Tuesday, August 28

Ohio St Season Preview

The shift in seasons from summer to fall means much more than just the changing color of the leaves. It means back to school, hoodies, Pumpkin Spice cappuccino at Kwik Fill and, most importantly, it means football. The Ohio St University is gearing up for another season (3 more days!) that promises to be full of excitement. With a new head coach, postseason ban, and a young and inexperienced - yet flashy and exciting - quarterback, there are plenty of headlines surrounding Columbus to discuss, so let’s get right to it.

Of course, just like every team in any season, I’m sure there will be plenty of surprises, but looking at this season at the end of August I see the amount of wins OSU can rack up basically depending on two main things. 1) Can Urban Meyer get his players to buy into a season that will inevitably end in November? And 2) How far has Braxton Miller come from his turbulent freshman season a year ago?

Ultimately, I am far less worried about the former than the latter. If you’re like me and have been unsuccessful in blocking out the ‘07 National Championship, then you’re aware of this - Urban Meyer knows what he’s doing. There have been questions about the timing and method of his departure from Florida, but when it comes to getting his players ready for game day, it doesn’t get much better than Urban Meyer. He has talked to Lane Kiffin, who did a tremendous job getting his USC players to adopt a “nothing to lose” type of attitude in the same situation last year, and I have complete confidence Meyer will do and say all the right things to get his players to do the same. The question is whether or not the players will go along with him. With senior leaders such as John Simon, Zach Boren, and Jake Stoneburner, I think we are in good hands and don’t see the fact that we can’t win the Big Ten or play in a Bowl game being a negative factor on this season.

The Braxton Miller situation is a bigger question mark in my mind. No doubt he has marvelous athletic ability and I don’t necessarily see any 1/4 performances out of him this season, but the fact remains that he is a 19 year-old with only one season (if you can even call it that) under his belt and a new offense to learn. I expect to see a lot of what we saw from Terrelle Pryor in his second season: some fabulous plays mixed in with some awful mistakes. As long as he can limit those mistakes and not make them at crucial times, I think he will be fine and could flourish in Meyer’s open-field system.

Last Season
I don’t want to write about this just as much as you don’t want to read it, so I’ll be brief here. Coming off the heels of the merch-for-ink scandal, the Buckeyes were minus their coach, star QB, workhorse RB, and playmaking WR. Needless to say, it was not your typical 10-win season for Ohio St. They began with unimpressive victories over a couple of MAC teams, followed by an embarrassing loss to Miami (FL) where Miller replaced Joe Bauserman for the first time and went 2-for-4 with 22 yards and an INT. To put it bluntly, it sucked.

Brax received his first career start the following week in a 37-17 blowout win over Colorado. Then Michigan St came to Columbus and the two teams combined to set the game of football back a century. In the most boring game of the season, or recent memory for that matter, the Spartans edged the Bucks 10-7.

A victory in Illinois was sandwiched by the two most exciting games of the season. In Lincoln, Ohio St met Nebraska for the first time since the 1950’s. OSU came out with their best half of the season, leading the Cornhuskers 20-6 at the break. Carlos Hyde’s second TD of the game gave the Buckeyes a 27-6 lead, after which Ohio State collapsed and allowed the biggest comeback in Nebraska history. Two weeks later, with Wisconsin coming to town for Homecoming, Ohio St almost did it again. A 26-14 lead with less than five minutes to play turned into a 29-26 deficit with about a minute remaining. In the play of the season, Miller connected with Devin Smith for a 40-yard touchdown to give Ohio St a thrilling victory.

The Buckeyes continued their winning streak the following week against Indiana, but were a blocked extra point away from completing a dramatic comeback against Purdue (where they ultimately lost in overtime) to keep it going. The rest of the season went the same way for the Bucks, with a bad loss to Penn St, a shootout defeat at the hands of that school up north, and a Gator Bowl loss to Florida.

Luke Fickell did what he could as interim head coach, but in the end there was just too much adversity to overcome and not enough talent left over, as the Buckeyes finished 6-7, under the .500 mark for the first time since 1897. Enough about the past - let’s look ahead to bigger and better things.

The Schedule
The 2012 Ohio St Buckeyes have more going for them than just a Hall of Fame coach and a great-looking super-fan in Northwest Pennsylvania - they also have a very favorable schedule. After the past four years of scheduling a power program in the non-conference (USC and Miami, 2x apiece), OSU is back to the typical ways of the Big Ten, as Cal is the biggest name on this season’s docket while Miami (OH), Central Florida, and UAB round out the non-conference opponents. Athlon Sports has Cal ranked 38th in the nation, with the remaining teams at 99, 66, and 106, respectively. Anything can happen, but even with a few growing pains to start the year, there’s no reason Ohio St shouldn’t be 4-0 going into Big Ten play.

When conference games do start, however, the Buckeyes will have their hands full, starting off by traveling to East Lansing and welcoming Nebraska to The Shoe. Michigan St lost its most successful passing duo of all-time in QB Kirk Cousins and WR B.J. Cunningham, but welcome back Heisman sleeper RB Le’Veon Bell and dominant pass rusher William Gholston. Nebraska may offer the conference’s most complete team, led by seniors Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead, though the Blackshirts on defense should see a decline with the departures of DT Jared Crick and LB Lavonte David.

The next four games offer the cushy part of the conference schedule, as the Buckeyes head to Indiana and Penn St and host Purdue and Illinois. Indiana should be awful as always, and Penn St did not look very good even before the disaster that was their off-season, so hopefully there are no hiccups on the road there. Purdue and Illinois are both mediocre, and having them both at home will help. Whitney Mercilus and his sack record are gone from Illinois, but his d-line mates Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan make the Illini the stiffest test in this portion of the schedule.

As tough as the beginning to the BT schedule is, the Bucks will end with a couple of contests that could possibly be even more challenging. On November 17, Ohio St journeys to the not-so-friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium. With Russell Wilson now a Seahawk, the Badgers had a QB battle going with Danny O’Brien and freshman Joel Stave. I recently cancelled my subscription to Faggot Weekly, so I’m not sure who is looking better to start the season. Not that it really matters, as the clear focus of the Wisconsin offense will be Heisman candidate running back Montee Ball.

As always, Ohio St will close the season against those bitches up north. This one will be in C-bus, and could most certainly play a huge factor in whether those jackasses play in the Big Ten Conference Championship or not. Being ineligible for the postseason, this will be Ohio St’s Bowl game. Offensive co-captain Jake Stoneburner said of the contest, "This year's michigan game is going to be like the national championship game. It's our Senior Day. It's our Super Bowl." It is also Urban Meyer’s first bitchigan game, and we all know how much an Ohio St coach’s legacy is defined by his michigan record (just ask John Cooper). Meyer faired awfully well in rivalry games at Florida, going 5-1 against Florida St, 5-1 versus Georgia, and 6-0 against Tennessee in his tenure. Then again, I don’t think anything Meyer went through can compare to the magnitude of this game.

While the preseason polls may be digging the Big Ten (michigan #7, Wisconsin #12, Michigan St #13, Nebraska #17), I’m not totally sold. Yes, most Big Ten teams have always been known for their running game and defense, and that will certainly continue this season as there are some good ones out there. But I just look around at the other QBs in the league and it makes me think Brax can sleep-walk to the All-Big Ten team. The top three signal callers of 2011 - Kirk Cousins of Michigan St, Russell Wilson of Wisconsin, and Dan Persa of Northwestern - have all moved on, so who are we left with? Aside from Miller (who could probably be lumped into the “runners” category), the conference’s other 11 quarterbacks are made up of guys with little to no experience and big shoes to fill (Wisconsin’s Joel Stave/Danny O’Brien, Michigan St’s Andrew Maxwell, Indiana’s Tre Robertson, and Northwestern’s Kain Colter), a couple of decent-yet-far-from-scary guys (Iowa’s James Vandenberg and Purdue’s Caleb Turbush), great runners with very little passing ability (Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray, Illinois’ Nathan Schellhaase, and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez), and the worst human being on earth (I’ll let you guess who that is.) You may notice I didn’t even put Penn St’s Matt McGloin on this list because, well, he just isn’t worth mentioning.

If I had to say win, loss, or too close to call for each game this season, I definitely don’t see any automatic L’s on that schedule. I’d chalk a tally in the win column for the four non-conference games and four in the middle part of the BT schedule, with the Michigan St, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and michigan games deciding the fate of the season. (Well, I suppose the NCAA already did that, but you know what I mean.)

The Offense
I already talked about Braxton Miller, and don’t have much else to say. His ceiling is enormous and expectations are soaring in Columbus, but he still worries me a bit. He should flourish in Meyer’s spread offense, and will certainly be given a chance to shine. I just hope he makes smart decisions and uses his legs as necessary. Kenny Guiton is entrenched as the backup and has some talent, but won’t see the field barring a Brax injury other than mop up time.

If Boom Herron could have played his entire senior season, he may have pushed Beanie Wells as Ohio St’s best runner since Eddie. Unfortunately for him and the 2011 Buckeyes, he did not, but thanks to his suspension the '12 Bucks not only have some talent at RB, they have plenty of experience. Expect Carlos Hyde, who led the Bucks with 5.3 YPC last season, to get the bulk of the carries. Hyde is the biggest back on the team at 235 lbs, but also possesses surprising speed and broke off several big runs last year (most notably his 70-yard TD against Nebraska).

After many years of riding their horse (Antonio Pittman in ’05 and ’06 followed by Beanie then Boom), expect much more of a timeshare in the OSU backfield this season, much like they did during Herron’s suspension last year. I thought we’d see a bit more of highly-touted freshman Rod Smith last season, but after only 29 carries I expect to see him more this season. Much like Hyde, Smith is a big guy (6’3", 230) with deceptive speed. Freshman Bri’onte Dunn should also be in the mix. The problem I have with him is that I like to shorten players’ names to one-syllable nicknames, but Bri just sounds too feminine. Am I comfortable going ’Onte? Only time will tell.

The other guy that is sure to see his share of touches is Jordan Hall. In Urban Meyer’s spread, he likes to have that one “X-factor” guy that he can line up in the backfield and out wide, much like he did with Percy Harvin at Florida, and Hall seems to be that perfect fit. Running backs coach Stan Drayton, who was also Meyer’s assistant at UF, says of Hall, “We’re going to play to Jordan’s strengths. He’s a guy who can be a versatile player for us. He is primarily a tailback, but we’re going to put more on his plate and see how much he can handle.”

With all four of those guys projected to see the field, let us not forget that last year’s leading rusher is also back in Braxton Miller. Plus co-captain Zach Boren, who has been a devastating blocking fullback the past three seasons, should also be more of a factor in Meyer’s offense.

The receiving corps is the biggest uncertainty of the offense. TE Jake Stoneburner and WRs Philly Brown and Devin Smith shared the team led in catches last season with 14. To put that in perspective, freshman Mike Thomas hauled in 13 grabs in the Spring Game this year. That being said, all of these guys are back and Ohio St should be throwing the ball much more then they did a season ago. Stoneburner is the most consistent of the group and will see a lot of balls thrown his way, especially considering Miller’s ability to scramble in the pocket and need for a dump off to his tight end on numerous occasions. Sophomore Jeff Heuerman and freshman Nick Vannett should also get some opportunities at the TE position.

Brown and Smith are the projected starters at wideout and both have the ability to spread the field. As I said, Thomas was the star of the Spring Game and seemed to develop a great rapport with Braxton. Chris Fields will also get his shot, as will Evan Spencer and Verlon Reed, assuming they can come back from injuries. While very raw and inexperienced, each of the six receivers I mentioned possess great speed, which fits well into Meyer’s spread attack. Again, Jordan Hall will also be a feature in the passing game as well as running.

Ohio St’s offensive line has some large, and I mean LARGE shoes to fill. Three three-year starters are gone in C Mike Brewster and Ts Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts. Brewster was a captain and really anchored the line for the past three seasons, but Corey Linsley showed promise playing guard and tackle last season and should be good to go to take over the center spot. Jack Mewhort, who has started the past two years at every lineman position, will take over Adams’ spot at left tackle. Mewhort is the best and most experienced lineman on the Bucks’ squad, and did get significant playing time at the LT position when Adams was out for a five-game suspension last season. Reid Fragel, a 6’8" converted tight end, has the inside track at taking Shugarts’ place at RT. Juniors Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall will be back to man the guard positions, and have hopefully gotten a little better. The starting five look alright, but the rest of the line is very thin. Incoming freshmen Taylor Decker, Jacoby Boren, Chris Carter, Kyle Dodson and Joey O’Connor will be the ones to push the starters and possibly take over should one falter. Decker has the best shot to see the field, Boren is looking to follow his two brothers who were/are very successful at OSU, and Carter has the size at 360 (and name) to make a splash.

The Defense
Ohio St may have some question marks on this team, but one unit that without a doubt will be devastating is the defensive line. Returning starters John Simon, Jonathon Hankins, Garrett Gobel, and Adam Bellamy make up one of the best and most experienced lines in the nation. Simon is the captain and leader of this team, and one of the front runners for Defensive Player of the Year. He has a non-stop motor and gets after the quarterback like whoa. With a great senior season (only an injury should prevent this), he’s getting close to A.J./Laurinaitis/Jenks legendary status in my book. Bellamy, who mostly played tackle last season, should start the season at the other end, but will be pushed by several freshman that make up one of the best recruiting classes of a single unit in recent memory. Noah Spence comes in as the #4 recruit in the nation according to rivals.com and was the best pass rusher at the high school level last year. Adolphus Washington (rivals #27) and Se’Von Pittman (#86) have a ton of promise as well.

Big Jon Hankins showed signs as a freshman two seasons ago, but was usually in Jim Tressel’s dog house for off-field issues. Last year he seemed to get over that and was just an absolute monster. If you want to run inside against Ohio St, please feel free, because you’re not going anywhere. Goebel is versatile enough to play anywhere and seemed to be in almost every play last year. A lot of Simon’s sacks came from Goebel forcing the opposing QB out of the pocket.

With the incoming freshman along with sophomores Michael Bennett and J.T. Moore, who both saw a lot of action last season, newly appointed D-Line coach (formerly in charge of the linebackers) and Buckeye legend Mike Vrabel will have his hands full trying to get everyone the playing time they deserve. A wild card is Nathan Williams, who was just as disruptive as Simon was two years ago but a knee injury kept him out all of last season. He was granted a medical redshirt and if he can make a full recovery the fifth-year senior can make this already fantastic line even better.

While it’s clear that the defensive line is the strength of the defense, it is just as obvious that the typically-strong linebacking corps is the weak link. Last season wasn’t the greatest for the Buckeye LBs, and leader Andrew Sweat has moved on. The lone returning starter, Storm Klein, was kicked off the team a month ago following a domestic abuse charge. He was recently reinstated by Meyer after the charges were downgraded, but will still serve a multiple-game suspension. Considering he lost his starting job before all of this even happened because he was out of shape coming into camp, I don’t think we can expect much from Klein this season and anything we get will just be a bonus.

Enough of the negative stuff though, because as Ryan Shazier showed at the end of last season and in the Spring Game, it’s not all bad in the middle of the defense. The sophomore has crazy athleticism and quite a nasty streak, and could be one of the more exciting defenders to watch in the nation this year. Opposite Shazier will be another familiar name, Etienne Sabino. Sabino has seen the field a lot the past few seasons, starting sporadically while often battling injuries. The senior is the only LB with much experience and will be counted on to lead this unit. Curtis Grant is raw but has a lot of potential and will man the middle. Redshirt freshman Conner Crowell had a productive off-season and will be in the mix as well.

The secondary has plenty of experience, boasting five guys with at least eight career starts. They have excellent ball-hawking skills, but often looked lost in coverage in the past. Meyer and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ new scheme calls for much less press coverage and more opportunities to make plays on the football, which should suit this unit perfectly. Senior Travis Howard will be in command of the DBs, and along with Bradley Roby make up as dynamic a cornerback tandem as there is in the Big Ten. The safety trio of C.J. Barnett (who led the team in tackles last season), Christian Bryant and Orhian Johnson have all dealt with injuries in the past but have all shown they can play when they stay on the field.

The specialists will look just like they did last year, with Drew Basil returning to kicking duties, Ben Buchanan back as punter, and Jordan Hall continuing to return kicks. Basil is solid to say the least, not missing a kick inside of 40 yards last season and leading the Big Ten in touchbacks. The Cannon has had his share of problems (and has often been verbally abused on this blog), but can hopefully improve his leg strength and does do a decent job at downing the ball inside the 20. As I said earlier, Jordan Hall is expected to play the explosive role in Meyer’s system, and should be able to make some noise in the return game. If he can’t or if things go really well for him in the offense and he becomes too valuable to risk injury on special teams, Philly Brown, Chris Fields, and Devin Smith all have good speed and experience handling the returning duties.

The Outlook
I expect this to be a fun season for our Buckeyes. Of course (unless you’re losing seven games) Ohio St football is always fun, but what I mean is that as unfortunate as the postseason ban is, it kind of gives this season a care-free type of attitude, and I think the players will go for this, especially for a guy like Urban Meyer. So we can’t make a Bowl game. It stinks but now we can just enjoy the regular season for what it is and end on a high note by beating that school up north. I mean, do we really need to wreck a great season by losing by 30 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl?

This may be an overly optimistic approach to the season, but I would honestly be more surprised with four losses than with zero. 18 returning starters, Urban Meyer, and a favorable schedule all point to a very positive season. Even if the Bucks do lose three or four games, just the fact that I’m talking about a possible undefeated season is crazy when you think about how far Ohio St has come in the past fifteen months. Can you imagine this when Tressel announced his resignation in May of last year, when the program seemed to be in shambles?

I can continue to talk Buckeye football for hundreds of more paragraphs, but the time for talking is over. All of the predictions and analysis are just that, and now it’s time to sit back and watch what Ohio St football can produce on the field and enjoy what should be another successful and entertaining season.

Up first: vs. Miami (OH), 12:00, Big Ten Network
As usual, the Buckeyes will start the season with a tune-up against a far inferior opponent. We’ll get a peek at the new-look Urban Meyer offense, but don’t expect him to give too much away until we get to the big boys. The things I will be most interested in seeing is how effective Brax can be throwing the ball and how Jordan Hall is used in the offense. I’ll have to do it early because don’t expect either one to see much of the field in the second half.
Prediction: Ohio St 37 Miami (OH) 3



Andy said...

Great stuff Figgs - I'm excited for the Renegade Buckeyes as well. A few comments:

- You're right that Brax will play a huge role in OSU's success, but it does put me in mind of how analysts point out before every game that the QB is important to the club. I mean...yep, they sure are.

- Last year wasn't fun, but I should mention again that Fickell did a really good job considering the hand he was dealt. He walked into a no-win situation and maintained some dignity and competitiveness for the club, knowing he wouldn't get a real shot at the job and would be maligned in the press. I'm glad he's still with the program.

- Why were you subscribing to Faggot Weekly in the first place?

- Look, we're not losing to michigan this year, not at home. Can't happen.

- We're also not losing to Illinois, inasmuch as it takes place on my birthday and OSU is 5-0 in my lifetime on Nov. 3's. The last time was '07, when they blasted Wisconsin 38-17 and Pakistan suspended its constitution. The last time they played the Illini on 11/3 was my actual literal birthday, the result being a 44-7 OSU blowout W.

- You had a "shoes to fill" lead-in to your discussion of the Big 10's QB's and somehow missed that softball...

- "Big Jon Hankins" reminds me of "Big Jim Slade" from Kentucky Fried Movie. Obscure, I know.

- Hopefully we can end our in-person watching Buckeye loss streak this season. Go Bucks!

Figgs said...

I see your point on the QB and you're right. I was just saying Brax is a total enigma because he has so much potential but we haven't seen him develop yet.

Right on with Fickell. Love seeing him back as co-D coordinator, where he has done a phenomenal job.

Great Illinois/Andy birthday stats. Chalk up the W. That's also the game I'm looking to go to this year, if you want to join me and celebrate your bday in Columbus.

I feel like I didn't have enough michigan digs in this post as well.

Andy said...

I need to work on my phrasing, I always sound more critical than I intend to. Your analysis was of course more informative than the usual "QB's are important!" routine.

There can never be enough michigan digs

Figgs said...

Bad news for tomorrow's game - Jordan Hall is out because he cut a tendon in his foot while walking barefoot outside. Really? Certainly this shouldn't effect the outcome of the game, but it's disappointing to not be able to see what Hall can do. Hopefully he's back within a week or two.