Closing out our trip to Lincoln for the matchup between the Huskers and Buckeyes. And now, it gets ugly.
“It’s tough to watch your spouse’s favorite team play yours. Your excitement is tempered by the fact that it’s killing them inside.”- Mrs. Mali
I’ll be honest… for the first half it was difficult to keep my excitement in check, particularly because I was seated on the Nebraska home sidelines and because of what my wife mentioned above. But- the first two quarters were so glorious, so wonderful, so Buckeye Football… it just felt good. After months and months and months of bad news Fridays and “expose’s” and debates, after being looked at with pity by gracious home fans, after being sold as an 11.5 point underdog and somehow believing that wouldn’t be a bad bet… to witness the first half of football yesterday in Lincoln was about enough to restore my hope in the goodness of the world. Either invigorated by the return of Mike Adams, or inspired by the criticism resulting from the loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes came out firing on all cylinders in the first quarter. The running game was present and in full control, while Braxton was completing the tosses we’d been hoping for all season- swing passes to fullbacks, screens to tight ends; heck even the incompletion that led to the need for an opening field goal was well thrown if a little low. The team was moving the ball, was getting off the line of scrimmage, was protecting the quarterback, and was owning the game from the opening snap.
And it wasn’t just the offense, as the defense managed to again and again make big, smart plays against the Cornhusker running attack and minimizing the passing game. Was it due to the return of Solomon Thomas, who both pressured Martinez and performed coverage duties in a manner that hadn’t been seen since the Sugar Bowl That Didn’t Happen? Or was it somehow the scheme that was dialed up meshing perfectly with what Nebraska was trying to do? Again and again, the Silver Bullets were looking more and more like their old selves.
Even the attitude of the team was uplifted- When the loudspeakers would play music during timeouts, the players would bounce along and enjoy the moment from the beginning of the game. Heck, even the small section of Ohio State fans who started the “Buckeye Bounce” were quickly joined by players on the sideline and on the field. It was almost as if the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders- they were excited to play, glad to be in the moment, and confident they could win.
Nebraska fans could feel it as well… the life of a very emotional and supportive stadium had dwindled, and those sitting around me were questioning everything from the Husker playcalling to the intelligence of their quarterback. When Carlos Hyde, who I’d described as our “power back” rushed for a touchdown right in front of our seats, a fan in red near us said- “I guess Husker Power can’t stop a power back”.
At the beginning of the second half, it looked like more and more of the same- a quick three and out by Nebraska, and Ohio State began to move the ball again, resulting in a score. The Huskers went three and out a second time, and Ohio State got the ball and moved toward a first down when Braxton Miller was stripped. 20 seconds later, the Cornhuskers finally found the solution, both in reaching the endzone and in realizing that the Ohio State scheme would have problems with the inverted veer option look. At this point, momentum had not shifted but you could sense that the UNL sidelines were waking up.
The next series saw the Buckeyes return to the ground and achieve another first down. Then it happened… Braxton twisted his ankle on a second down run and came out of the game. When Joe Bauserman entered and threw the subsequent pass within about three seats of where we were sitting, I texted Eric and Jeff “Game over” and turned off my phone.
Was that true? Not necessarily… Like many Ohio State fans who grew up in the Cooper era, I’m a bit on the pessimistic side (I prefer realist), and used to having the ball pulled away at the last minute (damn you, Charles Schultz). But you could see on the sidelines that the “bounce” had shifted- and when Martinez connected on the deep pass thrown off his back foot (kid makes Pryor’s form seem orthodox), you could see the air coming out of the Buckeye sails.
Again, that’s not true across the board- the O Line kept fighting, the defensive players were trying their best to fly to the ball and make plays, the running backs were still running hard… even if it’s true that Bauserman’s interception was due to him calling an audible at the line, it shows that he was still trying to take advantage of what the defense would give them in order to put the team in the best position to win. In hindsight, though… perhaps he should have just stuck with the running play, since Carlos was in “beast mode”.
But something had changed. After the game, Ty Moeller said they were “outschemed” on defense in the fourth quarter, something that I don’t doubt. Nebraska decided to run around the Silver Bullets; to spread the field and attack the edges after running the corners and safeties out of position. It’s an extension of what Toledo did- get outside and let people make plays in space- and it worked in part due to the youth of some of our secondary and linebackers. What also worked was moving to an up-tempo attack, slowing down the rotation that Ohio State had used to get fresh bodies and clear thinking heads into the game. Given the war happening in the trenches and the “panic mode” the offensive gameplan had slipped into (passing more than rushing), it made sense that Ohio State would start to make costly mistakes. Which they did, in uncharacteristic fashion- Christian Bryant, one of the best open field tacklers on the team, wiffed tackling runningback Burkhead in the flat after Martinez was flushed and tossed the ball to him as a safety outlet. Perhaps CB2 was looking for another killshot like in the photo above, but he lowered his head and allowed Burkhead to slip by him for the touchdown.
The offense, as was noted, had also changed ideologies. Without Braxton to keep the second and third levels of the defense honest, it became easier and easier to load the box and dare Ohio State to pass. The young receivers couldn’t get off their coverage, and their quarterback did what he’s done all along- struggle to find an opening. At some rate, though, the Buckeyes found themselves within long fieldgoal range, yet chose to punt. The rationale is sound, in theory; the weather and wind may not have given Basil the chance he deserved, but it was the last time Ohio State would threaten to score in the game (and would have given them a two score lead). In the end, I don’t think it would have mattered- Nebraska showed class and took a knee at the end of the game with significant time left on the clock; they could have easily scored again if they had needed to.
So what happened? Some people will point to the defensive side of the ball, saying that the players lost focus or weren’t prepared by their coaches well enough. Others will say that the gameplan didn’t have a Plan B(auserman), and was unwise to go away from the running game given the level of success that had been seen throughout the night. Still others hold that the unwillingness to go for the field goal showed a coaching lapse, and that all three of these components indicate that a change is necessary in the Ohio State Football leadership pantheon.
I believe that any or all of these things may be true, but want to point to another possibility. This team may not have been able to draw on the well of resilience because that well is dry. A young team, with young leadership (at least at the head coaching position), that has been asked week after week after week after week to deal with adversity… it’s perfectly logical that at some juncture they’d reach their breaking point and would not be able to respond as needed.
Personal note- I lost four games from the beginning of my football career (7th grade) to my graduation from highschool, and proceeded to play for a team that went 0-10 during my freshman year of college. I had to learn quickly how to respond to adversity, and I can tell you from experience that this was much easier said than done.
Even when you get an edge, even when you’re up on the scoreboard, all it takes is one thing to trigger the “well, here we go again” mentality. A long pass called back for holding. A sure pick six dropped. A missed assignment on third down leading to the chains being moved against you… Sometimes, when you go to your deepest place, you don’t find what you need.
Again, this is just my attempt at armchair psychology, and I want to be clear about a couple of things. I’m not suggesting that this team experienced “learned helplessness” on Saturday in the face of the futility that the off the field issues have created. I’m also not suggesting that the team is defeated and has given up- to the contrary, there’s a lot of fight in the veterans and a lot of fire in the young members of the squad.
All I’m wondering is if, just maybe, the comeback in Lincoln was due in part to the entire program being worn down not by Cornhuskers, but by everything that has been building and building and building.
The danger in this possibility is that “us against the world” can very quickly turn into “us against each other” if the patience and resilience necessary for success aren’t present. That the worst thing that can happen might not be NCAA sanctions, but instead doubts about teammates and other coaches. You don’t need scholarship reductions if you’re dealing with transfers and discord in house. That’s when programs start a collapse that can take years to dig out of…
I’ll leave Lincoln with my comments from when I arrived– when told that Nebraska was going to beat the Buckeyes, my response was “No, they’re not… If OSU loses, it’s because they’ve beaten themselves.”
What remains to be seen, over the next six games, is if Ohio State has the resilience and attitude necessary to emerge victorious this season- if not on the scoreboards, in their character.
Because, as I’m sure they know, every day is a great day to be a Buckeye.