Ohio State will conclude its regular season in Ann Arbor and await its bowl game nomination shortly thereafter. Ohio State, for all intents and purposes, removed itself from the B1G TEN Championship Game when it decided to lose to Purdue in West Lafayette. While not officially official then, Wisconsin’s victory over Illinois in Champaign sealed the Buckeyes’ fate. If Ohio State plays football in December, it will be at a lower tier bowl near the end of the month and not in Indianapolis at the beginning of the month.
Ohio State is in an unfamiliar position for the season-ending game. It is actually an 8.5 point dog to the hosting Wolvereenies. This is not because of a talent gap between the two programs. If anything, Ohio State has the better talent at its disposal. The problem is entirely the use of that talent. Even the departure of such big time stars should not have put the Buckeyes in this position. If a talent gap exists in favor of Ohio State, a coaching gap clearly exists in favor of the Wolvereenies. The team Brady Hoke has this year is almost the same team Rich Rodriguez had last year. The difference? Greg Mattison. And I have certainly taken notice.
With that in mind, it’ll be useful to reintroduce you to a lot of familiar names on this team. You’ve seen them before, but you haven’t seen them playing at this capacity in some time.
That Team Up North’s Offense
It’s basically Denard Robinson‘s (#16) show now. Robinson debuted as a true freshman alongside fellow true freshman in Tate Forcier, who won the September Heisman and was almost never heard from again. Robinson’s improvement within Rich Rodriguez’ system earned him the lion’s share of playing time last year in 2010, consigning Forcier to the change of pace quarterback that Robinson was in 2009. Forcier subsequently transferred to San Jose State and Robinson is the focal point of the offense once more. That said, he has increasingly shared snaps with Devin Gardner (#7). Gardner is a sophomore who appeared in three contests last year. Rodriguez wanted to try to convert that into a redshirt year because of a “sore back”, though that never came to fruition. Gardner is 11/23 on the season for 176 yards (1 TD/1 INT).
The offense the Wolvereenies run now is very different from Rodriguez’ spread and shred offense that is en route to Tucson, Arizona. Al Borges is fundamentally a West Coast offense guy, even contributing to a video series on coaching the ideal West Coast quarterback. He has tried to shoehorn Robinson into the West Coast offense at times (the Michigan State game comes to mind), but has been smart enough to adapt the offense to suit Robinson’s strengths. That’s good, because Robinson’s strengths are clearly not throwing the football. Far be it from the Ohio State fan to make this critique, but TTUN’s passing offense is fairly bad (91st nationally) and I think Robinson’s development as a quarterback has plateaued. He is the same quarterback he was last year. He still throws off his back foot. He still makes terrible reads. His first instinct is to use his feet to make plays. He hasn’t grown, literally, in the past year to give him a better sight of the field, providing incentives to think with his feet first. But credit goes to Al Borges. He knows this and the Wolvereenies’ bread and butter continues to be running the ball and Robinson is still the team’s leading rusher. That Team Up North is 12th nationally in rushing.
One surprising development for this year has been at tailback. Under Rodriguez, the Wolvereenies lacked a quality tailback to be an additional focal point of a run-first offense. Brandon Minor was the tailback through 2009, and Vincent Smith (#2) had 600 yards in rushing in 2010. The story this year: Fitzgerald Toussaint (#28). Toussaint is a 5’11, 190lb redshirt sophomore and, really, considered a bit of a throwaway recruit coming out of Liberty High School in Youngstown, Ohio. The rankings were there, but the offer sheet really wasn’t. No matter, Toussaint has burst on the scene in his third year in the program, totaling 811 yards and 7 TDs on 143 carries. He has also caught on fire (though not literally) in three of his last four games. Though limited to 58 yards on 16 carries in the road loss to Iowa, he had superb games against Purdue (20 carries, 170 yards, 2 TDs), Illinois (27 carries, 192 yards, 1 TD), and last week against Bo Nebrasky (29 carries, 138 yards, 2 TDs). There is no better time to turn it on than in November and Toussaint has done exactly that.
The offensive line remains basically unchanged from last year. Out: Stephen Schilling at left guard. He graduated and is now on the Chargers’ practice squad. In: Mike Schofield (#75). Everyone else returns from last year, including senior center David Molk (#50), the only senior on the squad. The one I like on that unit — and the one that got away from St. Francis DeSales in Columbus — is Patrick Omameh (#65). He was the subject of a very late recruiting battle in the 2008 class. Ohio State offered him (I think) in large part because they didn’t want him to head north. They might have been prescient at the time since he grades out very highly. Book ends are Taylor Lewan (#77) and Mark Huyge (#72). Lewan grades as the second best offensive lineman on the team, at least per Brian Cook‘s excellent UFR metrics.
Again, Ohio State fans are in no position to go neener-neener when discussing That Team Up North’s meek passing offense, but it does underscore that Robinson is not now — nor will he ever be, it seems — what Borges would want in a quarterback. The passing offense has also taken a step back from 2010 to 2011, going from 36th nationally (250.2 ypg) in 2010 to 91st nationally in 2011 (189.3 ypg). Their fans won’t mind the transition — which starts from the playbook — because of the wins, but it’s worth noting. Leading receiver is Junior Hemingway (#21), who has 29 catches for 554 yards and a TD. Since I like depressing you all, remember when I mentioned this last week?
Penn Shtate’s wide receivers might be comparably frustrated with quarterback play as Ohio State, but their production far exceeds the production from Ohio State’s young, green wide receivers this year. For example, team receptions leader for the past three years, Derek Moye (#6), has 34 receptions for 592 yards on the season. Devin Smith, Verlon Reed, Philly Brown and Chris Fields have 38 receptions for 593 yards combined. Basically, the leading receiver on Penn Shtate’s 87th ranked passing offense with its two idiot quarterbacks is as productive as the collective efforts of our top four wide receivers this season, in spite of Moye missing games against Purdue and Nerdwestern this season.
Well, the leading receiver of That Team Up North’s 91st ranked passing offense is as productive as just the three leading receivers on Ohio State’s squad (33 catches, 530 yards), though that does include Stoneburner’s 7 touchdowns and Devin Smith’s 4 TD grabs.1 Other receivers include Jeremy Gallon (#10) and Roy Roundtree (#12). Kevin Koger (#86), much like last year, can get down the field and, with three TDs on the year, is a red zone option. However, he assists more in blocking.
That Team Up North’s Defense
Has Greg Mattison put the B1G TEN on notice? I think so. I knew he’d be great; I just didn’t anticipate him being a miracle worker. In spite of retaining much of the same talent as his predecessor, Mattison has turned the 110th ranked total defense from last year into the 14th ranked total defense of this year. It almost cost him the game against Notre Dame when the Irish got what it thought would be the game-winning touchdown, but that play call on defense — the one that assumed he still had Ed Reed when, in fact, he had Jordan Kovacs — lets me know he’s going to be a terror in the future. Once he gets the personnel he wants? Oh dear. And don’t underestimate how easy it will be to recruit kids for that scheme.
What makes the turnaround for the Wolvereenies that much more miraculous is that it’s still a team without linebackers and with a meek secondary. It’s still comprised of GERG’s players. It tries to compensate for this deficiency by playing with abandon (e.g. that defensive play call against Notre Dame), and relying on its defensive line. Mattison has ditched GERG’s 3-3-5 Ticklebear Defense in lieu of a more traditional 4-3 under, with a nickel package contingent on the opposing offense’s scheme. The player to watch is Mike Martin (#68). As I mentioned last year, Martin is the type of player Jim Heacock would like for his defensive line. He is physical and creates hell for opposing centers. Mike Brewster has lost his rhythm as a senior. However, if he can handle Martin up front, Ohio State’s grade school offense is going to gain traction. In spite of being fairly stout overall, the Wolvereenies can be run on (41st nationally in rush defense, 128.6 ypg). If Martin is going to be a terror this game, Ohio State might score 6 points this whole game.
That Team Up North’s other base defensive linemen include defensive ends Ryan Van Bergen (#53) and Craig Roh (#88). Both Van Bergen and Roh are 1 and 2 on the team in TFLs, with Van Bergen tallying 10.0 TFLs for the season and Roh adding 8.0 TFLs himself. In addition, both Van Bergen and Roh are 1 and 2 on the team in sacks, having 4.5 and 4.0 respectively. It’s generally nice when you can have both defensive ends lead your team in these categories, but recall just how unexceptional the back seven are for Greg Mattison. While Van Bergen and Roh lead the team in these categories, That Team Up North is 36th nationally in sacks and 71st nationally in TFLs. It does speak considerably to what Greg Mattison has done, though. The last base 4-3 lineman is Will Heininger (#39), a redshirt senior from local Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. Heininger is the new face to the defensive line, an addition made by Mattison, who, you might recall, humorously noted that the Wolvereenies will have four down linemen for every play even if he has to hobble out to the field and be the fourth.
Linebackers in Mattison’s 4-3 are a big ball of meh, but that’s largely because Rich Rodriguez forgot you have to recruit those guys. The Wolvereenies lost Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh to graduation, though I don’t think any TTUN fan misses them. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens (#25) returns from last year. He was fifth in the team in tackles last year, but leads the team in tackles this year (78 total) by a wide margin. Demens is flanked by new faces Jake Ryan (#90) and Desmond Morgan (#44). Both are freshman. Ryan, who graduated from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, has the added advantage, if you can call it that, of being a redshirt freshman, “gaining” the “expertise” from GERG last year and starting this year. Ryan does not rack up the stats, but Morgan, the true freshman, is fifth on the team in tackles.
The linebackers might have been the position to screw up the most from the Rodriguez era, but, from a contrarian fan’s perspective, the secondary seemed like GERG at his most ticklebear-ish. I thought they were bad beyond words. As I noted last year:
They conceded 65 points to the Zookers, but were fortunate that the offense scored 67 in that game. They got smashed by Wisconsin repeatedly (48pts), blasted by Iowa (38pts), taken to the cleaners by walk-on Matt McMoxie (41pts), could not stop Indiana in a win (35pts), and were shredded liberally by 1-AA Massachusetts (37pts). This is a sampling of events that led the Wolvereenies to be the 99th scoring defense, 92nd rushing defense, 111th passing defense and 112nd total defense. Think about those middle two stats for a moment: rushing defense and passing defense. It is often the case that, say, a terrible rushing defense is ostensibly a middle of the road passing defense. That is because teams that can run over a terrible rushing defense will often not bother to throw it that much. That’s not the case for Gerg’s unit. And let that sink in.
This year, Mattison’s defense is 14th nationally against the pass. Greg Mattison must be some kind of sorcerer. The heart of the defense is probably the player I had the most fun ridiculing: Jordan Kovacs (#32). The safety is a former walk-on who fortunately (for him) lacks the sheer number of tackles he had by this point last year, but that’s because his unit can actually get off the field with some regularity. To his credit, the walk-on redshirt junior does everything of which he is asked and is a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy. This award is given to the top collegiate football player who started his career as a walk-on. There are other great choices among those semifinalists, but I would not bat an eye at Kovacs winning that distinction. Kovacs is second on the team in tackles. His other safety running mae, Ray Vinopal, transferred to Pitt with the new regime. His replacement: JT Floyd (#8), redshirt junior out of South Carolina. Blake Countess (#18) and Troy Woolfolk (#29) man the corner spots. Woolfolk returns from a preseason injury that sidelined him in 2010.
That Team Up North wins if… well this seems like an increasingly likely scenario for the first time in a long time? The Buckeyes will visit Ann Arbor as 8.5 point dogs in large part because what available talent it has to accommodate a true freshman quarterback is serially misused by an offensive coaching staff that doesn’t know a constraint play from third base. Meanwhile, its defense — still pretty good — often puts its offense in handicaps. For example, the Buckeyes have started each of the past three games in 10 point holes, falling 10-nil to Indiana, Purdue, and Penn Shtate. It won only against Indiana. There are two common ingredients to these losing recipes. One, even the worst offenses we’ve faced — incidentally, the two to whom we lost — won first down and third down with a maddening pace. Against Penn Shtate, it was wildcat runs and a liberal dose of Silas Redd that put Ohio State in a hole of which it could not escape. This brings attention to the surging Fitzgerald Toussaint, who has plowed through defenses in three of his past four games. If he has over 80 yards against the Buckeyes, I can’t see us winning. This assumes Denard Robinson will contribute another 50 or more on the ground. This would simplify the offense for Al Borges, who would otherwise like to screw things up by running what he would like to work, given his video series. It’s the difference of this game looking like the Illinois game for the home crowd, or the Michigan State game. We would like the latter, as Buckeye fans.
Ohio State wins if… at this point you want to resort to that “heart v. talent” debate that Ken Gordon had on Twitter and ask this group of seniors and the batch of upperclassmen who occupy important positions on the team the location of their pride. Where is it? In spite of reports of a spirited series of practices for the past few weeks, Ohio State’s players get on the field and told to execute an absolute rubbish game plan. So, Ohio State’s keys to victory dependent on how well it can actually execute a rubbish game plan. This calls attention to the Brewster-Martin matchup that may decide the game for Ohio State. Can Brewster manhandle him in his final outing? If so, can Dan Herron get 100 yards rushing? This calls attention to Herron and not Miller, who gets a lot of his yards on speed option plays and scrambles. If Ohio State’s bread and butter is working, Dan Herron will get yards in bunches and it makes everything else for Ohio State manageable. The defense doesn’t feel the pressure to pitch second half shutouts or hold a team under 13 points. Ohio State’s winning streak against that most detestable institution of overpriced learning will depend on it.