A Spartan Attitude
Running the football effectively requires an attitude and toughness. The Buckeye offense had a lot of both last week against Nebraska. They are going to need that attitude, toughness, and more this week against the Michigan State Spartans, their number one ranked run defense, and all of those Ohio kids on Sparty’s roster. Regardless of what they’ll say publicly, there isn’t one of those kids who doesn’t feel slighted by the way the Buckeyes recruited them (or didn’t recruit them), and have something to prove to Urban Meyer and his staff.
Last week against the Cornhuskers the Buckeye offense got away from the RPO’s that had been so difficult for the linemen to block, and got back to just straight run play calls. They chewed up Nebraska for 229 yards, and wore down them down by the fourth quarter. This is something we had not seen since the early part of the season. Nebraska’s run defense was ranked somewhere around 81st or so in the country. So, while the Buckeyes had struggled to run the ball in recent games, the Huskers were the perfect team to try out the new wrinkles put in by the offensive staff. Last week was more of a pop quiz for the Buckeyes’ run game. This week is going to be a test. A really difficult one.
The Spartan run defense gives up just 71.7 yards per game, and 2.53 yards per carry. They are number one in the country against the run, and not by just a bit. MSU gives up nearly ten yards less per game than the number two team in that category; Texas A&M checks in at 81.4 yards per game. The Buckeye offensive line has their work cut out for them. The Spartans are going to try to make Ohio State one-dimensional, and force them to throw the football. When the Buckeyes throw it, MSU is going to do everything they can to make Dwayne Haskins uncomfortable. Defensive end Kenny Willekes has 7 ½ sacks and 13 ½ tackles-for-loss. Tackle Isaiah Prince can’t have a repeat of his struggles against Minnesota, and his partner, Thayer Munford, must play as he did last week. The Buckeyes need to run the ball effectively. A big part of doing that will depend on how well center Michael Jordan, and guards Malcolm Pridgeon and Demetrius Knox handle 300 pound nose tackle Raequan Williams, who has 8 tackles-for-loss. That doesn’t mean it has to be 4 or 5 yards every carry, but they have to be able to do it well enough to stay away from having to throw play after play. The more the Buckeyes run the ball, the more that big offensive line leans on the Spartans’ front seven, and wears them down. That helps the passing game as well
because it slows the pass rush. Not surprisingly their linebackers are very active, and they seem to like to bring strong safety Khari Willis near the line of scrimmage. I think OSU can have success throwing against the Spartans’ press coverage, if they can protect Haskins. But, the receivers have to be better than last week, and Haskins needs to be better with his footwork; he was sloppy at times with it against the Huskers. The receivers need to get back to making the tough catches we saw from them early in the season. Not every ball is going to be perfectly thrown, so they must make a play on those.
While Buckeye fans aren’t sure what they are getting from their offensive line this week, Spartan faithful are in the same situation. They have struggled to run the ball all season, and average just 3.5 yards per carry as a team. Last week against Maryland was the first time the backs saw holes to run through. Statistically the Buckeyes’ run defense is only slightly better than Maryland. That concerns me because Spartan quarterback Brian Lewerke hasn’t exactly set college football on fire this year. You want to see the Buckeyes keep them in second/third and long situations, and force them to throw, because the Spartans are converting just 32% on third down. Lewerke’s effectiveness has been hampered by a shoulder injury, so there is a possibility you could see back-up Rocky Lombardi. Allowing the Spartans to run the ball not only keeps
them out of long yardage, but it also lets them control the clock and keep OSU’s offense off the field. It isn’t known if their best running back, Ohio native L.J. Scott, will play. He’s missed a great
deal of time with an ankle injury this year. Although the team’s rushing average isn’t impressive, leading rusher Connor Heyward averages 5.1 yards per carry. Their best receiver, Felton Davis, tore his Achilles a few weeks ago, and is out for the season. This is not an overly athletic offense, or one that matches up well with Ohio State’s defense; the Buckeyes are much faster and athletic. But, we all know how much the Buckeyes have struggled on that side of the ball, and made a few middle-of-the-road offenses look much better than what they are. I wouldn’t be surprised to see MSU head coach Mark Dantonio try some of the throwback plays that worked so well for Nebraska.
Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio is a Zanesville native, and was the defensive coordinator on the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship team. Although he has led MSU to a couple of high-profile wins over the Buckeyes, he’s only 3-8 during his eleven seasons as head coach.
Brian Lewerke is completing just 56% of his passes with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Connor Heyward has rushed for 358 yards and five touchdowns. Darrell Stewart is their leading healthy receiver, but averages just 10.4 yards per catch on 24 receptions. Cody White, who recently returned from a hand injury, has 22 receptions for a 14.5 yard average. They score just over 23 points per game.
Middle linebacker Joe Bachie is their leading tackler with 68. “STAR” linebacker Andrew Dowell has 61 tackles and three sacks. As a team, they have 22 sacks and 12 interceptions. The Spartans are ranked 22nd nationally in total defense.
What Do I Think?
Last year the Buckeyes rushed for more yards than anyone else had ever gained on the Spartans in the Mark Dantonio era in making a chalk outline out of them to the tune of 48-3. Add to that 28 Ohio kids on their roster having to hear about that loss for the last year, and you’re looking at a Michigan State team with something to prove against the Buckeyes. I think the
Spartan defense is going to play like madmen, and keep this game close for most of the afternoon. As mentioned, the Spartans have the nation’s top run defense, but the two best teams they’ve played all season, Penn State and Michigan, had a lot of success running the ball. The Buckeyes have a big, athletic offensive line who appear to have solved most of their issues. If they continue on the same path they began against Nebraska, I think J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber will gain their share of yards. Haskins is easily the best quarterback the Spartans have played all season. Slowing him is going to be a challenge for MSU.
I’m not convinced the Spartan offense is equipped to really attack Ohio State’s defensive weaknesses enough for them to put up a lot of points. It is because of that I think the Buckeyes win this one to move to 9-1. I don’t think it will be easy, and I don’t see a lot of points being scored. But, I think Ohio State just has more than Sparty.
Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and receiver C.J. Saunders will play this week. I heard the same thing last week, and they did not play. So, I’ll believe they’re playing when I actually see them on the field. Offensive linemen Brady Taylor and Branden Bowen are ready to go, and will add welcomed depth. Although he was not cleared to play, Bowen was in a Buckeye uniform last week for the first time since being injured in October of last year.
Defensive tackle Davon Hamilton said the team is having fun again. It’s obvious they have not been enjoying themselves lately. Hopefully this means the Buckeyes are going to play more relaxed.
Co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Kevin Wilson said tight end Luke Farrell had his best game last week. He caught three passes, and played the vast majority of plays among the tight ends. Wilson agrees with Meyer’s assessment that Farrell is going to be a very good player.
Dwayne Haskins turned to an unlikely source for help with the Michigan State defense. Earlier this week he spoke with Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who played against the Spartans a few weeks ago. Haskins explained the two played in an all-star game together when they were eleven, and have remained friends.
Heisman talk concerning Haskins seemed to disappear this week. A name we haven’t heard since early in the season surfaced again. It seemed like every time you turned around someone was talking about WVU quarterback Will Grier. Really? Over Haskins? The Buckeye quarterback has posted better numbers so far, and carried the Buckeye offense for more than a few games. If Haskins isn’t invited to the ceremony in New York, those who did not include him on their ballot should have their voting privileges revoked. Speaking of Grier, wasn’t that a nice spike of the football after he scored the go-ahead two-point conversion at the end of WVU’s game with Texas? He should have been penalized for that, and if he were in the Big Ten he would have been. Big XII officiating is notoriously lenient.
Haskins has been named as one of seventeen semi-finalists for the Davey O’Brien award which is given to the nation’s outstanding quarterback. Also, offensive coordinator Ryan Day is a nominee for the Broyles Award. The award is given to college football’s outstanding assistant coach.
Haskins needs just 277 yards to break Joe Germaine’s single season school record for passing yards. Terry McLaurin needs 52 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for his career.
We’re still waiting to hear who will start at field safety for the Buckeyes. Shaun Wade and Brendan White have been in competition all week for that spot. White was outstanding against Nebraska after Jordan Fuller was ejected for targeting. If Wade starts as he did last week, Meyer has said White will play. Wade started in place of the injured Isaiah Pryor. Pryor had started every game to that point, but his struggles have been well-documented. Eleven Warriors reported CFB Film Room pointed out Pryor has missed 36% of his tackles this season. Wow. I almost don’t know what to say to that. Awful is the word that comes to mind.
Ohio State Heisman winner Eddie George spoke out this week about the Buckeyes. He feels there is a certain amount of dysfunction, and things going on the public doesn’t know about. George said, “…something is not right. I can’t put my finger on it and I don’t know exactly what it is.” I’d say an awful lot of Buckeye fans agree with Eddie. I’ve said for about a month now there is just something wrong with this team.
Theirs And Mine
The College Football Playoff committee released their second set of rankings Tuesday night. There were no real surprises at the top as Alabama and Clemson maintained their positions from the previous week. Notre Dame and Michigan moved up to third and fourth respectively thanks to LSU’s loss to Alabama. Georgia is fifth, while Oklahoma, LSU, Washington State, WVU, and Ohio State round out the top 10.
Two things stand out to me immediately. First, jumping WVU up four spots after a win over two-loss Texas is ridiculous. What makes it more ridiculous is it was the Longhorns’ second loss in a row. The Mountaineer schedule is dotted with wins over mediocre teams. It can be argued their loss to Iowa State was to the best team they’ve played all season. Texas and Iowa State play this week, so that question will get answered. But, for a committee who constantly says it looks at the overall body of work of a team, they sure are putting a lot of stock into that win over Texas.
The second thing that caught my attention is the placement of LSU at seventh after being smacked by Alabama last week. Most agree a two-loss team can’t make the playoff. Want to think that one over? If the Tigers win out, and Michigan, Georgia, and Oklahoma all lose at some point, guess who will move into the number four spot? When you look at the schedules of the other three I mentioned, a loss is not out of the question. Michigan has the Buckeyes on the road yet, Georgia will most likely lose to Alabama in the SEC title game. Oklahoma still has in-state rival Oklahoma State, and the possibility of WVU twice if they meet in the Big XII championship, or WVU then Iowa State, or Texas in the conference championship. In the meantime, LSU will play Arkansas, who is awful, more-than-awful Rice, and end with Texas A&M. The committee has placed LSU in perfect position to make the playoff if the three teams in front of them lose any of their remaining games. When asked why the Tigers dropped only to seventh, committee chair Rob Mullens said the Tigers have beaten more top 25 teams than anyone. Yes, they have. BUT, they’re YOUR rankings. The rankings he’s referring to were created by the committee he leads. So, don’t give me this garbage about how many rated teams they’ve defeated. It is obvious the committee is trying to position two SEC teams to make the playoff again.
Mullens said OSU’s struggles with Nebraska is what kept them in tenth, and I have no problem with that. I think it is obvious the Buckeyes have a lot of work to do. The committee did them a favor by ranking Michigan State 18th. A win would be another feather in their cap, but I think the Buckeyes need to blowout both Michigan State and Maryland, beat Michigan, and then win by blowout in the Big Ten championship to have a shot at the playoff.
When all of this began a few years ago I hoped the playoff rankings would not be a beauty contest based on who looks good. Well, that’s exactly what it’s turned into, and I think it is only a matter of time before the pressure mounts from some heavy hitters to expand the playoff. By heavy hitters I mean the Big Ten and Pac 12. I really think that’s not too far away.
A few weeks ago I did my own rankings using a method based on the OHSAA’s Harbin rating system. My rankings are simply based on who a team has beaten, and who has that team beaten. It is not a beauty contest. I don’t care who looked pretty in winning. It is simply based on numbers. I ranked all teams with zero or one loss, plus LSU. Here are my rankings:
1. Notre Dame
9. Washington State
11. Ohio State
Before you throw something at your computer screen, or begin to write me a nasty comment, I wish the Buckeyes were higher. But, the bottom line is their defeated opponents simply have not won a lot of games. A win over Michigan State should push them ahead of Washington State and UCF, but there is a sizeable gap between the Buckeyes and the number four spot.
Keep in mind I do my ratings for fun. It is simply a different way to look at the situation.
A Personal Anniversary
Saturday marks the 39th anniversary of my high school alma mater’s 1979 undefeated season. It was a Martins Ferry team I was very much a part of; I was the starting fullback as a junior. We entered that Saturday afternoon game on November 10th as heavy favorites over arch-rival Bellaire, who had just a 3-4-2 record. For those who don’t know, the Martins Ferry Purple Riders and Bellaire Big Reds have one of the oldest rivalries in the state. On paper we should have won easily. But, when it’s a rivalry, and being played in ankle deep mud at their stadium, anything can happen, and pretty much did.
We struggled all afternoon to move the ball, and went to the half scoreless thanks to our safety Jimmy Johnson’s interceptions. Jimmy would pick off three passes that day including one in the end zone where he quite literally took the ball out of the Bellaire receiver’s hands. They had both jumped for the ball, and while still in the air, Jimmy took the ball away from him. It was an amazing play.
In the second half Bellaire finally got something going and took a 6-0 lead. When they intercepted a pass deep in their own territory very late in the game, it looked like our chance for an undefeated season had ended. Bellaire fans had pretty much started to celebrate, while some of the Purple Rider faithful began to quietly file out. But, our defense forced a three-and-out, and Bellaire lined up to punt. This set into motion one of the most memorable and improbable endings in Martins Ferry football history. Trust me, the school’s football history is a very long and storied one.
Bellaire set up to punt near their own end zone. Instead of taking a chance on a bad punt and giving us great field position, they chose to have the punter run out of the back of the end zone, and take a safety. That made the score 6-2. They got off a fairly decent free kick, but our returner fielded it cleanly, and took it across to their side of the 50 with just under a minute to play. We threw a short, quick pass to the near sideline to stop the clock on our first play. In the huddle quarterback Dennis Swearingen gave us the next play call: Rip Tailback Delay. “Rip” was the formation; simply an “I” with our slotback to the right; Tailback Delay is pretty self-explanatory. My assignment on the play was to block the defensive end on the right side, but when I got to the outside hip of our tackle, I found the Bellaire end was not rushing our quarterback. He, like the rest of the Big Reds’ defense was playing a loose, almost a prevent-type defense. Our tight end, Jeff Kepreos, who had lined up to on the left of the line of scrimmage, ran a very shallow crossing pattern in front of the Bellaire linebackers. Jeff was very tall, so when he began to wave his hands and call for the ball, he drew the attention of the entire Bellaire defense, who drifted to the right with him. About the time Jeff got to the middle of the defense, Jimmy Johnson, our tailback who had gone to the right with me and hid just to my inside, released to the inside and ran another shallow crossing route to the left underneath Jeff’s. Not a solitary Big Reds player paid him a bit of attention. Dennis hit him in stride, and since the play began on the right hash mark and the defense had flowed to that side with Jeff, Jimmy had wide open spaces in front of him. Jimmy Johnson was a speedster who ran for nearly 1,600 yards that season, and on a dry field he probably scores easily. But, a Big Reds player had an angle on him, and managed to pull him down inside the one-yard line with seconds remaining.
Our head coach, Dave Bruney, called a timeout to settle everyone down, and deliver the play call himself. None of us were surprised at what he decided on. “Regular 26” had been a short yardage staple all season. It was simply an off-tackle power play to the right out of the old full house formation; Jimmy would be the ball carrier. My job was to lead through the hole, and if the safety blitzed, I was to take him out. Our offensive line did a great job of opening just enough of a hole. As I looked up coming out of my stance I aimed for the first opposite colored jersey I could see.The Bellaire player I saw was a little high, so I aimed for the middle of his chest and drove through him. We both hit the ground, and for one split second I thought Jimmy had not gotten into the end zone. I had landed almost at the feet of one of the officials, and when I looked up I saw his arms raised above his head. It turned out Jimmy had easily made it across the goal line. That was about the time a wild celebration began. Sam Zavatsky added the extra point, and we
led 9-6 with just thirteen seconds remaining. Bellaire had one more chance, but fumbled the kickoff and we fell on it. When the clock ran out it touched off a an even wilder celebration. The school had its first undefeated season in 16 years. Undefeated seasons in Martins Ferry are celebrated immediately after the final game by a parade through town with the players loaded onto the fire trucks. For those who may be from bigger areas, yes it’s a small town celebration at its finest.
At school on Monday I had many teammates approach me and tell me about the block I threw on the game-winning touchdown. I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew I had done my job, and gotten a decent block. I just didn’t realize how well I’d done my job. Coach Dave was showing the film to the players during their study halls. After hearing about the block all morning, I finally got to see what happened early in the afternoon. As I said, the Bellaire player I was going to block came in a little high. I aimed for the middle of his chest and drove through him…and pancaked him flat onto his back. In the picture of the celebration at the top of this section, that’s me with my arms raised directly in the foreground. If you look on the ground to the left of the picture there is a Bellaire player just beginning to rise from his back. That is the safety I blocked.
While I don’t want to be known solely for something I did in high school, people still mention that team, that game, that play, and remember me as the guy who threw a good block on one of the most memorable plays in school history. And you know what? I have to be honest, I never get tired of it.
For those of you familiar with the story of that 1979 Martins Ferry-Bellaire game, I hope you learned a few things you may not have known. If you’re someone hearing of it for the first time, I hope you enjoyed my account of it. Sorry it was a little long. Enjoy the game everyone.