Not Time To Panic Just Yet
September 14, 2011
After Ohio State running back Rod Smith fumbled with 3:08 left in
the Buckeyes’ battle with Toledo Saturday at Ohio Stadium, I put the
tweet out there, basically saying the Rockets were 72 yards away from
They almost pulled it off, driving as close as the Ohio State 16-yard line until UT quarterback Terrance Owens’
fourth-down pass sailed harmlessly to the ground, allowing OSU to
celebrate and its fans to finally heave a collective sigh of relief.
But after the Buckeyes’ very narrow 27-22 win, you could feel the panic
setting in for OSU followers. The grumbling continued and even the blame
game arose: first-year head coach Luke Fickell is in over his head, the offensive line is terrible, they have given up on Braxton Miller, the NCAA is the cause, the suspended players are ruining the program, this team ha no talent, etc.
I heard several calls to that effect while doing the WTVN postgame show with host Matt McCoy and I’ve read myriad social media postings that confirm the panic.
Ohio State almost lost to an in-state school for the first time since
1921. That’s an indisputable fact. And this was anything but pretty. The
Buckeyes averaged just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, hit very few big
plays, failed to contain 180-pound wideout Eric Page, allowed a blocked punt and benefited mightily from 14 – yes, 14 – Toledo penalties compared to their two.
Also, Miller, the freshman sensation, stayed glued to the bench while starting QB Joe Bauserman sailed passes out of bounds repeatedly after finding no one open.
And yet here is my statement: This is a good win.
Stay with me now.
Under the circumstances and given the apparent fact – despite erroneous
Buckeye Nation sentiment – that this is a very good Toledo team – Ohio
State simply needed to survive, and its fans are going to have to accept
While some concerns arose during the game – and since this is an Off The Ledge column – I’ll dare to point out the positives.
1. Toledo is legit.
The Rockets are not your normal MAC fodder. In fact, they may be the
best team from that league I’ve seen come into Ohio Stadium. Remember,
that the Buckeyes needed a 55-yard field goal from Mike Nugent to
beat Marshall, were in a couple dogfights at the Horeseshoe with
Bowling Green and also had a hard time slowing down Kent State might
mite Joshua Cribbs.
The MAC always has NFL players, up-and-coming coaches (two of recent
years just did battle in the Michigan-Notre Dame game), and the
advantage of being undersold and undervalued by fans.
The Buckeyes, though, knew they weren’t getting a light touch and if anything respected the Rockets too much.
“They’re a great offense with a great O-line, and with the great skill
position players they have we knew they were going to make some plays,”
OSU defensive end John Simon said. “We just had to try our best to do whatever we could to slow them down, and I think we did a nice job.”
The Rockets bring tons of pressure on defense, have dangerous special
teams led by the return capabilities of Page and are well-oiled on
offense. The line and tight ends are big and experienced. Page is a game
breaker. Tailback Adonis Thomas is coming off a 1,000-yard season and is a Doak Walker candidate.
Toledo not only is the envy of the MAC, it’s a likely bowl team that could very well go on to win 10 games this season.
“The coaches told us all week that this is one of Toledo’s best teams,
it’s a senior-driven group and they’re going to be prepared for us,”
senior center Mike Brewster said. “A couple of our old coaches are over there and they know how we do things.”
Fickell sensed that UT head coach Tim Beckman would have the
proper game plan and that the Rockets could score some points, and he
stayed conservative for that reason. After the game, he and Beckman
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Fickell said afterward. “We’re
excited about how the guys fought, how they battled, and how they kept
their chins up. This team has been through adversity and will continue
to be through adversity, but that is how you challenge yourself to get
Even young receiver Verlon Reed seemed to understand the significance.
“We’re not going to take anything for granted – no matter who it’s
against, no matter what the point spread is,” said Reed, a Columbus
native very well aware of the constant lofty expectations for the
Buckeyes. “We didn’t take them lightly at all. (The fans) probably did,
but we can’t go off of what everyone else thinks. All of those guys in
the locker room knew what to expect because of who we were playing
2. Don’t assume Miller has disappeared.
Fickell needed a game manager, not a risk taker, to take down Toledo.
Even though fans could barely hold their breath at the end, the ploy
Bauserman still isn’t experienced enough to handle lots of checkdowns –
his totals of 16 completions and 30 attempts were career highs – but he
was better equipped to pick up UT’s blitzes and no when to get rid of
the ball. Fans booed No. 14 when he completed passes to band members and
sideline markers but he was never sacked and never intercepted. And he
still managed to hit eight different receivers for positive yardage.
The players who trekked to the postgame interview room, including
Bauserman, all said they expected Miller to also play. So it is possible
Fickell had an ulterior motive for leaving the youngster on the
sideline. But it’s much more likely that Fickell wanted to keep the
competition level high during the week, so he never declared that Miller
And in future weeks, maybe even in the next game at Miami, Miller could emerge again. In fact, I’m pretty sure of that.
3. The shrinking roster can’t be downplayed.
With several key players suspended for the first five games of the
season and others lost for the first game or two, the attrition is
taking a toll.
Fickell and the coaching staff have repeated the mantra “next man up”
throughout preseason camp and the first two weeks of the season. The
players have taken that message to heart, but the truth is this team
isn’t anywhere near full strength.
“We’re not going to dwell on it,” Fickell said afterward. “We’re not
going to look at that. We never feel sorry for ourselves. We’re not
looking for pity. The next guy’s got to step up. That’s what we said on
the sideline. Adversity is going to happen whether it’s a situation off
the field or on the field.”
That’s the proper answer, of course. Fickell can’t condemn his players
for making excuses if he goes to the podium and starts bellyaching about
the program’s misfortune and the assault on the two-deep.
In fact, he didn’t even bother to point out that he lost the services of running back Jordan Hall, cornerback Travis Howard and safety Corey Brown on the eve of the game for the second straight week thanks to NCAA meddling.
Hall would have helped the offense as a pass-catching threat out of the
backfield and by squeezing into small openings much the way Thomas did
for Toledo. Howard is the team’s best cover corner and would have been
assigned to Page. Brown is a reserve who was coming off an impressive
preseason and would have helped the depth in the secondary.
The coaching staff wasn’t aware of the potential of losing that trio
until hours before the opener with Akron and Fickell pronounced them as
able to play last week only to get more bad news on Friday.
Even while the game with Toledo unfolded, The Associated Press broke a story quoting athletic director Gene Smith on the matter. In it, the AD said the case could drag on.
“No, I’m not confident,” Smith told the AP when asked if the three
players were sure to be reinstated in time for the Miami game. “We do
have to provide some more information to the NCAA. We’ll start that
process tomorrow. We’ve got some meetings tomorrow and Monday, and we’ll
get them the additional information they want and then go from there.”
And so it goes for a Buckeye team that can't seem to rid itself of
off-the-field issues. As OSU’s shortcomings became noticeable against
the Rockets, I could only wonder how much better the offense would have
looked with Boom Herron and Hall taking handoffs, Mike Adams anchoring the end of the offensive line and DeVier Posey running routes and getting open for Bauserman. And while I had those thoughts, Philly Brown got hurt and could be out for extended time.
4. The running game is very likely to improve.
For reasons just given, the quality of the ball carriers will go up when
Hall and, eventually, Herron return. Hall brings a dimension that,
quite frankly, Carlos Hyde and Smith can’t. Jaamal Berry
is trying to heal a hamstring and also is a changeup back with speed.
But Herron is clearly the best of this bunch and the one who will
reinvigorate this offense.
Hall should be back and Berry appears to be on the right path, although leg injuries can be tricky.
Plus, the offensive line will get key reserve Corey Linsley back for Miami. And fans need to remember that Andrew Norwell is trying to play the toughest position on the field, left tackle, while Adams is out and that guards Marcus Hall and Jack Mewhort are just getting into their roles.
“We’ve got two newer guys inside plus Norwell,” Brewster said. “It’s
only their second game starting and they’re doing a hell of a job. We’re
just going to keep getting better.”
It also should be pointed out that OSU’s lack of a reliable running game
against UT may have been more from the coaching staff’s stubbornness to
keep it conservative rather than ineptitude of the offensive line.
“There were a lot of guys in the box, a lot of movement,” Brewster said. “It makes it challenging sometimes.”
Lastly, Smith suffered his second key fumble in as many weeks but he’s
in good company with players who had inauspicious starts to their
careers. In fact, Fickell said the door of opportunity and production is
still wide open for Smith.
“I’m not down on Rod,” he said. “He obviously knows he’s got to get
better. He’s going to be hard on himself, and that’s what you want to
make sure he understands.
“I came up and reminded him of a guy that I played with that fumbled a
few times as a young guy, and people were on him hard. He was on
himself hard. But that guy was one of the toughest guys I ever saw, and
hardest working guys I ever saw here.
Fickell was talking about Eddie George.
5. The Buckeyes won the game. It’s a simple statement but vastly important one.
This is a young team with lots of players in new roles and feeling
increased responsibility. The defense, for example, features lots of new
faces – and none of them have the words Heyward, Larimore, Rolle,
Homan, Chekwa, Torrence or Hines on the backs of their jerseys.
Etienne Sabino, for example, came through with eight tackles, three for loss, and several important plays.
“It felt great helping this team,” he said. “All I’m worried about is
winning and it felt great being out there making plays like that. And
it’s always fun when you win. Regardless of what the score is, a W is a
Meanwhile, Simon proved he is a major difference-maker. When on the
field he managed to either disrupt the offense or draw lots of extra
attention. When he missed a couple series with an injury, the void was
obvious. When he returned to the field, he made key plays on the final
stand including pressure on Owens’ fourth-down incompletion.
“It was huge to get him back on the field,” Sabino said. “Without him it would have been a completely different game.”
With the game hanging in the balance after Smith’s fumble, the coaches
huddled up the defense and gave very basic instruction to keep players
confident. The overriding message: Keep the Rockets out of the end zone.
“It was real simple, just make sure we didn’t let them score,” said safety Orhian Johnson,
who logged a game-high nine tackles. “They could catch the ball but as
long as they stayed outside of the end zone, we felt comfortable.”
Johnson said some of that comfort came from the coaches simulating
must-stop possessions for the defense in practice. Still, the Buckeyes
are learning what it takes in the real arena on the fly.
The same goes for the offense. That unit had the ball on its own 25 with
5:45 remaining and was on its way to melting the clock and/or tacking
on a score when Smith fumbled. In fact, on second-and-10 from the OSU 36
and the Toledo defense creeping up, offensive coordinator Jim Bollman called for a pass play and Bauserman calmly found freshman Devin Smith for a 31-yard reception.
6. The close shave should help, not hurt, OSU’s chances in Week 3. The head coach hammered that point after the game and the players parroted it.
“I think and I hope that this is what’s going to make us better, all of
this adversity, all of these different things that happened,” Fickell
said. It does nothing but makes you stronger as long as you handle it
the right way.”
Added Brewster, “If you’ve got two blowouts in a row and then the third
game is a close one on the road, you might freak out and who knows what
will happen. It’s just more adversity that we have to go through.
Nothing new to us.”