, Nicol and Ballard combined for 15 catches and four touchdowns, but three of those scores came during a 44-3 win over Indiana Oct. 21. During that game, Nicol pulled in a 23-yard TD from Troy Smith and later added a 38-yard grab thrown by Ted Ginn Jr. Still, the more impressive catch might have been made by Ballard, who made a diving 1-yard grab of a Smith pass.

The moral of the story is that the tight ends must be ready each and every week because they know it's not a matter of if but when the big game will come. Even predicting that "when" is tough to Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who said he doesn't know going into a particular game thinking that the tight ends might have a good day based on the defense run by the opposition.

"It's all based on what shows, if those guys are open and Todd does a good job of getting them the ball," he said.

Of course, it helps that the Buckeyes have a strong ground game, led by Chris "Beanie" Wells, and a passing game that can stretch the field because of Boeckman's long bombs to Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline and Ray Small. With weapons like that, it's no wonder the tight ends are able to find open space on underneath routes.

Another aspect of the unit is its ability to block, which helps open up both the ground game and the vertical passing game. Earlier this season, tight ends coach John Peterson said the group was the best blocking unit he's had during his time in Columbus.

"We're proud of both," Nicol said. "It's fun to be involved in the offense in that respect, but we're really involved in the ground game. A lot of times the blocks we get on the edge are the ones that will spring some big runs."


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