Let me say this first: Khalil Mack is a monster and is now officially on NFL draft boards. In spite of anything the Buckeyes did, that should be one of the lasting takeaways from a game that ultimately doesn’t mean much for the rest of Ohio State’s season.
In spite of how unimportant this game will prove to be in the long run for Ohio State, it is useful to discuss the how Urban Meyer’s squad looked and how they will look going forward. The Buckeyes came out like world-beaters. For the first three drives, Braxton Miller and his offense looked like Oregon. All they were missing were flashy neon uniforms and a new $68-million practice facility funded by Nike’s Phil Knight. They breezed down the field with speed, precision, and even a little bit of flair. The first two touchdowns each totaled eight points after the Swinging Gate formation gave the Buckeyes a numbers advantage that resulted in two easy two-point conversions. The first quarter was a beautiful example of just how lethal Meyer’s spread offense can be.
After that explosive opening, however, the Buckeyes fell into a state of ennui. They twice allowed the Bulls to narrow the deficit to 10 points; once off an impressive interception return by Mack that made the score 23-13, and again after Joe Licata hit Alex Neutz for a 10-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter that pulled the Bulls within 10 at 30-20. In the end though, the Buckeyes did enough to earn a 40-20 win.
In spite of the tidy score, Urban Meyer will be justifiably unsatisfied. Yes, players were missing due to injury (C.J. Barnett) and suspension (Carlos Hyde, Bradley Roby, Rod Smith), but that certainly won’t mean much to Meyer. He expects the best from every player on his roster regardless of their spot on the depth chart, and – outside of the first three drives – that’s not what the Buckeyes showed him last Saturday.
Now, the fact that Ohio State only won by 20 shouldn’t be worrisome in and of itself. Think back to last season, when the Buckeyes struggled at times against such noted powerhouses as Central Florida (31-16 final score), Cal (35-28), and Alabama-Birmingham (29-15). Those three underwhelming performances didn’t stop the Buckeyes from completing a perfect 12-0 season in Meyer’s first year in Columbus.
While the score itself wasn’t my greatest concern, this game did not leave me with the greatest feeling. First off, numerous Buckeyes, Braxton Miller included, struggled with cramps throughout the game. Temperatures did approach 90 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff, but it was still troubling to see so many Ohio State players writhing on the turf. Considering Meyer’s noted preseason camps, it was even more unexpected to see the Buckeyes struggle in the heat, especially when the Buffalo players seemed to have no such problems. I’d say it’s likely that Meyer and staff addressed these problems this week with extra running and an emphasis on hydration.
The second major issue was discipline. Meyer’s charges were called for one roughing the kicker penalty on a Bulls punt deep in their own territory. Later, a third down late hit penalty on cornerback Armani Reeves – who was frequently victimized while starting in place of Roby – extended a Buffalo drive that quickly became a Bulls touchdown. On the day, Ohio State committed nine penalties for a total of 94 yards. Remember that extra running I mentioned in the last paragraph? I’d be those penalties added even a few more wind sprints to that total.
That’s the bad. Luckily, Buffalo doesn’t have the weapons to punish the Buckeyes for their sundry mistakes. Before the season, some would have predicted that San Diego State, this week’s opponent, could have the potential to cause the Buckeyes more problems. After all, it was only a season ago that the Aztecs finished 9-4 and posted a 7-1 conference record in the Mountain West, earning themselves a share of the title with Fresno State and Boise State, who they actually defeated last year. Add 17 returning starters (seven offense, nine defense, one special teams), and 10 days ago it wasn’t a stretch to circle this contest as a potential trap game for the Buckeyes.
Then last Saturday happened. Rocky Long’s squad gave up 21 straight points to Eastern Illinois University to close a 40-19 defeat. For those wondering, Eastern Illinois University is a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school located in Charleston, IL. Last season they went 7-5.
Of course, San Diego State could bounce back this week in Columbus and find the form that helped them to a share of the conference title last season. But, after such a dud of a performance last week, it appears that the Aztecs have deeper problems they need to figure out before they can regain last season’s form. So, while the game this weekend may not help the Buckeyes in the BCS computers in December, it might be the perfect remedy for what was ailing Ohio State in the last three quarters against Buffalo.
Also important are the three key Buckeyes who are slated to return this week. Starting safety C.J. Barnett, who missed the Buffalo game with an ankle sprain, is expected to be in the lineup Saturday. Two of Ohio State’s suspended players, running back Rod Smith and cornerback Bradley Roby, will also play, although their exact playing time is not yet known. With the combination of facing a staggered Aztecs team and getting those three players back on the field, I expect the Buckeyes to replicate their performance from those first three drives for a majority of Saturday’s game.
Last week caused some hand wringing among the Buckeye faithful. That’s to be expected from a fan base coming off an undefeated season. However, for all of the reasons listed above, there’s no need for panic yet – save that for when the Bucks struggle at Purdue for the umpteenth straight year on November 2nd. Instead, as the students do the Buckeye Bounce in the ‘Shoe’s south stands on Saturday, expect the team to do some bouncing back of their own on the field.
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)