Ohio State Buckeyes: Etienne Sabino

Position preview: Linebackers

August, 23, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp winds down and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

LINEBACKERS

Top of the depth chart: Ryan Shazier on the weak side, Joshua Perry on the strong and Curtis Grant in between them.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier led the Buckeyes in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles in 2012.
Next in line: There is hardly any depth to speak of on the Ohio State roster at a position that has long been a source of pride for the program, and the numbers are low enough that walk-on Joe Burger could be a valuable part of the rotation. The Buckeyes have high hopes for a pair of freshmen signed in February, and Mike Mitchell has already emerged as a viable second-team option behind Grant. Trey Johnson has been somewhat slowed by injury during training camp, but he should contribute along with sophomore Camren Williams as the Buckeyes try to replace Zach Boren and Etienne Sabino.

New faces: The Buckeyes could have perhaps used more than two linebackers in the last recruiting class, but they did land a couple who have the athleticism and intelligence to lend a hand early in their careers. Mitchell has long been a student of the position and is well versed in the tradition at middle linebacker, and if for some reason the injury bug keeps following around Grant or he struggles in September, he could be on the field quickly. Johnson has been a bit banged up this month, but the Buckeyes will need him to speed through the learning curve to supply some much-needed depth.

Recruiting trail: The 2014 class already includes a pair of outside linebackers, including four-star prospect in Kyle Berger (Cleveland/St. Ignatius). But the real prize would be a pledge from Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County), a monster inside linebacker currently ranked No. 14 in the nation among all players in the ESPN 300. Assuming Shazier returns for his senior season, the cupboard might once again start looking full at Ohio State in the heart of the defense.

Flexibility: Until the roster gets back where defensive coordinator Luke Fickell needs it, there’s only so much he can do with his unit. Shazier isn’t likely to leave the field under any circumstance, and the desire, and perhaps, necessity to play more nickel and dime packages, somewhat lessens the number of bodies needed on hand. Perry is expected to be a factor as the second option at linebacker in the nickel, and even with Grant’s injury concerns during camp, he remains the top option in the middle.

Notable numbers:

-- Nobody offered more to the Ohio State defense a year ago than Shazier, even while fighting through a painful sports hernia that required offseason surgery and slowed him down physically during the second half of last season. He still led the team in tackles (115), tackles for a loss (17) and forced fumbles (3), and his 5 sacks are the highest total of any returning defender.

-- Neither Perry or Grant were able to supply much off the bench a year ago, and the two combined for just 13 tackles in 18 combined appearances. The Buckeyes obviously need both of those numbers to improve dramatically given their high-profile roles moving forward.

-- In roughly half of a season each, Boren and Sabino couldn’t match the ruthless efficiency and production of Shazier -- but the combined contributions weren’t too shabby. Putting their statistics together, the tandem chipped in 95 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Big question: Can the Buckeyes survive again?

Whether it was through injury or ineffectiveness, an already thin group of linebackers a year ago was dwindling to the point of desperation when Boren made the shocking switch from fullback to middle linebacker in the middle of the season. But if one more injury had struck Fickell’s unit, what then? The Buckeyes are increasingly loading up with the type of talent the program has long been known for across the roster, but the linebacker position has been lagging behind so far and this season could once again require a test of creativity if injuries pop up to the starting unit. Few teams in the country could sustain the loss of a player as gifted as Shazier, so keeping him fresh and on the field is obviously a priority. But the Buckeyes also need Perry and a rejuvenated Grant on hand and playing at a high level if they’re going to be a true championship contender, and the focus will be on their development as much as their health moving forward.
2012 record: 12-0

2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)

Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier

Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)

Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)

Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)

Tackles: Shazier* (115)

Sacks: Simon (9)

Interceptions: Howard (4)

Spring answers:

1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.

2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.

3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.

Fall questions

1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.

2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.

3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.

Spring forward: MLBs breakdown

February, 25, 2013
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With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

MIDDLE LINEBACKERS
      [+] EnlargeCurtis Grant
      Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker Curtis Grant is looking to finally break through in 2014.

    • Who's back: Almost as suddenly as he arrived, Zach Boren's run at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes was over. Now they're left once again to find somebody capable of quarterbacking the defense, and as remarkable as Boren's story was at the position, it also underscored just how little depth the program had there at the halfway point of last season. Curtis Grant was supposed to be the answer after winning the starting job in spring practice and keeping it throughout training camp, but the rising junior ultimately wasn't a factor for the second year in a row and was passed on the depth chart twice before finishing as a third-team afterthought. The former elite recruit still has upside, though, and the Buckeyes will be monitoring him closely in a likely battle with sophomore Camren Williams to take over that critical spot in the heart of the defense.
    • New face: Trey Johnson drew praise on signing day from the Ohio State coaching staff for his advanced football intelligence, and Mike Mitchell's eye-popping athleticism is hard to ignore. Both of those traits would certainly go a long way in helping them handle a wide range of responsibilities while balancing the often challenging transition to the next level and potentially becoming an answer in the middle. But they won't be around to compete on the practice field with the rest of the linebackers until August, which certainly favors the returners.

(Read full post)

Spring forward: OLBs breakdown

February, 22, 2013
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With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier improved markedly over the 2012 season.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Who's back: Only one first-teamer is returning at the second level for the Buckeyes, but Ryan Shazier is certainly a fine place to start. The junior emerged as one of the most prolific defenders in the Big Ten a year ago, and if he's not a household name around the country yet, he should be soon as the hype builds leading into next season. Shazier does need a sidekick on the other side of the formation after Etienne Sabino exhausted his eligibility, and Ohio State has a handful of rising sophomores to sort through in March and April as it reloads the front seven. Joshua Perry, David Perkins, Camren Williams and Jamal Marcus all got their feet wet in some form or fashion as freshmen, and mixing and matching to find the right spots and best combination at linebacker will be at the top of the priority list this spring.
  • New face: The Buckeyes already have high hopes for the two highly touted linebackers they landed on national signing day, but they won't get to see what Mike Mitchell or Trey Johnson can do on the practice field until August. The coaching staff cast a wide net at the position a year ago, though, and the development of the second-year guys who weren't exactly regulars last fall will be critical.
  • Projected spring depth chart: Shazier will be back in his familiar role at weakside linebacker, with the athletic Perkins likely filling in behind him. Perry appears to be at the head of the line to replace Sabino on the opposite side, with Perkins battling for the gig as well.
  • Numbers game: The newcomers did get a taste of what college football is all about right away, but chances to contribute in meaningful situations on defense were hard to come by. Shazier and his senior counterparts rarely came off the field a year ago, and in limited work defensively and more regular appearances on special teams, the quartet of Perkins, Marcus, Perry and Williams combined for 22 tackles. That total, obviously, will have to improve dramatically -- and there will be no shortage of chances to do it.
  • One to watch: The way the coaches raved about the natural ability and the tireless way Marcus competed during training camp last August, it seemed like he was poised to make a substantial impact right away. Ultimately the rigors of one of the more difficult positions to play as a true freshman seemed to slow him down, but with a full season now behind him and the benefits of spring practice now ahead of him, Marcus should be in much better position to put his skills on display and potentially work his way into more playing time as a sophomore.
  • He said it: "Really, if you think about it, Shazier is the only experience we've got in the front seven coming back next year -- [only one] with a lot of experience. I think with that whole group, it's going to be an exciting time. I know I'm excited. We've got some young guys, maybe at linebacker we're a lot thinner with just depth and numbers, but it's going to be an exciting time. It's a big winter, and it's going to be a big spring." -- defensive coordinator Luke Fickell on signing day
Ohio State hardly needs motivation thanks to the chip on its shoulder already firmly in place after sitting out the postseason with a perfect record. But just in case any players required any extra fuel heading into workouts or wanted a little help putting together some goals, BuckeyeNation is here to lend a hand with some records that could be in reach with another productive offseason.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier's ability to make tackles in the open field might put Ohio State's single-game solo tackles record in jeopardy next season.
SOLO TACKLES IN A GAME

  • Who owns it: The combination of a one-man wrecking crew and an abundance of chances to deliver hits has popped up a few times in Ohio State's decorated history, though Tom Cousineau's busy afternoon against SMU in 1978 still stands alone in the record books. The relentless, athletic linebacker chased down 28 overall tackles that day, but it was his 16 solo takedowns that established a new standard for the Buckeyes that have followed behind him.
  • Who wants it: A season like Cousineau delivered in 1978 with more than 200 tackles might be out of reach, but on a single-game basis, Ryan Shazier might be more than capable of threatening a record that hasn't had anybody come within two tackles of tying it in nearly 20 years. But the rising junior has made it well known that there's no ballcarrier he won't or can't run down with his blend of elite speed and strength, and he broke into double-figures in solo tackles twice as a sophomore. His personal best is 11, set this season against Illinois, but there will plenty of opportunites to top that next season.
  • Relevant number: Only one player in the Big Ten worked better alone on defense than Shazier last season, with his 70 solo tackles ranking No. 2 in the conference. The Buckeyes were obviously relying on Shazier to pick up the slack for a thin position group and stay on the field as much as possible, and he emerged as both durable and reliable at the second level -- finishing with at least 10 total tackles in half of the games during the perfect campaign.

(Read full post)

Ohio State missed on ESPN 150 wide receiver James Quick (Louisville, Ky./Trinity) over the weekend when the senior chose Louisville. What the Buckeyes did from a defensive standpoint, however, solidified an already strong unit.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comMike Mitchell plans on coming to Ohio State to compete for a starting job.
With headliners on the front line and in the secondary, all that was missing were some linebackers.

What Ohio State got in Trey Johnson (Lawrenceville, Ga./Central Gwinnett) and Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood Christian) could impact the team earlier than many expect.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Always tempted by the chance to play for a championship, Bradley Roby apparently didn't have enough incentive to walk away from the opportunity to do it with Ohio State next fall.

According to the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday night, the dynamic athlete is returning to the Buckeyes for one more season after flirting with a potential jump to the NFL after breaking out as a redshirt sophomore and becoming one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country.

After breaking up 19 passes to lead the Big Ten despite missing a game due to a nagging shoulder surgery, Roby was integral in the second-half defensive surge that helped Ohio State finish off its unbeaten season and boosted his own stock as a potential professional in the process. Eligible to leave the program early after redshirting during his first year on campus, Roby admitted having conversations with the coaching staff about his options well before the season was over.

But after spending more than a month deliberating after helping the Buckeyes finish off a perfect season with a win over rival Michigan, Roby ultimately made the choice that was largely expected since he talked openly about his desire to compete for a national title now that the program's postseason sanctions are in the rearview mirror. And he'll also have another full year to impress the scouts who have already taken notice of him by now.

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Next up: Replacing Sabino, Boren

December, 27, 2012
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Heading into the new year and offseason workouts, BuckeyeNation will look at some holes left by the departing Ohio State veterans and potential candidates to fill them.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Grant
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker Curtis Grant is someone that OSU would like to step up to help fill the void left by Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren.
LINEBACKERS

  • Who: Neither senior was able to give a full season at linebacker, though it was an injury for one that helped open the door for the other to prove he was equally skilled on the defensive side of the ball after establishing himself as perhaps the best fullback in the Big Ten before that. After how much Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren offered the Buckeyes in what amounted to half of a year each, there's no question Urban Meyer would give plenty to have them back for one more run with the program -- particularly given the lingering depth concerns at the position. Boren was a natural at middle linebacker and provided invaluable leadership during a rocky defensive stretch in the middle of the season. Sabino blossomed as his career with the Buckeyes wound down, giving nearly every column on the stats sheet before a broken leg interrupted his last season. Both leave plenty of responsibilities behind, both on and off the field.

(Read full post)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A position-by-position look at a perfect season for Ohio State, continuing today by looking back at an up-and-down season for the guys at the second level of the defense, a group that took off after a surprising midseason addition.

LINEBACKERS
[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier was the Buckeyes' most valuable and productive linebacker as a sophomore.

  • Most valuable player: There's not any question that Ryan Shazier was the most outstanding player at linebacker, and his numbers and various contributions might well give him a case that he was the one defender the Buckeyes couldn't live without. And while Zach Boren didn't play a full season at the position, didn't have anywhere near as much statistical production and still looked more like a fullback for a couple weeks after moving over to the defensive side of the ball, the senior's willingness to make the transition stands out by itself as invaluable to the team dynamic. But on top of that, the way he willed it into a success to stabilize a position that was already thin before getting wiped out by injuries will go down in Ohio State lore.

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Awards watch: Bucks named All-Big Ten

November, 26, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's more hardware to give out, but Ohio State has already landed a decent haul of trophies from the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes might also have a few snubs to complain about as well.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireJohn Simon was named the Big Ten's best defensive lineman.
The offensive and defensive player of the year honors and the coach of the year trophy will be handed out on Tuesday, but the all-conference teams and position-specific awards were announced Monday by the Big Ten.

The only unbeaten team in the league had plenty of players earn recognition, though there were a few selections that were a bit puzzling. Did the coaches and the media get it right?

Here's a quick rundown:

Coaches' first-team picks
Coaches' second-team picks
Coaches honorable mention: Cornerback Travis Howard, center Corey Linsley, left tackle Jack Mewhort, left guard Andrew Norwell, safety C.J. Barnett

Media first-team picks

  • Quarterback Braxton Miller
  • Left guard Andrew Norwell
  • Defensive end John Simon
  • Linebacker Ryan Shazier
  • Cornerback Travis Howard
  • Cornerback Bradley Roby
Media second-team picks

  • Running back Carlos Hyde
  • Left tackle Jack Mewhort
  • Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins
Media honorable mention: Right tackle Reid Fragel, safety Christian Bryant, safety C.J. Barnett, wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown, linebacker Etienne Sabino, center Corey Linsley

Buckeyes set foundation for future

November, 26, 2012
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Ohio StateKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCoach Urban Meyer and his undefeated 2012 Buckeyes could have an even brighter future ahead.
I ventured out to a couple of places in Columbus on Saturday night to watch the USC-Notre Dame game. Plenty of Ohio State fans were cheering for the Trojans, hoping that their Buckeyes would end up as the only undefeated team in the country. After the Irish won, one well-lubricated fan kept yelling, "Congratulations on being the second-best team in the country."

Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.

While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.

"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."

Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?

Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.

"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."

The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.

That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.

"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."

Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.

Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.

There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.

"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."

This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.

Ohio State 10: Week 12 power rankings 

November, 26, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was only one more shot to impress the voters in The Associated Press poll.

Ohio State also had only one final game to make a move in the weekly power ratings.

No surprise, the top spots stayed the same as the Buckeyes polished off their perfect season, getting big-time passing plays from Braxton Miller, another impressive outing from Ryan Shazier and more hard running from Carlos Hyde.

But the defensive effort in the second half as Ohio State shut down rival Michigan in a 26-21 decision on Saturday at Ohio Stadium allowed for some tinkering after that, and for now, the latest edition of the Ohio State 10 will have to stand for a while.

No. 1: QB Braxton Miller

  • Last week: No. 1

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Perfection hard to beat for Buckeyes

November, 24, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State won't have a chance to play for a national title and won't get to prove itself a 13th time this season because of NCAA sanctions.

But in a way, the Buckeyes earned something just as lasting as any crystal football. By finishing off a 12-0 campaign with Saturday's 26-21 win over archrival Michigan, they will remain perfect in memory and ideal in their fans' imagination.

If -- as several Ohio State players like Carlos Hyde and Ryan Shazier did Saturday afternoon -- this team wants to say it deserves the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, how can you convincingly tell the players they're wrong? A Notre Dame loss would leave the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the country, and we'll never know for sure how they would stack up against the other national powers.

"You can say what you want, but we're 12-0," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "People can talk what they want and say a bunch of what-ifs now, but I know we took care of what we had to do. At the beginning of the year we set out to win every single game, and that's what we did. It wasn't pretty, but it happened."

Ohio State fans sure didn't seem to care much about bowl bans. They poured onto the field in droves when the win was secured and stayed there long after the game had ended, taking photos and singing with the school band.

In between the first and second quarter, former coach Jim Tressel was honored along with other members of the 2002 national championship team. Those former players picked Tressel up and carried him off the field on their shoulders as the crowd roared. Of course, Tressel's deception of his bosses and the NCAA directly led to the sanctions that will keep this year's team home. But the irony of choosing the day when the current team would finish 12-0 to honor Tressel appeared lost on a forgiving fan base.

Time may heal all wounds, but going undefeated helps wipe out even the memory of those pains. Instead, fans can now remember this team as one of six unbeaten squads in school history, yet the first since 1944 to do so without going to a bowl.

"It kind of stinks," said tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner. "We wish we were playing in a bowl game. But, shoot, I'll take 12-0 any day of the week."

A postseason game would bring the potential of a loss that could tarnish this team's legacy. Instead, it will be revered for turning last year's 6-7 disaster into the best possible building block for the future under first-year coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer said he would make sure the 2012 team would get some sort of permanent recognition around the team's facilities. He joked about erecting 19 bronze statues for each of this year's seniors.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith his defense much improved, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he feels his team can now compete with the nation's elite.
As for whether this team deserves a No. 1 ranking, Meyer was too media savvy to take that bait. But unlike earlier in the year, he was happy to heap plenty of praise on the Buckeyes.

"I'd say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America," he said.

Meyer wouldn't have put his own team in such company back in mid-October. But the improvement of his defense from a poor-tackling, easily exploitable bunch to a true strength has changed his perception.

In fact, Saturday's game was a perfect encapsulation of the Buckeyes' season. In the first half, they needed some great work by quarterback Braxton Miller to keep them in the game as Michigan rolled up 21 points and several explosive plays, like a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson's 67-yard touchdown sprint.

But just like in the season as a whole, the defense took over in the second half. Keying on Robinson as a runner and aided by some bizarre Michigan play calling, the Silver Bullets (yes, they've earned back that nickname) didn't let the Wolverines cross midfield after halftime. They allowed only 39 total yards and no points in the second half and forced three turnovers. Robinson and Devin Gardner were hemmed in as Michigan ran only 21 offensive plays in the second half.

"We just had to limit the big plays," linebacker Shazier said. "We were missing way too many tackles at the beginning of the game. We settled down on that and settled down on the big plays in the second half."

This wouldn't have been the 2012 Buckeyes without some adversity and drama. The defense played without star defensive end John Simon, who experienced swelling in his knee after last week's Wisconsin game. And even with the second-half defensive domination, Ohio State kept frittering away excellent scoring chances and settled for just two field goals to keep Michigan in the thick of it.

In the end, that's the signature of these Buckeyes. They never made things easy, but they never lost.

"We have so much confidence because we've been in so many close games like this," Sabino said. "We know how to come out with the win."

Now all they can do is watch football until the spring. Several players said they planned to watch next week's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska, two teams they beat earlier this season.

They will do so believing someone else will get a trophy they earned.

"I feel like we're the true Big Ten champions," Shazier said. "We won every game and did exactly what we're supposed to do and finished out strong. We showed it today."

The Buckeyes can do nothing more to prove themselves. But no one can ever definitively tell them they weren't the best team in the country, either. They'd love a shot at the national title. They'll settle for perfection.

Four downs: Keys to The Game 

November, 23, 2012
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Ohio StadiumKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOhio Stadium will be the venue for this weekend's game.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they welcome Michigan looking to close out a perfect season at home with a win over their hated rival. The game will be televised live on ABC at noon ET Saturday from Ohio Stadium.

FIRST DOWN
Keep it in check: A perfect season, a rivalry, the last game for the seniors and a chance to send a message to poll voters are all out there looming as potential distractions. And if Ohio State gets too wrapped up in any of them, everything could slip away from them.

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Ohio State 10: Week 11 power rankings 

November, 19, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe Ryan Shazier is running out of time to take over the top spot in the power rankings.

But the Ohio State sophomore is building a pretty strong case as the best defensive player in the Big Ten -- and he's also starting to give Braxton Miller a run for his money.

Shazier delivered another highlight-reel play that won't be forgotten by the Buckeyes for a long time, even if it ultimately didn't end up going down as a game-winner after he punched the ball loose from Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the 21-14 overtime win on Saturday. And while that resume still leaves him a spot behind Miller in the latest edition of the Ohio State 10, he might be No. 1 in a different poll soon if he keeps up his torrid pace for one more week.

No. 1: QB Braxton Miller

  • Last week: No. 1
  • Against Wisconsin: The sophomore clearly didn’t have his best stuff and was effectively bottled up by the Badgers' sound game plan, but that doesn’t diminish his value for the Buckeyes through the season. And what Miller might have lacked on the stats sheet over the weekend, he more than made up for by keeping his record as the starting quarterback perfect this season.

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The latest from Gustin at The Opening
ESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) took time out to talk recruiting and more with WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz on Tuesday at The Opening.
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