Cus Words: No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature

The outgoing players had enough ability to win some of the big games they lost, if not always the right mindset to do it. There might be more talent among the up-and-comers, but they still have to prove they have what it takes between the ears – or in the belly? – to take advantage of their God-given abilities.

What we learned last week: The Ohio State defense really was that good this season, the offense truly that sporadic.

I don't think what played out during the Ohio State's 24-21 Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas on Monday night was too different than what we saw all year, with a few exceptions.

The defense was more aggressive than usual, although this was, in general, a season during which defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and sidekick Luke Fickell turned loose the boys more often than the past two.

That makes sense given the group's makeup. The 2008 Ohio State defense was talented and mostly veteran, and the coaching staff generally took advantage of that, especially in the second half of the year.

I couldn't tell you exactly why it took half a year to turn up the heat, but I could guess it was because of a combination of three things: They saw enough in preseason camp to believe the defensive line would become good enough to create more pressure on its own, the defensive backfield was in some flux with Donald Washington and Jamario O'Neal suspended and Kurt Coleman nursing an injury suffered during camp, and the first-team linebackers are better at reading and reacting than blitzing.

From that standpoint, you have a sensible line of reasoning for the defense to evolve the way it did, but the faith in the defensive line and desire to protect the others blew up in their face at USC.

That was also a game, much like the Florida game two seasons earlier, where the defense got little or no help from the offense. Even Monday night against Texas, it seemed as if the defense's problems were created by allowing a long drive to open the third quarter but exacerbated by the offense's inability to even gain one first down during that 15-minute period.

I guess now we know why one of Tressel's stated goals for his offense is to keep the defense out of bad situations.

And what about that offense?

Well, every problem that arose during the regular season was expressed in one form or another against the Longhorns.

The offensive line was inconsistent, probably in part because of a lack of full health. Both quarterbacks made more bad throws than good ones. The receivers dropped some balls and didn't really do anything after the catch. The Chris Wells made some great runs, showing outstanding vision, power and speed, but he missed a crucial part of the game because of a health concern. The two returning players who backed him up last year were hardly seen at all, but a new fellow who emerged this year picked up the slack nicely.

There were a lot of instances the execution left something to be desired, and there were other times it seemed like Jim Tressel wasn't sure when to push down on the gas and when to downshift.

Add it all up and you have a defense that was very good but succumbed against another outstanding unit and an offense that had flaws we probably should have seen coming based on the performances against the better teams on the 2007 schedule.

What we can expect to learn next: Keep all your best players healthy, and that means both mentally and physically.

Obviously, losing Wells in the first game set off a chain reaction that helped bring upon the debacle in the L.A. Coliseum and plenty of uncertainty the rest of the year. (Steve Rehring's injury made things worse, too.)

But there was more to the lack of Wells' physical presence. I think most would agree that he was regarded as the fieriest leader on the team, at least for the offense. He was the all-around catalyst, be it with his feet, stiff-arm or words.

His singular importance both on and off the field should be something of a surprise. Wells is a dynamic personality and talent, for sure, but shouldn't a team with so many seniors have enough confidence culled from experience to be able to better weather the loss of one person than they apparently did?

What about the senior starting quarterback? Three senior starting offensive linemen? Two fourth-year wide receivers?

Todd Boeckman, in particular, seemed as if he took last year's late hardships with him into this season. He never looked confident while he maintained the starting role, and that certainly had something to do with his being swallowed up in the vortex created by Wells' injury and more minor struggles that went on with the other position groups on the offense.

If not Wells or Boeckman, I would think a pick-me-up could have come from one of the other veterans or the group collectively, but that does not seem to have happened, at least not before some of the biggest goals of the season were out of reach.

Perhaps this is where the previous losses in the bright lights come into play.

There are many indications that a lot of players never got over the shock of the beating handed down by Florida two Januarys ago. It seems certain that scars from that game caused some over anxiousness when a second chance arose against LSU (hence all the personal fouls and mental mistakes) and again with USC. By then, the poisonous national sentiment had grown deadly.

Credit the team for bouncing back to the extent they did against Texas, though. Though they didn't make it to the winner's circle, they showed some fortitude the presence of which I had a reasonable doubt.

But beyond that, the truth is I'm not sure we learned much of anything in 2008 that will tell us a bunch about the future.

Almost three-quarters of the players who faced Texas were on the roster for the national championship game against Florida.

Of that group, 28 seniors exhausted their eligibility Monday night. A few more are likely to be done for one reason or another before next season begins Sept. 5 with a visit from Navy and then USC one week later, but no matter what, for the first time, more than half the roster will have no first-hand memory of the devastating night in the desert.

There will be a leadership void, certainly, but at the same time I have to wonder if the elders on that 2006 group did not let down the ones who came immediately afterward in the way that they approached the game with Florida.

There is not really any way to know exactly what happened during the preparation for that game, but it obviously wasn't all right. Stories about players more interested in special hamburgers, awards circuits or preparing for the NFL have made the rounds since then, so there is little room to doubt that the Buckeyes were not at their best. Then they ran into a Florida team that was a lot better than it got credit for in the fall, and one playing with a chip on its shoulder to boot, and the result was a devastating blowout.

If this year's seniors never got their mojo back, it might partly be because they did not have great examples to follow back then.

They left a decent example of their own - far better than they ever got - in this most recent trip to the desert, but more will be needed for the ship to be righted.

Does that mean Tressel's team is caught in a vicious cycle? Because the last group was let down by its elders, is the next one doomed to follow? I don't think so.

The next in line control their fate. They can and will have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, blaze their own trail of confidence back to national respectability based on their own merits by working hard in the offseason and taking advantage of their own God-given abilities as best they can.

I believe there is a very real possibility that more players with greater ability than their predecessors will be soon getting their chances to shine. What remains to be seen is if they will have the personalities to get over the hump.


All-Buckeye Beaters: Obviously, we have to start here with the two who connected on the game-winning play.

Even before Colt McCoy hit Quan Cosby for a 26-yard touchdown pass that turned a Buckeye lead into a deficit in the final minute of the game, both Longhorns had made strong cases to make our year-end team of players who played their best against Ohio State. McCoy finished with 414 yards and two touchdowns passing. He also ran for a touchdown and kept his wits as the Buckeyes threw blitz after blitz at him. Cosby was unstoppable on the outside, hauling in 14 of McCoy's passes for 171 yards and both aerial scores.

On the other side of the ball, end Brian Orakpo did not have a huge night, but he did enough to get noticed. He drew a holding penalty early and then had a crucial sack of Todd Boeckman on the penultimate play of the game. Tackle Roy Miller had a sack as well and made sure the Buckeyes did more of their running outside than up the middle. In the secondary, safety Earl Thomas led Texas with nine tackles, and he broke up two passes.

Look for the unveiling of the third annual BuckeyeSports.com All-Buckeye Beaters Team in the next week or so.

Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (pre-bowl rankings)
1 – tie (same) Ohio State
1 – tie (same) Penn State
3. (4) Iowa
4. (3) Michigan State
5. (same) Northwestern
6. (same) Wisconsin
7. (same) Illinois
8. (same) Minnesota
9. (same) Purdue
10. (same) Michigan
11. (same) Indiana

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.

For more from Marcus, read his blog at this link.


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