The Almanac: Everybody's Got Problems

USC's loss to Oregon State highlighted a truism of college football in 2008: nobody's perfect. Jeff Svoboda tries to put the Trojans' loss into perspective for the Buckeyes during this week's column. Also included are a scouting report on Minnesota and some Big Ten thoughts heading into the conference season.

Time for some crow to be served up – extra warm, please. Nothing is worse than cold crow, I presume.

After Ohio State was dismantled 13 days ago by the No. 1 team in all the land, I couldn't help but lavish praise on said team, USC. By the time the Trojans had finished putting the finishing touches on the win over Ohio State, they had outscored two BCS conference teams in major intersectional games by a combined score of 87-10. At the time, I wrote that USC should defeat every team on the rest of its schedule by 20 points or more.

Little did I know USC wouldn't be able to get past its next meeting with an OSU without a notch in the loss column.

The game sure made for great television last night, but I can't help but be left shaking my head at the way the Trojans played. Perhaps they couldn't get past the fact that this was just their third game in five weeks. Maybe the atmosphere and adverse conditions in Corvallis stymied them. Or, it could be that for the second time in as many trips to Oregon State, the Trojans just didn't show up and execute well enough.

One thing that I do know is that there isn't often a correlation from one game to another. Ohio State fans can sit there and wonder why, exactly, the Buckeyes couldn't come close to dominating the line of scrimmage and controlling the game's tempo like Oregon State did. The bottom line, though, is that every game is different. Every team wants to play its best every game, but it doesn't work out that way. It happens to every single team in the country at least once or twice a season.

Last night, it happened to USC. For whatever reason, the Trojans made mistakes unlike any they had made during the first two games. The team's offensive line looked every bit like the inexperienced unit about which most USC fans were worried before the season began.

And why is that? Execution. You can talk about scheme until you're blue in the face, but the game of football comes down to execution. There are very few college football coaches running schemes that are unsound. Every offensive play will work if it's executed correctly. Defenses will prevent teams from putting together drives if they don't make mistakes. But humans aren't perfect and teams make mistakes.

Thirteen days ago, it was Ohio State making those mistakes. Last night, it was USC. Ain't it a funny world?

Jumping off from that point, it's been somewhat amusing to watch Ohio State fans over the past two weeks come up with fixes for what ails the teams. Many of these fixes have been drastic, some comically so. I believe these suggestions have been borne of frustration, which I certainly understand, but last night's events should drive home that there are issues for every team across the country. The Buckeyes are not special in this regard.

For some fans, there is something wrong if Ohio State is not dominating every game in which it plays. Everything that goes haywire is a reason that someone is not doing their job, and those mistakes are pushing Ohio State further and further from the elite teams in the country.

I can certainly understand that viewpoint. In the glory days under Woody Hayes, Ohio State would grind teams into a pulp on a yearly basis. Look at Woody's records against Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin to see just how big those mismatches were. Perennial powers with strong recruiting bases had unbeatable monopolies in college football.

But in the era of 85 scholarships and spread offenses, things have changed. Those lower-tier Big Ten teams can get the players to play with the big boys and make bowl games. Even the Mid-American Conference teams are seeing more talented players suit up than ever before. As a result, the gap between the elite and the masses has lessened.

Now, Ohio State is simply just part of the elite of college football, and the crowns are a little harder to wear anymore. Every top program in the sport is fallible.

One of the more interesting message board posts I've seen in a while was nevadabuck's query after USC lost last night: Would Ohio State fans rather have a team that loses on the big stage or a team that drops a game or two to much lesser opposition each year?

Whatever your answer is – and feel free to debate it on the Ask The Insiders board! – the question itself illustrates a fundamental truth in college football: every team has problems.

Fans can sit in awe of what Pete Carroll has done at USC, but the fact remains that the Trojans seem to be unable to get through the regular season without a loss or two to lesser opposition. Their fans must pulling their hair out every season when this happens and wondering what shakeups need to be made.

I've heard plenty of Ohio State fans clamor for Urban Meyer to take over at OSU, but he still hasn't put together an undefeated season at Florida. Last year, the Gators lost four games – including one to a fairly pedestrian Michigan team – with the Heisman Trophy winner in the backfield. Four losses would get a guy run out of town in Columbus. Many also feel that Meyer is a bit unsavory in some of his tactics.

Bob Stoops' Oklahoma teams always seem to find a loss or two along the way as well, and his BCS record rivals Tressel's over the past couple of seasons. LSU's Les Miles has the golden pixie dust working right now, but the Bayou Bengals still lost two games last year, and one has to wonder when his riverboat gambling philosophy will come back to bite him in the behind.

See, Buckeye fans, you are not alone.

Again, I'm not going to sit here and say everything is all right at OSU. There are things that need fixed with this Ohio State team. Improvement is necessary in many facets, but this is true of every team in the country. The good news is that the loss to USC suffered by the Buckeyes has illustrated those flaws to a very clear extent.

On To The Gophers I've been able to check out a few minutes of Minnesota in a couple of its games this year, so I'm going to post my thoughts here, even if they are through the scope of my untrained eye. I hope to make these scouting reports a weekly portion of the column, assuming television schedules line up to allow me views of the Buckeyes' upcoming opponents.

I'll start with the Minnesota offense, which wasn't really the problem a year ago. Wednesday night, safeties coach Paul Haynes said that the team doesn't do a lot, but are good at doing what they do. The tape of the Bowling Green game for Minnesota confirmed those suspicions for me.

The Golden Gophers are about as spread as one gets. They used a lot of shotgun, multiple wideout sets – the bubble screens, the zone read and the quick throws. Much of the running was done out of passing line sets. Minnesota does use a tight end and often puts him in motion both to block and to catch passes.

One thing that Minnesota wanted to do coming into the season was keep star quarterback Adam Weber from absorbing too many hits, and he's passing the ball very quickly in an effort to keep him from being teed up in the pocket.

Where Weber does take his hits is in the running game. He's still carrying it about nine times per game, and he's not afraid to get dirty doing it. On one fourth down play against BG, he rolled out on a run-pass option, then pulled the ball down and lowered his shoulder into a defender near the first down line. Everyone talks about Weber's toughness and I can see why.

DeLeon Eskridge is now the starting tailback, and he wasn't featured much against BG. I did like the burst showed by Shady Salamon. Out wide, it's easy to see why people like Eric Decker. He's just a solid all-around player.

Coming into the season, Minnesota had only one player they thought was ready to be a full-time offensive lineman, and that was left tackle Dom Alford. The line hasn't been bad this year, but they are not a dominating group. There are a number of redshirt freshmen and sophomores in the mix, and that means mistakes. There will be some made against Ohio State.

Defensively, it's been interesting to see Minnesota's improvement from a year ago. The Golden Gophers are a much different team, and a lot of that is because of the additions of players like impact newbies like JUCO transfers Tramaine Brock, Traye Simmons and Simoni Lawrence and true freshman Jewhan Edwards.

Those players have been impressive so far. Brock and Simmons are athletic, aggressive players who have improved the Gophers' secondary immensely, and each have had a major hand in the turnover department. Lawrence is a bit of a safety/linebacker hybrid who they like to blitz. Edwards didn't get much time against Bowling Green but was a true space eater inside against Montana State. It's just about impossible to move that guy, and his listing at 320 pounds has to be well low of his actual weight. Garrett Brown is another guy that takes up a lot of space and is hard to move.

Against Bowling Green, Minnesota came out running a 3-4 defense against the Falcons' spread. I doubt they'll do the same against Ohio State and Terrelle Pryor, but there is a chance we could see such a formation if Pryor starts running wild. Reports had the Golden Gophers going to that defense as a response to the struggles of their nickel formation, which started the year with Cincinnati native Ryan Collado as the fifth DB.

Unfortunately for Collado, the pieces I saw of the Northern Illinois game consisted mostly of Huskie players running away from him for long touchdown plays. The Gophers' response seems to have been making Lawrence the team's nickel back, and he's done well.

I'm not sold on the Golden Gophers' linebackers, however. Middle man Lee Campbell was a defensive end when camp started, and he didn't seem to be taking the best angles against BG. Deon Hightower has improved from the last time he nearly had his ankles broken by a Troy Smith juke in Ohio Stadium, but Steve Davis didn't have a great showing of tackling against the Falcons.

I have to wonder just how good this defense will be if it doesn't keep forcing turnovers, which are notoriously fickle. The yardage totals given up by Minnesota aren't that great, but it's nice to be able to just stop a drive by getting a turnover. If the Buckeyes keep the ball in their hands, Minnesota might not have as much luck forcing turnovers on downs. The two teams that Minnesota blew out are the two best teams they've played so far in Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic. Both of those teams killed themselves with turnovers.

One caution for this game: I think that I'll write a lot more about this next week, but one thing I'll post as we enter the Terrelle Pryor/Chris Wells is that I'm a little worried about something along the lines of a "too many cooks in the kitchen" phenomenon. I have a worry that the Buckeyes, with a wealth of offensive talent in the backfield, will do its best to accommodate all of those weapons at the expense of developing an identity.

At the very least, it will be interesting to see how things develop. Is this going to be a shotgun, read option team with Pryor playing the role of Pat White or Vince Young? Or is this going to be a team with Wells as a downhill runner 7 yards deep? Can it be both? That's the part that really intrigues me.

Play Of The Week After two weeks, I've written a grand total of two Plays of the Week. That will happen with two lackluster performances against Ohio and USC thrown in.

This week's play is similar to the first week's winner, which was a Todd Boeckman pass in which he stood in the pocket and threw deep to a receiver an instant before absorbing a hit. I had hoped that would be a harbinger of his improved play, but that might have been the last truly impressive throw unleashed by the senior from St. Henry.

Anyway, on to a similar play against Troy, this one tossed by Terrelle Pryor. A play earlier in the second half, in which Pryor spun away from the rush, froze one defender with a pump fake and then hit Brian Robiskie down the sideline, might have been the moment that many thought Pryor arrived, but I'll instead go with the second touchdown pass the wunderkind had on the day.

The Buckeyes faced a third-and-11 situation from the Troy 39-yard line moments after Kurt Coleman's first interception on the day. The Buckeyes lined up with three wideouts and two running backs in the game. Hartline was in the slot to the right with Dane Sanzenbacher to the boundary. Brian Robiskie was alone on the left, press box side of the field. Pryor stood in the shotgun with Dan Herron to his left and Brandon Saine to his right.

Troy linebackers Boris Lee and Bear Woods feigned a blitz before backing off from the line of scrimmage right before the play. Pryor took Michael Brewster's snap and saw his two running backs go into the respective flats.

The Trojans' four-man rush largely was handled. Ben Person and Jim Cordle took the tackles with ease, leaving Brewster with nothing to do. Tackles Alex Boone and Bryant Browning saw their men speed deep into the backfield, each nearly reaching Pryor, who was about 9 yards deep.

With a full pocket developing, Pryor took a step or two up and to the right. As Boone's man, end Brandon Lang, spun off in an attempt to reach Pryor, the quarterback set and threw down the middle of the field. All alone was Brian Hartline, who made a leaping snag at the 5 and stumbled forward into the end zone for the touchdown while absorbing a hit from safety Sherrod Martin.

For everything said about Pryor, the most impressive skill he's shown thus far is his ability to keep his eyes down the field on his receivers while avoiding the rush. This is an attribute that can be utilized two to three times per game to change a probably loss into a possible huge play.

Around The Big Ten
I must fully admit that I have been wrong about some Big Ten teams thus far. That much is evident based on the fact that my preseason predictions went just 5-3 last week. I had Indiana ticketed for a win over Ball State and Minnesota and Northwestern set to lose to Florida Atlantic and Ohio, respectively. That drops me to 32-7 on the season; not bad, but not that great.

Those last two weren't that surprising now that the season has commenced. The Florida Atlantic passing game that so befuddled Minnesota a year ago hasn't got untracked this year, and the Golden Gophers' improvement was more than many ever could have projected. As for Northwestern, I chose the Wildcats to lose to Ohio because it seems that the squad never emerges from nonconference play unscathed. Heck, even in their Rose Bowl season, the Wildcats lost to Miami (Ohio). However, this looks to be a different team, considering its 4-0 for the first time since 1962.

A couple of eerie lines look to be in play during the start of Big Ten season. I generally as a rule defer to Vegas, but I cast a confused eye on the lines for Ohio State's games with Ohio and Troy earlier this year. Now I must say that I'm vexed as to how Iowa is favored by 8.5 at home against Northwestern and how Wisconsin is only favored by six against Michigan. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably say Northwestern is the better team than the quarterback-less Hawkeyes, and I don't see any way a Michigan team that has looked uninspiring at best can be getting only six against Wisconsin.

I point these out not because I encourage gambling but because I spend a lot of time thinking about the relative strength of teams across the league. So often we are asked to compare Big Ten squads, and while the schedule does the best job of deciding who's the best, it's always fun to watch and read about each team during the season. Thank goodness league play begins tomorrow.

Since I've been giving Northwestern some love, I'll go an extra step and point out that the Wildcats could very well be 9-0 when they face Ohio State. After facing Iowa, the Wildcats host Michigan State and Purdue and then hit the road for games against Indiana and Minnesota. There's no team in that group that the Wildcats can't hang with.

One interesting thing is how the Purple People have been doing it with defense. Northwestern, allowing just 11.2 points per game, is 13th in the nation in scoring defense. The squad is in the top half of the Big Ten in all of the major defensive categories.

The one time I've seen NU this year was against Syracuse, a team so woeful that it's hard to get a read on just how good the Wildcats are. I must say, though, that I was impressed with Northwestern's defense, especially a defensive line that was without a player many think is its best player in John Gill. The DL spent the game keeping Syracuse's offensive line away from the linebackers, who made play after play without having to fight through much traffic.

One spot of worry is the offense, however, and not just because those who had Sept. 20 in the annual Tyrell Sutton leg injury pool collected this past weekend (OK, I'm a little rough on the Akron native, and he says he'll be 100 percent for the Hawkeyes). Northwestern is ninth in the league with 25.8 points per game, and the usually freewheeling Wildcats are just 10th in the league in passing efficiency as well after Ohio picked off C.J. Bacher four times. I just have a hard time believing that unit, with so many talented players, will struggle all year. If they turn it around, 9-3 or 10-2 are not out of the question.

With Big Ten play starting this weekend, here are my takes on the five Big Ten games that will begin league play:

Michigan State at Indiana: The Hoosiers boasted the league's best rushing defense until last week when Ball State ran wild. If a MAC team can do that, Michigan State's Javon Ringer, he of the 11 touchdowns, should be able to have a similar day. I'm taking MSU.

Northwestern at Iowa: I already said plenty of good things about Northwestern, but the Hawkeyes boast a good enough defense to make this a game. Shonn Greene has had an excellent return season to Iowa City, but NU's run-stopping should keep him in check. In the preseason, I took Iowa, but right now I'm going with the Wildcats.

Wisconsin at Michigan: The Badgers have put together one of the better defenses in the league, meaning that Michigan's league-worst offense will have a hard time getting the ball moving. Michigan, meanwhile has put together a solid defense, so it will be interesting to see just how much the Badgers can do offensively. Bucky should prevail.

Illinois at Penn State: This is certainly the marquee game of the opening Big Ten weekend. Penn State has looked great against some pretty shoddy opposition, while Illinois hasn't looked impressive at any point. I expect a physical but high-scoring affair. I had the Fighting Illini in preseason, but I think Penn State's offense gets it done during the White Out.

Minnesota at Ohio State: Even with the Golden Gophers' turnaround, Ohio State is the better team. If the Buckeyes stay away from turnovers, they should have the better of play at the line of scrimmage and are deeper at the skill positions. Ohio State takes a 31-13 win.

And Finally…
**This week's non-revenue sport to watch is the women's soccer team. The Buckeyes are young this year and as a result got off to a 0-4-2 start, but things turned around over the past week with three straight wins in Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. Big Ten play is looming, which should show the Buckeyes exactly where they stand in the grand scheme of things, but it appears good things are happening for Lori Walker and her staff. The Buckeyes have just three seniors and two juniors on the team, but one, senior forward Lisa Collison, is on fire, having scored three goals in the last three matches.


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