A no-frills blog dedicated to Ohio State football, the Michigan rivalry,
and the ongoing melodrama that is life in the Big Ten.

View video of "That State Up North"

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Three Points and a Cloud of Rust

There’s a lot that I don’t understand. Dark matter. The existence of the platypus. America’s fascination with Chihuahuas. But what has me most stumped lately is this: How can an offense that returns ten starters and features two of the nation’s top three freshman recruits be so completely impotent?

In three of its seven games so far, Ohio State has failed to score a single offensive touchdown in the first half. Twice, the drought has extended throughout the entire game. When this happens against USC, it is simply embarrassing. When it happens against Purdue, it’s beyond embarrassing and becomes actually impressive in an odds-defying way: sort of like throwing a rock at the ocean and missing. This is not how one gets back into the national conversation.

I’m sorry, did I say national conversation? How about the Big Ten conversation? Two weeks ago, Ohio State beat Wisconsin 20-17 in what the media—a little prematurely, it would seem—dubbed Terrelle Pryor’s coming of age party. One week later, the Bucks had to rely on three field goals and a returned blocked punt to put up 16 points against Purdue. A victory? Yes. Impressive? No. Especially when you consider that, on the same day, Penn State throttled Wisconsin 48-7. And you can bet those 48 points didn’t come from 16 field goals.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Penn State game isn’t for another two weeks. In the meantime, we get to travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) and runningback Javon Ringer, the Big Ten’s leading rusher and a name on everyone’s Heisman short list. I have great respect for the Buckeye defense, which is finally starting to gel again, and for our special teams, which came up big last week, but not for a minute do I think we’ll beat Michigan State and Penn State with a nifty combination of field goals and blocked punts. Though I’d like to try it, so long as we’re using Chihuahuas instead of footballs.

So here’s my advice to Buckeye offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and crew: figure out a red zone offense. Here’s a hint: it starts with the offensive line—the same offensive line that failed to show up in the past two national title games, and now gets manhandled by teams like the Ohio Bobcats. Pryor may be more mobile than Boeckman, but he won’t pass any better when the pocket routinely collapses around him; all he can do is make the play last a little longer and look more athletic getting sacked. So I say again: figure it out. You’ve got one week to do it, and all the talent in the world.

And once you’ve got the offense back on track, maybe you can start helping me with dark matter.

Who’s Helping? / Who’s Screwing Us Over?

Speaking of helping (or not), I had a realization last Saturday, somewhere between my 8th and 9th straight hour on the couch. As all feeling slowly drained out of my left leg and drool began its long, slow journey down my chin, I realized that any college football game not featuring Ohio State is only interesting to me for its potential impact on Ohio State’s season. In short, the Buckeyes are the center of my college football universe, the raison d’etre for my interest in the sport. And in that spirit, I present: Who’s Helping? / Who’s Screwing Us Over?

Who’s Helping? Minnesota, you perky gopher, you. You’re 6-1. You beat Illinois last week. That’s great! It makes Ohio State’s throttling of your squad two weeks ago look a lot more impressive. Keep it up! Though I would note that, when the Buckeyes are looking to the Gophers to beef up their resume, these are not the best of times.

Who’s Screwing Us Over? Michigan, you three-legged weasel. How about a little consistency one way or the other? Don’t come back from a 19-point deficit to beat Wisconsin (a ranked team at the time), and then lose to Toledo for the first time ever two weeks later. It cheapens the experience for all of us who beat Wisconsin this year. If you’re going to roll over and die, then do so, and keep your head down until next season. Once you’ve lost to a 1-4 MAC team, any Big Ten victory you get the rest of the year only makes the conference look weaker.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Genius of Potterville

It’s here. The big game. The one that fans, pundits, and Carson Palmer have been longing for since January. The one that pits Ohio State and USC, two juggernauts of the college football world, the two most dominant programs of the past decade, head to head to decide who has the inside track to this year’s national title game.

For Ohio State, expectations have never been lower. It seems the Buckeyes, aided considerably by their Big Ten brethren, have successfully underwhelmed the nation.

Let’s recap.

First, there were those past two national title games. (Sample SEC joke: “What do the Buckeyes and marijuana have in common?” Answer: “They both get smoked in bowls.”)

Then the new season started. Week One saw impressive Big Ten victories over seven YMCA-sponsored flag football teams, while the conference went 0-3 in the only games that mattered. (Note: this disappointment brought to you by Juice Williams and two teams from a certain State Up North, as if we needed more reasons to be bitter.) And if that wasn’t enough, even the Buckeyes’ stomping of Youngstown State took on a sour taste when Beanie Wells went down with what I’m sure SEC fans are calling a stubbed toe.

Week Two would get no better. In a dazzling display of mediocrity, Ohio State edged out the mighty Ohio Bobcats in a game designed, we can only hope, to boost Beanie’s spirits by showing him just how bad the team would be without him. Sort of like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life", but instead of ending up in Potterville the Buckeyes end up third in the MAC.

Predictably, the media took note. The Buckeyes, despite winning their first two games, dropped in the polls both weeks. That’s hard to do. They were second. Then third. Now they’re fifth, and from what I can tell, lucky to be there. USC meanwhile played one game, dominated a BCS opponent (Wait, wait, wait, don’t say it’s only Virginia. Remember, we almost lost to Ohio.), and rose to the top of the rankings. Then they had a week off, allowing their quarterback, who threw for something like 10,000 yards in the opener, to get back to full health. As a result, about four people outside of Columbus now expect Ohio State to beat USC Saturday. Which can mean only one thing:

Jim Tressel is a genius.

Think about it. How silent he’s been on the status of Beanie’s injury. How last week he kept the score close enough to plausibly keep Terrelle Pryor on the bench for most of the game. How he “suspended” starting cornerback Donald Washington for the first two games. Clearly, Jim Tressel asked himself: “How can I keep a terrific coach like Pete Carroll from accurately scouting my players?” And came up with the only possible answer: “I’ll only play some of ’em. Heh, heh.”

Yes, you heard it here first. Jim Tressel is playing the ultimate mind game. All out psychological warfare. A deft manipulation of information that makes Karl Rove look like a simple, lumpy-headed schoolboy. Brilliant. No one would expect such tactics from Senator Tressel, which means it’s the perfect plan…and the only explanation that makes sense. After all, a team that went to a national championship last year, returned 19 out of 22 starters, and picked up the fourth best recruiting class in the nation can’t be that bad, right?


I guess we’ll just have to tune in Saturday to find out. The good news is the Buckeyes have lowered expectations to the point where they can’t lose either way. Which, I suppose, makes Jim Tressel an even greater genius.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Week One Primer: Hey Old Ball Coach, Over Here!

So it’s the opening night of college football and I find myself sitting on my couch rooting for NC State, a team I don’t remotely care about, to beat the crap out of South Carolina, a team I also don’t care about other than the fact that they’re in the SEC. And I realize what an insecure Big Ten fan I’ve become.

In the rational side of my brain, I realize this is not the SEC’s fault, though I still would like to see Steve Spurrier lose his opener and be mooned by insolent teenagers on his way home. No, I know it’s the Big Ten’s fault. Forget the biased commentators, forget the fact that the Big Ten is actually 3-3 in bowl games against the SEC over the last two years. Perception is reality, and with a handful of old-fashioned floggings on the big stage recently, perception of the Big Ten is, shall we say, not good. One might even say Bush-like.

With that in mind, it’s time to turn that perception around, and what better time to start than on the first week of the season. As excited as I am about Ohio State’s opener against Youngstown State on Saturday, a win over the I-AA Penguins probably isn’t going to do the trick. So here’s a list of other games Buckeye fans should care about this week:

Illinois v. Missouri
This is arguably the highest profile game of the week, pitting 6th ranked Missouri against 20th ranked Illinois. As hard as it is for Buckeye fans to root for Juice Williams after last year, may I suggest sucking it up. It’s good for the Big Ten, and therefore good for Ohio State, if Illinois wins. When Ohio State travels to Illinois in November to exact revenge for last year’s loss, I don’t want to hear Mark May talking about how Illinois is a glorified Pee Wee team with no quality wins.

Michigan State v. Cal
Although neither team is ranked, this is a great Big Ten-Pac-10 match-up. Despite the fact that USC has won every Pac-10 title since the flush toilet was invented, and despite the fact that last year’s upset of USC by Stanford—a team in its own conference—was hailed as one of the biggest upsets of all time (a statement meant to imply how horrible, how impossibly bereft of talent Stanford is), the conference is still considered deeper than the Big Ten. So a Michigan State win here would be nice.

Michigan v. Utah
Remember how good you felt last year when Michigan got beat by a I-AA team whose mascot was the albino from Deliverance? How loud you cheered? And then how much it sucked for the rest of the season as every announcer pointed to that game as the perfect example of just how much the Big Ten blows? Well, don’t wish for that again. The announcers are already talking about a possible upset by Utah. Heck, Michigan’s only picked by three. And if that doesn’t resonate, let me remind you that Utah finished third in the Mountain West Conference last year…right behind Air Force. That’s how far Michigan has fallen. And though I know it goes against every instinct in your body, trust me, we want—we need—Michigan to win. For those of you who just can’t bring yourselves to wish for anything but pain and humiliation for the Wolverines, I refer you to my postings from last October: “Go Blue? A Guide to Unconventional Cheering” (Parts One and Two). Read it. It will help you through the hurting.

Oh, and by the way, that game I was watching? South Carolina won. Big. It seems the SEC isn’t going to implode, meaning it’s all the more urgent that the Big Ten start taking matters into its own hands. Though it’s not too late for some insolent teenagers to give the Old Ball Coach a little surprise on his way home.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Down and Out in Ann Arbor

Ah, the off-season. It’s been four months since the last devastating bowl defeat. Four to go before we can vent our frustration on a Division I-AA team in the season opener. So how can a Buckeye fan find comfort in the meantime?

By reflecting on how much Ohio State is kicking Michigan’s off-season ass. Consider:

After flirting with the Wolverines, toying with the media, and leading his high school to state titles in both football and basketball, Terrelle Pryor, perhaps the most touted high school recruit of all time, signed with the Buckeyes in March. This gave Ohio State two of the nation’s top three recruits, according to Rivals.com, and catapulted the Buckeyes’ overall recruiting class to 4th best in the nation. And remember, this is a recruiting class that will join a team of seasoned veterans. A team that lost only three starters from last year’s squad. A team that returns a Butkus Award winner, a Heisman hopeful, and a veteran quarterback. A team coached by a man in a sweater vest.

And Michigan? Well, they lost pretty much everything that mattered: their starting quarterback, their back-up quarterback, their top offensive lineman, their top linebacker, both top receivers, and their combination running back/court jester. Gone also is their long-time coach…and their ability to get media coverage about anything but their new coach’s pending lawsuits.

Then, just when the future looked about as bleak as it could get for the Wolverine nation, the unthinkable happened:

A defection.

The sort of slap in the face typically reserved for dejected, out-of-touch Communist nations.

Citing an erosion of family values (something else Michigan has apparently lost in the off-season), sophomore offensive lineman Justin Boren quit Michigan in March only to sign last week with Ohio State. Boren was on full-scholarship at Michigan. According to NCAA rules, he must pay to attend Ohio State. He’s coming anyway. When Boren suits up in fall of 2009, he will be the first player to have donned both the maize and blue and the scarlet and gray since before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

These are times that try a Wolverine’s soul.

It must be tempting for a Michigan fan to try to explain the Boren defection away: “Ah, he’s just a whiny kid who didn’t like the new coach so he left. He’s a quitter.” “He wants to be closer to mommy and daddy in Pickerington.” “He was tired of being downwind of Flint.”

I must admit, I thought of these possibilities myself. The Flint theory seemed particularly sound. But then I heard West Virginia quarterback Pat White interviewed on ESPN’s College Football Live. He was asked how spring practice was going under new coach Bill Stewart now that Rodriguez had left. White’s answer:

It’s pretty much the same, except with less cursing.

And so the questions linger: Is there anyone at West Virginia who misses Rodriguez? Is there anyone at Michigan who’s glad he came? Will there be anyone left to wear those stupid helmets in the fall? If not, will Ohio State still find a way to lose in November?

These are questions to ponder. Later.

For now, let’s just enjoy our off-season supremacy. And the fact that our team has nothing in common with Cuba.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Putting the “Toledo” Back in the Game

Let me start by saying that, as a rational human being, I know there’s not much that could be done to improve college football’s greatest rivalry. ESPN weighed in a few years back on the matter, calling Ohio State vs. Michigan the best rivalry ever…in all of sport. What more is there to say?

Well, it’s the off-season, and I’m bored. And when I’m bored, I tend to think, whether I like it or not. And sometimes, those thoughts take me down dangerous paths, paths that leave one muttering in dark corners asking the absurd questions of madmen. Questions like: What does a rivalry that isn’t missing anything really need to make it even… wholer?

And one knows he has penetrated too far into the darkness when he can claim, without hesitation, that he has discovered the answer.

Which in this case is: more Toledo.

That’s right, I think the time has come for Buckeyes and Wolverines alike to get back to the roots of our loathing, and remember why we really hate one another. And for that, we have to thank Toledo—or, more accurately, an 8-mile wide swath of land stretching across northwestern Ohio known as the Toledo Strip.

The Toledo Strip owes its existence to a lavish ignorance of geography. Had GPS been perfected a few years earlier—let’s call it two centuries—the Strip would have never come to be, and college football would be all the poorer for it. In a nutshell, the story goes like this:

When Ohio became a state in 1803, its politicians set its northern boundary according to the dictates of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which called for the boundary to follow a line running east from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Great, so long as one knows where the southern tip of Lake Michigan is. Fortunately, Ohio didn’t, and proceeded to draw the line too far to the north. At this time, as there were only about three people living in Michigan—which was not even technically a territory yet, let alone a state—no one really complained.

A few years later, though, once a few more people moved out (I think Lloyd Carr was there) and Michigan started to think about applying for statehood, its politicians decided to re-survey the line. By this time, it was well-known just how far south Lake Michigan extended, and so they drew the line as it had been intended by the Northwest Ordinance—a little further south than the Ohio line.

So now both Ohio and Michigan claimed the land in between the two lines, which happened to include the valuable Maumee River flowing into Lake Erie, where the port city of Toledo was starting to thrive. The disputed area became known as the Toledo Strip, and gave rise to a series of comic events now known as the Toledo War.

Ohio would block Michigan’s bid for statehood on grounds of the disputed territory, and in 1835 both Ohio and Michigan would call out their respective militias which, depending on the version one reads, either got lost in swamps and couldn’t find one another or did find each other but spent the encounter lined up some distance apart so they could appropriately taunt one another—sort of like Mike Hart at the fifty-yard line before a game. Eventually, both governments passed laws forbidding the people living in the Toledo Strip to submit to the authority of the other government—an act which would ultimately lead to the war’s one casualty: When a Michigan sheriff tried to arrest an Ohio militiaman named Major Stickney, the sheriff would be stabbed in the leg by Stickney’s second son, a man named—and I’m not making this up—Two.

Buckeyes lead 1-0. (Or should I say: Two-0?)

Ultimately, the War would end when President Andrew Jackson, got involved. Many third party politicians—Jackson’s own Attorney General and former president John Quincy Adams, among them—felt like the law lay in Michigan’s favor. Luckily for Ohio, Jackson was never a president who needed to be guided by things like laws. (Think: Trail of Tears.) What Jackson thought ran something along these lines: “Hmmm. Got an election coming up. Ohio, a state, has lots of votes. Michigan, a territory, has none.”

Thus, in order to become a state, Michigan had to cede the Toledo Strip, though they did get a large portion of the Upper Peninsula as compensation. In other words, they got copper and iron deposits and a national park, and Ohio got a city affectionately referred to as the armpit of the Midwest, a baseball team named the Mudhens, and an area of its state where one can still find at least as many Wolverine sweatshirts as Buckeye sweatshirts today.

Ohio 1, Michigan 1. No offense, Toledo.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider the impact such a rich, divisive history has on our current rivalry. Is it possible that we have the greatest rivalry in college football because it sprang from such a pure, honest loathing over something tangible that only one of us could have? Consider that most other rivalries, especially intrastate rivalries like Indiana-Purdue, Oregon-Oregon State or USC-UCLA, are only justified by a cheap Hollywood western, this-town-ain’t-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us kind of mentality and one begins to realize that what Michigan and Ohio have is a special kind of hatred reserved only for the most worthy of adversaries.

Which leads me back to my original thought: that we need to somehow preserve that history, that root of our loathing, that Toledo-ness in the rivalry today. Embed it in the very fabric of the game to minimize the possibility that future generations of Buckeyes and Wolverines will ever start getting along, and will instead whisper to each successive generation with their dying breath: “Remember the Toledo Strip!”

There are lots of ways to accomplish this. While the game currently gets rotated between Ann Arbor and Columbus, every third year it could be held in a northwestern Ohio swamp. Or perhaps we could add some appropriate terminology to the game: Instead of referring to the fifty-yard line, how much more fun would it be to hear an announcer say: “Boeckman hands off to Beanie, who carries it across the Toledo Strip and into Michigan territory.” Or: “What a hit by Laurinaitis! Holy Toledo! Mike Hart’s going to feel that in the morning.”

Heck, the game itself could be referred to as the Toledo War. And, come to think of it, why stop there?

Other college rivals play for some tangible trophy each year: Minnesota and Wisconsin go after Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Oregon and Oregon State play for the Platypus Trophy (combination of Duck and Beaver), heck, even Appalachian State plays Western Carolina for the Old Mountain Jug. Yet Ohio State and Michigan currently play for nothing but pride.

Well, I say let’s put it all at stake, every year, just like it was in 1835. We have the greatest rivalry, the greatest origins, why shouldn’t we have the greatest stakes?

From now on, each year, the loser gets Toledo.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Selling the Drama: The Terrelle Pryor Story

We’re nearly a week past national signing day, and recruiting wars have reached fever pitch. Rich Rodriguez has been busy luring away prized recruits who had already verbally committed elsewhere, proving once again that a new day has dawned in Ann Arbor. (For details, see a piping mad Joe Tiller of Purdue.) Jim Tressel has been busy assuring his recruits that the letters many of them received saying their scholarships had been revoked were actually fake and that, yes indeed, Ohio State would still like them to play. (Can somebody get a penmanship sample from Rodriguez?)

But for hype, potential impact and comic relief, no recruiting story can touch the ongoing saga that is Terrelle Pryor.

For those of you living in caves and ditches, Pryor is this season’s uber-recruit: a dual threat quarterback out of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, who has been rated the nation’s number one high school player, hailed as the next Vince Young, and is probably, as I write, making a list of products he’d like to endorse when he goes pro in a couple of years. Pryor was set to sign with Ohio State last Wednesday, but put off the decision at the last minute to consider other options: options that include Penn State, Oregon, and a certain school up north. With this in mind, I have a suggestion for Jim Tressel:

Show up at Pryor’s house with a copy of Forbes’ recently released list of America’s Most Miserable Cities and a map. The pitch would go something like this:

See number one on that list, Terrelle, the most miserable place in America? That’s right, Detroit. Now, see number three on that list, the place only a little less miserable than Detroit? Yep, Flint. What do these cities have in common besides violent crime, joblessness and toxic waste?

They’re both less than an hour from Ann Arbor.

Now let’s get you fitted for that Buckeye jersey.

Of course, this assumes Ohio State still wants Pryor. I’m not about to suggest the Bucks pass on the next Vince Young, but I do think before we hang our hopes on one player’s shoulders we would do well to remember that those shoulders belong to an 18-year old kid—a kid who, like all kids, comes with a bit of uncertainty, as his signing day surprise revealed. One has to ask: is his decision to delay signing an honest attempt to review his options or a calculated publicity stunt? Is Pryor a dedicated team player or a punk prima donna? The next Vince Young or the next Maurice Clarett?

The answer is hard to pin down, even for Pryor it seems. In an interview on signing day, Pryor described himself as a shy kid who doesn’t like the spotlight. Moments later, when asked what he liked best about the recruiting process, he replied: “Everyone knowing my name.”


Pryor is either a master of irony or totally confused. Or maybe just an 18-year old kid still getting used to the limelight.

The good news is, no matter what Pryor decides, the Buckeyes have already garnered college football’s ninth best recruiting class, a class currently anchored by the nation’s third ranked player, offensive lineman Mike Adams. Of course, with Pryor, the Bucks would have two out of the top three recruits, and the possibility of a dual threat, two quarterback rotation next year surrounded by top flight receivers, a powerful line, a runningback already on the short list for next year’s Heisman, and a defense anchored by the returning Butkus award winner. Without Pryor, we’ll have all of the above, except the dual threat QB will be named Antonio Henton.

So make your choice, Terrelle: do you want a shot at a national title next year with the nation’s top offensive lineman blocking for you, or do you want proximity to toxic waste?

The Buckeyes will be okay either way.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Note to Readers

Throughout the height of the off-season, I will add new postings to this site on a more or less bi-weekly, rather than weekly, basis. Look for a new update next week, and many thanks for your continued readership.

In the meantime, as college football headlines continue to be dominated by the ongoing saga of Coach Springer-Rodriguez (the latest involves calls by Rodgriguez to make West Virginia University fundraising records public), my last posting—found below—remains as relevant as anything new I could write. Unfortunately.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Coach Springer Show

There’s a foul stench drifting down from Ann Arbor these days, and it has nothing to do with nearby Detroit. Take a deep breath. Can you smell it? It’s dirty laundry. Ripe, stinking, lost-in-the-back-of-your-locker dirty laundry. And it’s making me sick.

When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez to be its next coach, we all knew big changes were afoot, though we expected them to revolve around the spread offense. Instead, we got the Jerry Springer Show.

In less than a month as coach, Rodriguez has managed to bring more melodrama to Ann Arbor than Gary Moeller after three cocktails. The headlines are relentless, and have nothing to do with football. I’ve now read more than I care to about bad blood between Rodriguez and his former university, the meddling (or not) of West Virginia’s governor in the affair, lawsuits over buyout clauses, and recently released email squabbling between the university and Rodriguez’s agent.

Rodriguez’s agent? Here’s a challenge, Michigan fans: name a story—any story at all—in the last thirteen years that discussed Lloyd Carr’s agent.

Yes, things have changed in Ann Arbor.

As a Buckeye fan, I view these changes with a sad and wary eye. In the long, storied history of our rivalry with Michigan, we’re used to having coaches on both sides focus on just two things: honoring tradition and winning football games. Sure, there are occasional controversies. Sometimes a player just needs to get in a bar fight or solicit a prostitute after class. Sometimes a spectator feels the urge to light an opponent’s car on fire. These things happen in a sport featuring prima donna athletes and lunatic fans. But our coaches? They remain above the fray.

I can think of two exceptions, and both led to the termination of the coaches involved: Gary Moeller nipping a little too much grandma’s cough medicine and chewing out a cop, and Woody Hayes punching a kid in the throat. Okay, that last one was pretty bad, but at least Woody was trying to fire up his team when it happened. If anything, he went down because he loved the game too much.

What’s at the heart of the Rodriguez controversy? Money and power struggles. Petty things. Things that sound ugly and out of place for a man now serving as custodian of one of the nation’s greatest football traditions.

To be fair, all of the controversy stems from Rodriguez’s tenure at West Virginia, and has nothing to do with his new job at Michigan. Nor is he necessarily to blame for all the bad press. For all I know, West Virginia is run by crazy, spiteful, petty people who just want to bring a good man down and will conjure up any story to do it, knowing the press will leap on it like a Michael Vick pit bull on a three-legged cat. That’s beside the point. The stories are out there, and they’re distracting.

Where are the stories about what Rodriguez is doing at Michigan? How is he building his team to replace the enormous loss of talent to the NFL? How is he reaching out to returning players? How will he tweak both his program and his offense to get the best fit? How is he endearing himself to the Wolverine nation?

Unfortunately, only one article concerning Rodriguez’s actual job in Ann Arbor has made headlines. Know what it was about?

His salary.

So now, all we really know about Rich Rodriguez as head coach of Michigan is that for the next six years he’ll be making $2.5 million per year—a million more than Carr, who maybe should have had a better agent.

That’s some really expensive laundry to have stinking up the back of a locker. I hope someone gets that cleaned up real fast.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Return of the Little Animal

Upon learning that James Laurinaitis would return to Ohio State for his senior season, I involuntarily let fly into the ether: “O-H!” Rising out of the stench of stale beer on High Street, 400 miles away, came the reply: “I-O!” All across the land, Buckeye nuts flung themselves from tree limbs, rolling shamelessly through the streets hoping to be gathered up and made into tacky necklaces before next August. Somewhere in Columbus, a small child knelt at his bedside, clasped his hands together, and prayed: “God Bless the Little Animal.”

Yes, we’re all excited to have ol’ number 33 back. The news that the 2006 Nagurski Award winner and 2007 Butkus Award winner will be suiting up again next year was exactly the jolt needed to shake off the funk lingering from yet another bowl game humiliation, and set the Buckeye nation dreaming once more of glory, perhaps even another shot at redemption. But before the band strikes up Carmen Ohio, I just have to ask: “James, what the hell are you thinking?”

Let me explain my position here, and know that you’re hearing this from a former high school administrator, someone who values education very, very, very much: any player who can leave college early as a first-round draft pick—particularly an early first round pick as Laurinaitis has been projected—should.

My argument: One can always go back and get a college degree, but one has only a small window of opportunity to play in the NFL. And the monetary reward for playing in the NFL is very big. And the reality of it happening hinges on something very small—about the size of a knee or ankle.

Worst-case scenario for a top prospect entering the draft: Get signed for millions of dollars, sustain a career-ending injury the first week of practice, still collect a large portion of your money because your contract has certain guarantees, and with that large portion—which I should emphasize is very large—go back and finish college, which you’ll drive to each day in your Hummer from your enormous house.

Worst-case scenario for a top prospect staying in college one more year to get his degree: Sustain a career-ending injury at some point during your senior season, thereby ensuring you don’t get a dime—not one—for your enormous talent, a turn of events that rocks your world, nay your very existence, and will haunt you for the rest of your life as you think about what could have been. But hey, at least you’ll have that degree in interdisciplinary studies to fall back on.

“But wait,” a purist protests, “What about goals like wanting to lead your team to a national championship? You can’t put a price tag on that.”

That’s true, you can’t. Nor can you guarantee that it will happen.

Have we learned nothing from Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Jake Long? They returned to Michigan for their senior season, anchoring what was expected to be one of the nation’s most potent offenses, with three goals in mind: beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, and winning a national championship. They accomplished none of these. Instead, they opened their season as the victims of the biggest upset of all time and followed that up, in the case of Henne and Hart, by getting hurt. Not only did their goals go unfulfilled, they likely actually lowered their stock for the NFL draft. And they were lucky. If the injuries they sustained had been worse, they wouldn’t be getting drafted at all.

I’m not saying that the Buckeyes are going to flop next year, or that Laurinaitis will get hurt. I’m just saying we don’t know what’s going to happen, though after winning the Butkus Award this year and setting the record for tackles in the National Championship game, it's hard to imagine what he can do next year, short of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to make his stock any higher than it is at this moment.

Anyway you slice it, coming back is a risk, and a big one at that. One can only assume that Laurinaitis has thought it all through, weighed the pros and cons as I’ve done, and somehow determined that leading the Buckeyes for another season is a risk worth taking.

For that, you have to love the guy even more.

God bless the Little Animal.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Ah, the Irony

Well, it’s official. The Buckeyes are slow.

Of course, such a label has little to do with foot speed. Beanie Wells showed he could run with anyone when he sprinted 65-yards to paydirt on the first drive of the game. No, the Buckeyes aren’t slow on foot. They’re just a little slow in the head.

In last year’s title game, they showcased this stunning lack of wit by injuring their own star during an end zone celebration. How would they top such a performance in this year’s title game? By making sure they gave LSU as many free yards as possible—and at the most critical of moments. Brilliant.

When Ohio State committed two personal fouls in the span of three plays, giving LSU thirty bonus yards on the Tiger’s way to their first touchdown, well, I thought that was a special case of the stupid. But such a display seemed minor league in comparison to the dimwitted grandeur exhibited in the third quarter by Buckeye defender Austin Spitler, who roughed the punter on 4th and 23 to give new life to a stalled LSU drive.

“You think that was stupid?” teammate Cameron Heyward seemed to say. “Watch this.”

Heyward’s personal foul on the very next play moved LSU across midfield. Thirty seconds later the Tigers would be celebrating in the endzone. You just can’t script that kind of dumb.

As a direct result of Ohio State’s disciplinary letdowns, LSU scored fourteen points—the exact margin of victory in the ballgame. When one considers the timing of the infractions and the shifts of momentum that resulted, the difference was likely larger still. Consider:

The meltdown in the second quarter came when the Buckeyes still led 10-3. LSU went on to score on that drive, and never trailed again. The Spitler/Heyward debacle came on the opening drive of the second half, with LSU leading by 14. Instead of Ohio State getting the ball back early in the quarter with a chance to cut the lead to seven, LSU burned more time off the clock and increased the lead to 21, making it a three possession ballgame. Can I nominate that for a Pontiac Game Changing Performance? Such numbskullery would have to at least put us in the running for the $100,000 prize.

And the mental lapses didn’t seem to be confined to just the players. Am I the only one who wondered why Wells, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry and ran over LSU defenders like a teenage driver jumping speed bumps in the school parking lot (did you see that stiff-arm?), only carried the ball 20 times in the game? Were Buckeye coaches not aware that everyone from Les Miles to Urban Meyer to Kirk Herbstreit said that containing Wells had to be LSU’s main priority? McFadden ran the ball 32 times in Arkansas’s defeat of LSU. Wells ran the ball 39 times against Michigan. Both gained over 200 yards in their respective efforts. Why limit Wells to 20 carries in the title game, especially when LSU was failing to stop him? I’m no offensive coordinator. Just a very confused fan.

Of course, the end result was that the Buckeyes lost—handily—again. Whether their own gaffes or LSU’s prowess were the reason hardly matters. The announcers were already singing the old, tiresome tunes near the game’s end: “Ohio State receivers aren’t fast enough to get open.” “Ohio State’s line is being dominated by LSU’s faster, stronger line.” Well, maybe. Buckeye fans probably see it differently, recalling dropped passes in the endzone, silly missed tackles and a lot of knuckleheaded penalties instead. But for the next eight months, when we hear every sports analyst talking about how the Buckeyes aren’t fast enough to compete, we’d do well to just stay quiet and nod our heads in understanding. Maybe even offer up an ironic smile.

Better to let them think we’re slow than stupid.

Note (and slight change of tone):

After the game, Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline said he wished he could get every Buckeye fan into one room so that the team could apologize to us all. This struck me.

Brian, you don’t need to apologize to us. This was a rebuilding year. You made it to the national championship game, something nobody thought would happen (and critics will continue to say shouldn’t have happened). Regardless, you exceeded expectations just by getting there—and this in a year when other teams, who now claim they should have been playing for the championship instead, didn’t take care of business in the regular season to be in that position. Does this expose potential flaws in the BCS system? Probably. But those people need to blame the system, not the Buckeyes.

For Buckeye fans, our disappointment is simply two-fold: 1) The loss comes on the heels of last year’s much more embarrassing and inexcusable defeat, and 2) it always hurts more when stupid mistakes contribute to the loss—as I believe I adequately vented in my posting above. But you’ll be back next year, and older, and hopefully a little wiser. And you’ll likely have another crack at the national championship. There’ll be a lot of grumbling about that in the sports world. Expect it, and don’t try to refute it, except on the field. But you don’t need to apologize to Buckeye fans. We’ll still be cheering like mad. Like I said: we’re all a little slow in the head.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dear Buckeyes: Your bid for respect has been postponed.

Well, tickle me blue. The Gators got beat by a Big Ten team. And by a Big Ten team that got beat by Appalachian State, no less. Can we forget that one now?

It’s not often Ohio State fans get to celebrate a Michigan victory, but it would be a cold-hearted Buckeye who didn't feel a warm, fuzzy glow watching Michigan players hoist Lloyd Carr onto their shoulders after the Capital One Bowl. Good for Lloyd for going out on top. Good for Chad Henne for having the game of his career and leading his fellow seniors to their first bowl victory. And good for Mike Hart for seizing the opportunity to make a giant ass out of himself one last time on national television. Who but Hart could offer such a rich display of chest pounding, muscle flexing and smack talking on his way to two goal line fumbles? Brilliant. Had Michigan lost, Hart would have been the reason. As it is, he’s the reason they didn’t win by more. Well done.

Of course, any Big Ten celebrations were somewhat tempered by the game that came next: a 32-point emasculation of Illinois by USC in the Rose Bowl. No one really expected Illinois to win this game, but we did hope they would at least show up. I swear I haven’t seen a Big Ten team look that helpless since…uhh…last January’s national title game.

But really, where was the Illini team that beat Ohio State in November? Where was the Juice Williams who ran at will against the Buckeye defense? I think I know what football analysts Mark May and Dan Wetzel would say: “Right there on the field, getting trounced by USC.” And they wouldn’t be alone. For much of the college football world, the Rose Bowl—and later Georgia’s fleecing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl—proved that next week’s BCS title game is just that: a “BCS” title game. No matter who wins between LSU and Ohio State, people are already speculating that either USC or Georgia may top the final AP poll. Buckeye fans, you had to see this coming.

So just what is Ohio State playing for at this point?

A national title, certainly. No matter what, a victory places the Buckeyes number one in the final BCS, and a convincing win just might keep us atop the AP, as well—though with plenty of grumbling.

But how about earning respect back for the Big Ten? Well, with the Penn State, Purdue, and Michigan wins, a Buckeye victory would bring the Big Ten to a solid 4-4 in bowl games, proving that we’re not an awful conference…just mediocre.

How about at least getting a little revenge on the SEC? Sure, I’d never overlook the satisfying, wonderfully petty feeling of revenge as motivation, and I would hope that Big Ten victories over Florida and LSU—two teams who supposedly challenge light itself in the speed category—would finally debunk the myth that the Big Ten is full of slow, plodding plough horses. Though those same victories would also seemingly reinforce the belief that the conference really is just a two-horse race, regardless of whether they're plough horses or thoroughbreds.

So what does this all mean? It means that next week the Buckeyes will be playing for, well, for the Buckeyes. A victory gets us a national title, a very drunk city of Columbus, and an eight-month reprieve, if not outright respect, from football critics.

The bid for outright respect has now been moved to the USC game next fall.