Thoughts from the Booth: Michigan Week
Paul Keels, "Voice of the Buckeyes" on The Ohio State Radio Network and 97.1 FM The Fan since 1998, will once again be keeping a weekly blog right here at OhioStateBuckeyes.com to share some of his thoughts throughout the 2011 season.
It truly has become a one game season for Ohio State. Now that a division title and a berth in the Big Ten Championship game are not possible, the 2011 football season for the Buckeyes comes down to the season ending matchup with Michigan. We've all heard the hypothetical questions about how if in the midst of what could be viewed as an unsuccessful season (by Ohio State standards) would a win over the arch rivals from up north salvage something? A win by Ohio State this Saturday would absolve, some, but certainly not all the things that didn't go right.
Add the fact that Michigan has probably improved more than anyone would have thought from last year to this and it sets the stage for an underdog Buckeye team to give fans the same type of thrill they enjoyed on homecoming evening against Wisconsin. Yes, that game was in Columbus, but it certainly provided a glimpse of what this team "potentially" can do. But as many coaches have said over time, potential is not good for security in their profession.
Having said all of this, hopefully many can still be excited about one of the great rivalries in sports. Thank goodness the Big Ten opted to leave this game right where it is - even though we've all had to learn a new way of following the sport with Legends and Leaders divisions. Most likely Coaches Hayes and Schembechler wouldn't have worried about tie breakers and conference title matchups. Plain and simple, they would be trying to figure out how to beat one another.
So while other conferences loose and gain members, while so long time rivalries in this sport go the way of the dinosaur and while figuring out who should play for the national title becomes more complicated as time goes by, thank goodness there still is Ohio State-Michigan!
Penn State Week
The home finale against Penn State ends a portion of what has been a highly unusual season for 24 seniors on the Ohio State football team. Think about a group that has never known not winning at least a share of the Big Ten title, have never lost to Michigan and have been able to pretty much count on a BCS Bowl trip each January.
Now this team will be playing their final game in Ohio Stadium after almost a year of off the field events they probably never could have imagined, not the least of which are losing the head coach who recruited them. That and other factors must make for quite a combination of emotions for those young men, who will leave the south end tunnel for the final time as Buckeye football players.
There are the small portion of this group who have seen their final season limited becasue of misteps of their own doing. While some may be conflicted as to how to recact to some members of this senior class, let us take time to pause and hope that these young men haved learned a very valuable lesson. This applies to those who've been directly involved, who've absored their penalties and continued their commitment rather than flee the scene, as well as those who as teammates have lent support and understanding, and hopefully have learned as well.
So as these young men take the field at home for the final time, let us all in our own ways appreciate them as just that, young men, who came to Ohio State to learn, even if in some cases, they were hard lessons.
When it seems during the course of a football season that kickoff times are all over the map, guess it shouldn't be surprising that Ohio State's 12 noon start with Indiana last week had everyone a little slow on the uptake. After all, it's been since their Toledo game in week two that there has been a 12 noon kickoff. Even from our radio booth, we could tell the crowd was a little hushed, and when the Buckeyes found themselves trailing 10-0, it was a little like a cold slap. Thank goodness the warm weather seemed to eventually heat things up.
In a season in which we have all been looking for players to maybe become stars of this team, it seems that there is some emerging. Defensive lineman John Simon was someone who many could guess could be a factor this season. Despite the fact that opposing offensive coaches must be aware of him, and planning around him, Simon is putting together a first team all-conference type of season...(certainly aided by the play of others on the defensive line). Bradley Roby has become a promising star at cornerback, and it's now easy to see why the coaches last year were tempted to possibly change plans to red-shirt him.
It was also easy last week to feel good about Carlos Hyde getting his first elongated chance at playing time since rushing for over a hundred and two scores against Nebraska, and see him hang another 100 on IU. After beginning his career by missing his first four field goal tries, Drew Basil has now connected on 12 in a row. And punter Ben Buchannan is one of the best in the nation when it comes to dropping kicks deep in opponent's territory.
We've been used to seeing Ohio State carve out Big Ten Player of the Year candidates most seasons, and while that may not be the case this year, these would seem to be performances worth noting in 2011.
Amazing how a few weeks change things. After Ohio State's loss at Nebraska, the hope was that this team didn't go into the type of spiral that could endanger most every remaining game of the season. Certainly with and 0-2 league start and unbeaten ranked teams providing the next two tests, no one could be blamed for thinking a division title shot was foolish talk.
While the win at Illinois was the tonic required by all, it was a win still tempered by skepticism about he Illini. Add to that and open weekend and the curiosity about how this Ohio State team could maintain that groove.
That Wisconsin victory seemed to heal more wounds than any medicine man could! While the team claimed not to focus on revenge, it was a dish best served cold on that chilly evening in the Horseshoe. Plus a win over a team that many of us felt could have possibly been a national title game participant. It was a fantastic display by a bunch of young men who not too long ago left the field in Nebraska haunted by a blown lead that left many befuddled. It was a great reward for a coaching staff that has been through tons of turmoil and criticism since last December.
But for the alums fan base, which over the years have shown why Ohio State football is one of the greatest traditions in sports, it was a night for those who have stayed loyal, despite controversy to proudly boast about their Buckeyes and scream themselves hoarse. The noise level in the stadium that night, and the finish was very reminiscent of the weekly roller-coaster ride of the 2002 National Championship season. Over these last few months Ohio State football players, coaches, fans and all connected have had to display thick skin. Hopefully the Wisconsin game was a small reward for that.
There does seem to be a little different feeling in the air going into this weekend's game for Ohio State with Wisconsin. Certainly much of it must have to do with the Buckeyes coming off their win at Illinois, while the Badgers first loss of the season last weekend would seem to be a key ingredient. It puts Ohio State in a position to become a pace setter in their division, should they knock off the Badgers, as well as get a win down the road over division leading Penn State. It's quite the chance for the feeling that seemed to be in the air after back to back defeats to open Big Ten play.
This rivalry with the Buckeyes and the Badgers certainly has stepped up in recent years. In football it wasn't that long ago that the atmosphere got jazzed up when players were dancing on mid-field logos after road wins. There was the autograph of a former Badger player claiming they "owned" the Horseshoe after back to back wins in Ohio Stadium. And when you consider that Wisconsin knocked off Ohio State in football and men's basketball last year while each squad was ranked number one in the nation, well it gave the folks in dairyland a lot to crow about.
Let us not forget that what makes a great rivalry is great games with great teams. There are many games that people recall in that memorable 2002 National Championship season, but a late Craig Krenzel to Ben Hartsock TD pass, and Chris Gamble's first interception as a two-way player sealed a 19-14 win for OSU at Camp Randall. Two years ago, Ohio State got pick-6 TDs from Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines, and a kickoff return score from Ray Small to hand Wisconsin their first loss of 2009. And just for giggles, let's throw in a pair of big basketball wins for the Buckeyes over the Badgers in that magical 2006-07 hoops season ... a Value City Arena win in a matchup of the nation's top two ranked teams, and an Ohio State lopsided win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament title game in Chicago, that was part of the Buckeye's run to the national championship game. Maybe Saturday night will be another chapter that helps build a great rivalry.
Ok, what does one write about during an open week? The well was really dry of ideas until the other day when someone started talking about taking their son to his first ever Ohio State football game at Ohio Stadium and it jolted the old memory banks. I was taken back to the first game I saw at Ohio Stadium and it was not to see the Buckeyes. It was September of 1972 and it was to see my hometown Cincinnati Bengals play the Cleveland Browns in a preseason game at the `Shoe. It was the first of three consecutive years the two teams would play at Ohio Stadium.
I was very fortunate to get to go with my grandfather, who lived here in Columbus. The opportunity was presented to us thanks to tickets provided by a very close family friend and former Buckeye football player Robert Dorsey, who sadly passed away back in February. It was a great chance for a young kid to get a good dose of something never before experienced ... to sit in a stadium that through radio and television seemed worlds away, and based on what you picked up from adult sports fans, was like entering a cathedral. The to watch the two pro football teams that were part of my youth was an extra bonus. While an avid Bengals fan upon arrival of the AFL expansion team to Cincinnati in 1968, the Browns were the team of my father and other male relatives when they were the only pro team in the state prior to the birth of the Bengals.
Oh, another thing that all these years later I can recall: the biggest cheers were for the former Ohio State Buckeyes in the game, like Rufus Mayes, Nick Roman, Tom DeLeone, and of course, Bengals coach and president Paul Brown, who was remembered for all those years for coaching Ohio State to their first national championship.
Often times we get asked, (we meaning myself, Jim Lachey, Marty Bannister and our Ohio State-IMG radio crew) what it's like to travel to the away stadiums? And which might be our favorite to broadcast from?
Well this year, that answer is an easy one ... Nebraska! Plain and simply because it's new territory. While it's the first time that Ohio State will play football in Lincoln, it will be a maiden voyage for most long-time followers of the Scarlet and Gray. While attending the Big Ten media sessions in Chicago back in July, the strong showing of press folks show just how big a deal it is for the Cornhuskers to be a part of the Big Ten (there were FIVE Nebraska radio stations broadcasting live). And in discussing all of this with some of those people, they couldn't stop talking about how impressed Big Ten visitors will be when they attend a game at Memorial Stadium.
I'm sure like many others, we will all be anxious to see if the Nebraska fans are as hospitable to visiting fans as we've been told. Husker fans allegedly applaud the opposing teams appearance on the field in Lincoln ... could you imagine that happening in Camp Randall or even in Ann Arbor? While the Buckeyes head to Nebraska looking for a much-needed victory, we all head west anxious to see if this new stop on the Big Ten circuit is as friendly as advertised.
Michigan State Week
And so starts conference play with Ohio State hosing Michigan State this weekend. With the new wrinkle of divisional play in the Big Ten for 2011, one question to ponder is: does this feel different? League play starts with the Buckeyes and Spartans meeting for the first time since 2008, and also brings the storylines of former Ohio State assistant Mark Dantonio, Ohio State assistants Jim Bollman and Paul Haynes, who previously worked at MSU, and players who are natives of both Ohio and Michigan who have crossed their respective borders to play college football.
Remember, Ohio State and Michigan State are in different division. As a matter of fact, as pointed out a few weeks ago by our network executive director, Skip Mosic, the first division game for Ohio State isn't until Oct. 15 at Illinois. And even though the Spartans are from "that state up North," they don't seem to evoke the same fire from fans that the Wolverines do. So exactly how does this game strike everyone's nerves?
Still trying to get used to Ohio State being in the Leaders division and that the first part of any prize right now is to win that division title to play for the league championship in Indianapolis. You are not alone. We all have to embrace that change, after all, we learned how to live without 3 yards and a cloud of dust! But change certainly doesn't downplay the expectations and standards that all connected have for Ohio State football. As we found out a couple of weeks ago, any loss, in conference, out of conference, within or outside of our division, still has a sting that doesn't seem to heal until that next win is in the books.
As we head into the third week of the college football season, it appears we all may need another refresher course on who will be in what conference. The BIG EAST is looking at the exodus of members Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC. Texas A&M is jilting the Big 12 for the greener pastures of the Southeast Conference (SEC). West Virginia, sensing the crumbling of their current home in the BIG EAST, has reached out to both the ACC and the SEC, only to be spurned.
Here in Big Ten territory, it seems like we've just started to get used to the idea of divisional play, and a conference title game. The addition of Nebraska has occurred with great response, especially from the Nebraska people themselves who are thrilled to be included. It's a league that's maintained some semblance of geographical sense, and that turns on lots of TV's ... (and we know how powerful that is!). While all of this other shuffling seems to be materializing, the Big Ten is standing by seemingly quiet, which may not be the worst thing in the world.
What seems to draw people to college football is tradition! The Big Ten certainly boasts more than its fair share of it - all you have to do around here is think about the final game of the regular season. Those of us from the generation of Woody and Bo have had to learn to change with the times. One of the great things we get to see in our jobs is how excited Buckeye fans are to watch Ohio State play in Champaign, Iowa City, West Lafayette and other spots that can be traveled to without a ton of difficulty. Good luck TCU fans as you navigate through the BIG EAST!
And speaking of traveling fans, hats off to those who traveled to follow the Buckeyes in Miami last week. While the State of Florida has a huge OSU alumni base, there was a very strong presence of Buckeye fans that traveled from Ohio and other locales to witness Ohio State's first ever regular season game in the Sunshine State. While they may have been disappointed in the end result on the field, their presence was a winner!
With Ohio State and Miami playing this weekend, the easy story line is about the difficult off-seasons for both the Buckeyes and Hurricanes. But for me, it still brings back the many memories of that national championship night in Tempe, Arizona of January 2003 following the 2002 season.
As that magical season ended for Ohio State, Miami still had two more games to play. The defending national champion Hurricanes easily rolled through those, setting the stage for the title tilt. A matchup in Tempe that would have Ohio State entering the game as double-digit underdogs and casting concern among even the most optimistic Buckeye supporters.
As kickoff neared in Sun Devil Stadium, you couldn't help notice that it seemed almost like an Ohio State home game, with more Scarlet and Gray in the stands than Hurricane Green and Orange. In the first few plays of the game it also became very obvious the Miami QB Ken Dorsey had not been as physically attacked as the OSU defenders swarmed him. For those who attended, watched or listened, you know the outcome of that memorable night.
There are things that happened that night following the end of the game that will always stick with me: the almost shocked look on the faces of Jim Lachey, and the others in our radio booth that this Ohio State team achieved something that every other Buckeye team since 1968 has failed to do. Then once we finished our marathon post game show, the numerous voice mail messages left on my cell phone showed just how much this championship affected to so many people. One friend left one message at the end of regulation that was much easier to understand, than the one he left after the second overtime was completed. My mother, an Ohio State graduate, felt the need to just call and ramble endlessly with her excitement over the win. A handful of the other radio announcers in the Big Ten, (one of whom is an OSU grad) called to offer congratulations. Not to be outdone was a message from a friend in Florida, who relayed her story about watching the game in the midst of a bunch of Miami fans. This Buckeye fan relayed how the Hurricane supporters, when things were going well for their team, made comments about how they thought the Buckeye Leaf resembled a certain illegal plant. I always wondered if they would have done that had they known they were talking with a police officer.
As Ohio State prepares to face Toledo, and for the second week in a row will tangle with an in-state opponent, it seems to bring up an almost annual question from some: why play other Ohio teams? You might recall former head coach John Cooper saying it's okay ... until you lose to one of them! (which hasn't happened to Ohio State since a 7-6 loss to Oberlin in 1921). It almost happened in the start of the recent run when Bowling Green came to the Horseshoe in 1992 and threw a scare into Buckeye fans before Ohio State escaped with a 17-6 win. That was followed by scares in following years from Ohio University, Miami-Ohio, and home and away cliff-hangers against Cincinnati.
Remember, these are games that scheduled as home games with no returns for the visitors, other than return dates with Toledo and Cincinnati in NFL stadiums. It's an all win situation for Ohio State and it's a winning proposition for the opponents. These schools get the benefit of financial gain from playing at Ohio Stadium. Those funds also remain within the Buckeye state. Many of the opposing players who are Ohio natives get a chance to play in a historic stadium, not to mention the opportunity for their families and friends to experience the Horseshoe. There certainly seems to be a different feel you get from people you may know with some connection to these in-state schools when they are playing Ohio State, as opposed to out-of-state type non-conference games.
As an observer from a distance and a casual follower of the other in-state teams, once seeing them play, it then provides a perspective while keeping track of what they may do as their seasons progress. It also stands to reason that an in-state opponent will probably find better motivation to make it a game than an out-of -state team from a non-BCS school. While we like to brag about Ohio having great high school football, short of Ohio State getting upset in one of these games, isn't it a chance to display the quality of our state's college football?
What an offseason it's been! Once the Sugar Bowl ended in New Orleans, and Ohio State had managed to get that elusive win over an SEC team in a bowl game, no one could have imagined what lie ahead. Even knowing that suspensions awaited key players to begin 2011, Buckeye fans could still look forward not only to what was to be a fantastic basketball season, but still promise of optimism for football.
What has happened since those early morning hours in New Orleans rocked Buckeye fans like they haven't been in a while. A head coach held in very high esteem is gone. A quarterback whom many hoped would play the best football of his career had fled the scene and there exist huge questions both regarding off the field matters and what will happen on the field at various positions. Folks who plan bowl trips and who wish to plan a trip in early December to Indianapolis for Big Ten history are now in a holding pattern - along with all others connected to Ohio State. It truly is uncharted territory.
But alas, come the early morning hours Saturday, the parking lots at and around Ohio Stadium will come to life with tailgaters. The Red Coats will assume their posts around the stadium. The Skull Session will reverberate in St. John Arena. The Best Damn Band in the Land will enter from the North end of the stadium. The team will emerge from the south end. Local son and former Buckeye Luke Fickell and his staff will take the baton and continue the tradition of Ohio State Football that generations have come to know and love. And the players, new and experienced, will wear the Scarlet and Gray and take the field like many before them have and many afterward will.
Yes questions remain, concerns exist, and the future is unknown. But it's still Ohio State Buckeye Football. Soak it in and enjoy!