OSU Buckeyes: Jake Stoneburner
Such is the nature of the “new” tight end in football.
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Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSix-foot-6, 250-pound tight end Jeff Heuerman looks to be a major factor in the Buckeyes offense in 2013.
- Who: The junior tight end was already a relatively known quantity for the Buckeyes after providing some rugged blocking and some occasional assistance as a receiving threat last season. But Heuerman had to cede some of the responsibility to Jake Stoneburner in terms of the passing attack. But Stoneburner's departure, Heuerman's continued development and added comfort in the spread system has the 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end in position to be a major factor for the Buckeyes.
- Spring progress: Given his particular role a year ago and his huge frame, Heuerman might not have had much to prove as a blocker this spring. But coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman love to create mismatches with their tight ends and use them in a variety of ways to keep a defense off balance. Showing more familiarity with the playbook went a long way for Heuerman and could help keep him on the field for almost any scenario -- from short-yardage to third-and-long.
- Jockeying for position: Heuerman already owned a starting job at tight end, a spot he shared last year with Nick Vannett. The sophomore was impressive in his own right during camp, and he'll likely stay bracketed with Heuerman as the official first-teamers and keep giving Meyer a couple reasons to feel good about the amount of flexibility he'll have on offense.
- He said it: "I’m just excited about being more of an every-down tight end, rather than last year where third-and-long, third-and-7, Jake’s in there running routes. That’s the big thing they’ve been working on this spring, being the every-down tight end. [Position coach Tim] Hinton and coach Meyer, coach Herman, they’ve been doing great getting me ready for that, and I’m excited for that."
- Closing number: Heuerman generated most of his excitement before the spring game, but he still wrapped up camp by tacking on a catch for 6 yards in the exhibition win for his Scarlet team. He finished last season with 8 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.
Such as, where do the tight ends rank among the numerous weapons in Ohio State’s dangerous spread offense, led by the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year?
“First,” a smiling Heuerman said. “Ahead of Braxton [Miller].”
Heuerman has pranks.
His position coach spent a panicked afternoon worrying about a potential arrest after a story was concocted with a pair of staff members about a late-night incident for Heuerman, who then strung Tim Hinton along straightfaced for an extra 10 minutes before pointing out it was April Fool’s Day.
Heuerman also has size, strength and the ability to handle a wide variety of assignments on the field.
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJeff Heuerman is a known commodity as a blocker, but coaches hope to expand his role as a receiver.
So, is Heuerman really the second coming of Rob Gronkowski?
“Oh, geez,” Heuerman said. “That’s not hard to live up to or anything.”
That standard might be a bit tough to match, and Heuerman has his roommate and former Ohio State tight end-turned-right tackle Reid Fragel to thank for publicly comparing the two and dialing up the hype heading into spring practice. But the Buckeyes do have greater expectations on offense heading into their second season in the spread, and the versatility Heuerman provides is among the biggest reasons why.
At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Heuerman was seemingly born to block in the running game and has proven he can handle that job in the Big Ten. But he also has strong hands and perhaps underrated speed as a target in the passing game. The coaches have kept an eye in his receiving skills in the spring, and that could lead to a larger role in the fall coming off a season that included just eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.
That doesn’t necessarily mean his numbers will be jumping to Gronkowski levels, particularly since the Buckeyes have another valuable option at the same position and with similar skills in Nick Vannett, not to mention Miller and one of the most effective rushing attacks in the country. But Heuerman does appear to fit the blueprint Gronkowski has helped provide and Ohio State wants to use with its tight ends -- using a multi-talented athlete who never has to leave the field regardless of the situation.
As long as they stay out of trouble, real or imagined.
“He’s a little bit of a jokester,” Hinton said. “But he almost died [that day]. Coach [Urban] Meyer almost had to kick him off the team because I was ready to kill him.
“Needless to say, he didn’t play at all in the scrimmage.”
Hinton got even a bit by returning fire with his own joke about playing time, but the reality is Heuerman and Vannett will be on the field plenty thanks to the options they provide for the rushing and passing games.
Heuerman has already been used plenty for the former, but after taking a bit of a backseat to Jake Stoneburner last season as a receiving threat, it’s the latter that should allow him to make a more noticeable impact this fall. And while his one-liners, ability to pull off a prank and his position might have started the conversation, it’s the production that will truly determine whether he’s following in those famous footsteps.
“Gronkowski, he’s a great, great player,” Heuerman said. “I don’t really know all his things off the field, but I hear he likes to have fun.”
Heuerman already has that part nailed.
The passes to the sideline arrived crisply, and pretty much everything over the middle was on the money.
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireFormer Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith returned to Ohio State to help out with the Buckeyes' Pro Day.
"That wasn't for me, though," a sweating Smith said as he walked off the field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. "That was for Jake Stoneburner, that was for those guys. Anything the Buckeyes need in general around here, I'm at their leisure. Any which way we're going to work, I'm going to help.
"You know, over the years I've learned [a writer's talent] is media stuff. I can roll out of bed and throw spirals, what can I say?"
Those tight spirals helped Stoneburner, who said he dropped his 40-yard dash time to 4.52 seconds and then followed it up with an impressive pass-catching performance with his new mentor playing quarterback for him.
The hybrid wide receiver/tight end was been working closely with Smith to prepare for his pro auditions ahead of next month's draft, and the two certainly made each other look good during the positional drills late in the morning. It might not help Smith get back to the NFL after getting released by the Pittsburgh Steelers last summer, but the outing could boost Stoneburner's stock and help him get there for the first time.
"I can see why he won the Heisman, I see why he was a captain -- he motivated me better than anyone I've ever seen," Stoneburner said. "Having him out there certainly made me look better, and I think he was happier for me than I was for myself.
"I mean, that guy is incredible. I was running as fast as I can 40 yards down the field, didn't have to take one single less stride. He hit me right in stride. I absolutely believe he could be in the NFL, and I think he believes it, too. For the scouts here today, I'm sure he made an impression. He looked flawless out there."
On the other end, Stoneburner didn't look too shabby, either.
- Who's back: A valuable, versatile piece of the offense is gone, and Jake Stoneburner's size and ability to line up all over the formation will be missed. But the hybrid receiver-tight end didn't exactly produce as often as the Buckeyes were anticipating in his lone season in Urban Meyer's offense, and the two guys who truly carried the load in the passing game are both coming back and poised to take another step forward after upping their production last fall. Corey "Philly" Brown showed marked improvement from the beginning of the year to the end, and Devin Smith put his chemistry with Braxton Miller and knack for clutch receptions on display much more often as a sophomore. Behind those starters, Evan Spencer and rising sophomore Michael Thomas started gaining more trust from the coaches at the end of the perfect season and could start pushing for more work in the spring.
- New face: The cavalry is coming, but it hasn't arrived yet. The Buckeyes made speedy weapons at the skill positions a top priority on the recruiting trail, and the haul they landed could easily impact the spread offense right away with hype building already for Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. But none of those guys will be on the field during spring workouts, leaving critical practice reps for the returning veterans.
- Projected spring depth chart: Brown's role could shift a bit to feature more work in the slot, a role that running back Jordan Hall or reserve Chris Fields could potentially play as well, as the Buckeyes tinker with matchups and formations. Spencer could then move into a starting role at the 'Z' spot where Brown was listed a year ago, with Smith backed up again by Thomas at the other spot.
- Numbers game: The approach was about as different as could be, but in terms of yardage, Smith and Brown wound up essentially in the same place. Brown vastly improved his number of receptions as a junior, going from 14 to 60 and claiming the team lead by doubling Smith's total. But Smith's ability to streak behind defensive backs and track down the ball produced almost as twice as much yardage per catch as Brown averaged -- with the two combining in the end for 90 catches, 1,287 yards and 9 touchdowns.
- One to watch: Early enrollment gave Thomas a jump on learning the system and a stage to showcase his skills in the spring game a year ago, with the latter in particular taking the buzz about his potential to another level after wowing the crowd at Ohio Stadium with 12 receptions for 131 yards. That performance perhaps put some unfair expectations on a true freshman, and he wasn't ready to meet them in his first campaign while finishing with 3 catches for 22 yards. But those extra workouts a year ago and another full slate of offseason conditioning could start paying some dividends heading into his sophomore season, and setting the table with productive workouts in March and April will be critical with more competition for playing time on the way.
- He said it: "I think we were built a little differently. But to say we never had talent, I never said that. We maybe didn't have the home-run hitter [with] explosiveness, open-space players on offense, but you know what, some guys really grew up and did a good job for us. 'Philly' Brown did a nice job, but we don't have enough. When you're running an offense where you want three or four split guys all the time and you only have one or two, that's not enough. I think we're starting to get a little bit of that built up." -- Meyer on signing day
EXTRA POINTS IN A SINGLE SEASON
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesDrew Basil made 56 extra points in 2012, the third-most in Ohio State history.
- Who owns it: A prolific attack in 2010 gave Devin Barclay plenty of chip shots to convert, and the Ohio State kicker converted every single one of them -- putting his name in the school record book an extra point at a time. That record obviously is much more of a reflection of a dynamic offense than an indicator of how good or bad Barclay was that season, but it's well worth nothing that he is the only kicker in the single-season top 10 for 1-pointers who made every attempt.
- Who wants it: Just three seasons after Barclay took over the top spot, the Buckeyes are primed to put an even more explosive offense on the field in Urban Meyer's second year with the program. Drew Basil should be in line to capitalize heading into his senior campaign. As a junior, Basil perhaps didn't get as many chances to try field goals as he might have hoped, a combination of Meyer's aggressiveness and a red-zone offense that ranked among the best in the nation at turning those chances into touchdowns, doing so 76 percent of the time. That proficiency still gave Basil work to do, and he banged through 56 extra points, in all in the third-best individual season in school history in that category.
- Relevant number: The Buckeyes were a perfect 3-of-3 when they had to dial up a two-point conversion instead, and considering how effective the offense was near the goal line thanks to the versatile backfield tandem of battering ram Carlos Hyde and elusive quarterback Braxton Miller, Meyer could conceivably think about trying to double up after a touchdown more often next season. Had those three tries been extra points last year, Basil would already own the No. 2 spot on the single-season list -- though the Buckeyes would obviously much rather be undefeated.
- Offseason checklist: There's not much preparation Basil really needs to do to convert his simplest chances as a kicker, leaving the work that could carry him to a personal record to all those teammates on offense. Another year of development for Miller as he readies for a third season as the starting quarterback should take the spread offense to another level, and there is no shortage of weapons around him. Aside from the loss of Reid Fragel at right tackle and Jake Stoneburner at wide receiver, every other starter returns for an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring last season and still has room to grow.
- Attainable goal: All signs point to even more scoring for the Buckeyes in 2013, and given the track record already established by Meyer with the program, that means touchdowns and not field goals. While that could keep Basil from piling up a personal point total that could challenge Barclay's overall mark of 122 set during that same 2010 season thanks to 20 field goals, the extra point mark could be in serious jeopardy.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJake Stoneburner picked up 27 percent of his yardage on this 72-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter at Penn State.
- Who: The transformation into the ultimate mismatch didn't quite materialize after Jake Stoneburner moved from tight end to wide receiver, and he wasn't able to equal his dynamic red-zone production from his junior season during his senior campaign with Ohio State. But while Stoneburner went through some rough patches and perhaps didn't give the Buckeyes everything they might have hoped for after moving him around the formation, he was still dangerous at times as a target with 16 catches and four touchdowns and leaves a 6-foot-5 hole to fill on the perimeter. And even when his own statistics weren't all that impressive, Stoneburner still found ways to make an impact by throwing around his 245-pound frame and improving as a run-blocker to help the Buckeyes explode on the ground.
- By the numbers: Not exactly known for his speed, Stoneburner still tied for the longest reception of the season after darting down the middle of the field for a 72-yard touchdown that effectively sealed a road victory at Penn State in October. That huge strike offered a reminder of the big-play ability Stoneburner brought to the position, which prompted the move in the first place. It was maybe also somewhat bittersweet for the Buckeyes, who might have liked to see it more often -- that dash against the Nittany Lions represented 27 percent of his yardage for the season.
- Job description: The Buckeyes need somebody capable of stressing coverage in the middle of the field, keeping defenses honest against both the threat of the run and allowing Devin Smith and Corey "Philly" Brown room to operate on the outside. Ohio State had few problems putting up points and obviously finished with a perfect record, but the offense could potentially become even more prolific if it can tap into some space across the middle of the field with a big, fearless target who can offer a reliable set of hands for quarterback Braxton Miller and the ability after that to do something extra with the football in his grasp.
- Top candidates: Given his responsibilities previously when exclusively at tight end or the diverse package of duties he had as a senior, it might take a combination of guys to fill Stoneburner's void. At tight end, the Buckeyes already know what they have in Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman and have plenty to feel good about there. Chris Fields flashed in a limited role as Stoneburner's official backup at the "H" wide receiver, but Michael Thomas could be an option to watch after breaking into the rotation more regularly at the end of his freshman season. The rising sophomore has a good relationship with Miller and the kind of size at 6-foot-2 that combines with impressive athleticism to make for a difficult defensive assignment, which gives him a shot at becoming the No. 3 option statistically.
- One to watch: Evan Spencer won't exactly be emerging from nowhere after finishing fourth on the team with 12 catches during the perfect season, particularly after finishing strong down the stretch with the majority of his production coming in the final five games. That late burst offered a glimpse at the kind of weapon Spencer could be in the passing game, and while he obviously doesn't have the same body type as Stoneburner, he should still be able at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds to chip in some blocks for the run game and win his share of matchups after another offseason to build his game.
After playing sparingly on offense as a redshirt sophomore last season, Reed and the Buckeyes mutually agreed to part ways over the weekend, a school spokesman confirmed on Monday morning.
Reed had a 13-yard reception in the opening win over Miami (Ohio) in September, but he didn't make another for the rest of the season and couldn't sneak into a rotation that was looking for more contributors to consistently complement Corey Brown and Devin Smith in the passing attack. A talented two-way player out of nearby Marion-Franklin High School, Reed appeared in eight games for the undefeated Buckeyes and also contributed a tackle on special teams.
Reed wasn't listed on the final depth chart of the season ahead of the rivalry game against Michigan, leaving the position battles heading into spring essentially the same as they already were. The Buckeyes are only replacing one receiver on the two-deep, departing senior Jake Stoneburner.
No. 3: Braxton Miller calls his own number
The other-worldly, step-back juke.
The change of direction in midair to slip between two tackles.
If there was any doubt left about the excitement Braxton Miller can provide from anywhere on the field, he erased it once and for all Oct. 27 with perhaps the most exhilarating 1-yard touchdown anybody could ever produce. And if the sophomore quarterback can turn a gain of three feet into an unforgettable moment and a score that effectively signaled the end of Penn State's chances of handing the Buckeyes their first loss, it's no wonder his highlight reel had so many entries this season.
"You just don't see athletes do that, period, let alone the quarterback," wide receiver Jake Stoneburner said after the game. "I don't know how to put that play into words."
The box score certainly doesn't do Miller's artistry justice either, officially marking it down simply: "Miller, Braxton 1 yd run."
He actually retreated as far as the 7-yard line after surprising Carlos Hyde by pulling the football out of his stomach on a play that wasn't meant to have an option component to it, an improvisation that saved the running back from lost yardage and set the table for Miller's fireworks after that.
No fewer than four Nittany Lions had a shot to bring Miller down after he decided to call his own number. With the game still tight, stuffing the Buckeyes in that situation and perhaps forcing a field goal would have kept it a one-score contest for the host Nittany Lions.
Instead, the Buckeyes were energized after a lackluster first half. The defense forced a quick three-and-out to give Miller the ball back again -- and he delivered a more routine 1-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive to stretch the lead and keep the dream of an unbeaten season alive.
"He just does amazing stuff," guard Marcus Hall said then. "He's like a player you'd create in a video game."
One wild yard at a time, Miller helped send the entire team onto the next level of perfection.
- Most valuable player: The conversion of the projected starter at the position left more work for the two guys left over at tight end, and both of them were able to step up and make a mark. The receiving statistics are essentially a dead heat, and each did some notable work to help the rushing attack get rolling -- but the slight edge goes to Jeff Heuerman over Nick Vannett. Heuerman drew some of the highest praise of the season when coach Urban Meyer identified him as one of the best blockers he's ever had at tight end, and while Vannett's emergence was just as critical, it's the sophomore who gets the nod this season.
- By the numbers: Throwing to the big targets wasn't exactly a staple of the passing game, though maybe it could become a more regular feature given the success the Buckeyes had with either tight end. Or perhaps it was the element of surprise that made them so effective. Either way, the 17 combined catches for Vannett and Heuerman averaged nearly 13 yards per completion -- and both flashed the ability to make something big happen down the field by posting plays of 32 yards or longer.
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- Most valuable player: The production was steady from start to finish, even if Corey "Philly" Brown could have perhaps provided more yardage with all of his catches in the early stages of the season and saved himself from some good-natured jokes from coach Urban Meyer about making a tackler miss. The junior had the last laugh down the stretch, extending receptions by juking defenders and using his speed to pull away for longer gains than he was contributing during the first month of the season. He was at his best on special teams, though, busting loose for a pair of important punt returns for touchdowns that complemented his team-high 60 grabs on offense.
- By the numbers: After getting repeated reminders about the ineptitude of the passing game a season ago and having no problem reciting the low reception totals, Brown and sidekick Devin Smith made sure there would be no discussions about that heading into their next offseason. Just in case anybody forgot, the team-leading total for the season before the arrival of coach Urban Meyer and his spread offense was just 14 -- a number that only took Brown three games to eclipse and was more than doubled by Smith.
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Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.
While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.
"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."
Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?
Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.
"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."
The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.
That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.
"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."
Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.
Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.
There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.
"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."
This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.
Ohio State also had only one final game to make a move in the weekly power ratings.
No surprise, the top spots stayed the same as the Buckeyes polished off their perfect season, getting big-time passing plays from Braxton Miller, another impressive outing from Ryan Shazier and more hard running from Carlos Hyde.
But the defensive effort in the second half as Ohio State shut down rival Michigan in a 26-21 decision on Saturday at Ohio Stadium allowed for some tinkering after that, and for now, the latest edition of the Ohio State 10 will have to stand for a while.
No. 1: QB Braxton Miller
- Last week: No. 1
- Against Michigan: The sophomore again found rushing room hard to come by, but Miller made up for it with perhaps his most impressive passing performance of the season. Against one of the nation’s best pass defenses, Miller rarely wasted a throw in completing 14 of his 18 attempts and racked up 189 critical yards and a touchdown.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State won't have a chance to play for a national title and won't get to prove itself a 13th time this season because of NCAA sanctions.
But in a way, the Buckeyes earned something just as lasting as any crystal football. By finishing off a 12-0 campaign with Saturday's 26-21 win over archrival Michigan, they will remain perfect in memory and ideal in their fans' imagination.
If -- as several Ohio State players like Carlos Hyde and Ryan Shazier did Saturday afternoon -- this team wants to say it deserves the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, how can you convincingly tell the players they're wrong? A Notre Dame loss would leave the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the country, and we'll never know for sure how they would stack up against the other national powers.
"You can say what you want, but we're 12-0," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "People can talk what they want and say a bunch of what-ifs now, but I know we took care of what we had to do. At the beginning of the year we set out to win every single game, and that's what we did. It wasn't pretty, but it happened."
Ohio State fans sure didn't seem to care much about bowl bans. They poured onto the field in droves when the win was secured and stayed there long after the game had ended, taking photos and singing with the school band.
In between the first and second quarter, former coach Jim Tressel was honored along with other members of the 2002 national championship team. Those former players picked Tressel up and carried him off the field on their shoulders as the crowd roared. Of course, Tressel's deception of his bosses and the NCAA directly led to the sanctions that will keep this year's team home. But the irony of choosing the day when the current team would finish 12-0 to honor Tressel appeared lost on a forgiving fan base.
Time may heal all wounds, but going undefeated helps wipe out even the memory of those pains. Instead, fans can now remember this team as one of six unbeaten squads in school history, yet the first since 1944 to do so without going to a bowl.
"It kind of stinks," said tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner. "We wish we were playing in a bowl game. But, shoot, I'll take 12-0 any day of the week."
A postseason game would bring the potential of a loss that could tarnish this team's legacy. Instead, it will be revered for turning last year's 6-7 disaster into the best possible building block for the future under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Meyer said he would make sure the 2012 team would get some sort of permanent recognition around the team's facilities. He joked about erecting 19 bronze statues for each of this year's seniors.
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith his defense much improved, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he feels his team can now compete with the nation's elite.
"I'd say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America," he said.
Meyer wouldn't have put his own team in such company back in mid-October. But the improvement of his defense from a poor-tackling, easily exploitable bunch to a true strength has changed his perception.
In fact, Saturday's game was a perfect encapsulation of the Buckeyes' season. In the first half, they needed some great work by quarterback Braxton Miller to keep them in the game as Michigan rolled up 21 points and several explosive plays, like a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson's 67-yard touchdown sprint.
But just like in the season as a whole, the defense took over in the second half. Keying on Robinson as a runner and aided by some bizarre Michigan play calling, the Silver Bullets (yes, they've earned back that nickname) didn't let the Wolverines cross midfield after halftime. They allowed only 39 total yards and no points in the second half and forced three turnovers. Robinson and Devin Gardner were hemmed in as Michigan ran only 21 offensive plays in the second half.
"We just had to limit the big plays," linebacker Shazier said. "We were missing way too many tackles at the beginning of the game. We settled down on that and settled down on the big plays in the second half."
This wouldn't have been the 2012 Buckeyes without some adversity and drama. The defense played without star defensive end John Simon, who experienced swelling in his knee after last week's Wisconsin game. And even with the second-half defensive domination, Ohio State kept frittering away excellent scoring chances and settled for just two field goals to keep Michigan in the thick of it.
In the end, that's the signature of these Buckeyes. They never made things easy, but they never lost.
"We have so much confidence because we've been in so many close games like this," Sabino said. "We know how to come out with the win."
Now all they can do is watch football until the spring. Several players said they planned to watch next week's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska, two teams they beat earlier this season.
They will do so believing someone else will get a trophy they earned.
"I feel like we're the true Big Ten champions," Shazier said. "We won every game and did exactly what we're supposed to do and finished out strong. We showed it today."
The Buckeyes can do nothing more to prove themselves. But no one can ever definitively tell them they weren't the best team in the country, either. They'd love a shot at the national title. They'll settle for perfection.
But the Ohio State sophomore is building a pretty strong case as the best defensive player in the Big Ten -- and he's also starting to give Braxton Miller a run for his money.
Shazier delivered another highlight-reel play that won't be forgotten by the Buckeyes for a long time, even if it ultimately didn't end up going down as a game-winner after he punched the ball loose from Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the 21-14 overtime win on Saturday. And while that resume still leaves him a spot behind Miller in the latest edition of the Ohio State 10, he might be No. 1 in a different poll soon if he keeps up his torrid pace for one more week.
No. 1: QB Braxton Miller
- Last week: No. 1
- Against Wisconsin: The sophomore clearly didn’t have his best stuff and was effectively bottled up by the Badgers' sound game plan, but that doesn’t diminish his value for the Buckeyes through the season. And what Miller might have lacked on the stats sheet over the weekend, he more than made up for by keeping his record as the starting quarterback perfect this season.
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