Ohio State Buckeyes: Christian Bryant

Early OSU observations: No. 4

March, 11, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking the week off for spring break gives one a peek at some new faces and a couple changes. While the Buckeyes are gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s team.

No. 4: Safeties getting squeezed

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMISafety Vonn Bell's knee surgery knocks him out for the spring.
The process was never expected to go smoothly or easily, but Ohio State surely could have done without a setback popping up on the first day of camp as it set out to repair its damaged pass defense.

Urban Meyer made clear that a few coverage breakdowns were to be expected as the Buckeyes installed a more aggressive scheme in the secondary, and so he wasn’t troubled by the big plays that were given up as practice opened with the offense clearly getting the better of the defense. He also recognized that there wasn’t enough depth at safety for his liking, but losing projected starter Vonn Bell to knee surgery for the rest of spring after that first workout might have been more difficult for Meyer to stomach than a few deep balls completed to wide-open receivers.

Bell is expected to be back to full speed by May after the minor procedure for a tear in his medial collateral ligament, more than enough time to allow him to take advantage of the offseason program and get physically ready for his critical role on the back line. But with new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash installing his new system, reps in March and April would have been invaluable for Bell, particularly because Meyer expressed confidence only in him, Cam Burrows and returning starter Tyvis Powell as options at safety.

The Buckeyes have two newcomers on the way in the fall, but the lack of depth at the position during the spring might be unsettling for a team that was devastated by just one key injury during the season, as everything fell apart after losing Christian Bryant in late September. Bell’s injury isn’t nearly as serious, but it offered a quick reminder that the secondary is going to hit some potholes on the road to rebuilding.

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's less than a week left on that wait for spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for the players. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key position battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should happen in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITyvis Powell played well for the Buckeyes in 2013, but he will have a bigger role next season.
No. 1: The secondary earns rave reviews

No unit will be under closer inspection this spring than the secondary with a new coach, three new starters and huge task in front of it after the Buckeyes struggled so mightily to stop the pass last season.

But all those fresh faces and all that room to grow also allows for the defensive backs to make the biggest impression in the spring, and the Buckeyes are in position to turn a few heads and get back to the level the program is accustomed to defensively by the fall.

With Bradley Roby off to the NFL a year early, Christian Bryant's appeals for a medical redshirt denied and C.J. Barnett out of eligibility, there are critical holes to fill. Few teams in the nation, though, can match the talent the Buckeyes have acquired in the secondary in the last couple recruiting cycles, and all that work is poised to pay off as the youngsters move into the starting lineup.

Tyvis Powell already did that as a redshirt freshman last fall, and he proved he can be counted on after spending his first season as a regular playing in nickel and dime packages before starting at safety in the Discover Orange Bowl. He was joined on the back line in that game by heralded recruit Vonn Bell, who flashed the athleticism that made him one of the nation's most sought-after recruits last year with a leaping, one-handed interception that restarted the hype for his sophomore campaign.

At cornerback, Doran Grant played better and more reliably than perhaps he received credit for, and there will be a spirited battle to land the job on the other side of the formation during camp. Armani Reeves might have the inside track when practice opens given his experience, but Gareon Conley and Eli Apple will be legitimate threats after watching from the sideline during their first seasons on campus.

And all of those guys will be getting watched by a fresh set of eyes with new secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash taking over and implementing his more aggressive approach to shutting down passing attacks. He might be getting monitored just as closely as the players as Urban Meyer takes a more hands-on approach to getting his defense fixed and ready to contend for at least a Big Ten title.

That job probably won't be done by the time the spring game rolls around in April. But it seems like a safe bet the Buckeyes will be able to see plenty of progress by then, regardless of how much further they might still have to go.

Players to watch in spring: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIThe Buckeyes need safety Vonn Bell to be a game-changer in 2014.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The series flips to the defensive side of the ball today at a spot that will be critical in the secondary.

No. 2: Vonn Bell, safety

  • By the numbers: The debut season for the defensive back was largely spent on special teams as he chipped in 19 tackles, but he ended the season on a high note by earning the start in the Discover Orange Bowl and nabbing his first career interception.
  • What’s at stake: The Buckeyes had all kinds of problems defending the pass a year ago, and that was with a group of experienced veterans who were supposed to make the secondary a team strength. Now they have to replace safeties Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett and Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, not to mention cornerback Bradley Roby, and it will be up to a couple of classes stocked with some of the most sought-after recruits in the country at the position to prove the Buckeyes are in good hands moving forward and capable of exceeding the low standard that was set last season. The buzz around Bell that started with his signing-day decision to join Ohio State a year ago has only become louder with his performance in the loss to Clemson, and the defense desperately needs him to be a game-changer in the secondary.
  • Best-case scenario: There’s no question Bell will be lining up with the first team when camp opens in March, and there’s not much doubt that he’ll be staying in that spot for a while. New co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to mold the Buckeyes into a more aggressive outfit, and that figures to be well-suited to Bell’s athletic ability given both his reputation and the glimpse of his talents at the end of last season. Ohio State will also be monitoring the partnership with the other expected starter at safety, and developing chemistry between Tyvis Powell and Bell in the spring could go a long way toward repairing the beleaguered defense in the fall.

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 10

January, 22, 2014
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We're starting a new series today looking back on the best games involving Big Ten teams from the 2013 season.

It was tough to narrow this list down to just 10, as league teams played several close and intriguing games this year. Heck, Penn State alone seemed to go into overtime every other week. But we're looking for more than just a tight final score in our best-of list. We're taking into account the stakes of the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

With all that in mind, let's kick things off …

No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24, Sept. 28

[+] EnlargeMiller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller threw four TDs and the Buckeyes held off a late Wisconsin rally to win the huge Leaders Division clash.
The Leaders Division title was basically already decided before October arrived. I was there, and the atmosphere in the Horseshoe was electric that night. LeBron James watched from the sideline, validating this as a truly big event.

How it went down: The No. 4 Buckeyes, as was their custom most of the season, jumped out to an early lead. Braxton Miller returned from a knee injury and threw a pair of first-quarter touchdown passes as Ohio State went ahead 17-7. The backbreaker came just before halftime, as Miller found Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown pass with just one second remaining for a 24-14 halftime edge. Ohio State had run the same play on the previous snap, but Wisconsin's Sojourn Shelton dropped a potential interception.

Miller threw his fourth touchdown pass, again to Brown, late in the third quarter for a seemingly insurmountable 17-point advantage. But Ohio State got conservative on offense and Wisconsin roared back with 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Badgers had the ball on their own 10 with 1:29 left but couldn't manage a first down. Buckeyes safety and defensive leader Christian Bryant suffered a season-ending broken ankle on the final series, an injury that would haunt Ohio State.

Player of the game: Miller was terrific, but the best player on the field might have been Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. Matched up with All-American cornerback Bradley Roby, Abbrederis was nearly unstoppable in hauling in 10 catches for 207 yards and a score.

Stat of the game: Ohio State held Wisconsin's star running back duo of Melvin Gordon and James White to just 105 yards combined. It was their lowest output of the season.

They said it: "It's basically a play that shouldn't happen," Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward said about the touchdown before halftime. "There was no miscommunication. It was just a bad play."
A look at the last lessons of the season after No. 7 Ohio State came up short in a 40-35 shootout against No. 12 Clemson on Friday night in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Allen Kee / ESPN ImagesDespite two late turnovers Friday, Braxton Miller's performance in the Discover Orange Bowl was admirable and gave the Buckeyes a chance to win.
Defensive future is actually bright: The same old mistakes popped up again on defense, and with so many important contributors either on the sideline or back in Columbus, that should really come as no surprise. Clemson had a veteran quarterback, a freakish athlete at wide receiver and a solid game plan, and it was always likely to put up points. But Jamal Marcus shined at defensive end in place of Noah Spence. With Christian Bryant still injured and Corey Brown struggling, Tyvis Powell proved he was ready for a full-time role. And given the chance to play in the nickel package, Vonn Bell snagged an impressive interception that offered a reminder of how blessed he is physically. The pipeline is starting to fill up with talent, and Ohio State could easily be back to an elite level on defense in 2014.

Miller memories: The decision is expected within a week, and there’s a chance that Braxton Miller’s final throw with the program will be an interception that sealed the loss in the closing minutes. But the junior quarterback did plenty just to keep the Buckeyes in the game, delivering the kind of plays the way he has throughout his career despite clearly being at less than full strength. Whether Miller returns or not, the way he gutted his way to 269 yards of total offense and four combined touchdowns is what should be remembered, not the final pick.

Killer instinct lacking: The play that changed Friday's game was pretty clear, as Philly Brown muffed a punt that was begging for a fair catch in the third quarter with Ohio State up 29-20, which would have set the Buckeyes up with good field position and a chance to just about clinch a BCS bowl victory with a touchdown. Ohio State ran into similar problems in the Michigan State loss, as the Buckeyes were up seven with the ball in the third quarter before the Spartans came back to win. Maybe it’s a small sample size, but both losses to end the season were well within Ohio State’s control down the stretch, and it will need to finish off top-notch opponents if its going to be a national-championship contender.
Breaking down the critical areas and key players as No. 7 Ohio State closes the season against No. 12 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl (TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.).

Embrace the challenge: As if the Buckeyes haven't had enough challenges thrown their way defensively down the stretch, things have only become more difficult for them despite having all the extra time to prepare for the bowl game after dropping the Big Ten championship against Michigan State. The top pass-rushing threat is at home after Noah Spence was suspended by the conference for three games. The most skilled defensive back is on the shelf thanks to a bone bruise for Bradley Roby. Starting middle linebacker Curtis Grant is still banged up. Even a player who was already ruled out for this game received bad news this week with Christian Bryant's appeal for a medical redshirt denied by the NCAA. That is a lot of adversity for the Buckeyes regardless of how explosive the offense their facing is, and they can either take the challenge head on or shrink in the spotlight.

Secondary shakeup: Urban Meyer vowed changes were coming for his beleaguered defense, and a couple have already come into focus with tweaks to the personnel. Picked on down the stretch, senior Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown is expected to be replaced by Tyvis Powell at safety, and talented freshman Vonn Bell will slide into the nickel back role and see his most extensive playing time of his debut season just before it ends. Those two guys represent the future for the Buckeyes at safety, and they will certainly have their hands full against Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and his talented cast of receivers. No matter what happens, Powell and Bell figure to at least gain some valuable experience heading into an offseason where starting roles are likely to become permanent for them.

Passing fancy: Braxton Miller can change a game without ever throwing a pass thanks to his fleet feet, but the Buckeyes would certainly like to see his accurate arm again. The junior hasn't completed more than 13 throws or topped 160 yards since the first week of November, and while Ohio State still put up a lot of points during that dip in his passing totals, the lack of balance caught up with it against the Spartans. Aside from winning a BCS game, Miller is also trying to impress NFL scouts and prove that he's ready for the next level, and that combination should provide plenty of incentive for him to put his best foot -- or arm -- forward.

Fond farewell: For all the seniors have both been through and accomplished during their careers, there is plenty for them to feel proud about as they suit up for the program for the final time. They battled through the adversity that came with the NCAA sanctions, posted a perfect record in 2012 and a handful provided memorable moments that Ohio State will never forget. Carlos Hyde's relentless rushing style, Kenny Guiton's invaluable work off the bench at quarterback and the physical blocking of four senior starters on the offensive line, just to name a few, have certainly left a mark for the Buckeyes. All of them should be properly motivated to finish on top against the Tigers.

On the Marcus: Noah Spence obviously wasn't working alone as the defensive line quickly went from question mark to one of the most effective units on the team, but the sophomore clearly deserved plenty of credit as he led the team in sacks with 8 and chipped in 14.5 tackles for a loss overall. Now facing a three-game suspension that starts with the Discover Orange Bowl, at least temporarily the Buckeyes again have to replace a starter up front after rebuilding the defensive line completely after last season. Jamal Marcus moved up from linebacker to defensive end as part of that process, and in a supporting role he offered a pair of sacks among his 15 tackles, forced a fumble and showed glimpses of the kind of athleticism that have allowed Spence to thrive in the opposing backfield. Against Clemson, Marcus will have to prove he can do it for an extended period of time, particularly since it will be critical for the Buckeyes to disrupt Boyd and try to force some mistakes with the football.

Big Ten's lunch links

January, 2, 2014
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The Big Ten certainly seems to be smelling a little better already in 2014.
  • The Rose Bowl champions have raised the bar for themselves, and the Michigan State Spartans are now looking at an even bigger prize moving forward.
  • The Big Ten has seen plenty of criticism. The Pac-12 has been praised repeatedly. The champ of one league beat the champ of the other in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, and that's good news for the Big Ten.
  • Offensive woes doomed Iowa as it struggled to get the critical yardage it needed to sustain drives against LSU in the Outback Bowl.
  • Bo Pelini had reason to smile after Nebraska battled the elements and overcame its recent struggles against the SEC to cap an interesting season.
  • The hits keep coming for Ohio State this week, which has dealt with everything from injury to suspension to a rainy practice as it prepares for the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • The Buckeyes also received word that Christian Bryant's appeal for a medical redshirt was denied, likely ending the career of the senior safety.
  • Wisconsin is going to need more playmakers to take the next step, writes Tom Oates after the Capital One Bowl loss for the Badgers.
  • Bill O'Brien became the first head coach to leave Penn State for another job since 1915, and a few trustees are recognizing how fortunate they were to have stability for so long.
  • Now that the Nittany Lions are in the market for a coach again, these six candidates have emerged as potential targets.
  • The early signing of financial-aid agreements and potential mid-year enrollments for six recruits is helping Indiana get the ball rolling into next season.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Both head coaches met with the media on Thursday morning in the final press conferences before Friday's Discover Orange Bowl. Here are some highlights from the session with Ohio State's Urban Meyer:

• Safety Christian Bryant's request for a medical redshirt and an extra year of eligibility has been denied by the NCAA. The senior broke his ankle late in the win over Wisconsin in September. NCAA rules state that a player can compete in no more than 30 percent of a team's games -- bowl games not included -- to be eligible for a medical redshirt. Bryant's injury occurred in Ohio State's fifth game. Meyer said there may be room to appeal the ruling but added "appeals haven’t been real good to the Buckeyes here lately." Ohio State just lost an appeal to the Big Ten over Noah Spence's three-game suspension.

• Speaking of Spence, sophomore Jamal Marcus is poised to take Spence's defensive end spot in Friday's game. Meyer said Marcus has practiced well this week, and the coach is expecting big things out of a guy who played sparingly in the regular season.

"Jamal Marcus is going to be a disruptive guy," Meyer said. "He's one of the more talented guys on our team. I'm anxious to watch him play. We had a staff meeting this morning at 7 a.m. and [defensive line coach] Mike Vrabel made that comment to me. He's a quick-twitch guy. This is his kind of game."

• Linebacker Ryan Shazier is from Fort Lauderdale and will have many friends and family in the Sun Life Stadium stands. Meyer said Shazier, who took over Bryant's No. 2 jersey number after he went down, has also assumed a lot of Bryant's leadership responsibilities.

"He has done a really magical job at that," Meyer said. "He was not a leader a year ago. He was a very good player -- by the end of the year a great player. He's been a very good player this year, but he's done a nice job leading, leading by example, practicing hard and even being more vocal."

• Not surprisingly, Ohio State is using this trip to Florida as a way to recruit. Meyer and his staff plan to visit powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School on Thursday night. That's the same school that produced current Buckeyes standout Joey Bosa.

"I can list at least two dozen high schools right in this area that are loaded with talent," Meyer said. "We have not good relationships but great relationships with these high school coaches. A lot of them came to visit us at a bowl practice.

"We attack it. It's a primary area for us. Because we have so much experience down here, it's nothing new. We know most of these coaches. And the good thing is, people know Ohio State."

• Shazier and quarterback Braxton Miller have big decisions to make about whether to enter the NFL draft. Meyer admitted that NFL decisions have created distractions for teams "hundreds of times." But he said he knows this group of players well enough to spot potential distractions and "I haven't felt that at all. I've had a couple conversations, many about, 'Hey, we'll discuss this afterwards. Let's go win this game.'" Meyer also said he had no idea what to expect from Miller's postgame decision process even though he has a great relationship with the quarterback.

• When asked what young players have stood out during bowl practices -- something Ohio State didn't have the luxury of using last year -- Meyer named the following guys: Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Joshua Perry, Chris Worley, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith, Michael Thomas and Billy Price.

• Meyer's most famous former player, Tim Tebow, agreed this week to serve as an analyst on ESPN's new SEC Network this fall. Meyer said he and Tebow still talk frequently, and he hopes the former Heisman Trophy winner hasn't finished playing football yet. Meyer said he's never had a serious conversation about Tebow joining him in some capacity at Ohio State.

"I don't want to disrupt his dream," he said. "His dream is to go play quarterback in the National Football League, and I don't think we're there yet in his mindset that he's done."

Improving defense at top of Meyer's list

December, 23, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Presented with a one-question, multiple-choice quiz, Urban Meyer barely even needed to hear all the options to come up with his answer.

What does the Ohio State coach need to address with his beleaguered defense?

A: Personnel changes are in order, perhaps starting by finding time for arguably the most sought-after recruit in the most recent signing class, athletic safety Vonn Bell.

B: The scheme needs some adjustments after getting torched through the air down the stretch, undoing some of the success stopping the run and eliminating the margin for error for its own high-scoring offense.

C: Whether by choice or necessity, a staff shakeup might bring a new voice and maybe fresh ideas into the meeting room as the program heads into its third year under Meyer.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't get a firm grip on Connor Cook in the Big Ten title game, surrendering 304 passing yards.
“All of the above,” Meyer said after wrapping up a practice last week ahead of the Discover Orange Bowl. “ ... There are certainly things we need to get fixed and fixed in a hurry with Clemson coming down the road here.”

Meyer didn’t provide any essay answers for what those corrections might be for the No. 7 Buckeyes, either in the short term as they gear up for a stiff test against the No. 12 Tigers or what all might go into overhauling the defense once the offseason inevitably arrives.

But it’s plainly evident that the majority of Meyer’s attention will be devoted to shoring up a unit that ranked No. 103 in the nation in pass defense, contributing heavily to an overall effort that didn’t meet Ohio State’s high standards as it allowed 34 points or more three times in the final four games -- including the loss that crushed its national-championship dreams against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

Part of the problem has been lack of depth, and Meyer has quickly steered most conversations since the season ended to how hard the Buckeyes have hit the road recruiting. The loss of Christian Bryant to a broken ankle in September was a hurdle the secondary could never quite get over, and he, too, could be a candidate to patch the leak if his appeal for a medical redshirt is approved in the offseason.

Either way, Bell is a likely option to lend a hand, both against the Tigers and down the road as Meyer evaluates the roster and potentially looks to make a move or two on the field. And off it, he already knows now that he’ll be making his first hire since his initial staff was settled before spring camp in 2012 as Everett Withers departs to take over at James Madison after two years coaching safeties and serving as a co-defensive coordinator.

And while the work on the recruiting trail, the development of a handful of young, talented defenders and the hiring of another coach may all take time, the Buckeyes don’t have all that much to work with before taking on Clemson and trying to cap the season with a trophy in a BCS game. After getting torched for 755 passing yards in the last two games, they crammed as much as they could into the bowl practices over the last two weeks before taking off for the holidays and preparing to fly to Miami.

“I think we just have to break on the ball better, be more sound in our gaps and our responsibilities,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We have to communicate better, and it’s just the little things that we’ve got to fix.

“I’m kind of surprised, because those little things, we definitely should have controlled at the beginning of the season. We just have to do a better job with this time we have before this game to get it fixed.”

Once that test is out of the way, the Buckeyes will have a bit more time to study up and make sure they’re prepared defensively next season.

Meyer has already made clear that every possible answer to the problems will be addressed.

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 20, 2013
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: The No. 7 Buckeyes.

Offense: A-

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller proved to be nearly unstoppable in the running game.
A somewhat sloppy final exam brought down the overall grade, but it's hard to find fault with the most prolific scoring attack in the Big Ten and one of the most explosive offenses Ohio State has ever had in its decorated history. The rushing game was close to unstoppable, clear strides were evident when the football was in the air and the offensive line proved itself to be one of the best units in the country as the Buckeyes rolled their way to more than 46 points per game.

For all the talk about trying to balance out the spread offense this season, though, the Buckeyes weren't quite able to trust the passing game when it mattered most against the best defense they faced all year. Michigan State made them pay in the Big Ten title game as Braxton Miller struggled with his accuracy and his receivers put a few catchable throws on the ground, making rushing lanes harder to come by down the stretch and ultimately building to a failed fourth-down rush with a chance to play for the crystal football hanging in the balance.

But, obviously, the Buckeyes had 12 wins on the resume before that, and Carlos Hyde's wildly productive senior season finally gave Urban Meyer a 1,000-yard running back. Despite missing three games due to suspension to open the year, Hyde still led the Big Ten in rushing yardage during league play and finished with 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground as the Buckeyes bullied through the regular season thanks to his terrifying partnership with Miller in the backfield.

Defense: B-

At their best and fully healthy, the Buckeyes appeared to be on their way to living up to the high standards of the Silver Bullets and ranking among the nation's best defenses with a developing front, a game-changing linebacker and a veteran secondary filled with playmakers. Without the full complement of starters and against some solid offensive game plans, the Buckeyes at times looked completely lost and were exposed in the back end, particularly late in the season as injuries revealed the lack of depth at critical positions.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoey Bosa had a stellar freshman season with 6.5 sack and six QB hurries.
The good certainly outweighed the bad for Ohio State, as it showed a knack for regrouping and making critical adjustments after some shaky starts, notably against Iowa and Northwestern. Ryan Shazier came up short in his bid for a couple of individual trophies, but the junior linebacker sent his NFL stock soaring with another stats-stuffing season that was downright spectacular at times. After needing to replace the entire defensive line, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett all proved more than capable of wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield and will return next season.

But much, much more was expected of the secondary with Bradley Roby returning for at cornerback to team with senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. The loss of Bryant in September to a fractured ankle was a blow the Buckeyes were never able to truly recover from, and finishing No. 11 in the Big Ten in pass defense is never going to be acceptable at a program with so much defensive pride. Those issues were balanced out by a stout rush defense and an opportunistic unit. While there are certainly programs that would be happy with a grade like this on defense, Ohio State isn't one of them.

Special teams: B+

Freshman Cameron Johnston turned out to be an invaluable recruiting pickup late in the game a year ago, bursting on the scene with his powerful leg and a unique ability to dial it back when needed to switch field position. A coverage unit stocked with starters willing to lend a hand in the kicking game certainly didn't hurt, either.

The Buckeyes also made life miserable on opposing punters, a calling card of an Urban Meyer team, with Roby blocking a pair and Doran Grant throwing in another. Drew Basil was solid kicking the football, though Ohio State didn't call on the senior all that much has he attempted just 10 field goals, making nine.

There was a spark missing on kickoff and punt return, which will no doubt frustrate Meyer heading into next season. Dontre Wilson broke a 51-yard kickoff return and Philly Brown had a long of 65, but neither was able to break a touchdown.

Overall: A-

Everything was set up for the Buckeyes to make a run at the national championship, and despite all the hand-wringing about the BCS standings and OSU's schedule, all the dominoes had fallen into place ahead of the conference title game. And while that loss to the Spartans left them one game short of playing for the national crown, the Buckeyes still won 12 and are headed to the Discover Orange Bowl, which is a respectable consolation prize in what should again go down as a successful season.

Bowl prep: Ohio State's to-do list

December, 12, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The ultimate goal slipped away along with the longest winning streak in school history, but Ohio State certainly isn't short on motivation with one game left to play.

For starters, the No. 7 Buckeyes are still in the BCS with a marquee matchup against No. 12 Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. After dropping the Big Ten championship against the best opponent they've faced since Urban Meyer took over the program, taking on the Tigers also represents another opportunity to show off nationally and perhaps earn a bit of redemption. And, obviously, the Buckeyes can potentially start a brand new winning streak if they can knock off Clemson on Jan. 3.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
But there's plenty of time between that date and now, and Ohio State also has no shortage of things to work on during bowl practices this month. After not getting the chance to put on the pads last December, it surely won't be taken the workouts for granted this year -- and they also need them for what could be a shootout with the Tigers.

Shore up the secondary: This issue is nothing new for the Buckeyes, but they need to make a correction now more than ever if they're going to end the season on a high note.

Coverage breakdowns, poor communication and missed opportunities nearly cost Ohio State a perfect regular season as Michigan picked it apart in late November. Michigan State actually finished the job a week later with Connor Cook making it look far too easy to throw for more than 300 yards, a feat which would have been stunning to even consider back in the preseason with all the veteran talent returning in the backend for the Buckeyes.

The loss of Christian Bryant to a fractured ankle in September was a huge blow, and the secondary never seemed to fully recover from it. The Buckeyes certainly appear to have a bright future after landing arguably the nation's best class of cornerbacks and safeties last year, but those newcomers weren't quite ready for regular roles as freshmen and need another offseason of development before they can make a difference.

That won't do much good against the Tigers, though, which puts the pressure on Bryant's replacement at safety, Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, and the other three starters to raise their games to slow down a team which is more than capable of airing it out and scoring points in bunches.

Brax to basics: Braxton Miller remains one of the most dangerous open-field runners in the country, and his individual rushing numbers have improved late in the season. But that might be out of necessity, because his passing numbers have dipped dramatically after showing off the improvement in his arm during a red-hot stretch in late October and the first week of November.

Since carving up hapless Purdue with 19 completions on just 23 attempts, Miller and the passing attack have struggled to generate anything consistently, and the junior has hit on less than 50 percent of his throws in three of the last four games. The weather can partially be blamed for the recent problems with his accuracy, but the Buckeyes were playing indoors last week against the Spartans when Miller was often missing the target during an 8-for-21 performance.

Miller has shown off his arm strength and accuracy plenty of times, and there's not really any question about what he's capable of leading the offense. But his footwork and decision-making have let him down at times late in the season, and a couple weeks to go back and stress fundamentals could do wonders for him ahead of a showcase game against Clemson.

Eyes on the road: There was no way to truly replace the bowl practices Ohio State missed last year due to the NCAA sanctions that kept it out of the postseason, though it did inspire "The Chase" as Meyer challenged his players to make up for the workouts on their own at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

But the coaching staff couldn't be around to offer instruction then, and the full practices in December are often invaluable for young players who didn't see the field much as they try to springboard into larger roles the following season. Considering both the lack of depth at key positions like linebacker and wide receiver and the need to replace veterans all over the offensive line and in the secondary, the coaching staff will need to make the absolute most out of its chance to get its hands on the players this month.

The Buckeyes, of course, are trying to win a game. But they'll need to bring along five-star safety Vonn Bell to groom him for a much larger role in the secondary next year. They have to find more help for Taylor Decker and likely starter Pat Elflein on the offensive line. And even with the possibility of having all three starters back at linebacker if Ryan Shazier decides to stick around for another season, Ohio State could clearly use some help filling out the rotation from Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson.

The balancing act is making sure the current starters are ready for a bowl game while still prepping their future replacements. But since the Buckeyes couldn't do either a year ago, that challenge is surely going to be readily embraced.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
5:00
PM ET
The weather outside is frightful. But your emails are so delightful. Well, except for the guy who sent me repeated missives in all caps about how Braxton Miller should have been suspended for the Big Ten championship game. Dude, give it a rest.

Anyway, on to the mailbag:

Scott M. from Charlotte, N.C., writes: Will we ever know why Ohio State felt two carries were plenty for Carlos Hyde in the fourth quarter? The game turned in the third quarter because of the bruiser. Braxton Miller is the driver of the car but those two calls late in the game were just awful. How anyone can say I have third-and-three for the game and my 230 pound, 7-yards-a-rush running back will not touch the ball really needs to look at themselves in the mirror.

Brian Bennett: Should Carlos Hyde have gotten more than 18 carries against Michigan State? Probably. But don't forget that the Spartans defense specializes in loading the box and daring teams to throw deep. Plus, Miller was the more effective runner of the two most of the night and finished with more yards and yards per carry than Hyde.

The fourth quarter began with an Ohio State punt. Then Michigan State drove for a field goal. On Ohio State's first real possession of the fourth, Hyde ran for four yards on second-and-10, setting up a passing situation on third down. Miller then threw an incomplete pass. The series you're talking about started with 7:36 left. The Buckeyes had Miller run it on third and fourth down, and he was stuffed both times. Urban Meyer said it was his call to give the ball to Miller on fourth-and-2.

And it's hard to fault him for that. We're talking about the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year who ran for 142 yards vs. Michigan State. A running quarterback is one way to counter the Spartans defense. It didn't work out, mostly because Pat Narduzzi called the right blitz and Denicos Allen made a great play. After that, Michigan State scored a touchdown to go up by 10 points, and the the time to run the ball was over for Ohio State.

Bottom line is you have to be successful passing the ball to beat the Spartans. And Ohio State went 8-for-21 for 101 yards through the air.

Tommy B. from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, as a Buckeye fan it's crazy for me to think that after the 2011 6-7 disaster that I'd be so disappointed after the team would go 24-1 under Urban Meyer so far. I'd almost forgot what it felt like to lose on a Saturday (emphasis on almost, it felt terrible in case you were wondering). The problem has obviously been complete inconsistency with the defense. They have big name veteran stars with gaudy numbers and at times (including in the B1G title game) they've been dominant. But in the Michigan game and for some big game-changing plays against MSU they've had complete breakdowns. They have the talent to be better than they are. In your opinion, what's the problem? Fickell? Key injuries (Bryant)? Fickell? Youth in key positions? Fickell?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question. The place we thought Ohio State's defense might be vulnerable to start the year was up front because of all the youth there. Yet that was arguably the strength of the defense, with guys like Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. The problem really seemed to be at the linebacker positions other than Ryan Shazier and at safety, especially when Christian Bryant got injured. Michigan State exposed the Buckeyes' safeties early on last Saturday.

It's kind of hard to believe that Ohio State would find itself so thin at linebacker. The Buckeyes recruited some highly-regarded defensive backs last year, but guys like Vonn Bell didn't have much of an impact this season. They're still young, so that's to be expected, but it was disappointing that some of the more veteran players didn't have great seasons (relatively speaking, because Ohio State did go 12-0).

The Buckeyes' defensive coaches all have strong track records, so I have a hard time believing it's simply a coaching issue. But Ohio State clearly needs to develop better depth in its back seven, especially if Shazier decides to leave for the NFL.

Randy from Waukesha, Wis., writes: I just learned that Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis won an award for the national best walk-on player-of the-year in CF! Did I miss your guys' article on this? If not please tell us more..... B1G can use all the kudos it can get, especially at this time of the year!

Brian Bennett: Yes, Abbrederis won the Burlsworth Trophy, which is award to the best player who started his career as a walk-on. We didn't write a post about it, mainly because there are seemingly thousands of college football awards now, but we did tweet it. Abbrederis was a slam-dunk choice for that award, and it's hard to believe he ever was a walk-on. He'll be on an NFL roster next fall.

King from Los Angeles writes: I agreed with you about the silliness of the coaches' poll. I am a Huskers fan and I do not believe we deserved a top 25 ranking even though Bo thinks so. I think they should change the way coaches vote by making a rule that you cannot vote for your own team. That could take away all the biases. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: That would only solve part of the problem, as there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc. The good news is it won't matter at all as part of the national championship provess next year, so the coaches can be as silly as they want to be. And given how little most coaches want to deal with the hassle, I'm not sure why there should even be a coaches' poll next year.

Greg from Lansing, Mich., writes: In giving conferences more power on selecting bowl match-ups should we just assume Ohio State/Michigan will always occupy the better bowl games? (If they aren't already in the play-off).

Brian Bennett: I can understand why there's a feeling in some quarters that Ohio State and Michigan get preferential treatment from the league office. But the truth is that the biggest brand-name schools already get preferential treatment from bowls. Is there any reason why Michigan at 7-5, should be in the Big Ten's No. 3 non-BCS bowl this year? Or why Ohio State went to the Gator at 6-6 in 2011? Only one: drawing power.

What the new system will basically do is allow the leagues more input on the process so as to avoid teams going to the same destination over and over again and to create better matchups. Had it been in place this year, however, I doubt we'd see Nebraska going back to Florida for a rematch with Georgia. Bowls are always going to want big-name teams as long as they are businesses. But better matchups and fresher destinations should help fans.

Greg from Atlanta writes: As an Iowa fan living in Georgia, I'm wondering how an 8-4 Georgia team gets ranked and an 8-4 Iowa team doesn't? Now, I'm not saying Iowa deserves a ranking, because 4 wins shouldn't get you in the top 25. But, Georgia lost to Vandy and needed double OT to beat Ga Tech. They also struggled with teams they should have throttled and fell far below expectations. Iowa played two teams tough that will both play in BCS bowls. Is this just more bias against the Big Ten? If so, will that bias ever go away?

Brian Bennett: I don't think this is a case of anti-Big Ten bias as much as it is probably pro-SEC sentiment. Iowa is a tough case and a team I debated putting in my final Top 25 for a while before ultimately deciding against it. Barely. The Hawkeyes' four losses are all highly respectable -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. But you shouldn't get credit for just losing to good teams. Iowa's best wins are over Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska, with two of those on the road. Very solid, but not spectacular.

Georgia's in a similar boat in terms of "good" losses, including Clemson and Missouri. The Dawgs also lost on the road to Auburn thanks to a miracle play at the end. They have also beaten South Carolina and LSU, two wins better than anything Iowa can claim, and the team was decimated by injuries this season.

I think the Hawkeyes are good, and they have some nice momentum after winning their final three games. That's why I'm really looking forward to seeing how they play against LSU. Iowa definitely ends the season in the Top 25 with a win over the Tigers in the Outback. And given the wide-open nature of next year's West Division, at least on paper, Iowa could emerge as one of the preseason favorites in that division in 2014.
Three lessons from the Big Ten championship game.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook, Mark Dantonio
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans proved beyond a doubt that Michigan State was the best team in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State is the Big Ten's best finisher: Many counted out the Spartans after Ohio State erased a 17-0 lead to take a 24-17 advantage midway through the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes had finished off opponents throughout the season with their two-headed running attack and powerful line. But Michigan State also had been terrific late in games, outscoring opponents 185-56 in the second half and 91-27 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans made the necessary corrections, scoring 17 unanswered points to outlast Ohio State and secure a league championship. They limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted touchdown drives of 90 and 61 yards. And like they did in every regular-season Big Ten game, they won by double digits, leaving no doubt about the the league's best and most resilient team in 2013.

2. Ohio State's flaws finally caught up to it: Sure, it may sound weird to talk about the weaknesses of a team that won 24 straight times. But the Buckeyes never were a perfect team despite their amazing streak of perfection. For a heavyweight power, they were surprisingly light on star power at linebacker outside of Ryan Shazier. Safety Christian Bryant's midseason injury created major vulnerabilities in the secondary. The offense lacked consistent receiving threats other than Philly Brown. "We know what our weaknesses are," center Corey Linsely said. "They're obvious." The Michigan game and, to a lesser extent, the win at Illinois exposed some of those troubles. And when Ohio State finally played a powerhouse on its own level in Michigan State, its Achilles' heels caused it to stumble. The Buckeyes came out flat on the big stage in falling behind 17-0, and they only really played well for about a 20-minute stretch before letting the Spartans score the final 17 points. Ohio State deserves all respect for its winning streak, and this team is fully capable of winning a BCS game. But its flaws proved fatal in the quest for a national championship.

3. Connor Cook is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the country: If anyone pegged Cook to be the MVP of the Big Ten title game before the season -- his immediate family members excluded -- hop on the first flight to Vegas. Cook exceeded all expectations in guiding the Spartans to a perfect mark in Big Ten play, and he shined in the brightest lights Saturday night, passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 40 attempts. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told ESPN.com that Cook's growth could be seen each week and that Cook's confidence in himself never wavered, even after low moments like a Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan State hasn't simply found a serviceable game manager to complement its defense. It has found a championship quarterback who oozes moxie and doesn't back down from challenges. Cook began championship week by introducing himself on a conference call with reporters. Everyone knows who he is now.
The All-Big Ten teams and individual awards are out, and the league hands out its four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- later Tuesday. As always, we’re handing out our endorsements for each award in advance of the announcement. We'll agree on some and differ on others.

Let's turn our attention now to the league's top coach:

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Icon SMIOther Big Ten coaches have exceeded expectations, but Urban Meyer should be rewarded for meeting sky-high ones.
Brian Bennett endorses Ohio State's Urban Meyer

If Meyer doesn't win the award this year, then we need to change the name of the honor to "Coach Who Most Exceeded Expectations." Or "Coach of the Year, Non-Ohio State Division." It's ridiculous that voters for these awards often overlook sustained excellence only to pick someone whose team did better than some worthless preseason predictions. All Meyer has done is go 12-0 for the second straight season. The Buckeyes also withstood some adversity, including the suspension of Carlos Hyde, Braxton Miller's knee injury and safety Christian Bryant's season-ending knee injury. Plus, Ohio State had an enormous target on its back all season long. Mark Dantonio did excellent work at Michigan State, especially in staying patient with the offense under withering early criticism. But the 2012 season now looks like the aberration for a Spartans program that has 11 wins in three of the past four years. The Minnesota story is also tremendous, and if this were a vote for coaching staffs, I might give it to the Gophers. But Meyer shouldn't be punished for having sky-high expectations. He should be rewarded for meeting them.

Adam Rittenberg endorses Meyer

Brian pretty much writes it all here as to why Meyer should be the choice. I've had a problem with this award for some time and the fact an Ohio State coach hasn't won it since Earle Bruce in 1979. If Meyer doesn't win after guiding Ohio State to a second consecutive undefeated regular season and a team-record 24 straight wins, just get rid of the thing entirely. Dantonio, Kill and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz all did excellent jobs improving their teams in 2013, but Meyer maintained a standard of excellence in a sport where even the most talented and experienced teams usually stumble at least once in a season. The offense has become even better in Year 2, and the defense held up for the most part despite returning just one starter in the front seven. Enough with the sympathy coach votes. Give it to the guy who has come into the league and dominated right away. Otherwise, the award lacks any credibility.

More endorsements:

Buckeyes, Columbus celebrate Iron Bowl

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
9:39
PM ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The passengers on the southbound bus were already in a celebratory mood.

Another perfect regular season was in the books, a spot in the Big Ten championship had already been secured for next week and, of course, Ohio State had just beaten archrival Michigan a few hours earlier Saturday.

But about 10 miles north of Delaware, Ohio, the party really started.

The five buses in the caravan all started to shake and the No. 3 Buckeyes suddenly had a lot more to smile about as the help they’ve been waiting on in the BCS standings finally arrived in improbable fashion as they watched Auburn spring an upset over Alabama while rolling down the highway.

“We were all just huddled around the TVs,” junior cornerback Bradley Roby said after greeting around 25 fans who waited for the team to return to campus Saturday night. “And I think Christian Bryant or Ryan Shazier, they were like, ‘Watch, they’re going to return this field goal for a touchdown.’ Sure enough, it happened.

“Everybody was jumping around, it was crazy, pandemonium.”

The finish for the Buckeyes earlier in the afternoon was wild enough, a game that featured 83 points, three ejections and a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute before the 42-41 score was settled. But another rivalry game might have even trumped that shootout for drama, with the Tigers delivering on Shazier's and Bryant’s long-shot prediction, turning a missed field goal into the decisive touchdown with no time left on the clock.

That victory for No. 4 Auburn will stir more debate about which teams should play for the national title, but with the Tigers knocking off No. 1 Alabama and finally opening up a spot ahead of Ohio State, the Buckeyes figure to be the biggest beneficiary of a wild weekend when the new BCS standings are released Sunday.

And while the team found out about it while on a bus, Ohio State fan Chris Wasch was at least able to find a broadcast of the closing moments at Gallo’s Tap Room, just a short drive north of the Horseshoe, after originally deciding to head out for some shopping instead of watching the rest of the Iron Bowl.

“I heard it on the radio and I thought, ‘Damn, I’ve got to find a bar,'” said Wasch, decked out in a Braxton Miller jersey and Ohio State hat. “I pulled in here figuring I was going to get a chance to watch overtime, but it was awesome. As soon as the guy made the block at the 25[-yard line], the place went nuts. It was awesome.

“We had to sweat it out two, three times throughout the Michigan game, then everybody was sitting around watching Auburn, hoping and praying. Looks like it worked.”

The job isn’t quite done for the Buckeyes, who still have a huge test looming against No. 11 Michigan State next week in Indianapolis with the Big Ten title on the line.

But for the first time this season, it appears Ohio State will control its own destiny in the chase for the national title.

“It’s a really good feeling, but we can only worry about what we’re doing,” Roby said. “It was very good to see Alabama go down, and we were really hoping they would.

“At the same time, we’re not thinking too far ahead, we’ve got to focus on this week, the opponent we’ve got this week, because if you overlook things like that, that’s how you lose.”

The Buckeyes avoided their first loss on the field in the afternoon. Later, they added another win on the bus ride home.

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