Ohio State Buckeyes: Philly Brown

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Think back to the most memorable catches over the last couple seasons at Ohio State.

Was it a clutch touchdown grab that tipped the scales in a close game down the stretch? Devin Smith probably caught it.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Smith's consistency needs to match his big-play ability.
How about a bomb, something that covered at least 40 yards and provided an instant jolt of offense? Odds are Smith was the guy streaking down the field and celebrating in the end zone.

Maybe it was a jaw-dropping, head-turning display of aerial athleticism, probably resulting in points for the Buckeyes? No doubt, Smith is again popping into mind.

Perhaps no player short of Braxton Miller has done more than Smith to stock the highlight reel for the Buckeyes since the spread offense arrived and the passing game started its rapid evolution out of the Stone Age. And even if he never has another chance to reach up to snag another one-handed reception against tight coverage, Smith has already supplied enough memories to fill several hype videos or decorate the walls of the practice facility with photos of his scoring exploits.

But for all those unforgettable moments, there have also been a few games where it’s hard to even remember Smith was on the field at all. And rather than duplicate all the dizzying highs heading into his senior season, the emphasis now is instead on eliminating the lows.

“I look back at some of the plays I’ve made, I have made some plays that people will remember forever,” Smith said. “But inside me, I still feel like there’s more that I need to give.”

The Buckeyes are more than willing to take whatever else Smith has to offer, particularly with leading receiver Philly Brown no longer in the picture and coach Urban Meyer still stressing the importance of balancing his high-powered rushing attack with more contributions from the passing game.

Smith is the logical choice to lead that effort on the heels of a 44-catch, 660-yard, eight-touchdown season in 2013, another campaign that featured go-ahead scores, game-changing strikes from long distance and impressive catches while simultaneously fighting off gravity and cornerbacks. But what the Buckeyes need now is the kind of consistency and reliability Brown provided by making multiple receptions in every outing but two, something Smith struggled to offer late in the season a year ago while catching just 6 balls in the final five games.

“Obviously with some game plans, there are times when it’s going away from me, putting the ball in Philly’s hands or keeping it with Braxton and Carlos [Hyde], things like that,” Smith said. “But I think one thing that kind of hurt me a little bit was towards the end I was banged up a little bit and not making as many plays in practice, and that held me back from getting plays in a game.

“I’m just making sure I take care of my body every single day and make plays that I can, act like practice is a game. If I do that here and perfect that, I think it will carry over to the season.”

Part of that process during the spring involves challenging Smith as if he were in the middle of the season, putting him in different scenarios designed to take him out of his comfort zone and forcing him to overcome a few hurdles.

Notably, the Buckeyes have moved him all over the formation as part of the ongoing development of his game, having him spend one full day away from his starting "X" position while working at "Z," then lining him up at other times in the slot to continue keeping him on his toes and finding a way to tap into his potential more regularly.

“The biggest thing we’ve had to do is present adversity to him, moving positions and moving him around, creating those hard situations because he’s great when things are great,” receivers coach Zach Smith said. “When things are hard, that’s when he needs to shine. He’s been inconsistent in that.

“But so far, so good.”

That, of course, is as true for Smith’s career as a whole as it is his development this spring. But he isn’t done with either quite yet.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The kitchen is still stocked with enough ingredients to make another delicious offensive meal, but the main dish probably won’t be beef again.

With four senior starters gone from the line and bullish running back Carlos Hyde headed to the NFL, Ohio State is going to have to make some changes to its high-scoring recipe after rewriting the record books thanks in large part to all the meat it had in the middle of the field.

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Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's offensive line will be revamped in 2014, with tackle Taylor Decker as the only returning starter.
And while that doesn’t mean Urban Meyer or coordinator Tom Herman will be abandoning the power rushing attack that has been the calling card of their version of the spread attack in favor of a more finesse approach, some of its finest ingredients are now on the perimeter, potentially giving the Buckeyes a new look when they’re done experimenting this spring.

“As bad as we want an offensive line like last year, it’s going to take a while to develop that,” Meyer said. “I think at some point because we recruited well and with our line coach [Ed Warinner], that will happen. But no, it’s going to be different.

“We’re going to have to lean on some perimeter ways of getting first downs and all that. Last year [it] was rushing for 300-plus yards per game. It’s because that offensive line was so good. We have other weapons, but it will be a little different taste to it than last year.”

Braxton Miller will still provide the most flavor heading into his senior year at quarterback, but there will be plenty of fresh faces around him as the Buckeyes transition from the veterans who helped pile up points over the last couple seasons to the younger talent Meyer has recruited since taking over the program.

The loss of the core group of linemen is certainly a blow, though Ohio State has prepared for it by working the replacements into games and getting them extra practice work last fall. Filling the void left by the workhorse Hyde might seem like a tall order as well, but the Buckeyes have as many as five candidates they have confidence in to carry the load on the ground in his absence. There’s also the matter of replacing leading receiver Philly Brown, a versatile athlete who supplemented his 63 receptions with a handful of rushing attempts in a hybrid role.

But if there aren’t experienced seniors ready to step up on the line, the Buckeyes at least have returning starter Taylor Decker around to bridge last season to the future at left tackle. Hyde’s production and consistency made him one of the nation’s best tailbacks and a potential first-round draft pick, but Ezekiel Elliott shined in his limited opportunities and senior Rod Smith has never had his physical tools questioned. Dontre Wilson is more than capable of taking over Brown’s role now that he has had a chance to grasp the responsibilities of the H-back position and improved his hands enough to be considered a full-time receiver.

Meyer has suggested that using Wilson and athletes like Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel on bubble screens or jet sweeps to get to the edge might be the best way to adapt while the offensive line develops, and he’s certainly been recruiting enough speed to perhaps more truly spread the field than the Buckeyes have done in his first two seasons. And as successful as they've been anyway, that different taste might not go down easily for opposing defenses.

“We’ll never leave our core values,” Herman said. “Spread the field horizontally and vertically, be in the shotgun, add the quarterback as part of our run game and have that dimension and to be a downhill, A-gap, tight-zone, vertical, power-run team with vertical play-action pass off it. What does that evolve to? I don’t know.

“But I think when people ask me maybe what I’m most proud of the first couple years here is we didn’t fit a square peg into a round hole. ... You've got to figure out what everybody can do, what they do well and try to mask the deficiencies while you’re improving them yet play to the strengths. Where that’s headed after six spring practices, I have no idea. But it will be different.”

The Buckeyes still have plenty of time to tinker, and the cupboards are far from bare.

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 5

February, 24, 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 still more than a week left on that wait to hit the practice field again, 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 them. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key positional battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, now we'll make a handful of predictions for what should go down in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCan Buckeyes wideout Michael Thomas have a breakout season in 2014?
No. 5: Michael Thomas has another big camp.

His springs have been almost unforgettable.

After a horrendous season for Ohio State's receivers in 2011 with no player recording more than 14 catches, Thomas burst on the scene and provided instant optimism for the future of the spread offense with 12 receptions in one memorable outing in the spring game before his freshman season. He followed that up with another prolific set of workouts a year ago, dominating individual drills, making difficult catches look routine and displaying some jaw-dropping athleticism on the perimeter.

His falls have provided almost nothing worth remembering at all.

There were only 3 receptions during that debut season in 2012. Last season, Thomas didn't even see the field and wound up taking a redshirt, though he actually did step on the turf during the brawl at Michigan for his only action of what at this time a year ago seemed likely to be a big sophomore campaign.

Now Thomas appears like he's already at a critical crossroads in his career with the Buckeyes, and both he and the coaching staff could use another head-turning spring from the talented wideout -- provided, of course, that the third time actually is charmed and becomes a springboard into the season.

Ohio State is losing leading receiver Philly Brown and another veteran in Chris Fields, leaving playing time available on the perimeter for an offense that will emphasize the passing game during camp in an effort to find more balance with the play calling. Thomas has a strong relationship with quarterback Braxton Miller, he has all the tools to be an effective weapon and by now there should be no uncertainty at all with the playbook after two seasons in the program. Last spring, Thomas overpowered defensive backs when challenged physically, he made acrobatic catches on deep throws and with his 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame, he presents an inviting target for intermediate routes to help move the chains.

More of the same should be expected leading into April and another exhibition opportunity to show his stuff. The next step will be finally building off it in August.

Players to watch in spring: No. 4

February, 11, 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.

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 journey continues today on the offensive perimeter.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMichael Thomas has been a standout in the last two spring practices. It could be his time to shine in the fall in 2014 after redshirting last season.
No. 4: Michael Thomas, wide receiver

  • By the numbers: After surprisingly taking a redshirt during his second season on campus, the sophomore from Los Angeles still has only three catches and 22 yards to show for his career.
  • What’s at stake: With three years of eligibility remaining, there certainly would seem to be plenty of time left for Thomas to make an impact -- but the clock is actually ticking rather loudly already. The Buckeyes have stockpiled playmakers at wide receiver on the recruiting trail over the last couple years and will continue to do so as long as Urban Meyer is leading the program, and the competition for snaps is only going to get more heated moving forward. On top of that, there might be no better opportunity to move into the lineup than now with Philly Brown and Chris Fields both out of the picture. Brown, in particular, piled up catches and was as consistent a producer as the Buckeyes have had at the position in the spread offense, and filling that void will be at the top of the priority list in the spring. That’s been the time of year when Thomas has shined, showing off his ability to make difficult catches, regularly winning individual matchups with defensive backs and flashing his impressive athleticism. That hasn’t yet translated to the fall, and the Buckeyes would certainly benefit if it did after his third go-around.
  • Best-case scenario: Thomas can’t simply be plugged into the role Brown played in the last couple years because his strength and size at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds doesn’t really lend itself to jet sweeps and bubble screens. But the Buckeyes could use a reliable target in the intermediate passing game, a physical presence that can run routes over the middle of the field or create separation from defenders on third downs to help move the chains. Ohio State has no shortage of speedy options who can handle the rushing attempts from the perimeter or catch short passes near the line of scrimmage, but having a more natural, traditional wideout in the rotation could expand the arsenal and perhaps provide more balance to an offense that has skewed heavily toward the running game in the last two seasons.
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 College Football Playoff and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the final checklist hits on the special teams.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesFreshman Dontre Wilson returned 21 kickoffs for 523 yards this season.
Find some explosion in the return game: Considering the influx of speed on the kickoff return unit and the presence of a veteran to field punts, Ohio State has to be disappointed in the lack of spark it had when the ball was kicked its way. Even before the second-half lead in the Discover Orange Bowl started to slip away thanks to a punt that Philly Brown muffed for a costly turnover, the Buckeyes were merely average in that phase ranking No. 60 in the country and weren't much better with Dontre Wilson pacing a kickoff unit that finished No. 42 in the nation. Meyer undoubtedly has much higher expectations for his returners and has long placed an emphasis on creating game-changing plays in that phase of the game, something he'll only harp on more heading into spring practice. Not only is Brown gone, but every player who fielded more than one punt last season has departed along with him, so there will be open auditions for at least one role when practice resumes for the Buckeyes.

Replace the kicker: Meyer at times seems allergic to kicking field goals, but he could at least feel somewhat comfortable when he did settle for a 3-point try with veteran Drew Basil around and hitting 90 percent of his attempts. But that security blanket is gone now, and while that might make Meyer even less inclined to kick a field goal moving forward, in the short term he'll have his attention focused on the candidates to fill the void. Walk-on Kyle Clinton will have a crack at the job, though his current experience is limited to 3 extra points and a handful of kickoffs in his career. Incoming freshman Sean Nuernberger, the No. 9 player in the country at the position, could wind up being the solution for Ohio State.

Dial up the FreakShow: The loss of Bradley Roby at cornerback is obviously pressing, but not having him around to lead the FreakShow punt-block unit could be just as significant given how dramatic an impact he had during his career attacking the football on special teams. Few things in a game mean more to Meyer than coming up with a momentum-swinging block in the kicking game, and Roby had the instincts and athleticism to do it perhaps as well or better than anybody the coach has ever had at his disposal. Doran Grant has shown a flash of that ability, but the Buckeyes will be looking hard at the young talent it has been stacking up in the secondary to find another guy or two capable of blazing deep into the backfield, getting a hand on the football and then potentially turning a block directly into points the way Roby did with the program.

Previous to-do lists: Offense | Defense

OSU offseason to-do list: Offense

January, 8, 2014
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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.
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.
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.

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.

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.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Even for the sake of comparison, Urban Meyer has little use for the film from 2011.

The Ohio State coach wasn’t around then, so it wasn’t his spread offense being used. Illinois has changed coaches and changed defensively since two years ago as well, leaving little to be gleaned from the last visit the Buckeyes made to Memorial Stadium. And Meyer’s quarterback was a banged-up, inexperienced freshman then, and his game would almost certainly be unrecognizable if the coach decided to pop in the video just to see how far Braxton Miller has come.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Mercilus, Jonathan Brown
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanA banged-up Braxton Miller had a rough time in his first game against Illinois back in 2011. But Ohio State still won 17-7 in Miller's freshman season.
But because Meyer is already aware of the most notable number from that ugly win for the Buckeyes, he hardly needs the visual confirmation. The Buckeyes have seen enough improvement from Miller as a passer just since Meyer arrived that watching him complete just one pass in four attempts might be overkill.

“I know we had a young quarterback and a fairly nonfunctional group of wideouts, so I would imagine you were going to do what we did [last year] and run the quarterback a lot,” Meyer said. “Do what you’ve got to do to walk out of there with a win.

“I can assure you that we're in a much different place than he was two years ago. And I can see that.”

Even without measuring the improvement since Oct. 15, 2011, the evidence that Miller is playing the best football of his career has been impossible to ignore over the last few games.

In the last three starts, the junior has combined to complete nearly 80 percent of his passes for 707 yards and nine touchdowns, moving the ball and scoring points so efficiently that he’s barely needed to play after halftime of the last two blowout victories. And while those outings certainly blow his 1-completion, 17-yard, 1-touchdown outing against Illinois two years ago out of the water, the dramatic development in the passing attack revolves around more than just Miller.

There’s no question Miller has become more mechanically sound, has improved in his ability to break down defenses and become comfortable in the spread in his second season under Meyer. But the Buckeyes have taken steps forward all around him as well, starting with a veteran offensive line affording him great protection to significant upgrades from Philly Brown, Devin Smith and a deeper cast of wideouts making plays on the perimeter.

“Looking back, that’s crazy to me just because our passing game has evolved so much now,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “We have so many different guys score touchdowns for us now, to just have one pass [completion], that’s kind of unreal to think about.

“Braxton and the skill guys have come so far, I don’t think it’s going to be like that this year. We’ll see; maybe we will have to run the ball that much.”

The Buckeyes could probably do it if they wanted to, as they still have the No. 8 rushing offense in the country averaging more than 300 yards per game.

Plus, they’re matching up against an Illinois defense that ranks 115th in the nation against the rush and might have to deal with windy conditions which can sometimes make it a challenge to throw the ball. And the Buckeyes have plenty of players still on the roster who know firsthand they can win even if they only complete one pass.

But what would be the fun in that?

“Nah, that wouldn’t work right now,” Miller said. “I was a young pup, so I grew up from that.

“It was fortunate that coach Meyer came here, we worked out things, got me better, now I’m [throwing] a lot better.”

The numbers make that pretty obvious. Meyer doesn’t need to watch the film to know that statistics aren’t lying.

Dynamic frosh has opponents' attention

October, 30, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The best weapons don’t even have to be used to be effective.

And if simply showing off the arsenal is enough to get an opponent to back down, right now that makes Dontre Wilson the ultimate deterrent for a defense.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State freshman Dontre Wilson has 33 touches for 319 yards this season.
Ohio State isn’t afraid to use the freshman hybrid as either a rusher or receiver, and there is already enough destruction on film to prove that he is far more than an idle threat when the spread offense trots Wilson out to line up with an attack that’s already dangerous without him. And while he has been explosive with the football in his hands, lately the No. 4 Buckeyes are finding even more success just by using him as a decoy, and at times they don’t even need to snap the ball to figure out how effective that approach can be.

“Dontre is an explosive kid, so they’re really trying to key in on him,” running back Carlos Hyde said. “Sometimes when we’re out there together, the defensive guys try to call out if it’s a run, ‘No. 1 is getting the ball, No. 1 is getting the ball.’

“And that’s not the case at all.”

Defenders aren’t having much luck guessing right after the play starts, either.

The Buckeyes have used him in the play-action passing game to open up acres of space for receivers down the field, sucking safeties up near the line of scrimmage as they bite on fake handoffs to Wilson.

They’ve sent him in motion out of the backfield, using the option of tossing a swing pass his way to distract defenders on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the offense works back the other direction in a package that includes two other proven game-changers in Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, not to mention a group of wideouts led by Philly Brown and Devin Smith, who have combined for 13 touchdowns.

Of course, that deception wouldn’t be nearly as successful if Wilson didn’t get a few chances to handle the football himself. Lately he has barely needed them to keep defenses off balance, but three touches on offense were enough in last week’s blowout of Penn State to create a few more reasons for coordinators preparing for Ohio State to worry, since the speedy, elusive youngster turned them into 47 yards and a touchdown.

“He's learning to be a fulltime member, so he'll be more and more involved,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “He's an energizer. I don't want to say we’ve mandated it, but he'll be more and more and more involved. He played very well, by the way. I mean, when I say very well, of course he carried the ball well and all that. But he did a lot of things well.

“He's pretty lethal with the ball in his hand. Wait until you see him next year.”

The Buckeyes have plenty more football ahead of them this season, though they’re already seeing the kind of physical and mental development now in Wilson that has them at least peeking at the future and his potential.

Wilson has added 15 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame since arriving on campus, and after largely spending the first half of the season as a novelty with a small package of plays and responsibilities, his ability to quickly absorb the playbook and willingness to contribute in a variety of ways has sped up the learning curve to get him on the field more often.

And considering how valuable Wilson can be just by coming off the sideline and lining up anywhere in the formation, the more he can do that, the better an already dynamic offense can be.

“[Meyer] just wanted me to be a complete player,” Wilson said. “He wanted me to block right and just know all my assignments on every play, do the right thing when I’m in the game. I was a freshman, and I’m still a freshman. As it goes on, I get better and better every week.

“Penn State was keying on me a lot. Every time I went in the game they were watching me, and coaches were saying the same thing. But you know, I just have to make plays, and I made some plays.”

Perhaps even more important, simply sprinkling in the mere threat of Wilson making a play is opening up destructive opportunities for other Buckeyes and making life miserable for defenders.
Penn State will travel to The Horseshoe on Saturday for its 29th meeting against Ohio State. So, in preparation of the game, Penn State beat writer Josh Moyer and Ohio State beat writer Austin Ward sat down to discuss four key questions surrounding the contest.

What's the X-factor for the Penn State-Ohio State game?

Moyer: The crowd. Listen, you can say that almost any week -- but it especially holds true Saturday. The Nittany Lions have just 12 seniors on their roster, and they've already played a dozen true freshmen this season. Both redshirt and true freshmen comprise 53 percent (59 of 111) of the roster. Fifty-three percent! So most of these players on this roster haven't competed in front of a truly hostile crowd, and Christian Hackenberg's biggest road test to date has been in front of a half-empty Memorial Stadium at Indiana, a game Penn State lost. Penn State is blaring the music a bit louder at practice this week -- but that can only prepare players so much. Penn State can't afford to make mistakes, and some burned timeouts and false starts could be in the Lions' future.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller and Ohio State are on a roll offensively.
Ward: The Buckeyes are hitting on all cylinders on offense, and they’re going to score points with Braxton Miller healthy and playing at a high level on offense and Carlos Hyde blowing through defenders to pace the rushing attack. But the real key for Ohio State will be if its improving front seven is able to collapse the pocket and force Hackenberg to make mistakes the secondary can feast on for a couple turnovers. Hackenberg has played beyond his years early in the season, but he hasn’t played anywhere nearly as hostile as Ohio Stadium and the Buckeyes could add to the difficulty by dialing up their aggression early and often, coming off a couple slow starts that can at least partially be attributed to somewhat conservative schemes.

Which player is the most important?

Moyer: Hackenberg. Miller is obviously a tempting choice, but he's going to score. You can't totally stop Miller. Hackenberg is the wild card. We've seen 50-plus yard throws fall right into the receivers' hands, we've seen him stand in the pocket and deliver tight spirals across his body. But we've also seen him make head-scratching decisions, stare at one receiver and hold on to the ball way too long. He's exceeded expectations and, overall, has done a remarkable job this season. But you just don't know what quarterback you're going to get on Saturday. Will he play the way he did in the final three quarters against Kent State, when he went 6 of 25? Will he rally his team for a comeback the way he did against Michigan in the final minute? If he plays well, Penn State has a chance. If he doesn't, Penn State has no chance. It's that simple.

Ward: The entire offense centers around Miller’s versatility, and the Buckeyes are operating at a different level now that the junior quarterback has become a more polished passer. His ability to move the chains and create explosive gains on the ground is unquestioned, but a year ago, teams like Penn State were able to slow down the Buckeyes at times late in the season because they could load the box without too much fear of getting beat through the air. That approach doesn’t work as well now, and with Miller coming off perhaps the most efficient outing of his career, the Nittany Lions will have to honor the threat of Philly Brown or Devin Smith down the field. That, in turn, opens up holes for Hyde. All of that revolves around the special talent taking the snaps.

What's the matchup to watch?

Moyer: WR Allen Robinson vs. CB Bradley Roby. A-Rob is one of the top receivers in the nation who could leave early for the NFL; Roby is the returning All-American corner who's trying to make amends for an awful game against Jared Abbrederis to show he's still a high draft pick. What's not to love about this matchup? Robinson has a 37-inch vertical leap and the best route-running ability on the team; Roby boasts great closing speed, a penchant for picking up on routes and, Bill O'Brien said, is "one of the top defensive backs in the country." It's no secret that Robinson is the biggest weapon on this Penn State offense, and this game will go a long way in developing Roby's reputation. Another bad game for Roby and the chatter will undoubtedly pick up. On the flip side, if Robinson succeeds, he could watch his draft stock soar a few notches. It should be the most entertaining matchup in the conference Saturday.

Ward: The elite head-to-head battle on the perimeter between Roby and Robinson will be worth the price of admission. But when the Buckeyes are on offense, there could be perhaps an even more intriguing chess match as the Nittany Lions try to get defensive tackle DaQuan Jones in favorable situations. The Big Ten’s leader in tackles for a loss is facing perhaps the best overall group of blockers in the league, and center Corey Linsley and guards Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell are well aware of how important it will be to win up front and keep Jones out of the backfield.

Which team has the advantage?

Moyer: Ohio State. No question about it -- even the most die-hard Penn State fans have to admit the Buckeyes have the clear advantage here. Ohio State is more experienced, has a deeper roster, has the home-field advantage, a more well-rounded offense, a better front-seven, etc. PSU is about a two-touchdown underdog in this one, and it lost to OSU by double-digits last season with a lot more going for it. If Penn State is going to keep this one close, its offense has to score points -- a lot of points -- to stand a chance. It's difficult to discount Penn State in any game, but it'd be foolish to even hint that these two teams are evenly matched. They're not. Ohio State has the advantage.

Ward: The Buckeyes have more firepower than just about any team in the country on offense, and even after a couple sloppy starts on defense over the last couple weeks, they still rank No. 15 in the nation in total defense. That’s a perfect formula for winning a lot of games, and the Buckeyes have done that every single time they’ve taken the field under Urban Meyer. Ohio State is somewhat uniquely equipped to handle different scenarios depending on what it wants to accomplish, either speeding up the tempo if it feels the need to put up a bunch of points or leaning on its ground game to work on the clock and grind out a victory if it needs to. That ability to adapt has been invaluable during the 19-game winning streak, and along with what appears to be a more talented roster on paper, it should help provide an edge once again for the Buckeyes.

Midseason report: Ohio State

October, 15, 2013
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Perhaps the journey hasn’t been quite as smooth as Ohio State might have planned, but the Buckeyes still are right on schedule to get where they want to go.

The Buckeyes still haven’t lost since Urban Meyer took over the program last year, and with another perfect half of a season under their belts and no postseason sanctions hanging over their heads, they’ve done everything they can to get in position for a potential spot in the national championship game despite some occasionally difficult circumstances.

Most notably, Meyer had to survive for nearly three games without star quarterback Braxton Miller, though backup Kenny Guiton rewrote the record books to bridge the gap until the reigning Big Ten player of the year returned in time for conference play. The Buckeyes, though, are looking at a longer absence for safety Christian Bryant, with a broken ankle ending his season and shuffling up a secondary that has had some ups and downs even with the senior on the field.

But through it all, the Buckeyes just seem to keep on rolling, and with tough tests against Wisconsin and Northwestern having already been passed, the road looks pretty clear ahead in the buildup to The Game against Michigan at the end of November. With Miller back on the field, Carlos Hyde back in the fold after a three-game suspension and the defensive line potentially getting a boost from the return of tackle Tommy Schutt as early as this week, the Buckeyes might have only scratched the surface through six games.

Offensive MVP: WR Philly Brown. Both quarterbacks have put up gaudy individual numbers while effectively splitting responsibility for the first-half wins, and both Miller and Guiton deserve credit for their respective improvements throwing the football. But the strides the receivers have made since last season have been every bit as critical in the development of the passing attack, and Brown has been the most consistent of them all and been an invaluable asset for either guy taking the snaps. The senior leads the team with 381 yards on 30 catches, and this year he’s also turning those receptions into scores with five touchdowns already to his credit.

Defensive MVP: LB Ryan Shazier. Few players in the country do more defensively to stuff the stat sheet, and the junior continues to produce at an elite level even while taking on more responsibility to become a vocal leader in the absence of Bryant. Shazier might not have many of the kind of highlight-reel plays he made a year ago on film yet this season, but Ohio State isn’t complaining about his 47 tackles (eight for loss), two forced fumbles and a sack.

Helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
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These three stood out in No. 4 Ohio State's 40-30 win at No. 16 Northwestern.

Carlos Hyde, RB: The senior was easily the Buckeyes' MVP of the night, rushing 26 times for 168 yards and scoring three touchdowns in the second half. He added four catches for 38 yards. Whenever the offense needed a lift, Hyde gave it a boost, proving to be reliable and ultimately helping Ohio State escape with a win.

Bradley Roby, CB: Roby's biggest contribution came on special teams, as he blocked a Northwestern punt and recovered the ball in the end zone for Ohio State's first and only touchdown of the first half. Roby added six tackles on the night as well.

Philly Brown, WR: The senior caught six passes for 127 yards, proving to be a reliable threat for Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense. For the season, Brown had just 133 receiving yards in three games entering the contest, and his performance could not have come at a better time for the Buckeyes.

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