Cus Words 9-16: How Blue Can You Get?

A BB King standard is fitting for the current state of Ohio State football. The Buckeyes' big-game slump continued last Saturday night, and BSB staffer Marcus Hartman believes it can all be tied back to 2006. Read about that, find out what's next, who looked best against the Buckeyes, what to watch this weekend and how the Big Ten's teams stack up.

WHAT WE LEARNED LAST WEEK: Fighting super-talented football players and poisonous national sentiment is too much for this group of Buckeyes.

The result is not a hard-fought near-loss to a superior team but an embarrassing domination underpinned with penalties, turnovers and missed assignments that get exploited for big plays.

The problem is not simply the losses to Florida, LSU and USC.

Those teams all had better players, so losing to them is understandable.

The trouble arises in how awful the Buckeyes looked for the entire game against the Gators and at times against the Tigers and Trojans.

Talented and supremely motivated Florida players overpowering overconfident Buckeyes at basically every turn got the ball rolling. That created the perception that Ohio State was slow and unathletic because frankly that's how the Buckeyes looked that night, for whatever reason.

Then came LSU, a very good team but still not one exceptionally more talented than Ohio State. The Tigers, though, were veteran and savvy and took advantage of the considerable amount of gifts the Buckeyes gave them. Matt Flynn completed passes to open teammates. Jacob Hester ran hard through holes in the line. The Tiger receivers did what they had to to get open.

No impartial observer could come away from that game thinking that one team was in a different class from a talent standpoint.

The trouble is, lots of folks who don't care for and some who just hate Ohio State (or perhaps whatever team is at the top of the heap when their team is not) were primed to see a bloodbath, and so that's what their minds convinced their eyes to detect.

I believe the USC-OSU contest is an extension of that.

The same people - and maybe more - had the same predisposition to believe the Buckeyes were inferior before they ever stepped onto the L.A. Coliseum floor.

A sacrifice was in store, most believed.

Then Ohio State played the part, somewhat because USC really did have better players but also because I believe the Buckeyes are psyched out by the big stage and the national backlash some of them actually did a lot to create by so thoroughly dispatching everyone on the 2006 schedule then believing their own press clippings or peaking to the NFL draft (or both) too much before the BCS National Championship game.

Yes, Ohio State might forever pay for the sins of seven weeks from the end of Nov. 2006 to the first week of Jan. '07.

It was in that time that the Buckeyes fell victim to their own hype and let what should have been a very competitive game turn into a complete debacle.

Face facts: Florida had a very good defense. Ohio State had a very good offense. It's not just baseball where the former usually beats the latter.

On the flip side, the Gators had an offense that looked bad much of the year as head coach Urban Meyer continued to put his system in and worked to mesh the talents of quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Ohio State had a defense that looked good but was merely average at best. Many of us following the team - media and fans alike - believed that Jim Tressel and his staff had worked miracles by replacing nine starters on that side of the ball and producing another stellar unit.

Fact is, no team the first 11 weeks of the schedule had any sort of balance with which to test them. Texas had great athletes but a freshman quarterback in his second game (and, inexplicably, Longhorn head coach Mack Brown chose to waive his advantage at the line of scrimmage and instead put the game in QB Colt McCoy's hands). Michigan State had a good quarterback with all his receivers and running back Javon Ringer hurt. Minnesota had a good quarterback whose best targets and best running back had already left town. It went down hill steadily from there.

Then Michigan came along and showed the deficiencies in Ohio State's defensive back seven. Fortunately for Tressel, the front four eventually wore out the Wolverine offensive line and the OSU offense exerted its dominance in a game that had more like a three-touchdown difference than a three-point one.

That's how we got to the misconception that the 2006 Buckeyes were world-beaters. Truth is, they were not as good as their immediate predecessors. The 2005 team was far more talented and, once it got things together at the end of the season, and just better overall. Even with the offense scuffling in the first half of the season, Ohio State came within a fantastic throw and catch by Vince Young and Limas Sweed of Texas and a myriad of missed opportunities at Penn State from going undefeated. Those Buckeyes lost to the Nos. 1 and 4 teams in the country by a combined 10 points. Think about that.

Sure, there were members on the '06 defense who have gone on to prove they are elite players, but they were very young at that time, and most of the veterans, quite frankly, were not very skilled. The point is, a loss to Florida should not have been the shock it was. Florida was underrated and Ohio State was overrated. The game should have been decided in the fourth quarter, not the first. Ohio State's 2007 team, most people know, was not as good as the '06 unit.

The defense was more talented but just about as young.

The offense was just explosive enough early to keep the Buckeyes undefeated until the ground game kicked into gear toward the end of the season. Most years, the 2007 Buckeyes were not a national championship caliber unit. That season was different, however, and Ohio State got its shot against the best team in the country.

This time there was no lack in preparation but there was a bigger talent disparity. No question LSU had more good players and more experience, although not to the degree Ohio State could not compete.

Ohio State lost some of the physical battles that it probably did not expect to win but still would have had the ability to stay close had it not made several critical errors.

Another final point spread was not what it should have been. Three points became 14.

The Buckeyes did not play their best because they were fighting ghosts from a year before, and observers ready to bury them took the opportunity and ran with it.

We got more of the same last Saturday night. USC had better players than Ohio State, but not nearly to the degree it appeared. The Trojans were not so much better than the Buckeyes that the game could not have been close.

Again, the team that needed to avoid mistakes was imperfect and the better, more confident team took advantage.

And the perception is now worse, perhaps irreparable.

On the bright side, three things could work for Ohio State in the future.

One, the players are getting better. Recruiting rankings are certainly fallible, but they are not a bad gauge, either. USC has had top-rated classes more often than not in recent years, and the Trojans looked like the class of the nation Saturday night and maybe even during parts of last season after getting healthy.

Well, instead of bragging about two- and three-star recruits who outperformed their billing, Ohio State fans should be able to look forward to seeing what Tressel and his staff can do with athletes analysts across the country think are better than some of the ones they have now. Two, intestinal fortitude can be learned and confidence cultivated. That can happen either when players get tired of being bad-mouthed but perform with discipline when given the chance and/or when some new blood gets mixed in. It's quite possible this team just does not have enough players with the right attitude to overcome adversity. We'll see as the year progresses. Either way, some players will mature and others will be replaced, so a new dynamic could well develop in a relatively short time.

Third, the Big Ten really is getting better. Penn State might be for real. Wisconsin is Wisconsin - which is good when the Badgers can be the third or fourth best team but not when they are supposed to be in the top two - and Illinois should be back. Michigan State has some potential, and Minnesota and Iowa aren't as dreadful as they were last year.

Without a doubt, this can only help Ohio State. There has been a distinct lack of adversity over the course of the last two regular seasons. Not that the Buckeyes have been totally untested - they just haven't been tested enough, not like they were in 2005, or '02 or '03 for that matter.

That's why the sky is not falling.

Better players are on the way (some in here already, in fact), and they should benefit from getting hit in the mouth more often than their predecessors.

Maybe then they'll have a better response when the lights are brightest.


WHAT WE CAN EXPECT TO LEARN THIS WEEK: Ok, this lesson won't be learned, but it should be.

There is a middle ground between great and awful.

It is, in fact, quite a wide-ranging area, too. I think too often in this day and age we are too quick to mistake average for bad.

A lack of greatness somehow has to equal awfulness in this knee-jerk reaction society we've crafted for ourselves, and I don't see many positives in that reality.

But Ohio State can begin the road back this Saturday.

Troy will test the Buckeyes in a few ways.

First, with their style of play. The Trojans are a Southern team running the dreaded spread. That should get Ohio State's attention.

Second, they have enough experience in big stadiums like the old gray lady of the Olentangy that they won't be intimidated, and the Buckeyes will know that.

That should preclude any thoughts of overlooking the Trojans and might help treat the hangover that might be inevitable after a cross-country trip accompanied by an emotional game.


ALL-BUCKEYE BEATER NOMINEES

Where to begin?

Mark Sanchez cannot be overlooked, nor can the man USC's quarterback twice connected with for touchdowns, wide receiver Damian Williams.Fullback Stanley Havili makes the list as well for snagging a touchdown catch and helping clear the way for Joe McKnight, another nominee, to exceed the 100-yard mark rushing. Also, let's recognize every member of the USC offensive line.

Defensively, there's linebacker Rey Maualuga, who had five tackles and dealt one of the game's most devastating blows when he intercepted Todd Boeckman and turned the pick into six points. Also don't forget defensive end Clay Matthews, who was in the Ohio State backfield all night and forced a fumble, linebacker Brian Cushing, who had a game-high 11 tackles, and safety Kevin Ellison, who had nine stops and an interception.


DVR DIRECTIONS: This week scouting Ohio State's next opponent will require not just DVR but overflow channels. Minnesota plays Florida Atlantic on the Big Ten Network at noon, the same time Ohio State is set to tangle with Troy.

The only other team left on the Buckeyes' schedule that is not playing at noon Saturday is Michigan State. The Spartans play host to Notre Dame at 3:30 for an ABC Regional game that is available to out-of-market folks on ESPN.


Cus Words Power Poll (Previous week's ranking)

Very slowly, the balance of power is starting to take shape. Three teams are off this week, but just about everyone else plays a game that should tell us something about them.
1. (same) Ohio State (This is about who's best, not who has beaten whom, so I'm sticking with my gut on this one.)
tie 2. (same) Wisconsin (Good win on the road over a ranked team last week)
tie 2. (same) Penn State (Still waiting to see what they look like against a varsity squad)
4. (same) Illinois
5. (same) Michigan State (Must beat Notre Dame this week to prove a step forward has occurred.)
6. (same) Northwestern (Buckeye fans know the Bobcats are plucky. Let's see if they get a Big Ten pelt this week.)
7. (same) Indiana (Did not play this week, but good Ball State team visits Saturday.)
8. (9) Purdue (It wouldn't be a college football season if Purdue weren't almost beating a ranked team.)
9. (11) Iowa (Iowa State is probably not very good, but the Hawkeyes showed guts in holding off the Cyclones. Andy Brodell's return gives them needed playmaking.)
10. (8) Michigan (Now we know Michigan can't make mistakes and beat a bad team, so how can the Wolverines beat anyone who's any good?)
11. (10) Minnesota (A few national pollsters liked the Golden Gophers this week, but I need to see more than a 12-point win over a Division I-AA team to change my tune.)

Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at mhartman@buckeyesports.com.


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