Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you. That’s how the saying goes. On Saturday, the Buckeyes got the Golden Bears of California, 35-28, and the tight nature of the game caused a lot of hand wringing across Buckeye Nation. When your team is a 17-point favorite, sometimes you buy into the hype. But bookies don’t play the game, and every team is susceptible on any given Saturday. (No, not YOU, Alabama). Cal has players on scholarship too, and they came out and played hard on Saturday. They may have been gunning for Ohio State since camp, as Urban Meyer noted that the Golden Bears showed looks on defense that they had not used this season or even last season. I’ll attribute the new-look defense to the threat of Braxton Miller, who managed to rack up five more touchdowns (four passing, on running) and an important two-point conversion.
It may not have been Ohio State’s best game, but growing pains should continue to be expected. It’s interesting to note that Cal rolled up 40% of its 512 yards on six big plays. This means that the defense is mostly working, but minor breakdowns are having huge impacts. I’ll address this more later. I don’t think the sky is falling, at least not yet, but there are some issues symptomatic of 9-3 teams, which I still expect the 2012 Buckeyes to be—with a possibility of a 10-2 or 8-4 finish if they get/don’t get breaks. The offense continues to move the ball, although there was a stretch of frustrating three-and-outs on Saturday that the team eventually overcame. This is how I saw it:
Explosion plays: As mentioned, a sizable chunk of Cal’s yardage came on just six plays. These explosion plays essentially made a game out of what was starting to look like a pretty easy September Saturday romp. The big plays on wide rushes that we’ve seen through the first three games of the season are getting old in a hurry. There are three main factors for these plays. 1) The Buckeyes are not setting the edge at the line of scrimmage. 2) Linebackers and safeties are taking bad angles to the ball. 3) The missed tackles. Good God, the missed tackles. Yesterday, Urban addressed these plays specifically in his presser, noting two ways to work on them. First, the Buckeyes will run tackling drills two days a week instead of the customary one. Second, there seems to be a scheme issue with the Buckeyes getting caught on boundary plays while lined up to protect the wide side. Meyer said the coaching staff met Saturday night to discuss the problem and have a plan in place for a solution. If these two fixes work, the Buckeyes should start setting the edge against those stretch plays, and the tackling should improve to limit gains. That just leaves the angles, which are going to be a work in progress with these linebackers and safeties.
Sacktastic: An Ohio State defense that entered week three with only three sacks on the season was able to triple that number by nabbing six in one game. As has widely been discussed, the Buckeyes have not blitzed very often this season. That changed Saturday, with three blitzing players notching sacks (Sabino, Shazier and Roby). Three defensive linemen also picked up a sack against Cal: Simon, Goebel and Hankins. It was great to see the quarterback running for his life. The Buckeye gave Cal 50 negative yards on those six sacks. It was apparent that the team responded to Meyer’s call for more pressure on the quarterback. I even saw a couple of defensive line stunts that I hadn’t seen in the first two games. The defense also knocked quarterback Zach Maynard around a little when they didn’t sack him, sometimes illegally. To wit:
Laundry day: If there’s one surprising negative this season, it has to be the inordinate amount of penalties for which the 2012 Buckeyes are being flagged. Yellow hankies are being worn out in record numbers this season in Ohio Stadium. A week after committing 10 penalties for 79 yards, Ohio State was whistled 11 times against Cal on Saturday for 101 yards. Unless you’re in Canada, that’s an entire football field worth of penalties. Offensively, those put you “behind schedule” and make a team predictable on long-yardage third downs. In other words, they help stall drives. On defense, those extend opponents’ drives and turn punts into field goals and field goals into touchdowns. I don’t recall the last time Ohio State had double digits in penalties two games in a row, but this must also be addressed by the coaching staff before B1G conference play begins.
Running in the Hall: I went into this weekend hoping for 15 touches for Jordan Hall. Hall ended up with 17 carries for what could be the quietest 87 yards of all time. Hall averaged a very respectable 5.1 yards per carry, despite the fact that Braxton Miller gave him the ball on at least two inside zone reads that he should have kept for himself. Obviously Hall is shaking off the rust (and he tweeted as much on Saturday) but his return was a welcome sight. We’ll see how sore he is this week, but if there are no lingering effects, I expect him to carry a bigger load on offense, including in the passing game. As he reaches game shape, he’ll get his wiggle back and be able to make that first defender in the hole miss more often, which could lead to some of the big plays in the running game that Meyer wants to see from anybody NOT named Braxton Miller. A healthy 1-2 punch of Hall and Carlos Hyde is important to this team in conference play and Saturday was the first step toward that.
That not-so-fresh feeling: The deepest part of Ohio State’s roster is the defensive line, yet the Buckeyes got gassed in the second half against the Bears. Part of that is due to the offense’s inability to sustain drives for a big portion of the game. Another part of it is the way the coaching staff deployed its personnel. Luke Fickell doesn’t seem to want to substitute much for Nathan Williams when he’s healthy. This is ok, but a few more plays with Noah Spence wouldn’t hurt. Further, when Williams is on the field, Ohio State rarely subs in Adolphus Washington. The lack of reinforcement from the younger players led to a drain on the defensive line, which shows up in the form of missed tackles and a sluggish pass rush. Hungry Hungry Hankins played like Superman on Saturday despite being on the field a lot. John Simon was, unbeknownst to us at the time, playing with a shoulder injury so bad that his participation was a game-time decision. I’d like to see a little more balance with the D-line rotation, especially in games when the offense struggles for awhile.
Other random thoughts/observations:
- I finally noticed Curtis Grant this week and it wasn’t in a good way. Sometimes five-star players don’t live up to their scout ratings. It’s too early to tell if that’s the way it will be with Grant, but his career path is more closely aligned with Etienne Sabino’s than with Andy Katzenmoyer’s thus far. (Never forget.) His struggles got Storm Klein back on the field, to the tune of eight snaps on defense, with mixed results. Luke Fickell says Klein will see more action as he works his way back in. This will upset some fans, but I think Klein’s experience is necessary after seeing what Grant has produced in two games. Klein recorded two tackles on his eight plays. Grant had one tackle on nearly twice as many snaps. We’ve been spoiled at middle linebacker over the years, but right now we’re a little thin.
- I think we can all agree that the offense wasn’t crisp for much of the game, and there were a lot more three-and-outs than we’d like to see. Still, it’s important to note that the Buckeyes racked up 412 yards and five touchdowns on an off day, against a defense many consider to be among the best in the PAC-12. I’ll take an off day like that anytime.
- Much like in last year’s Wisconsin game, Devin Smith busted out Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility on Saturday and took it off when he got behind the defense for the decisive touchdown. It was nice to see the other team’s coverage shell implode for a change. Speaking of which…
- Ohio State seemed to clean up some of its communication problems in the secondary this week. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but the cooperation between the corners and the safeties was better.
- Jake Stoneburner was used perfectly at the goal line. We saw the old “jump pass” work to perfection, although Braxton didn’t jump when he threw it. On a side note, Urban said that Tim Tebow improvised the jumping part of the play at Florida and that it wasn’t originally in there.
- Braxton Miller is a sponge, and when Meyer talked to him about limiting his carries and protecting himself, he obviously took it to heart. Where he previously erred in keeping the ball on zone read plays, this week he erred on the side of giving up the rock. Also, there was a comical “self tackle” in the hole early in the game to avoid taking a hit. We can haz happy medium, plz? Kthx.
- The “Freak Show” was decidedly less freaky this week, with one missed PAT, no real returns of note, no blocked kicks and a long kickoff return that needed a Drew Basil intervention to avoid catastrophe. I don’t think that will sit well with the coach.
- Speaking of special teams play, thank God for Cal kicker Vincenzo D’Amato.
- It was fantastic to see the Buckeyes respond to the adversity of losing the two-score lead. I’m not sure last year’s team would have come back and won. Or if they had come back to score, they likely would have given it back in the final minutes.