The Almanac: Picking Through The Rubble

There are a few thoughts Jeff Svoboda just can't get out of his head after Ohio State's loss at the hands of USC. What would have happened if Chris Wells had played? What's with all of this talk about scheme? In addition to musings on those topics, the usual news and notes takes a look at the Big Ten stats so far.

I had to laugh earlier this week as I leafed through the Oct. 15, 2005, issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin.

As one might remember, the Ohio State football team had a bit of a rough start that season as well. The Buckeyes looked good but couldn't do enough to beat a well-regarded Texas team and Vince Young, and then the team struggled a week later during an unconvincing win over San Diego State.

After that came a payback demolition of Iowa, but the darkest hour still loomed. On the road against a Penn State team that turned out to be much better than one thought, Ohio State looked positively clueless on offense on the way to a 17-10 loss to the Nittany Lions.

Panic ensued.

Rather than rehash those gory details, I will point toward two things I found amusing in that issue of BSB. The first was a letter to the editor – I'll spare the writer the embarrassment – contending that he'd be happy if Troy Smith never played another game at Ohio State, comparing him to the anti-Craig Krenzel. The letter writer also advocated giving Todd Boeckman a chance to play, in part because of his decision-making skills and ability to throw with accuracy over the middle.

Hindsight, clearly, will not hold many of those opinions in high regard. There's nothing wrong with thoughts in the heat of the moment; after all, everyone enjoys a good armchair quarterbacking after a game. Many of the opinions turn out to be correct. Many are also way off base. Either way, panicked snap judgments are rarely judgments at all.

The second thing I found amusing about the 2005 issue now sitting on my desk was the beginning of the column by our esteemed Mark Rea, which began: "Maybe it's time to take the word of all the Chicken Littles out there. Maybe the sky really is falling."

I can at least see the parallels between the 2005 and 2008 seasons. Both teams were senior-laden and expected to contend for a national title. Both teams had a burgeoning quarterback controversy. Neither could escape September without a loss. One main difference is that while it took two losses and five games to reach a true crisis point, a crossroads, in 2005, the do-or-die moment seemingly has come earlier this time around. A 35-3 loss will do that.

Of course, the Buckeyes hit the fork in the road and took the right one in 2005. The team went on to win 19 straight games after that Penn State loss, not losing again for 15 months.

Sometimes, things do work out for the best.

One thing I think is being overlooked here – or at the very least is interesting – is just how good the teams are that have beaten Ohio State during the past four seasons. Just to remember…
2005: L to Texas, which went undefeated and won the national title
2005: L to Penn State, which went 11-1 and was one play away from being undefeated
2006: L to Florida, the national champion
2007: L to Illinois, a Rose Bowl team
2007: L to LSU, the national champion
2008: L to USC, the No. 1 team in the nation and a team that quite possibly will go undefeated and rarely be challenged

That's not a bad résumé of losses there. Not a 2007 Stanford in the bunch.

Of course, the fact that there are six losses on that docket is a problem. The most difficult losses, of course, are the ones to Florida, LSU and USC.

There has been a tremendous amount of talk during the past week about the inability of Ohio State's defense to adjust to the opposing offense during these big-stage games, as well as the offense's seemingly befuddling play-calling. Many fans have voiced their displeasure with the coaching in these games, and most in particular have called out offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and defensive coordinator Jim Heacock for poor game plans, adjustments and performance leading up to and during the contests.

For the most part, I think these complaints have been mostly off target, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Legions of fans, missing the days of an attacking Silver Bullet defense, over the past few days have called for Heacock to be fired while denouncing his "passive" defense. It's become clear that many fans out there won't be satisfied until the Buckeyes can find the collegiate equivalent of someone like Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who brings pressure on just about every play.

That probably won't be happening at Ohio State. head coach Jim Tressel has his idea of what he wants his defense to do, and that's play a zone-based, bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Now that's not to say Ohio State doesn't blitz; certainly the Buckeyes do, and I think Heacock is a fan of bringing pressure into the mix on some obvious passing downs – he at least is more into blitzing than predecessor Mark Snyder and is close to Mark Dantonio. The Buckeyes also use man coverage at times, including doing so to a decent extent against USC.

In fact, I think Heacock does a pretty good job of mixing things up percentage-wise. The Buckeyes aren't being outschemed in the sense that they are using old-fashioned defensive methods or defenses that have little chance to succeed. Ohio State does many of the things done by every other team in the country.

Schematically, there is a huge problem though, one that seems obvious after the last three big-game losses, though. After each of those, opposing players have said that they knew what was coming to a certain extent.

This has moved beyond the point of circumstantial evidence, it would seem. There's too much smoke for there not to be a fire with these allegations. I don't think there's much wrong with the schemes or plays being called by the Ohio State coaching staff, but it certainly hurts the team's effectiveness if the other team has been able to sniff out a pattern to what the Buckeyes are doing. Perhaps it's not the schemes themselves but the way in which they are implemented that is causing the struggles.

When presented with this idea Tuesday, Tressel said that the 2002 team ran off tackle more than 256 times; teams knew what was coming but they sure couldn't stop it. The goal, Tressel said, is to become good enough that teams are not able to stop you even when they know what is coming.

He does have a point; the best teams are able to go to their bread and butter and make it work when they have to. However, there's a difference between a team just doing what it does best and a team that is making it too easy for the opposition. Unfortunately, the comments of opposing players would seem to suggest Ohio State is in that latter category right now.

And right now, this team can't make it work – at least without Chris Wells – in the big games. Execution has been a major problem in each of the three big-game losses, especially in the last two. I think the Buckeyes had similar talent to LSU last year, and while USC has a stockpile of talent unlike any other in the country, the Buckeyes aren't that far below the Trojans' level when it comes to pure athletic ability.

But there was one team on the field Saturday night that combined its athletic ability with execution that was solid all the way around, and it sure wasn't wearing scarlet and gray.

This goes into the coaching arena as well. I think people ought to spend more time wondering just why there are so many mistakes being made by a veteran team than complaining about the scheme.

I have a theory on this specific team, though. I just have an unshakable feeling that this group is just not a big-game group, especially after having to go through the disappointments they have on the national stage. The Buckeyes make errors that they normally wouldn't make during the biggest of the games.

At this point, the problem is compounding on itself. It seems as though the big stage has gotten into Ohio State's head; the team wants to do well so badly that the players are making mistakes on things like remembering the snap count and picking the right guy to take in a coverage they've rehearsed hundreds of times.

I will make one mea culpa on the talent side, though. USC has more, as I said earlier. But look at the rankings over the past few years and one can make the argument that the Buckeyes will be making up the small gap between themselves and the Trojans. The Buckeyes brought in six five-star recruits in 2008, and four more already are committed in 2009. The future is bright. Never forget.

A Final USC Note: I know this might sound a bit specious, but imagine, for a second, the impact that Wells would have had on the game. Say the game develops in a similar fashion as it did Saturday; a punt from each team starts the game, then Ohio State takes over to drive down the field and into a first-and-goal situation. Maybe the Buckeyes still end with a field goal, maybe they get a touchdown behind Wells. Either way, the lead stands.

Now we'll imagine USC puts together its back-to-back scoring drives to take the lead. With the score 14-3, Ohio State put together in real life a drive that went deep into USC territory. Penalties push it nearly out of field-goal range, and a kick from Ryan Pretorius goes wide. The game is still 14-3.

With Wells, it's not hard to imagine the back at least getting the Buckeyes closer to the end zone for a more reasonable field goal, or perhaps the pass plays that put Ohio State into its penalty purgatory are never called. At the very least, it's not hard to imagine the score being 14-6, 14-7, 14-10 or even 14-14 with Wells in the game.

The next time Ohio State takes over the ball, Todd Boeckman throws an interception returned for a touchdown. That play – if it's even called on a first-and-10 – is slightly less damaging if it makes the score is 21-10 or 21-14.

The Buckeyes then come out of the locker room in a tough spot, having to throw the ball in order to get back into the game. The Trojans are dictating the tempo and have placed the pressure squarely on the shoulders of Ohio State; in addition, the USC defenders have pinned their ears back and have an aggressive mentality in an effort to close out the game.

In this scenario, I can see how the presence of Wells would have helped the Buckeyes immensely. Perhaps Ohio State still doesn't win – in fact, it probably doesn't – but Beanie's presence at least keeps the Buckeyes in the game during the first half and takes the pressure off of an offense that seemed to be operating along a tight wire.

Not only would he have ripped off a few more yards on the running plays that had success – while Boom Herron ran his heart out, there's no denying Beanie extends some of the already solid runs Herron had – but he would have opened things up for the Buckeye receivers.

All I'm saying is that it's a different game with the big man from Akron in the game. The shame is that no one will ever know just how different.

On To Troy: All right, that exercise in fantasyland over, it's time to focus on the very real threat provided by Troy. I've gone to great lengths in some earlier stories to outline just how much talent the Trojans will be bringing into Ohio Stadium. This is a very similar Troy team to the one from last year which had an offense that made even BCS defensive coordinators wake up sweating in their sleep.

The jury is still out on just how good the Trojans are, however. Alcorn State just isn't any good, so it's hard to draw inferences from that performance in which Troy set a number of school records, especially on offense. On the other hand, Middle Tennessee is a solid squad that has performed well against middle-tiered BCS foes. If the Trojans can handle the Blue Raiders with the ease that they did, they could be good enough to stay on the field against teams slightly better than the Maryland and Kentucky teams Middle Tennessee has been evenly matched with.

In fact, a bad feeling has continued to creep over me as I've thought about this game. A number of friends said before the season that this would be a game in which Ohio State would struggle, and apparently Tressel has been hearing similar talk, judging by his statement that everyone in America thought this was the Buckeyes' most dangerous game on the slate.

Originally, I figured Ohio State would be losing going into halftime, much like the OU game, before waking up and putting Troy away. I'll stick to a similar prediction, but the lack of Wells on the field and Troy's dominating performance last week give me pause.

I think the Buckeye offense definitely will struggle in the early going, partially because of the hangover of the USC game and partially because the quarterback situation is still such a question mark. On the other hand, I don't see Troy, with a quarterback starting just his third game, having much success moving the ball consistently.

My guess is that the Trojans will take something like a 10-7 lead into the break before Ohio State's offense wakes up and puts some points on the board for a win that looks something like 28-13. However, the 21-point spread seems like a bit too much. If the Buckeyes are able to cover, the performance will be a very, very good one. Otherwise, don't be disappointed if the Buckeyes struggle early and then post a less than convincing win of the 10- to 14-point variety. OK, feel free to be disappointed, but the pregame signs point to the game being closer than many people think it will be.

Around The Big Ten
The preseason forecast in this space improved to 27-4 on the season with an 8-2 week. My misses came in giving two much respect to the Big Two, as I had Ohio State and Michigan earning victories over USC and Notre Dame, respectively. Correctly picked were Purdue's loss to Oregon and Wisconsin's win over Fresno State.

This week, my preseason picks have less respect for the Big Ten. In my eyes, the league will go 5-3 over the weekend, with Iowa dropping its game at Pittsburgh, Minnesota falling to Florida Atlantic and Northwestern dropping its game to Ohio. All three look like riskier propositions than they did before the season; Pittsburgh is underachieving and both Northwestern and Minnesota look a little better on the field than they did on paper.

With one-fourth of the Big Ten slate over for many of the league's teams, I figure now is as good of a time as any to check in with the Big Ten stats, which at this time of year always provide some sort of interesting read.

For example, the team at the top of the heap when it comes to scoring offense is Penn State, who has put up 55.3 points per game thanks to a mind-blowing 22 touchdowns in three games. Sure, the opposition hasn't been all that great, but that's a heck of a number. At the bottom the pack? Ohio State and Michigan, with 24.0 and 18.7 points apiece, respectively.

The small sample size also gives us an interesting leader in scoring defense in Iowa at 2.7 points per game. Still, the Hawkeyes have a lot to prove given that they've played just Maine, Florida International and Iowa State. Illinois checks in last in defense at 30.0 points per game. The Fighting Illini gave up 52 to Missouri and still struggled at times against Louisiana-Lafayette and Eastern Illinois.

You might be surprised to learn that Ohio State leads the league in pass defense, allowing just 126.0 yards per game, and is worst in pass offense at just 163.3 yards. That's right, the Buckeyes are even below Michigan on that totem pole. Don't expect Monday night's Cowboys/Eagles shootout to break out in an Ohio State game anytime soon.

Minnesota may have improved its defense, but the Golden Gophers are still last in the Big Ten by nearly 40 yards when it comes to pass defense. Minnesota allows 268.3 yards per game, meaning there's a good chance that the Big Ten's worst passing offense (Ohio State) and worst passing D will collide in Columbus next week.

The Golden Gophers' turnaround could be attributable to shining in two important categories: turnover margin and red zone offense. Minnesota leads the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-8 and has scored a touchdown during every trip to the red zone.

Who has the best rushing defense thus far? Would you guess Indiana? The Hoosiers are No. 1, as they are allowing just 45.5 yards per game in their two contests.

Individually, it's hard to top the season Javon Ringer has had so far. The Michigan State senior and Dayton native is leading the league in rushing with 166.0 yards per game and also has nine touchdowns in just three games, putting him atop the league table in that regard. Penn State's Evan Royster is having a big year, as the sophomore has six touchdowns and is averaging 8.1 yards per carry.

Just four league quarterbacks – Curtis Painter, Adam Weber, Juice Williams and C.J. Bachér – average 200 or more yards through the air per game. Weber might be having the best year on paper, as he's tossing for 244.0 yards per game and has six touchdowns against zero picks.

The top two receivers unquestionably have been Minnesota's Eric Decker and Penn State's Jordan Norwood. Decker has caught 25 balls already – putting him on pace for an even 100 – and has 332 yards through the air and three touchdowns. Norwood leads the league with four touchdowns and is averaging 17.8 yards per catch on his 17 grabs.

Kudos to you if you can name the four players tied for the Big Ten lead with two interceptions. They are Otis Wiley of Michigan State, Niles Brinkley of Wisconsin, Pat Angerer of Iowa and Morgan Trent of Michigan.

And Finally…
**This week's non-revenue shoutout goes to the Ohio State women's tennis team, which begins its season this weekend at the William & Mary Invitational. Ohio State starts the year with its first ranked player since 2004, as Georgia Tech transfer and Upper Arlington native Kristen Flower is listed as the No. 41 singles player in the nation. The Buckeyes and relentlessly positive head coach Chuck Merzbacher look posed to improve upon last year's season that saw them return to the rankings and make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

**My favorite sporting event is the Ryder Cup, which is being contested this weekend. People generally look at me like I have three heads when I say that, but I've got my reasons. No. 1, I'm a golfer and have been one for years, so I have an appreciation for the sport. To me, there's no major sport as cruel as golf, a demanding individual game in which the smallest crack in a person's game can prove fatal in the most pressure-filled of circumstances. No. 2, I've always been a fan of competitions that match one nation against another, a circumstance that often promotes the most dramatic of athletic competitions. Third, I maintain that the 1999 Ryder Cup is the greatest single sporting event I've ever seen in my life. To watch that comeback is to understand how the beauty of the game and the pressure of international competition combine to produce the highest of drama.

**Count me as largely uninterested in the closing of Yankee Stadium, a fact that surely will draw groans from many. It's not that I dislike old ballparks; in fact, I have a fascination with the parks before my time, especially Ebbets Field, and part of me does hate to see such a landmark closed. However, I've just never seen the charm of the yard, especially given how it's been changed from its original state with its 1970s renovation. The current park has none of the charms of Fenway Park or Wrigley field; while history has been made in the House That Ruth Built many, many times, the building itself just doesn't do it for me.

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