Ohio State Buckeyes: Jeff Heuerman

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, we're taking a look at players who have helped themselves and could put on a show over the weekend, starting today on offense.

H-B Curtis Samuel

  • [+] EnlargeCurtis Samuel
    AP Photo/Gregory PayanCurtis Samuel showed his potential in a run in a scrimmage last week.
    An early enrollee, Samuel showed off his straight-line speed with one of the longest touchdowns of the open scrimmage on Student Appreciation Day, taking a handoff up the middle on a fourth-and-short situation and never looking back on the way to the end zone. Samuel's athleticism drew rave reviews even before he hit the practice field, and after being initially slowed by a hamstring injury last month, he put it on full display by bursting through the hole and pulling away from defenders in front of several thousand fans. Even more people will be watching at the Horseshoe, and Samuel will no doubt have a few chances to show what he could bring to the Ohio State offense as a first-year contributor at the hybrid position along with Dontre Wilson.
TE Marcus Baugh

  • The redshirt freshman started his career on the wrong foot off the field, but if Baugh can avoid any more of those missteps, he clearly has the talent to make things happen on the turf for the Buckeyes. Ohio State already has two talented players ahead of him at one of its deepest positions, but with Jeff Heuerman currently on the shelf following foot surgery, Baugh has benefited from the additional reps and is building a case to be included in the game plan in some fashion along with Nick Vannett. Even before Heuerman was injured, Baugh was turning heads by teaming with reserve quarterback J.T. Barrett for some long gains through the air, and more passes figure to be coming his way in the spring showcase.
RT Darryl Baldwin

  • The fifth-year senior has had to patiently wait his turn, but his time appears to have finally arrived this spring as he prepares for his final season with the program and a likely role in the starting lineup. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner has had a magic touch at right tackle during his two seasons with Ohio State, turning former tight end Reid Fragel into a professional prospect with just one year to work with him and then bringing Taylor Decker quickly up to speed last season in his first year as a starter. With Decker switching over to the left side, Baldwin has earned praise for his work with the starters and will have one more chance in live action to solidify that role as his own heading into the offseason.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
12:00
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Warren Buffett called. My bracket was so bad, he says I owe him $1 billion. D'oh!

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
4:30
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Happy hoopin' (and spring footballin').

Twitter!

Inbox!

Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?

Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.


M.A. Reed from Hamilton, Ohio, writes: Really? Miller and one returning starter ranked No. 3, behind a O-line that graduated---everyone? The Ohio"'lean" is more than obvious, but this is ridiculous. Michigan seven? With 9 starters back who are NOT 18 anymore. I could ID several other points, but it should be obvious. Still not buying in? Really?

Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.


Kenny from Cincy writes: Adam, I have been sensing good vibes out of Penn State with James Franklin and a weak schedule next year. It's nice to see it turning around, but can we be real about it? They aren't going to beat Michigan State and had a 60-spot put on that "tough" defense last year by the Buckeyes. They are also going to inevitably lose a game they shouldn't have, as they have done the past several years, and we are looking at a middle-of-the-pack, three- or four-loss season. And that's best-case scenario. Lots of false hope and unrealistic expectations. Rinse and repeat for next season. Am I wrong?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.


Mike from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I have a question regarding two recent events in the B1G that tie together. Do you think the Illinois State Legislature foresaw the ruling in the Northwestern case and are trying to make a case to replace Northwestern? I remember reading that the former Northwestern president saying they might have to drop football if the players won the case. Could this be the way for the Illinois State legislature to replace the B1G's closest Chicago team with someone like Northern Illinois?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.


Bob from Houston writes: While I suspect my Boilermakers will struggle mightily again this year, I have to ask if you see a difference in player/team attitude and mental toughness this spring as opposed to last year.

Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.



SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.

Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 3

January, 31, 2014
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We're continuing our countdown of the top-10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

No. 3: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35, Jan. 3

How it went down: How would Ohio State respond after losing in the Big Ten title game and seeing its national title hopes go down the drain?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller's Buckeyes led Clemson in the second half of the Orange Bowl, but they wound up losing their second straight game.
Early on in the Discover Orange Bowl, the answer seemed to be: not well. Clemson opened up a 20-9 lead in the second quarter, taking advantage of a battered Buckeyes defense that was missing star cornerback Bradley Roby (knee injury) and top pass rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

Yet, even though the Tigers statistically dominated most of the first half, Braxton Miller put Ohio State up 22-20 at halftime with a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Heuerman and then a 3-yard scoring run with 12 seconds left. The Buckeyes led 29-20 and had forced a punt from Clemson in the third quarter, but Corey "Philly" Brown fumbled away the return.

Then things really got wild. Clemson scored two touchdowns in less than two-and-a-half minutes to regain the lead, followed by another lead change on Miller's throwback pass to Carlos Hyde for a score. Tajh Boyd capped a tremendous night by throwing for the game-winning touchdown with 6:16 left, and the two teams traded interceptions on three straight possessions late.

It was a wild game full of huge plays and momentum swings, and Miller got beat up and battled through injuries. Ohio State showed that it wasn't quite national championship worthy, especially on defense. But the Buckeyes helped provide a thoroughly entertaining end to the BCS era.

Player(s) of the game: Boyd and Sammy Watkins share the honors, as they both fed off one another while feasting on the Buckeyes' defense. Watkins broke Orange Bowl and school receiving records with 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Boyd went 31-of-40 for 378 yards through the air, ran for 127 yards and had six total touchdowns.

Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 1,003 yards of offense and 204 penalty yards.

They said it: "It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn't finish," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It was right there."

More best games

  • No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
  • No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
  • No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT
  • No. 5: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24
  • No. 4: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
12:00
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I'm here tonight to tell you the state of our union is ... cold.

OSU offseason to-do list: Offense

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine off the record for Ohio State. As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the playoffs and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and today the checklist starts on offense.

Improve the passing attack: The spotlight always shines on the quarterback first, and Braxton Miller undoubtedly still has room to grow as a passer. But getting the spread offense to take flight will take more than improved accuracy, better decisions and a tighter grasp on the playbook from Miller. With Philly Brown moving on after a productive career, Ohio State will have to start by replacing him as the leading receiver, a job that should fall to Devin Smith if he can find more consistency on the perimeter. The Buckeyes, though, had fewer candidates to make a play in the passing game than originally thought last season, and Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman are going to need a group of talented youngsters to lend a hand next fall -- perhaps starting with Michael Thomas as he comes off a redshirt season as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker will be the only returning starter on the Ohio State offensive line, but a couple replacements are already identified.
Rebuild the line: The day was always coming, but now the reality of replacing four senior starters on the offensive line must sink in for Ohio State. Meyer and position coach Ed Warinner have something of a head start, given Taylor Decker's successful transition into the starting lineup last season, and Pat Elflein's strong work when pressed into duty against Michigan and Michigan State at the end of the year will provide another level of comfort in the rebuilding process. The coaching staff has a lot of faith in Jacoby Boren to fill the void at center, which gets the Buckeyes over the halfway mark, but it will need to identify another tackle and guard during spring practice to complete the unit, begin building chemistry and prepare to meet the high standards of the 2013 group.

Replace Carlos Hyde: The heavy workload might have made it seem like the stable was relatively empty behind Carlos Hyde, but among the offseason to-do items, replacing the stellar senior running back might be one of the easier tasks for the Buckeyes. The hard part might be sorting through the options and figuring out how to distribute the workload a season after Hyde carried the football 127 times more than any other tailback -- a margin that would have been even wider if not for his three-game suspension to begin the season. Dontre Wilson is certain to get more touches, but the starting job seems likely to belong to somebody else, as the rising sophomore figures to stay in a hybrid role. Ezekiel Elliott showed flashes of his ability off the bench and could be in line for the top job, though perhaps Rod Smith could finally break through or maybe Bri'onte Dunn will come off a redshirt season as a sophomore with something to prove. Either way, the Buckeyes have options in the backfield.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Immediately following the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and several of his assistants hit the road to recruit.

Recruiting is as much salesmanship as anything, so the coaches had to act like they were in a good mood around the prospects they visited. It wasn't easy to do.

"You had to go walk in with a smile, and it was the phoniest smile you've probably ever seen," Meyer said Thursday. "And then you get back, and you see the players you care about and see the pain on their face."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesUrban Meyer admits losing in the Big Ten title game hurt, but he says the Buckeyes have moved on from that disappointment.
We've seen this before. A team falls just short of reaching the national championship game, as the Buckeyes did that night in Indianapolis, and proceeds to sleepwalk through its consolation bowl game. So it's natural to wonder about the motivation for Ohio State in tonight's Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson when it came so close to playing for the national title on Monday night.

Buckeyes players and coaches won't pretend they weren't crushed by that loss to the Spartans. But they also say they're plenty driven to win this BCS game, both for themselves and, to a lesser extent, the Big Ten.

Meyer called a team meeting after he got back from that recruiting trip. For the first time in 25 games as Ohio State's coach, he had to address the players after a loss.

"We had a real emotional meeting," he said. "Well, I don't know if emotional is the right word, but it was just like you would with any type of family members going through a hard time. From that point forward, they've been fine."

The carrot of a national title might have vanished, but other potential rewards remain. Ohio State has not won a postseason game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl (which would later be vacated), meaning the majority of the team has not tasted a bowl victory. The older players suffered through a 6-7 season in 2011, including a Gator Bowl loss, and dealt with probation last year.

"With coach [Jim] Tressel my freshman year, we won a Rose Bowl and then a Sugar Bowl, and then it kind of went down," fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said. "So to show that we pulled ourselves back out of it and got back on top would be real important to us older guys. I don't think it's in our nature as competitors to be sulking or to be held down by something that has happened."

Meyer has traveled this road before. In 2009, his Florida Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC title game with a BCS Championship berth on the line. A not-so-sexy matchup with Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl awaited. Even through some serious distractions -- Meyer said he planned to step down before the bowl game then changed his mind -- the Gators ripped the Bearcats for an impressive 51-24 win.

Meyer takes detailed notes during each week of the season and said he reviewed the notes from that Sugar Bowl preparation to see how he handled the disappointment. He chatted about it with former Florida star Mike Pouncey at practice earlier this week.

"I would anticipate, from everything I've seen with this team, the competitive spirit is there," Meyer said. "I've also been in situations where I didn't feel the competitive spirit, and that's where you've got [to use] the secret Tshirt or the secret handshake to get guys to play hard. I don't feel that."

It doesn't hurt that the Orange Bowl means 80-degree temperatures, South Beach excursions and an escape from the winter in Ohio. The Buckeyes also have several players from Florida.

"We're having a great time," said tight end and Naples, Fla., native Jeff Heuerman, who, it should be noted, said this before he caught the stomach bug that plagued the Buckeyes this week. "South Beach is a ton of fun. But we're trying not to do anything differently than any other game week, and we've been super successful with what we've done."

If Ohio State needs any further motivation, then the chance to salvage some Big Ten pride could provide it.

The league is guaranteed a losing record in the postseason after going 2-4 in its first six games. But Michigan State gave the conference a BCS win by beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes can add another one if they get by Clemson. Two BCS wins and a victory over an SEC team (Nebraska beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl) would mean a highly successful bowl season for the Big Ten.

"Playing in the Big Ten, people sometimes have been down on us the last couple of years," Mewhort said. "That kind of lights a little fire under you that makes you want to go out and represent your conference well. I think that would be great for us and the Big Ten."

Meyer said he watched the end of the Rose Bowl and found himself rooting hard for the team that handed him his only loss as Ohio State coach.

"Any time a member of your conference does well in a big game like that, I do think it's important," he said. "Because the truth is the upper-level Big Ten teams are excellent football teams. The conference is getting better. Guys are working extremely hard to close the gap on the SEC."

The Buckeyes' main concern is finding a way to beat an ACC power tonight. They might not get that done, but it shouldn't be because of a lack of interest in the proceedings.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The guy with the higher stock indicated he was leaning toward staying.

The one with all the uncertainty surrounding him declared himself ready for the next level and seemed to tilt toward the exit.

But with Ryan Shazier perhaps too hot of a commodity to return for another year in college and Braxton Miller at least giving the impression that he’s willing to bet on himself, that combination could be a problem for No. 7 Ohio State. It might leave them without both stars after Friday night’s Discover Orange Bowl and some mighty big shoes to fill when the Buckeyes start turning their attention to the 2014 season and what could be another run at a national title.

[+] Enlarge Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteAfter a hugely productive season and good evaluations from draft experts, Ryan Shazier might be best served entering the NFL draft.
Is the matchup against Clemson the final time the playmaking linebacker and the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year will put on Ohio State uniforms? What impact will those decisions have the Buckeyes moving forward?

As both the deadline to declare for the draft and the Discover Orange Bowl both creep up, it’s time to peek into the crystal ball.

Ryan Shazier

After yet another incredibly productive campaign stuffing the stats sheet in every conceivable way, there’s really not much Shazier has left to prove as a college linebacker. He can make tackles anywhere on the field, he’s shown an uncanny ability to time the snap as a blitzer and use his athleticism to make plays in the backfield and he’s consistently delivered timely plays when the Buckeyes have needed them most.

But even with all that on his resume, Shazier publicly called himself “dead-flat in the middle” between staying or going before giving a slight edge to the former during bowl practices.

  • If he stays: The Buckeyes have been building toward the 2014 season with strong recruiting at every level of the defense, though linebacker still remains the position with the lowest margin for error based on the depth on hand. Having Shazier stick around would keep the entire starting front seven intact heading into next year, which could make it even more difficult to run the ball against Ohio State and take some pressure off what figures to be a young secondary.
  • If he goes: There will still be plenty of talent and experience on the Ohio State defense, but it will need some fresh faces to develop quickly and fill the void on the outside. Trey Johnson was a prized commodity in the signing class a year ago, and he might need to be ready to live up to his potential next fall.
  • Shazier’s ESPN.com position rank: No. 4 outside linebacker
  • Prediction: Enters the NFL draft
Braxton Miller

There’s hardly any room to criticize Miller at the competitive level he’s playing at now, and few players have ever accumulated hardware at the rate he’s been on over the last two seasons at quarterback. He’s obviously won a few games, too.

But projecting Miller at the next level gets a bit trickier, because his passing numbers dipped down the stretch and professional general managers will undoubtedly be picking apart his arm and accuracy when they decide where to draft him to lead an NFL offense.

When pressed about his future, Miller said he was “definitely” ready to play at the next level in terms of his physical ability, but he was still waiting for some feedback from the draft evaluators before making a decision that is expected within about a week after the bowl game.

  • If he stays: The Buckeyes have four starters to replace on the offensive line and Carlos Hyde won’t be in the backfield to help share the load, but Miller’s presence alone in Urban Meyer’s spread offense should ensure a lot of points on the board yet again. Ohio State has recruited well at the skill positions and has veteran targets like wide receiver Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman returning, so Miller certainly wouldn’t have to do it all himself to keep things humming along for what would again figure to be a dynamic attack.
  • If he goes: Eventually Miller is going to have to be replaced, but the Buckeyes would clearly prefer to put that off for another year. Invaluable backup Kenny Guiton will be gone after this season, putting rising sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett in line for the marquee role for a potential title contender. Jones is big, strong and mobile and would likely have the edge heading to spring practice, but Barrett has been widely praised for his football intelligence since arriving on campus and could make a strong push for the job.
  • Miller’s ESPN.com position rank: No. 13 quarterback
  • Prediction: Returns for senior season
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State didn't accomplish everything on its checklist in 2013, but it came pretty close in what has to be considered a successful year. If the Buckeyes are going to top it in 2014, it can start with these resolutions moving into Urban Meyer's third season with the program.

Fix the defense: The lack of depth was evident even before injuries started taking a toll on the defensive side of the ball, but that really doesn't excuse the breakdowns that popped up frequently at the end of the season. Giving up nearly 260 passing yards per game will never be acceptable at a program that's proud of its defensive tradition, and that weakness in the secondary is a big part of the reason Ohio State is opening 2014 in the Discover Orange Bowl and not playing for the national championship. In recruiting, the Buckeyes have been accumulating the pieces they need to get back to having a complete two-deep capable of playing at a high level and not just a talented group of starters without much support. Making the right hire to replace co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers could be critical in helping that entire unit reach its potential.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsRegardless of whether Braxton Miller returns for the Buckeyes, Ohio State needs better offensive balance in 2014.
Find balance: For a while, the Buckeyes looked like they had already become the kind of balanced offense Meyer has been trying to build. Braxton Miller's accuracy clearly improved, the receiving corps was hauling in passes deep down the field and tight end Jeff Heuerman was giving Ohio State a matchup nightmare to throw at defenses to keep them from loading up the box to stop the powerful rushing attack. But that aerial attack vanished almost completely down the stretch, with poor weather, good defenses and the success of the ground game all eventually producing too much reliance on Miller and Hyde to make plays with their legs. In the end, the Buckeyes wound up rushing 243 more times than they threw the ball, which isn't close the 50-50 split Meyer has targeted as ideal for his spread offense.

Identify leaders: A core group of veterans that included four senior starters on the offensive line made it easy for the Buckeyes to figure out who to follow last season. But with those stalwarts moving on, along with captains such as C.J. Barnett, Philly Brown, Kenny Guiton (and potentially Miller and linebacker Ryan Shazier, if they leave early for the NFL draft), there will be a significant void to fill. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett could be at the front of the pack to become the voice and face of the program, but he's going to need some help -- and the sooner the Buckeyes find out where it's coming from, the better off they'll be as they head into offseason workouts.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State knew it was probably going to the Rose Bowl whether it won or lost in the Big Ten championship game. But all week long, the Spartans insisted they had no interest in backing their way into Pasadena.

After knocking off No. 2 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, Michigan State's players could hold their heads high as they clenched roses in their teeth. By building a 17-0 lead early and then mounting a comeback after blowing all of it, the Spartans did Saturday what no one else could do in the past two years: Beat Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.

As a result, Ohio State isn't going to the BCS title game, and the folks in East Lansing, Mich., now have some new friends in Auburn, Ala. Here's a quick look at how the No. 10 Spartans' 34-24 victory went down.

It was over when: Michigan State's Denicos Allen stopped Braxton Miller on a fourth-and-2 run from the Spartans' 39-yard line with 5 minutes, 41 seconds to go. Six plays later, Jeremy Langford broke free for a 26-yard touchdown run, giving Michigan State a 10-point lead with 2:16 left. Michigan State scored the game's first 17 points and the final 17.

Game ball goes to: Connor Cook. Michigan State's sophomore quarterback came into the game with a much lower profile than his Ohio State counterpart. But Cook showed that he's got a bright future, too, along with a poise beyond his years. The offense rested on his right arm most of the game as the Buckeyes shut down the running game for three quarters. Cook completed 10 of his first 13 passes and finished 24-of-40 for 304 yards and three touchdowns. His final score came on a throwback pass to wide-open tight end Josiah Price that gave the Spartans the lead for good.

Stat of the game: We wondered who would win the battle between the nation's top rushing defense and Ohio State's Big Ten-best running attack. The Buckeyes -- and their offensive line -- won that showdown handily, gaining 273 yards on 40 carries against a defense that entered giving up 64.8 yards per game on the ground. Miller and Carlos Hyde each ran for more than 100 yards, doubling the number of 100-yard rushers Michigan State had allowed all season. But the Spartans held Ohio State to just 25 rushing yards in the fourth quarter as they kept the Buckeyes scoreless for the final 14:24.

Unsung hero of the game: Darqueze Dennard came into the game with a huge reputation as a potential All-America cornerback and the leader of the Spartans' "No-Fly Zone" secondary. He backed it up with a couple of big-time pass breakups, including one in the end zone after he was beaten on a route by Devin Smith. Ohio State wasn't able to get much done on Dennard's side of the field.

What it means: Michigan State is going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988, and it will play Stanford in a battle of two of the hardest-hitting defenses in college football. The Spartans are 12-1, won all nine Big Ten games by at least 10 points and should finally get the respect they deserve. Coach Mark Dantonio got a program-defining victory after leading the team to double-digit victories in three of the past four years.

Ohio State will be bitterly disappointed about its missed chance to play Florida State for the national title, and the 24-game winning streak under Meyer is gone. The Big Ten's national title drought now will reach 12 years. All is not lost for the Buckeyes, however. They should still get chosen for an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, probably in either the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl.

Planning for success: Ohio State

December, 5, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There are a lot of familiar faces on the field, which should help in preparing for the personnel.

The schemes are likely to be pretty similar also, since the sidelines are going to be to stocked with the same people as well.

And mixed in among all the game tapes of Michigan State this season, the Ohio State coaches would be silly not to take a look back at what the same opponent tried to do against them a year ago in the never-ending search for an edge.

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller have both improved greatly since last season's Big Ten-opening win over Michigan State.
But the film of one of the most competitive matchups the Buckeyes have faced since Urban Meyer took over the program and launched a 24-game winning streak has to be taken with a grain of salt. As they plan for success against the No. 10 Spartans once again ahead of Saturday's Big Ten championship in Indianapolis, in some ways what worked and what sputtered last season is irrelevant given how far the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes have come since then.

"We're a lot different," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "The numbers on the jersey and the names on the back might be the same at a lot of positions, but we're better.

"So schematically, I think it helps a little bit. But I think the ways that if you were a defensive coordinator that you would have attacked us last year might be a hair different this year because of some of the things that we've improved upon and the ways that we have gotten better. Especially individually, across the board we have improved."

That's most clear in the Ohio State backfield, which heading into last season's Big Ten opener on the road at Spartan Stadium didn't even feature Carlos Hyde as a starter.

Eventually he would take over for an injured Jordan Hall in that game and never look back, but back then Hyde certainly wasn't the destructive force he's become as a senior. Against the Spartans a year ago, he rushed just 11 times for 49 yards -- a far cry from the 156 yards per contest he's averaging in Big Ten games this season.

Braxton Miller was already putting his multipurpose skills on display, throwing a gorgeous game-winning touchdown pass to Devin Smith and rushing for 136 yards in last year's 17-16 win over the Spartans. But the junior quarterback is far more deadly now as a passer, which has opened up pages of the playbook that were untouched at that time and figure to provide a lot more options for attacking Michigan State's top-ranked defense.

Hyde and Miller are, of course, the focal point for the Buckeyes, but they're not the only ones who survived the 2012 battle with the Spartans and grew from the experience. There are four returning starters on the offensive line pushing every opponent around, Smith and Philly Brown have given Miller two reliable targets at wide receiver, and Jeff Heuerman has been invaluable as both a run-blocking tight end and a threat in the passing game.

And perhaps more than a glimpse at what the Spartans may do schematically, that improvement might stand out more than anything when the Buckeyes rewind the film.

"It certainly helps you to watch last year and figure out the what [they do]," Herman said. "But the why might be a lot different this year because of who we are and what our personality is on offense now this year.

"We're better than we were last year, and they are too on defense. Let's not kid ourselves on that, either."

On Saturday, both teams will have a chance to see exactly how far they've come since then. No film room required.

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After analyzing the new information after No. 3 Ohio State's 42-41 nail-biting win over rival Michigan on Saturday at the Big House, here’s what we learned:

Challenge accepted: There hasn't been much adversity to deal with this season, but the Buckeyes have stared it down every time they've seen it, perhaps most impressively on the road against a rival and after losing two valuable players to ejections. Michigan had an effective offensive game plan, and it put Ohio State on its heels. It challenged the Buckeyes physically, and after briefly losing composure and watching hybrid offensive threat Dontre Wilson and starting right guard Marcus Hall be sent to the locker room because of it, they weathered the storm and didn't allow the game to get away from them. And while there might again be criticism that the Buckeyes didn't score any style points, that shouldn't make any difference when evaluating what they accomplished. They stayed unbeaten after two of the most disastrous quarters of football they've played all season popped up early in a hostile environment against a motivated opponent.

Perfectly imbalanced: The target was to get an even split between rushing attempts and passes this season, and for a while that was working out pretty well for the Buckeyes. But it's becoming more obvious with each game toward the end of the year that Ohio State is at its best when it heavily favors its potent running game and simply sprinkles in some throws. That's not a knock on Braxton Miller's arm, because it has clearly shown signs of improvement and was spot-on with his touchdown tosses to Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman. But letting the bruising style of Carlos Hyde and the freakish acceleration of Miller pound away is obviously a tall enough task for a defense, and the Buckeyes didn't need to add any complications of their own with the talented tandem combining for 379 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns.

Next in line: The Buckeyes don't have to replace all four seniors on the offensive line yet, but they got a pretty good glimpse at the future thanks to the unexpected absence of guard Marcus Hall following his ejection. Pat Elflein looked more than capable of filling at least one void when the time comes. The Buckeyes didn't miss a beat after plugging in the redshirt freshman, who teamed up with another guy who still has plenty of eligibility remaining as he and Taylor Decker inflicted enough damage on the right side to fuel another huge rushing performance. If for some reason the Big Ten office decides the time Hall missed on Saturday wasn't enough and elects to add a one-game suspension on top of the ejection, the Buckeyes now know they can count on his backup -- now and down the line.

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