Saturday's 38-7 rout of Minnesota at the Horseshoe represents the end of the soft section of the Big Ten schedule. From here on out the Buckeyes face quality conference opponents, starting November 7th when they play at Penn State. For all the frustration that has accompanied the first eight games on the slate, the big prize- the conference title and the trip to Pasadena- is still very much attainable. But the Nittany Lions and Iowa Hawkeyes have their eyes on the same prize- as well as the National Championship for Iowa- and Ohio State will have to go through them to secure the fifth consecutive conference title for the program. Throw in the season finale at Ann Arbor, and it's going to be an interesting final three weeks of football.
Ohio State controls its own destiny. Win out and it'll be off to the Rose Bowl with a 7-1 conference record and the tiebreaker over Iowa, if need be. Considering the offensive problems, Terrelle Pryor's struggles and the disheartening losses to USC and Purdue, it's not the worst situation to be in for this football team.
Stat-Sheet Stuffer: It's a measure as to how gifted Terrelle Pryor is that he can put up a monster statistical line and not even look that good doing it. Pryor completed 13-of-25 passes for 239 yards, threw two long touchdown passes and an interception, and added 104 yards rushing on 15 carries with another touchdown. The accuracy still wasn't there, the overall decision-making still left a lot to be desired- especially on the interception, which came on a first-down play from the Minnesota 17- but it's hard to quibble too much about a 343 total-yard, three-touchdown performance from your quarterback. I still have my doubts as to whether Terrelle is going to be able to put it together against the tough back end of the Buckeye schedule, but for now- take it.
Maybe Take Some Intentional Penalties? Aaron Petrey continued his sweating-the-small-stuff kicking season on Saturday. He missed yet another short-range field goal- a thirty-yarder that he sent wide left in the first quarter, rendering null a 19-play, 78-yard drive; then was dead solid perfect on a 44-yard attempt to finish the Ohio State side of the scoring. For the season Pettrey is 6-of-6 on attempts from forty yards or more- including 2-of-2 from fifty and out- and 6-of-10 from thirty yards and in.
Offensive Play of the Game: After a scoreless first quarter that had the natives a tad restless in the Horseshoe, the Buckeyes used a big play to break the tie early in the second period when Pryor rolled out and hit DeVier Posey, wide-open thanks to a breakdown in the Minnesota secondary, with a 62-yard touchdown bomb. It wasn't exactly a great play conceptually on the part of the offense- it isn't that hard to throw a pass to a guy who isn't within ten yards of a defender- but after last week's debacle, it was good to see simple execution turned into a long score. Pryor would hit Posey with a 57-yard scoring strike in the second half as Ohio State turned a 7-0 halftime lead into a runaway.
Speaking of Posey: The sophomore is somewhat quietly turning in a very nice season, with 38 receptions for 516 yards and six touchdowns. He's trending upward as well- after Saturday's eight-catch, 161-yard, two-score performance against Minnesota Posey has 17 receptions for 248 yards in the last two games and as touchdowns in the last four games. Pryor's end of the passing game has been a little bit questionable- as well as that of the offensive line- but Posey and Dane Sanzanbacher (19 catches, 388 yards, four touchdowns) have certainly held up theirs.
Killer Injury: Minnesota's best playmaker- by far- is all-Big Ten wide receiver Eric Decker, who went into Saturday's game with 47 receptions. When Decker was forced to leave the game in the first half with a sprained left foot, number-one receiver duties fell to Troy Stoudermire Jr. who had a rough afternoon himself. Stoudermire did account for Minnesota's lone garbage-time touchdown, but he also muffed a kickoff to set up an Ohio State score, committed a dumb personal-foul penalty on a punt that would have pinned the Buckeyes back inside their ten, and had to be restrained from an assistant coach on the sideline following the penalty.
Special-Teams Play of the Game: Stoudermire's muff at his own 31 may have been the proverbial straw that broke Minnesota's back. It came on the opening kickoff of the second half, with the Gophers trailing by only 7-0 and still very much in the game despite being outplayed. Instead of getting the football with a chance to drive down the field and tie the game- or at least buying time and hanging around until Ohio State made a mistake- Minnesota handed the Buckeyes the golden opportunity to take a two-score lead, which they promptly cashed in on with Pryor's 15-yard scoring run. And the Gophers had no chance to come back from two scores down.
Because the Defense Showed Up: Granted, Minnesota gets a lot easier to defend when they're missing Eric Decker, and they're not that tough to defend even when he's out there. The Gophers were plagued by unforced errors Saturday- eight penalties and numerous drops on passes that would have extended drives. Still, a defense still has to execute even against a popgun attack like Minnesota's. The Buckeyes did just that, sacking Gopher signal-callers four times- three by that unholy terror Thad Gibson- and forcing three turnovers (the fourth on special teams) that set up 17 points by the offense.
Position of Need: One thing Ohio State has lacked thus far is the big power back, the guy who can gain real estate with strength in short-yardage situations. Jermil Martin might not be that guy, but at 6'1", 227 he has the size to be, and judging by an admittedly small sample against an admittedly weak Minnesota, defense, he might have the ability as well. In the game due to a concussion that kayoed starter Brandon Saine, the freshman from Glenville (of course) bowled for 75 yards on just seven carries, including a 39-yard touchdown right up the middle of the Gopher defense. Prior to Saturday Martin had one carry for minus-two yards, and he might not get that much action for the rest of the season... but the young man does run hard, and he is 227 pounds, and the other guys, while skilled in their own rights, aren't making anyone forget Tank Younger out there.
Three-Game Season: The only way Ohio State plays in a BCS bowl is if they win the Big Ten title and play in the Rose Bowl. The only way to do that, probably, is win out over the remainder of the Big Ten schedule. It won't be easy. After next Saturday's lay-up against New Mexico State, the Buckeyes go to Happy Valley, host Iowa, and finish the season at Ann Arbor against Michigan. Lose any one of those games- especially Iowa, which sets up as a near-elimination game for the Buckeyes- and you can go ahead and set your TIVO for noon-ish on New Year's Day and a meeting with an SEC foe somewhere in Florida.
(Which might not be so bad. Ohio State has to beat an SEC team some time, and this is as good a year as any to do it. Other than Florida and Alabama, there isn't a team in God's Conference that the Buckeyes can't beat. I think they can take Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn or South Carolina, that's for sure.)
The quality of the opponent may vary from week to week, but the difficult of the task does not. Penn State hasn't played the most demanding schedule, but they're a second-half meltdown against Iowa from being undefeated and have looked dominant in back-to-back thrashings of Minnesota and Michigan. Iowa isn't the most physically talented opponent but no one has been more opportunistic, more composed and more clutch than the Hawkeyes this season. Michigan still has major holes, especially on defense, but I have a feeling they're going to play their best football game against Ohio State. That isn't going to be an easy win. We've already learned the hard way the high cost of underestimating any Big Ten opponent.
Straight out of Las Cruces: First order of business is to take care of business against next week's opponent, New Mexico State. The Aggies are one of the most unsuccessful programs in all of Division I-A: they haven't won a conference title of any kind since 1978, haven't played in a bowl game since 1960- the longest postseason drought of any FBS team- and haven't enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons since 1966-67. They're also coming off back-to-back losses to Louisiana Tech and Fresno State by a combined score of 79-10. The Buckeyes are 3-0 against current members of the Western Athletic Conference and, barring a miracle, will be 4-0 after next Saturday. Win the game, win decisively, stay healthy, work out whatever kinks can be worked out- then batten down the hatches for those final three weeks.
Around the Nation
Game of the Week- Clemson-Miami: There were a number of dramatic encounters last Saturday, but for sheer big-play appeal, nothing topped Clemson's 40-37 overtime victory over Miami at Land Shark Stadium. The Tigers and Hurricanes combined for 77 points, 843 yards from scrimmage, eleven lead changes, two defensive touchdowns, a kick-return touchdown, and scores of 53, 56, 69 and 90 yards. There were explosive hits, explosive plays, and fun that didn't end until Clemson's Kyle Parker hit Jacoby Harris with a 26-yard touchdown pass to win the game in overtime. Randy Shannon's team had numerous chances to take control of the game late and let them slip away with turnovers and offensive breakdowns, including a first-and-goal in overtime that they couldn't cash in with six points.
Player of the Week- Terrence Cody, NT, Alabama: The Tide is still undefeated and in the hunt for the National Championship, thanks largely to their very own Great Wall of Tuscaloosa. The 6'5", 365-pound-plus Cody twice stuffed Tennessee field-goal attempts, including a 44-yarder that would have won the game for the Volunteers at the gun, as Alabama hung on, 12-10. Questions abound about ‘Bama's offensive balance- Greg McElroy hasn't breached 200 yards passing in four weeks and Julio Jones has been a near non-factor all year- but there's no doubt that Nick Saban's defense, led by Mount Cody, has the ability to win a football game practically single-handedly.
As for coaches, Lane Kiffin deserves plaudits for keeping his Tennessee team competitive on the road against both Florida and Tennessee, but after watching Cody block one 44-yard attempt, you'd think he'd be more aggressive in his play-calling on the final drive instead of merely running the ball to set up another attempt from the same distance.
Running With the ‘Pack: Getting one of the nation's most woebegone programs turned around is apparently a much easier task than getting a defensive player, any defensive player, to tackle Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Such is the case for Idaho coach Rob Akey, who watched the dual-threat Kaepernick run all over his defense for 230 yards and four touchdowns, including scores from 11, 35, 61 and 75 yards out. When he wasn't beating the Vandals with his legs, Kaepernick was beating them with his arm, completing 13-of-21 for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Paced by their quarterback's 408-combined-yard effort, the Wolfpack snapped Idaho's five-game winning streak in decisive fashion, 70-45.
Any Michael Bishop Sightings? Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser in the Big 12 North, nowhere more so than at the top of the divisional standings. Thanks to simultaneous meltdowns by Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, your current North leader is none other than Kansas State, coached by none other than that Clinton-era relic, Bill Snyder. The Wildcats are 3-1 in the conference after their 20-6 conquest of Colorado, a full game ahead of second-place Iowa State (yes, Iowa State, they of no championships since the 1912 Missouri Valley title.) The good times might not last- Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska loom on the slate and keep in mind, the Wildcats did give up 66 points to Texas Tech a few weeks ago- but for the moment at least, the folks in Manhattan are partying like its 1998.
By the way, a couple of weeks back I boldly proclaimed that the North Champion, whoever it might be, will have an opportunity to knock off the South Champion in the Big 12 title game. Er... no. The North is a dismal 2-6 in head-to-head meetings with the South this year, with those six losses by an average score of 41-13. The two victories are over South weak sisters Texas A&M and Baylor. In the last two weeks Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas have all sustained lopsided losses at home to South opponents Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas. The North has dropped five consecutive Big 12 title games, and barring an act of God, that streak will reach six this December.
Winners of the Week
Clemson: Back-to-back wins over Wake Forest and Miami have jumped the Tigers into a commanding position in the ACC Atlantic. At 3-2, Clemson is a game-and-a-half ahead of Boston College and Wake, owns the head-to-head tiebreaker on both of them, and needs only to win over Florida State, at N.C. State, and over Virginia to claim its first Coastal title ever. Knowing Clemson they'll probably find a way to cock things up, but for now they're right where they need to be.
Georgia Tech: The only folks as happy as Clemson over the result in Miami reside in Atlanta and used to be called the Engineers. Tech needed the Hurricanes to lose at least once to have a chance to win the ACC Atlantic, and now that's happened. At 5-1 in the conference they're two up on Virginia Tech in the win column, and all Paul Johnson's troops need to do is beat Wake and Duke to clinch a bid in the ACC title game. Georgia Tech has an added advantage over the rest of the field- just two more conference games, thus fewer needed to win and fewer to possibly lose.
TCU: The Horned Frogs did everything they had to do, and more, at BYU on Saturday night. Their smashing 38-7 romp over the Cougars was the last major road test left on the schedule. From here on out it's just a matter of handling business that should be handled, and if it is handled- including a visit from 16th-ranked Utah in three weeks- the Frogs will be playing prestigious January football.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes, to say the least, are not an eye-catcher. They don't run very well and their quarterback is an unspectacular game-manager. There are no spectacular playmakers on offense. The defense is solid but a little bit rubber band-like, more opportunistic than dominant. The only thing pretty about Kirk Ferentz's team is its record: 9-0 after Saturday's last-second thievery from Michigan State, with sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
Four games stand between Iowa and its first unbeaten regular season since 1922. Three- Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota- are at home. The Hawkeyes should win those games, albeit prosaically. The one road game remaining: November 7th at Columbus against Ohio State. Coincidentally, Iowa's last serious National Championship run, in 1985, died on a rainy afternoon in the Horseshoe.
Pittsburgh: Cincinnati isn't the only Big East team playing good football these days. The Pitt Panthers moved to 7-1 on the season with Saturday's 41-14 devastation of South Florida. More and more it looks like the conference title will be decided when the Bearcats and Panthers meet at Heinz Field in the December 5th season finale, although Dave Wannstadt's team has a tough row to hoe in the weeks before, with match-ups against Notre Dame and West Virginia on the schedule.
Losers of the Week
South Florida: Can the pollsters please stop slotting this perennial pretender anywhere near the Top 25? Every year we go through the same thing with the Bulls: they rise in the rankings, get slapped down, and devalue like Latin American currency the remainder of the season. They're doing it again in 2009, as they were plastered 41-14 at Pitt on the heels of their marquee loss to Cincinnati. Enough with the charade. Let this team play a full season of decent football and beat someone other than a mid-level Conference USA opponent in a bowl game before they get any kind of recognition whatsoever.
Nebraska: No ostensibly good team played a worse game than the one the Cornhuskers played in their home loss to the lowly Cyclones. Bo Pelini's team committed eight turnovers, four inside the ISU red zone, to parlay a 362-239 total-yardage edge into a 9-7 defeat. It was Iowa State's first win in Lincoln since the 1977 season. The stops and starts continue for Nebraska: after defeating Missouri on the road, the Cornhuskers have lost back-to-back home games while scoring a total of 17 points.
Michigan State: The Spartans were two seconds away from controlling their own destiny in the Big Ten race. They never made it, and Saturday's heartbreaker against Iowa marked the third time this season MSU has lost a game in which it has led late in the fourth quarter. Now 4-4 and virtually out of Rose Bowl contention, the Spartans will simply have to battle for a winning record and a bid to something other than the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in snowy Detroit.
North Carolina: Doubtful even the most skeptical pundits would have predicted that in midseason of Butch Davis's third year the Tarheels would be trailing Duke in the ACC standings. Yet there they are, 0-4 in the conference following the galling 30-27 loss to Florida State in Chapel Hill last Thursday. North Carolina had a 24-6 lead in the third quarter before the Seminoles exploded with 24 points in fifteen minutes to steal the game. With trips to Boston College and Virginia Tech as well as Miami and the aforementioned Duke still remaining on the slate, Butch's boys are going to have to fight their guts out just to land a bowl berth.
Indiana: When you're up 28-3 in the second quarter of a football game, chances are that one more play- one more stop, one more score- is all that separates you from victory. The Hoosiers were in that situation Saturday in Evanston. But they never made that one play, as Northwestern crawled back from that 28-3 deficit to win the game, 29-28. Indiana intercepted Mike Kafka three times in the second half and at one point had the ball on the Wildcats one-yard line, but failed to score again after their first-half outburst. Instead of being 5-3 and on the cusp of bowl eligibility, the Hoosiers are 4-4 and have to be demoralized after a defeat that never should have been.
Next Week: Ohio State takes on New Mexico State at high noon on Saturday. Dan Wismar and I will talk about last week's win, this week's meeting with the Aggies, and other relevant topics on the Buckeye Friday podcast.