Hard To Look Away From (Un)Happy Valley By Jeff Rapp
There is actually an Ohio State football game this weekend. There really is. We’ll even talk about it tonight on “Bucksline.” I swear. But what is going on in State College, Pa., right now is so mesmerizing, so surreal, so sad and appalling, that it trumps the entire upcoming college football weekend – and much more than that.
Ohio State at Purdue on Saturday (noon Eastern, Big Ten Network) is important for the Buckeyes (6-3, 3-2). If they win they have set a course for true Big Ten title contention and big-time upcoming games with Penn State and Michigan.
But the OSU-Purdue contest on the surface wouldn’t have been worth more hype than Michigan State at Iowa, Michigan at Illinois or Nebraska at Penn State this weekend. And now we are left wondering what good really even will come out of the Nittany Lions’ final home game with Nebraska.
We know that Joe Paterno won’t be there as the head coach – he was fired Wednesday night by the school’s board of trustees along with university president Graham Spanier. Somehow that decision was met with disgust by the locals, who obviously still haven’t grasped the severity of the situation and are more worried about the legacy of a way-over-the-hill coach than they are the well-being of male victims that have alleged that Jerry Sandusky sexually abused them when they were as young as 8 and 10 years old.
Sandusky has been cuffed and taken away. His day in court will come – and it won’t be pretty. Two other men of prominence at the school, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, also have been indicted for a cover-up that I’m fearing we will find out is even worse than we now know.
I have followed this story, been absorbed by it, and, of course, been nauseated by it. I’ve read countless articles and columns, many of them superbly written as it was obvious in tone that the severely harmful reach of what Sandusky apparently struck those paid to cover and comment on these tragic events, just as it shookc the university and the general public.
I watched the live announcement last night in which one of Penn State’s top board members, U.S. Steel CEO John Surma, told the world that the president and the coach, despite his attempts to leave on his own terms, were being shown the door. You could hear an audible shock-filled groan when Surma said Paterno was out; not a bit of reaction on Spanier.
Then the whole decision allowed drunken students and dimwits to begin hitting the streets, flipping over news trucks and shouting about how unfair this all is to the 46-year living legend head coach.
It may seem that way if your brain is soaking in alcohol or you haven’t bothered to put any real thought into what an affront on humanity has occurred on campus, at the school’s football facility, in the showers there and God knows where else.
Should Joe Paterno be held at least partly responsible? Absolutely. He’s the head coach and he basically allowed these horrible crimes to continue by not doing more than merely tipping off the AD. No, we don’t know the whole story yet but it’s fairly safe to say that he, like his superiors, was more concerned with backlash, the program and school reputation than the victims.
The whole lot of them put brand identity before children – the safety, well-being and healthy future of children. It’s too despicable for words, even in the case of Paterno, who obviously has shown throughout his life that he’s a well-meaning man, a family man, and someone who values the development and education of young people.
He lost the privilege of deciding when he got to leave his post, how he was going to leave his post and how much more adoration he was going to soak in after announcing it. That went out the window with the recent chain of events – and it flitted away because his good friend and former defensive coordinator is clearly a predator and he either refused to believe it, covered it up or didn’t quite grasp the severity of his wreckage.
Saying Paterno may have been too old or too out of touch to really do anything is lame. Protecting that frailty and not allowing him to speak on the subject also is lame. He’s the head football coach at a major institution and gets paid handsomely for that responsibility.
He hasn’t been doing much recruiting for years. He hasn’t been yukking it up at alumni functions beyond a brief stop-by for years. He hasn’t even been a real functioning coach on the sideline for years.
He’s coached in 548 games, sharing an all-time record with Amos Alonzo Stagg, and has won 409 of them, passing by one the previous all-time record held by Eddie Robinson. Nobody is threatening to take any of those games away. The NCAA is not even involved in this case.
His legacy – like those of Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel and Bobby Knight if we really need an Ohio State tie here – is tarnished but his name will still be synonymous with incredible success and the positive effect on many, many lives. In other words, Joe Paterno will remain a beloved figure to Penn State fans and many others.
This is an 84-year-old coach who has been on the job since 1966 and has been deprived a chance to preside over four or maybe five more college football games. Is that really worth grabbing a tire iron and looking to smash in somebody’s car window?
Grow up, people, and try to help start the long, difficult healing process ahead.
And go ahead and beat Nebraska if you can because there is a team lurking in the Leaders Division.
By Jeff Rapp
While Buckeye Nation was rejoicing at the news that Ohio State head coach Luke Fickell was inserting hotshot freshman quarterback Braxton Miller into the starting lineup, Miller had a different reaction.
He told himself he had to work even harder.
Miller, though, seems to strike the right balance between serious preparation and on-field looseness and it all paid off as the frosh was a standout performer in OSU’s 37-17 win over Colorado Saturday before 105,096 fans at Ohio Stadium.
Senior Joe Bauserman, who started the first three games of the season, did appear as the Buckeyes (3-1) disposed of the Buffaloes (1-3). In fact, he looked comfortable as well, connecting on both pass attempts for 27 yards one week after going just 2 of 14 in the air in the 24-6 loss to Miami (Fla.).
But Sept. 24, 2011 clearly was the beginning of the Miller era. He was a modest 5 of 13 passing for 83 yards but fired a pair of scoring strikes to classmate Devin Smith and added the exact same number of yards on the ground. Even adding in the loss of 21 yards on three sacks, Miller had 83 yards rushing.
Not a bad day for someone who was carrying the weight of a troubled offense on his young shoulders.
Afterwards, however, Miller basically shrugged.
“Well, the guys kept talking to me to be out there, be comfortable, do what I do,” he said. “And I was excited to play.
“And I know we had to get a “W.” So I just had to do what I had to do, run the ball. And the offensive line did a really good job, receivers and running backs.”
Especially helpful was the play of another emerging star, tailback Jordan Hall. He more or less replicated his breakout performance of a week ago with 16 carries for 84 yards.
He also got the whole party started by returning the opening kickoff 45 yards, setting up a field-position advantage the Buckeyes would enjoy all day and enabling Miller to operate with a short field on the game’s first score – a 1-yard plunge by Hall.
The junior running back/returner also electrified the ’Shoe with a 90-yard kickoff return in the second half.
“I saw the lane to the right, hit the lane,” Hall said. “Kind of mad I didn’t finish it off, but we scored on the drive.”
Carlos Hyde, in fact, scored on the next play by sprinting to the pylon ahead of Buffalo defenders for a 5-yard touchdown run. That allowed the Buckeyes to take a 34-10 lead into the fourth quarter and in total control.
A good chunk of that score was built on the dominance of special teams. Not only was Hall a handful on kicking plays – he also had a 12-yard return on a punt and caused Colorado’s rugby style to backfire a couple other times – the Buckeyes got a gift field goal before halftime after recovering a muffed punt and also benefited from Drew Basil’s career-best three field goals. That effort included a 47-yarder, also a career high for Basil.
The effort on defense also was noteworthy as Colorado’s lethal passing game was stymied in the first half and the Buffaloes finished just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions. OSU safety Christian Bryant had a team-high six tackles in his first start as a Buckeye, Storm Klein added a sack, the secondary provided mostly sticky coverage and John Simon again led the charge up front with several pressures on QB Tyler Hansen.
But the day belonged mostly to Miller, who drew quick approval from teammates and fans and caused misery on the other sideline.
“I felt like our defense did a decent job but we did not tackle him,” Colorado head coach Jon Embree lamented. “He did a good job on eliminating losses where we should have had them for negative gains. We had shots but just couldn’t bring him to behind the line of scrimmage.”
Hall also was impressed.
“Braxton did a good job,” he said. “He was calm. He’s going to be special. You see how he makes people miss when the blocking breaks down, and he had some good passes that were missed.
“He was calm in the pocket. He controlled the huddle. And you don’t usually see that with a young quarterback. I just told him, ‘This is your huddle, so take over.’ He did a good job of that.”
Miller was able to elude defenders behind the line of scrimmage on several plays and often got a reactionary block from his linemen and tight ends.
“We a couple more pass protections that gave Braxton a chance at some step-up runs, which he did today,” tight end Reid Fragel said. “I thought he did a good job with that.”
When asked to assess Miller’s poise and decision making, Fickell said, “I thought it was good. I think the great thing is sometimes you take a couple shots and to see how you respond and get hit in the back and take a couple of runs. And to see how he handles those things, a dropped pass, different things like that.
“So I thought he did a great job. I thought all the guys on the sideline did a really good job. There’s a lot of guys around him that have played a lot of football, they’re going to help him out.”
Among those providing aid was All-American center Mike Brewster, who tried like Hall and others to keep his new QB at ease.
“I think it just shows how confident he is in his ability,” Brewster said. “And I need him to be relaxed out there and just play, how he has his whole life. And I think that’s what he did today.”
What Else Went Right
Miller is now the team catalyst but the turnaround from last week’s major missteps at Miami wasn’t merely the result of a personnel move. The Buckeyes new they needed an attitude adjustment as well.
“This whole week at practice we knew we had to change our attitudes,” fullback Zach Boren said. “We had to keep fighting. We wanted that to be our mentality.”
“We took a big step,” Brewster said with satisfaction. “It shows that after no matter what was said last week and no matter what happened, this team is going to keep fighting. I knew this team would bounce back.”
Much of the talk centered on playing quicker and with more purpose, and the defense looked a step faster all day as a result.
“One thing Coach Fick mentioned is we have to play with a lot of emotion, and that’s what guys were doing,” cornerback Travis Howard said. “Once you start getting your emotions going, you confidence goes up, and that’s what allows you to make plays and slows the game down.”
OSU had a staggering 27 missed tackles in the loss at Miami and addressed the issue all week in preparing for Colorado, which came in with more than 900 yards passing in three games.
“Last week we were flying around the ball but a lot of guys weren’t wrapping up,” Howard said. “This week, the whole mentality was to swarm the ball. If one guy missed it, another guy was going to be there to make the tackle.”
Added defensive lineman Adam Bellamy, who added a fumble recovery to the defensive effort, “This week in practice we put a big emphasis on keeping our knees bent and staying forward. We had to have a different mentality going into this week’s game. We had to learn from our mistakes and move forward.”
The coaches also saw they could get the game tilted in their favor with a couple big plays on special teams and stressed that aspect all week. Embree admitted his specialty units are littered with inexperienced players and that he had concerns entering the contest.
To the Buckeyes’ credit, they pounced.
“I think our number one thing going into this game was special units had to make plays,” Fickell said. “I mean, that was the top of the list, that had to come out with a good feeling there, that we did a good job there making some plays and trying to use that as a weapon.”
Colorado was particularly overmatched on kickoff returns as eight of them totaled just 101 yards. That combined with solid placement punting by OSU’s Ben Buchanan and a couple CU penalties pinned them into an average starting point of their own 18 on 12 offensive series. Conversely, OSU’s average field position was at the Colorado 47.
Smith was another bright spot. He had three catches for 64 yards and hauled in TD passes from Miller from 32 and 17 yards. He also had another acrobatic catch on the sideline that should have been ruled a reception. In fact, Fickell said he was tempted to challenge the call.
“This is what I envisioned for myself, making big catches and scoring touchdowns,” he said. “I had to come out and show I could be a big-time receiver.”
The confidence only swelled for the homestanding Buckeyes after they shut down Colorado in the first quarter and jumped out to a 17-0 lead. The week prior, the defense was gashed for from large gainers and OSU found itself in an early 14-0 hole at Miami.
“One of the keys this week was definitely starting fast,” Simon said. “We got a couple three-and-outs right off the bat. That helps us get situation a lot faster, helps our offense out.”
The defense also aided the cause by slowing down wide receiver Paul Richardson, who entered with 360 yards receiving on 18 catches. In their last appearance at Ohio Stadium, the OSU defenders struggled to contain Toledo wideout Eric Page, but Richardson managed only four catches for 38 yards. He arrived with an average of 20.0 yards per catch but didn’t have a play of that length against the Buckeyes.
Hansen finished with 238 yards in the air but didn’t get untracked until the fourth quarter.
“It was definitely satisfying,” Howard said. “We knew they had a nice passing attack and had a good receiver in Paul Richardson and we knew we had to go out there and basically shut him down.”
What Lies Ahead
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said the Buckeyes entirely in nickel and dime packages, a ploy that the team is likely use more of in Big Ten play and as the young defensive backs develop.
The strategy also allowed freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier to get more playing time. Shazier made a couple huge hits on special teams and also added to the defensive effort with five tackles.
“Ryan did a nice job today,” Heacock said. “He’s a good athlete. He can run around. And when we get into that nickel and dime situation, he’s a good guy to have on the field.”
Miller zipped his 32-yard scoring pass to Smith and showed off his arm strength on a couple other throws but he airmailed one touch pass on the move and also had trouble connecting early in the game.
The receivers continue to need lots of work. Verlon Reed struggled again to get open and Evan Spencer did not end up making a catch. In fact, the only other OSU receivers to record a reception in the game were Chris Fields and T.Y. Williams with one apiece. Williams juggled a toss from Bauserman but hung on for a 12-yard gain.
The Buckeyes showed more offensive capability but are nowhere near polished in the passing game with the Big Ten season beckoning.
“We’re good at running the ball, we know that,” Boren said after OSU amassed 226 yards on the ground against the Buffaloes. “We have a nasty offensive line that just has that attitude and has that edge and we have backs who are going to hit the hole fast and just get north-and-south with the ball. We know we can run the ball well and it’s about intertwining the pass and play-action and stuff like that.”
“Obviously the whole goal of an offense is to be balanced,” Fickell said. “I think that’s the number one most important thing. To me you don’t want to lead the nation in rushing, because if you lead the nation in rushing you probably can’t throw the football. If you lead the nation in passing, you probably don’t run the football too well. So we’ve got to continue to figure out how we can be a little bit more balanced in everything we do.”
It will help greatly, of course, to welcome back seniors DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and Mike Adams to the offense. They are multiyear starters at wide receiver, tailback and left tackle, respectively and will be done serving five-game suspensions at the end of next week.
Posey will be an immediate shot in the arm and Adams should reclaim his LT spot and allow more depth up front. Herron also is too talented not to mix in at tailback but he’ll have a lot of competition with Hall and Hyde playing well and Rod Smith and the speedy Jaamal Berry also available.
“We’re just going to feed off each other and just make the defense have to account for all of us,” Hall said. “I think when he gets back, it will definitely spark the offense even more.”
The veteran members of the defense also sense that there is tweaking ahead – and maybe even the addition of new looks and personnel groupings.
“We can always do things new,” Simon said. “We’ve got the best defensive coaching staff around and they are always game-planning for the opposition we are going to face.”
No matter what different forms the Buckeyes take, their task will be monumental. Contending for a seventh straight Big Ten title will require holding up against a ledger that includes dates with Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin in October alone.
It starts with a visit from the Spartans on Saturday (3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC or ESPN).
“We’ve got a tough schedule coming up but these early games have prepared us – great teams, great competition coming in,” Simon said. “We’re going to have to correct some things from today, them making plays and things like that because Michigan State will capitalize on that, but I think we’ll be ready on Saturday.”
OSU’s defense will be challenged once again with MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins triggering a balanced and physical offense.
“They’re a good offense,” Heacock said. “Anytime you face a senior quarterback, it’s tough. And they can run the ball and they’ve got a nice offensive line, a physical offensive line. But anytime you play them it’s going to be a bloodbath of a game.
“We’re going to have to be physical, we’re going to have to play hard and I think we’re going to have to make improvement.”
Howard said trying to win the Big Ten is now at the top of the to-do list.
“Most definitely it’s the goal,” he said. “Anytime you’re Ohio State, the goal is to win the Big Ten.”
“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” Brewster said of the MSU test. “If we can get this thing to 4-1 and then get the other guys back, I think it would be beautiful.”
Ohio State’s 42-0 destruction of Akron in Ohio Stadium on Saturday was as dominant as it appeared on the scoreboard.
The No. 18 Buckeyes (1-0) rolled up more than 500 yards of total offense, held Akron to under 100 and never were threatened in the coaching debut of Luke Fickell. The crowd of 105,001 braved a heat index that reached 100 degrees but those that stayed around saw about every positive for which any Buckeye fan could have hoped.
• Ohio State held Akron to 2 of 13 third-down conversions and that the hapless Zips managed just five first downs to OSU’s 27.
• Jake Stoneburner made the most of his four catches as he scored on three of the receptions, setting an OSU record for touchdown catches by a tight end.
• OSU racked up 24 yards on the ground while holding the Zips to a meager 1.3 yards per rush.
• The Buckeyes recorded 10 tackles-for-loss.
• The quarterbacks each performed well. Senior starter Joe Bauserman was 12 for 16 for 163 yards passing and three TDs. He also ran effectively out of the pocket with six carries for 32 net yards and another score. Freshman Braxton Miller connected on 8 of 12 passes for 130 yards and a TD to classmate Devin Smith and also had six rushes for 30 yards.
• Twenty different Buckeyes recorded at least one tackle. Linebacker Andrew Sweat led the charge with six stops and also recorded Ohio State’s only takeaway, an interception in which he had to tiptoe the sideline.
• Darryl Baldwin, Michael Bennett, Nate Ebner and Ryan Shazier each recorded their first career sack. Also, freshman wideout Evan Spencer made an amazing 33-yard catch with one hand to set up a score and Verlon Reed played well in his first start at wideout with three catches for 66 yards. T.Y. Williams, who had the dropsies throughout preseason camp, hauled in two passes for 34 yards.
• The defense pitched a shutout, marking just the second time an OSU team has done that on opening day since 1977.
A good use of the quarterback rotation? Check.
Youngsters getting used to playing on the big stage and proving they can contribute mightily? Check.
A continuance of the progam’s reliance on the defense? Check.
A focus necessary to block out all the distractions and roster setbacks heading in the season? Check.
Most fans and even pundits likely expected the first three happenings vs. Akron (0-1), a MAC doormat that was supremely ill-equipped offensively last year and finished 1-11.
It was the latter point that was in question thanks to a prolonged NCAA investigation, pending sanctions, the shocking loss of head coach Jim Tressel, the defenction of quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other bits of bad news and player ineligibility.
But the 38-year-old Fickell, a Columbus native and former OSU nose guard, told the media repeatedly in the days leading up to Saturday that his team would be ready.
“The reality of the day is we were excited, the whole team,” he said to reporters moments after the game. “To me that’s where our focus was about this whole team. I think they asked me afterwards is this finally after six months of all this stuff, is it finally … I said no, that’s not where our focus has been for six months. These guys have done a great job. Even with everything that's been outside and out and around us, they’ve done a really good job of focusing.”
On Thursday, everything appeared to be in place for the Buckeyes to take the field on the weekend and begin to wipe away the pain of the offseason as well as erode the doubt emanating from OSU’s detractors.
Then Fickell ominously said this: “This is the first time in a while that we haven’t been worried anybody summer-school-wise or with anything that can pop up.”
Sure enough, word came out later that day that the university was suspending three more players for the opener: starting tailback Jordan Hall, starting cornerback Travis Howard and backup safety Corey Brown. That development left the Buckeyes without their best cover man and with just two available tailbacks since Boom Herron is serving a five-game suspension and Jaamal Berry has a hamstring issue that could keep him out three weeks.
However, Dominic Clarke picked up the slack for the absent Howard by deflecting two pass attempts, including one on a deep ball that could have given Akron early life. Also, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith handled the ball-toting duties like veterans, combining for 167 yards on the ground while splitting the carries almost evenly.
Also, Bauserman played to an eye-opening level and other unproven Buckeyes met the challenge. But the day really belonged to Fickell.
When he was named Tressel’s successor in the summer he swore he wasn’t the storyline and he showed his humility and intent to merely guide the Buckeyes to a strong showing by his actions.
On game day, he fired up his players with an emotional pregame address, letting them know that this was no get-by game. During the action, he stuck to his rotations and exuded a confident and consistent sideline demeanor. Afterward, he talked passionately about the program but never crowed about what had been done or what lies ahead.
And Fickell also deserves credit for only tweaking his coaching staff, terminology, practice schedules and play calling. As far at the traditions that accompany game day, he saw no need for alteration other than to wear a Nike black pullover instead of Tressel’s famous sweater vest.
The team still trekked to the stadium together from its parking lot by the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and made sure to stop off at the Skull Session at St. John Arena, as is customary. The Best Damn Band In The Land still took the field in it’s normal fashion and displayed a tri-Script Ohio at halftime in conjunction with the Alumni Band.
We still witnessed the Hive and the running out of the tunnel, although former Buckeye John Hicks also organized a rare Tunnel of Pride of former players to add to that moment and show support of the team under its new management. And after pasting Akron, the Buckeyes congregated on the south end of the field and sang the alma mater just as they did throughout the Tressel era.
When asked on Thursday about those types of gameday procedures, Fickell assured they would remain intact, especially the last.
“My favorite Buckeye tradition is singing ‘Carmen, Ohio’ at the end of the game,” he said. “I don’t think I knew any words to it when I was here in school other than ‘O-HI-O’ and everyone of my kids can sing it from the time they were 4 years old on. It’s something I enjoy and like to do with my family.”
Sure enough, Fickell didn’t take the front row but sang the song with his wife, Amy, and their four children in the back of the group. Then it was time to head back up to the locker room and meet with reporters with a record of 1-0 as head coach.
But the truth is there wasn’t much that Fickell and the Buckeyes needed to say afterward. Their comments leading into the game and their result said enough.
When asked the week of the game if he would feel relief in finally coaching a game, Fickell said, “Well, yes, it’s a relief, but it’s excitement more than a relief. I don’t know that I’m that kind of guy that I ever say anything’s a relief. I’m never satisfied with what we’ve got and where we are at the time to be honest with you. Is it an excitement? I think that’s the way I’d categorize it. It’s an excitement for me and everyone one of our staff members.
“We’ve got a new guy that’s never coached in college football. We’ve got a guy in (receivers coach) Stan Drayton that has been around college football incredible amounts, but never been at Ohio State, grew up here. He had butterflies in his stomach. He told me the other day when we went in the stadium just for rehearsal.
So the excitement is the thing. I think every one of our players is the same way. However they want to categorize it, but I think the excitement, whether it’s the first game of the year, the adversity things, we’re going to look at it as an exciting time.”
After the team’s last practice before the media that closed preseason camp, Fickell spoke like a coach assured his team would be in the right frame of mind.
“I think just the continuity, the buying into what we’re focusing into – not that we weren’t always a team group, but I think with adversity and different things that happen it brings you tighter together,” he said. “That’s the one thing you can truly say: The effort level, the energy level, has been something that we’ve been excited about. On Sept. 3, we’ll see if it carries over.
“What do you have yet? We don’t know.”
Fickell also deflected the notion that he was giddy about his newfound position. When asked if he now felt like Ohio State’s head coach at the end of camp, he said, “I think I do. I don’t know. I don’t know what the head coach is supposed to feel like. If it’s something that much different, I’m not sure. You have a broader spectrum of worry, so to speak, but that’s just me by nature. I’m a guy who’s always looking at, ‘How can we get better?’ I’m not really ever satisfied with what we have.
“Our actions, our performance on Saturday afternoon, to me, is what we want people to talk about. Whether we talk about it after the game, we have to do those things. We understand that. But we’re hoping that our performance and our actions speak louder than what we say as words.”
It did, and it’s a credit to the players, the entire staff and their new boss. In the days leading up to the opener, the players’ intention to follow the teachings of Fickell was obvious.
“He’s an intense guy and he tries to simplify stuff for us,” offensive tackle J.B. Shugarts said. “He’s always talking about effort and turnovers and toughness, and that’s what we have to do. We’ve got to be tough and in everything we do we’ve got to show a lot of effort. And we can’t turn the ball over and the defense needs to create turnovers.”
The turnovers actually were a wash as Smith fumbled down in the red zone. That miscue and a missed field goal by Drew Basil kept the score from reaching 52-0 or worse.
But that only showed that the Buckeyes weren’t perfect and didn’t detract from a day that would have garnered an A on anyone’s grade card.
Considering all that this program has endured in the months leading up to the game and that the coach was heading into it without any relative experience under the big headset, that grade might even deserve a plus next to it.
“I think sometimes the first week is the hardest because you’ve gone through camp, you’ve gone through this first game week and you’ve been waiting for quite some time to play against somebody else,” Fickell said on Thursday. “These guys are excited. They’re extremely excited. With all the other things that have gone on, they’re excited to go out and perform.”
And perform they did.