This occurred while talking to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a continued friend to the weekly column if you hadn't noticed. While gabbing about the state of the team after an interview session Wednesday night, I realized that the next two games will define this version of the Ohio State football team.
Sure, on the surface the Buckeyes will be battling the Spartans and the Nittany Lions for the Big Ten title, but these games will mean even more than that. Considering that these are the two toughest games left on the schedule, they will go the furthest in laying out just what this OSU team will be remembered for.
It's safe to say that the Buckeyes have not been what people expected them to be through seven games. Ranked as a top three team by just about everyone in the nation, the Buckeyes were expected to march through the schedule with token resistance from everyone but USC, and even that matchup with the Trojans was supposed to be close if not a Buckeye win.
The Buckeyes boasted an embarrassment of riches on offense with a sixth-year senior calling the shots, a Heisman Trophy winner in the backfield, at least two dependable targets out wide and four returning offensive linemen blocking the way. The Buckeye defense returned at least three players who would have been high draft picks and was expected to be nearly impregnable.
Of course, even at 6-1, it's safe to say Ohio State has been a disappointment in the eyes of many. OSU was demolished by USC, barely beat doormats Ohio and Purdue and needed a late drive to beat a Wisconsin team that sits winless in the Big Ten.
That offense has had its fair share of tweaks with the replacement of Todd Boeckman by Terrelle Pryor, the injury to Chris Wells and the constant shuffling up front thanks to an injury to Steve Rehring. The defense has been good – very much so at times – but not often great, although the most recent showing against Purdue might have been a harbinger of good things to come.
So who are the 2008-09 Buckeyes? It's hard to say. Doubts reign over just about every position except linebacker and cornerback in the eyes of the most cynical skeptic.
The offense has been a problem from nearly the word "go," with the offensive line rarely getting into a groove and the team scuffling to just 94th in total yardage. A week ago, the line was porous and the running game never got in gear to help a passing game that has never looked impressive since Pryor took over. Does this group have what it takes to get on the same page at any point in the year?
Defensively, the shutout against Purdue looks good, but just how good is this Buckeye team that surrendered 35 points to USC and couldn't stop Wisconsin's ground game, especially when the chips were down in the fourth quarter?
Those questions are the types of inquiries that will be answered during the next two games. There will be very few question marks remaining once the team adds two more tests against difficult opposition.
At some point in every college football season, you become who you are; by the time the open week hits after the Penn State game, the Buckeyes will be who they are.
I'll admit that I'm not as down on Ohio State's chances as many people are. I certainly believe the Buckeyes can shake off the cobwebs of that less than thrilling performance against Purdue and prove that they're mentally and physically able to be a top team. The facts that Michigan State has not beaten OSU since 1999 and Penn State has not won in Columbus in three decades help that belief along.
However, I must entertain the possibility that I'm wearing the so-called scarlet-colored glasses, at least when it comes to the fact that I think this could be a very good team. Part of me believed the Buckeyes were a shoo-in before the 2008 season to grab another Big Ten title, so maybe the more rational part of me has a hard time from detaching from that prediction.
I also believe that bad games simply happen every once in a while, and I don't necessarily believe there's a correlation in the way a team plays from week to week, which is why the Purdue game doesn't sound alarm bells to me. Rarely is there a good college football team that doesn't play down to the level of its opposition during a couple of weeks each year.
That line of thinking only holds water if the Buckeyes emerge from the next two games with a 2-0 record.
Going Down Memory Lane
I have to credit Marcus Hartman for this discovery, but he was nice enough to let me take it for the column.
While doing some research, Marcus stumbled upon the list of top quarterbacks in the state of Ohio, according to Scout, in the class of 2004. The top two signal callers on that list were Brian Hoyer of Cleveland St. Ignatius and Daryll Clark of Youngstown Ursuline.
Those, of course, are the two quarterbacks the Buckeyes will be facing during their next two games. Hoyer was a three-star recruit and the nation's No. 20 signal caller, while Clark was listed with three stars but just 42nd overall.
A few years later, each has a chance to knock off the home-state team in its quest for an unprecedented third straight outright Big Ten title.
Turner, who went to Dayton Chaminade-Julienne, has done just about everything during his career at BG. He started as a quarterback in 2005 and since has played running back and receiver as well. In his career, Turner has thrown for 2,158 yards and 17 touchdowns, rushed for 1,407 yards and 19 scores and caught 33 passes for 254 yards and a TD.
Gregory, of The Plains Athens, started at Indiana but ended up at South Florida, where he's completed 22 of 40 passes for 334 yards, four touchdowns and three picks as a reserve behind Matt Grothe. He's also rushed for 97 yards on 20 carries.
Finally, Engram, of Warren Harding, started at Western Michigan before transferring to Alabama State, where he threw for a total of 951 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions in his career.
The entire 2004 list isn't exactly sterling, either. The No. 1 overall player in the class was Rhett Bomar of Grand Prairie, Texas, who got off to a good start at Oklahoma before being kicked out of school for accepting illegal benefits. The rest of the top five included Xavier Lee of Dayton Beach (Fla.) Seabreeze, Anthony Morelli of Pittsburgh Penn Hills, Chad Henne of West Lawn (Pa.) Wilson and Kirby Freeman of Brownwood, Texas.
Those four went to Florida State, Penn State, Chad Henne and Miami (Fla.), respectively, though Freeman would transfer to Baylor.
There are some interesting names further down the list, including 45th-rated Rudy Carpenter, who starts at Arizona State; 46th-ranked Max Hall, who had led BYU to an undefeated record this year before last night; 47th-ranked Mike Teel, the starter during Rutgers' renaissance; No. 53 Patrick White, who has starred at West Virginia; No. 55 Joe Bauserman, currently a third-stringer Ohio State; 66th-ranked Allan Evridge, who started against Ohio State at Wisconsin earlier this year; No. 73 Taylor Bennett, who started at Georgia Tech before transferring to Louisiana Tech; and such unrated players as Joe Ganz (Nebraska), Dustin Grutza (Cincinnati) and Chris Nickson (Vanderbilt).
Play Of The Week This section could be written about a number of plays from OSU cornerback Malcolm Jenkins on Saturday. Jenkins blocked the punt that led to the only touchdown of the game, and he had a spectacular interception of Curtis Painter on a play in which he was never set from the beginning.
However, the play that seemed to sum up the game for me was one that nearly ended up as Jenkins' second interception in as many drives. Ohio State clearly did a lot of film work that allowed it to anticipate what the Boilermakers would be doing, and as a result Purdue's offense was bogged down all day by the buzzing Buckeye defense. This play, a denied fourth-and-1 from OSU's 45-yard line with 10:00 left in the second quarter, combined that film study with Jenkins' great anticipation.
On the play before, a third-and-7 from the Purdue 49, the Boilermakers lined up with two wideouts on each side of the formation bunched together with the inside man on the line and the outside receiver a yard behind. Painter was in the shotgun. The Boilermakers used this formation throughout the game.
On the right side, the inside receiver ran a go route while the outside man, Greg Orton, ran a quick slant. Painter hit Orton in stride, but Chimdi Chekwa, who was lined up off the line, flew up to make a great tackle at the 45 that denied Orton the first down by a yard.
What Painter didn't see was that on the left side of the formation, they ran similar routes, with Jenkins jumping a slant route run by the outside man.
On the next play, Purdue came out with the same formation on the fourth-and-1. This time, the design of the play was to come back to the left side. Ohio State had the inside guy covered by a man at the line, while Jenkins was 5 yards off the line and had responsibility on the outside receiver, 6-2, 213-pound Brandon Whittington.
The inside man darted to the left, attempting to set a pick for Whittington to run a slant. Painter looked right, turned left and immediately fired.
Unfortunately for him, Jenkins was all over the play, breaking forward almost before Whittington was out of his break. Jenkins cut in front of Purdue's senior wideout and nearly intercepted the pass, having it bounce off of his hands and to the turf. Though Jenkins had nothing but green grass in front of him, the play still gave the Buckeyes the ball on downs.
Ohio State marched 23 yards and Aaron Pettrey made a 49-yard field goal to give OSU a 13-0 lead.
Around The League A mismatch appears to be brewing in State College when Michigan steps onto the field to face No. 3 Penn State for an odd 4:30 p.m. start. The Nittany Lions enter the game at the top of the league in scoring offense, rushing offense, rushing defense, total offense and total defense. Michigan is last in scoring offense and total offense, 10th in pass defense and ninth in rushing offense and scoring defense.
Who would have thought that Juice Williams would lead the Big Ten in passing yards per game by nearly 40 halfway through the Big Ten season? Yet there is the erstwhile running quarterback, throwing for an average of 279.5 yards per game to outpace for formerly prolific Curtis Painter by 37.3. And it's not like Williams has given up running; he has 445 yards in six games, upping his total offense to 353.7 yards per game. Indiana is in the bottom half of the league in both rushing and passing defense, so Williams could be in line for a huge day.
There's a fairly interesting battle between Wisconsin and Iowa brewing in Iowa City this weekend. The Badgers look to be making a quarterback change from Evridge to Dustin Sherer, which could help an offense that is ninth in the league in passing yards and last in passing touchdowns. This one should be a battle given each team's ability to run the ball – Wisconsin is second in rushing offense, Iowa is fifth – and their struggles through the air. Iowa very well might have the better defense, though, as the Hawkeyes are atop the league in scoring D and third in total defense. Wisconsin is seventh and fifth, respectively.
Northwestern's hosting of Purdue will provide a clearer look at where each of those two teams stand. The Wildcats must show they can come back from adversity, while Purdue's season truly will be lost if the Boilermakers can't escape Evanston with a win. These teams, with their throw-it-around offenses, have played some crazy games over the years, but Northwestern sits fourth in the league in both total and scoring defense. That could be the difference.