Rant – 2015 Buckeye season, cut Zeke some slack

Courtesy of Flickr Creative commons
Courtesy of Flickr Creative commons
For the last few weeks, as playoff rankings came out, as I looked at other top teams, I found myself thinking “Alabama is playing the best football.” I thought about the prospect of Ohio State having a rematch with the Crimson Tide and thought “I don’t think this team can beat them, not the way Derrick Henry runs.” Because Ohio State has been awful on the run defense this year. We saw it again on Saturday, against what’s a fairly average running game in Michigan State, playing power football, they were able to dominant Ohio State up front.

Throughout these underwhelming losses, we would hear “well we have a great defense.” But Buckeye fans can compare to previous teams. 1996. 1998. 2002. 2005. Those were great defenses. This was a good pass defense that struggled to tackle powerful running backs. And they never really improved on that.

But not improving has been the hallmark of this entire season.

I’d hear former Buckeyes in the media in Columbus saying after the third game, fourth game, fifth game, “the team is ahead of where they were at this time last year.” And I always thought “what team are they watching?”

After the Virginia Tech loss last year, OSU got better every week. They put up 50 or more points in the next four consecutive games (a mark they’ve still yet to hit this season…and I’m going to go out on a limb and they they’re not going to hit this season).

That to me is the difference between last year’s team and this year’s team. Last year, they got better and better and better until they ended this season as the best team in the country. This year, they might be just the third best team in the Big Ten East. Last year, a young and porous offensive line wound up as one of the strengths of the team. An inexperienced quarterback became part of the Heisman conversation. This year, they didn’t get better. The issues with the offensive line, the run defense, the passing game have consistently struggled. We’ve seen a lack of discipline. We’ve seen offensive play calling that was chronically unwilling to be introspective and learn from failure. 

I think most Buckeye fans watched this team and kept thinking “next week.” There was always the hope after one lackluster game that they would finally start clicking. And they never did. The closest they came was their win over a bad Rutgers team. But we always had hope that the next game would finally show a glimpse of the past. It’s basically the same group who won the first ever college football playoff 10 and a half months ago. They never did put it together though. Going into the Michigan State game, I was naive enough to think “this week, they’ll turn it on.” But that was wishful thinking because a team needs to be improving throughout a season, not suddenly picking up lost ground.

Ohio State had more talent than Michigan State in that game. That I do not doubt. That’s not to take away from Michigan State, because they played with more heart. Heart beats talent. On the last drive of the game, OSU’s defense needed to get a stop. The Spartans weren’t yet in field goal range, they were going to have to fight for the yards. It was to be a battle of wills. And the Buckeye defense again responded with poor tackling.

To be fair, the offense didn’t do them any favors. I’m sure the defense was physically exhausted with as much time as they spent on the field, largely perpetuated by the lack of production of the Buckeye offense. But with the season on the line, in a game that, frankly, shouldn’t have even been tied, OSU still had a chance. Just needed to get a stop and to see what could have happened in overtime.

And they didn’t get the job done

Ohio State was lucky Michigan State turned the ball over twice, otherwise I’m not sure the Bucks would have scored. That’s not being overly dramatic. That’s simply looking at what the offense did during the rest of the game.

Michigan State, in many ways, was like Ohio State this season: unimpressive. The weakness of their defense had been the secondary. I’m sure that it partially was a result of weather, but OSU decided not to attack the secondary. Late in the first half, they threw deep to Braxton Miller. The pass Barrett and Miller didn’t connect, but it showed potential as Miller was wide open. But OSU showed hesitance to try airing it out…

Until.

The last drive of the game. Backed up on their own 7, it was pretty obvious Ohio State wasn’t going to suddenly turn it on. But what they desperately needed was a couple of first downs to help with field position so they wouldn’t be giving Michigan State the ball at midfield. But they threw on first down. They ran up the middle for basically nothing on second down.

People always say you shouldn’t second guess the coaches.

But if you had asked observant Buckeye fans “what would be a foolish play to run here on third down,” I feel like 99% of us would have said “Why, running Braxton around the edge on a play that OSU has insisted on going to every game this year, multiple times a game, and that has consistently done nothing, and that never fools anyone.”

And what does OSU run?

Braxton on the edge.

And thus ended the offensive day for Ohio State, and a second half where one of the best running backs in America touched the ball twice.

And after all of that, after the worst offensive performance in Urban Meyer’s career, I later found myself not caring that Zeke was critical of the play calling. When the play calling was a joke for eleven games. Maybe it wasn’t the best form, but so what. He’s saying what any fan who knows anything about football can clearly see.

It’s not a matter of hindsight.

It’s a matter of watching the game and seeing the same types of plays failing over and over and over again and never making adjustments. How you can play the whole game and apparently not even have plays in your arsenal to establish some sort of a power running game makes no sense. And it will cost OSU again late in the season if they don’t change that. They play in the midwest. You can pretty much count on having a game every year where it’s going to be nasty weather and where you are going to need to be able to line it up and run your opponent over. JT Barrett is a very effective runner but it has to be on the option and in misdirection. It can’t be continually giving him the ball on designed quarterback runs, not against a good run defense who’s loading the box. JT is shifty but he’s not going to run a guy over. And that’s what you need in that situation.

Buckeye fans are frustrated with this team because we thought it could be one of the all time great Buckeye teams. The offense should have been a sports car but it sputtered like a Chevette. We see the talent, we know what guys are capable of, and it never worked well. We can justify how OSU could beat this team or that, but in your heart of hearts, when you compare them to other Buckeye teams of the last 20 years, this team is not elite.

I’ve heard some Buckeye fans desperately trying to come up with scenarios for OSU to get into the playoff, or potentially justifying them getting into the playoff without winning the Big Ten (which I can tell you right now, without winning the league, this team is NOT getting into the playoff. Frankly, they don’t deserve it). If Michigan State were to lose, and OSU win the last two games, and Notre Dame lose, then OSU would probably get back into the playoff. But frankly, they’ve never played like one of the four best teams. Like Florida State last year, OSU was always able to keep riding the wave from the previous season, despite not being as good.

So when Ohio State lost this weekend, I was certainly disappointed. Wanted them to win that game, and the next two and go into the playoffs, where anything could happen (still a faint possibility). But part of me feels like this team got what’s been coming to them all season.

I was at the Big Ten Championship in 2013 when Ohio State lost to Michigan State, knocking OSU out of playing Florida State in the national championship. Again, clearly a disappointment. That was a very good Michigan State team (I’d say better than the Michigan State team OSU lost to this weekend). But I honestly never thought that was the best team in the country that year. They were horrible on defense, which they would later show in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson.<

I was at the Big Ten Championship in 2014 when Ohio State had one of the most amazing victories I had ever seen. It wasn't just that they won, I expected a win, but it was how they won, dominating Wisconsin in every way possible, trouncing them 59-0. Last year, as OSU continued to improve, I thought they were good enough to beat any team in the country. It would have been very disappointing had they not made the playoff. This year, it's just not as disappointing because it's not a great team. I think it stings more when you think your team is the best. But these Buckeyes aren't. They never showed it. I see Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson, and Ohio State's rivals all playing better football right now.

I've heard some Buckeye haters ask if the program is unraveling. No. They'll get these things figured out. Maybe not in time for next week, but they'll do some soul-searching in the off-season and hopefully come back hungry in 2016. I think that they will make adjustments. It seems that one of them might need to be at offensive coordinator. As frustrating as this season has been, it's still a fairly young team and they have recruited well.

Urban Meyer is one of the greatest coaches of all time. His winning percentage? He's like Knute Rockne. And Buckeye fans know that. But they can't have an offense that's going to be this lackluster again next season. I'm confident they won't.

Much has been said about the departure of offensive coordinator Tom Herman and star wide receiver Devon Smith. Herman is a great coach who was instrumental in the title run last year. But before working with him, Urban had still won two national championships. But they do need to revisit playcalling duties for next season. Ed Warriner has been a great offensive line coach at Ohio State, but co-coordinating the offense and coaching the line resulted in a mediocre line and a poor offense. Last year, OSU had four new starters on the line. This year, they returned four.

Tom Herman did do a great job with the offense but it’s not like he did it with a bunch of scrubs. He had great talent to work with, and most of this talent remained on the offense this year. It’s like the coordinators didn’t know how to utilize what they had. We saw Braxton Miller have Xbox type touchdown in the first game of the season. We saw what could be. But then they never figured out how to utilize him in the offense.

jrb

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