How can one possibly improve on 2002?

     Ahhh…the restless nature of college football nuts. 

     Ohio State has just won its first national title in 34 years on the gridiron, and what are folks already doing?  They are wringing their hands over recruiting and wondering if this team will be better in the fall of 2003! 

     It is simply unreal.

     But…

     After a recent discussion of the matter with some friends, I thought I might raise the question myself. 

How Can Ohio State Improve in 2003?

1.  Pass protection.  

     Without question one of the weakest aspects of this year's team up until the Fiesta Bowl was providing Craig time to throw the ball on a consistent basis.  There were literally dozens of scrambles by Craig this season that were intended to be passes until the defensive linemen, cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers (pick one) came barreling into the backfield. This is a huge issue that gets overlooked.  Further, Krenzel took serious heat for not hitting his receivers in stride, but on many occasions - Craig could not hit wide receivers on time because he was dancing out of the way of a defensive lineman bent on breaking him like a twig.  After pulling a Houdini and avoiding the sack, he looked downfield to see the wide receiver was as wide open as a 24-hour Seven-Eleven.  BUT -- by this time, the receiver was waaaaay beyond the point where he could hit him in stride.  Thus, he did the best he could in winging the ball deep.
     If the offensive line and fullbacks can improve their blocking on pass plays, Craig can and will connect with the wide receivers – in stride on a frighteningly regular basis.  Then defenses will really have a problem.  Defend the pass, defend the run, watch for Craig to scramble… Holy cow!  How do we stop this offense?


2.  Mechanics for Craig.  

     Many of his balls were ducks that wobbled this year.  A football-saavy friend of mine that I watched the Fiesta Bowl with said, "I have yet to see him throw a pretty pass.  He throws an ugly, wobbly ball – but he gets it there."  Now, having never played quarterback, far be it from me to teach Craig how to throw the football.  I am simply relaying what I observed and what others have noted – that Craig's mechanics might have suffered at times this season.    

     Again though, part of this goes back to the offensive line.  If he constantly has to dance around in the pocket, then he will have to throw off of his back foot or while on the move.  I believe that with more time in the pocket to set up, the mechanics should improve.  At the very least, there will no longer be any legitimate reasons if they do not improve.  (Admittedly though – even if they do not improve?  I would not take a single quarterback in AMERICA over Craig.  I just love the kid and have since last year.  Too bad he only has one more season of eligibility because I would gladly keep him for the next decade).

3.  Wide Receiver Routes.  

     Several occasions this year what may have looked like a bad decision on the part of Craig was actually because the wide receivers did not return to get the ball or the receivers were not running precise routes.  Jenkins had a real connection with Craig in part because Craig knew where he would be.  A quarterback needs this like a fish needs water.  When you have a 330lb defensive tackle about to do a bellyflop on you – you need to be able to toss the ball to a specific spot and know that your receiver will go up and get it.  Only Michael Jenkins consistently showed that he could and would do that this season.  If Chris Gamble and Drew Carter will work hard this offseason on running precise routes so that Craig can find them in a pinch - I think both they and Craig will have breakout seasons.  In fact, all the nasty articles written about the offense of Ohio State might suffer the same fate as the ones written about how Miami would cream the Buckeyes.

4.  Kickoff and Punt returns.  

     Ohio State should bust a few long returns in 2003.  There was only one return for a touchdown all season by the Buckeyes, and it was called back because of a penalty.  Call me crazy, but I believe OSU has more talent than that.  I do not have the answers to this conundrum, but I do think our return teams could improve.  As I am very sure that the coaches see more than I when reviewing film, I am fairly certain they will be working toward this goal for 2003.

5.  Pass defense.  

     Before I begin, please understand that what many considered a real weakness defensively was part of the defensive scheme.  The media and others rode the horse of the "weak pass defense" until it died and was buried in a very public fashion on January 3.  The pass defense and the scheme of Dantonio and the defensive coaches worked.  Period.  So, any hope of improvement here should be taken with a grain of salt… 

     One issue for Ohio State's defense this season was that it did not defend the TE and the short outside routes very well.  On multiple occasions with third and long (see especially the Michigan game), teams converted against Ohio State.  Tighter coverage by the corners would shut some of this down and 2 safeties that can cover will help as well (providing Fox moves to safety to team with Allen).  The danger here is that by playing tighter in a close game you run the risk of a Shawn Springs slip that costs you a long, long touchdown and breaks the hearts of the Buckeye nation.

     For what it is worth, if the defense plays as well next season as it did in 2002, I do not think anyone will be complaining.

6.  Quarterback pressure.  

     If the defensive line had played every game like they did in the Fiesta (where they were all healthy), then nobody scores on the Bucks all year.  More consistent pressure on the QB next season would really put a bind on other teams.  There will be fewer conversions on 3rd and 10 because opposing quarterbacks would be busy trying to find out where his head landed after Darrion Scott/Will Smith/Tim Anderson/Simon Fraser wasted him. 

     Personally, this is one area that I think we will definitely see improvement with the return of Scott and Smith.  Ohio State will miss Thompson and Peterson more than some might realize, but the line looks (at least right now) to be the strongest unit Ohio State has fielded in a long, long time.  With Maupin, McClover, Cotton, and Patterson giving the Bucks verbal commitments – the future is bright in both the short and long term for this group.  In fact, I imagine most fans get a little giddy inside thinking about the future rotation of this group wearing down offensive lines and then dominating in the fourth quarter.

7.  Athleticism on the offensive line.  

     Screens, misdirection plays, etc. were not possible many times because of the offensive line.  I would like to see this line give the offense and their quarterback the ability to slow down the pass rush in a variety of ways.  Improvement here would even allow them the chance to sit back and enjoy the game a bit more after Clarett or Hall or Ross bust a screen pass for a long TD.  If Ohio State can get blockers downfield and out in front of the skill players (Gamble, Jenkins, Carter, Hall, Ross, Clarett, etc.), then the opposing defenses will have to play honest instead of pinning their ears back and creaming Craig.  A more athletic offensive line for Ohio State will have defensive coordinators losing sleep, sanity, and perhaps even their jobs.

8.  Coaching.  

     I think the staff agrees and has stated that each year they try to find out where they can improve.  There is always room for improvement when you seek to be the best.  Kudos to the staff for this attitude.  

     One never manages to marry Perfection because her affection is fleeting.  This year, Ohio State managed to woo her.  Next season is an entirely different proposition.  For the Bucks to return to the top of the mountain and reach the Sugar Bowl (or even a BCS bowl), the coaches will need to introspectively examine themselves and the program to see where they might improve. 

Where Will Ohio State Struggle to Reach the Level of 2002?

Where Next year's team will struggle to replicate the abilities of the 2002 Buckeyes...

1.  Run Defense and Linebacker Play.  

     The two are linked.  Wilhelm and Grant were great linebackers.  They made up for so many mistakes by others.  What can you say about the leadership and abilities of these two outstanding Buckeyes?

     The defense needs to figure out how to plug in the best three at the linebacker position.  Right now (from a distance), those three look to be Hawk, Carpenter/Pagac, Reynolds.  How they are fit into the puzzle will determine much of the success of the defense.  I would love to see D'Andrea put it all together and be ready to play MLB.  If he were to be ready mentally (the physical tools are clearly there), then OSU could have a very nice rotation for 2003 with Reynolds and Hawk cleaning up the outside and D'Andrea handling the middle of the field.

2.  Leadership.  

     This is critical.  Yeah, they will have it in spades on offense, but what about defense?  When the pressure was on this year Wilhelm, Doss, Nickey, Grant -- they had all been there before.  That does not even count Peterson or Thompson.  The leadership functioned to keep the team calm and focused in the crunch time.  Folks don't blow assignments that cost a team the game (see Boston in '97 Rose Bowl against ASU defense) when their leadership is measured and confident.  

     I hope Allen, Anderson, Smith, Scott, and Reynolds step up.  If they do, then Ohio State has a shot to be as good – or at least close – to the 2002 edition of Ohio State's defense.  I do not think we will see better leadership (at least on the field) for our defense next season, but we might equal it.

3.  Making the big play at the right moment.  

     4th and 1 and Ohio State gets a 37 yard touchdown reception from a pass thrown into the wind while Craig was forced to scramble around in the pocket?  Are you kidding?  Converting successive 4th and 14 and 4th and 3 in the national title game?  You must be nuts.  4th and 1 with the clock winding down and OSU converts a QB sneak to keep the drive alive while trailing Michigan?  Dream on.  

     Sacks, fumbles, interceptions... How many game saving or memorable plays were there this season?  I would hesitate to count them up.  A few I recall off the top of my head...

- Gamble INT against Cincinnati
- Allen INT against Cincinnati
- Gamble INT against Wisconsin
- The sack on Bollinger which (unfortunately) resulted in his concussion that hobbled the Wisconsin offense.
- Sacks on Gesser, Klingler, Navarre, et. al.?
- Gamble INT and TD against PSU
- Gamble tackle against PSU
- Gamble INT to seal Purdue win
- Allen INT to seal UM win

- Fox INT to stop Purdue from getting any points early in the game

- Scott forced fumble, Will Smith GIFT recovery to stop UM drive.
- Dorsey fumble/pressure resulting in 5 Miami turnovers.
- Anderson/Grant pressure to end Illinois game.
- Grant pressure to end Miami game.
- Fox interception in the end-zone to end a drive (what game was this?) - help here.

     This is quite a list here, and I know I am leaving some out.  Ohio State will be hard pressed to come up with the plays at exactly the right moments like this season.  OU, Tennessee, and Alabama could not manage it in the years following their national titles.  Ohio State will need to break the pattern in order to reclaim glory in 2003.

4.  Team spirit.  

     This group had it.  Will next season's?  That kind of dynamic is tough to duplicate.  Very tough.  We will see if they can, but I would not hold my breath for that much true love amongst young men where nobody criticises the other side of the ball, the special teams, etc. when things go wrong.  It is amazing that nobody pointed fingers or became selfish, nobody gave up but all fought together and stood or fell by their collective efforts, and nobody took all the glory when they succeeded – preferring to point out that they were a true team.  This year's team was a great example of what College football is all about – will next year's squad rise to this challenge?

5.  Kicking game

 - Punting   Life without Andy Groom… I would prefer not to think about it, but it is now reality.  Hopefully B.J. Sander will earn his scholarship this fall as a great punter whose kicks have wonderful distance and hang time.  If so, then this worry will be soothed.

- Punting and Kickoff defense.  This year's team did a great job staying in their lanes.  The only truly long return that stood to cost Ohio State the game was against Miami and required a block in the back against AJ Hawk at the 40 yard line to impede his ability to make the tackle. 

- Field Goal accuracy.  Realistically, how can Nugent be expected to improve upon his numbers?  While tailed off at the end of the season, this guy was CLUTCH all year long.  He fell just short of breaking the all time college football record for most field goals in a row.  Unreal.  If he has another season remotely close to 2002 and does not bring home some hardware, I will be asking some serious questions.

6.  Health.

     Though it was not very much talked about, Ohio State stayed fairly healthy this season.  The only losses were Richard McNutt and Clarett.  Only McNutt was not able to play again as Clarett suited up for the Michigan and Fiesta Bowl contests.  It is not unusual for a team to lose 2 and 3 starters to injury for extended periods of time if not the season.  Though Olivea, Clarke, Smith, Scott, Grant, Allen, and others missed parts of games for the Bucks, nobody ended up sitting on the bench when crunch time rolled around.  The trainers, strength and conditioning, and medical staff all deserve a huge round of applause and a heap of gratitude for their work in this area.

     If OSU is as fortunate next season, then this team could do great things. 

7.  Hunger.

     This idea can be overplayed, but in this instance I believe it is worthwhile to discuss.  Mike Doss and the seniors were on a mission to restore respectability to Ohio State football.  They were as ravenous as a bear awakening from its hibernation.  They did not just happen to come out with wins in 14 games.  They took the game from the other team on several occasions because they quite simply wanted the victory more.

     Will the 2003 team have the same desire?  Will it be too sated and end up losing a game because they were not on a mission? 

2003 looks to be another great year for the Bucks.  How great is anyone's guess at this point considering the season is 8 months away.  What the players and coaches do from now until then will tell the tale in November and perhaps beyond.  The gauntlet sits there in front of them. Will they be up to the challenge?

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