Ohio State Buckeyes: Jordan Hall

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

How will the Buckeyes divvy up the carries?

Urban Meyer has never seemed all that worried about establishing one true workhorse in the backfield, though when he found one in Carlos Hyde the Ohio State coach turned him loose and let both the yardage and the carries pile up.

But with last season's top tailback out of the picture, will the Buckeyes try to duplicate the formula of identifying one featured rusher to pair with quarterback Braxton Miller or will they unleash all the weapons in a stocked arsenal to try to replace all the production left behind by Hyde as he heads to the NFL?

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteWill Ezekiel Elliott take over the lead running back duties this season?
If they're going to settle on one guy, Ezekiel Elliott is the clubhouse leader after spring practice, even if Meyer has been hesitant to reveal a pecking order. At the end of his true freshman season a year ago, Elliott had already shown in a handful of appearances why he was such a coveted recruit, taking advantage of the rare opportunities afforded backup rushers with 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns. Elliott doesn't appear as physically imposing as Hyde, but at 225 pounds, he's not much lighter than his predecessor, capable of taking and dishing out punishment and also bringing more than enough speed to break away from defenders when he finds some daylight.

But if the Buckeyes would like to mix it up and spread the touches around, they have no shortage of candidates with plenty to bring to the table. Senior Rod Smith still hasn't quite lived up to his enormous potential and had to sit out the end of spring practice due to academic issues, but his natural talent remains hard to ignore and could encourage the coaching staff to find a way to get him on the field. The same is true for Bri'onte Dunn, who surprisingly took a redshirt as a sophomore but flashed his ability with explosive runs during open workouts during camp before capping it with 35 yards on 6 carries with a touchdown in the spring game.

It's a new face, though, that might actually be the biggest threat to a backfield monopoly, with early enrollee Curtis Samuel turning heads throughout March and April and giving Meyer another speedy, versatile threat to open up the spread rushing attack. The Buckeyes already have Dontre Wilson tabbed in their hybrid role and he's certainly likely to take a few attempts from the tailbacks, but Samuel is cut from the same mold and clearly had Meyer enticed by his game-breaking ability heading into the offseason.

So as they move into the summer conditioning program, the Buckeyes could easily go either way -- but to some extent, that was the case a year ago with Smith, Jordan Hall and ultimately Wilson all offering legitimate options to shoulder the load. It was up to Hyde to prove as the season progressed that he simply shouldn't ever come off the field, and now it appears to be Elliott's turn to help decide if a workhorse or a committee is the best option in the Ohio State backfield.

Top spring position battles: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the most intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic in the countdown, the series rolls along with a look at who else might be lining up with him in the Ohio State backfield.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Trevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott averaged 8.6 yards and had three touchdowns on his 33 touches as a freshman in 2013.
No. 4: Running back
  • Predecessor: Carlos Hyde (208 carries for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns; 16 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns)
  • Candidates: Senior Rod Smith, redshirt sophomores Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball, true sophomores Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson
  • Why to watch: The Buckeyes will again spend the spring and summer months emphasizing improvements in the passing game and seeking to find more balance in the play-calling, but Urban Meyer's version of a successful spread offense will always start with a powerful rushing attack. And after two seasons of leaning on Hyde to do the heavy lifting between the tackles and keep the chains moving, the Buckeyes now need a new sidekick for Miller -- or maybe a couple of them. With such a deep stable of options returning to fill the void left by Hyde and his 19 carries per game, Ohio State might not need to tab just one guy to handle the majority of the work. They could try to spread around touches among as many as four rushers. That was also the plan to some extent last year, though, before Hyde clearly proved he was the most reliable and consistent threat on the ground and ultimately soaked up most of the snaps. All that playing time is available now, and the competition to earn it will no doubt be heated.
  • Pre-camp edge: If the Buckeyes are purely looking for a strong, rugged rusher who fits the physical mold of Hyde, Smith or Dunn might have the advantage. Should Meyer want to feature a more dynamic athlete like he always intended to do with Jordan Hall, Wilson might be in line for more work as a traditional tailback instead of shifting around as a hybrid weapon. But the best combination of size, speed and game-breaking ability appears to be Elliott, who showed glimpses of his potential while racking up 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns during his first season on campus. Of the many candidates the Buckeyes can sort through, the process is likely to start with Elliott when the pads go back on next month.

Planning for success: Ohio State

December, 5, 2013
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.

Roundtable: B1G offensive player of year

November, 19, 2013
In two weeks, the Big Ten will announce its all-conference teams and major award winners, including offensive player of the year. No award has had more twists and turns in recent weeks, and unlike in past seasons, there's no clear frontrunner entering the final two weeks of regular-season play. So we're here to debate it.

We're considering three candidates:
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: 1,336 rush yards, 7 TDs, 133.6 rush yards per game, 10 games played
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: 1,466 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 68 percent completions; 594 rush yards, 3 TDs, eight games played
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: 947 rush yards, 11 TDs, 135.3 rush yards per game, seven games played

Where's Melvin Gordon and James White? Both Wisconsin running backs have had terrific seasons, but the fact they play the same position and have such similar numbers suggests that the votes would cancel out one another. We're not slighting them, just being realistic.

Let's get started …

How close is this race right now, or has one candidate separated himself in your mind?

Austin Ward: While all three of those finalists are deserving, there's a clear winner this year -- and he's the same guy who won it last season. Abdullah has been fantastic and has done some seriously heavy lifting to keep the Nebraska offense humming along, but Hyde has actually been more productive since conference play started, which effectively cancels the running backs out for me. Miller is a uniquely talented performer who makes everything go for one of the nation's most prolific offenses, both in the passing game and on the ground, and he has improved dramatically since claiming player of the year honors as a sophomore. While having a sidekick like Hyde helps, Miller is the key to the whole Ohio State operation.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah, Chance Carter
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has been the picture of consistency and carried a Nebraska offense that has dealt with injuries at the QB position.
Mitch Sherman: Much like Gordon and White, I think Hyde and Miller could actually hurt each other’s candidacies. Both are fantastic players and key cogs in the league’s best offense. Abdullah does everything for Nebraska in the absence of running mate Taylor Martinez at quarterback. With a freshman calling plays, Abdullah has embraced a leadership role. No doubt, the Huskers' three losses hurt his chances, but there's only so much a running back can accomplish. And with all eyes on Ohio State in November, this race ought to come down to the wire.

Brian Bennett: Remarkably close, and I wouldn't have an issue with any of the three players on this list winning it (or James White, or Penn State's Allen Robinson, who have been great in their own right). Hyde and Miller could split votes and have the missed time working against them, while Abdullah not playing for a division winner could hurt his cause. I'm keeping an open mind for the final two weeks.

Adam Rittenberg: It's still extremely close, as all three players have performed well in recent weeks. Abdullah's consistency throughout the season has been remarkable, and if he finishes with two more 100-yard performances, he'll strengthen his case even further. Hyde has been unreal in Big Ten play, rushing for 906 yards and 11 touchdowns in the first six league games. Miller has improved his efficiency since getting healthy and remains one of the nation's most dangerous dual-threat players. I'm excited to watch all three players for two more weeks.

How should the missed time by both Miller (injury) and Hyde (suspension) be factored into the equation?

Rittenberg: Only in the context that Abdullah has been consistent for a longer stretch of games than either Miller or Hyde. But who has made more of their opportunities than Hyde, who has destroyed teams since returning from his suspension. Some likely will hold the suspension against him -- they're probably the same idealistic folks who voted Manti Te'o for Heisman -- but I won't. This award goes to the best offensive player in the league, and Hyde certainly is in the mix for me.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Braxton Miller might have missed a few games, but it's impossible to overlook what he has done when he has played.
Bennett: It should matter. A football season is only 12 games long, so missing three games, as Hyde did, means you were out for a quarter of the season. And the fact that Kenny Guiton put up Heisman-level numbers while Miller was out could take away from his argument. Ultimately, however, I'm most interested in how a player performs in the heat of conference action when things are really on the line. A lot of guys can rack up stats against weak nonconference competition.

Sherman: It’s difficult to count Miller’s injury against him. Hyde’s suspension is, perhaps, a different matter. Still, the sample size for both is large enough to get an accurate gauge on their level of play. But dependability and durability count for something, and the Ohio State stars this year can’t match Abdullah, who has gained 100 yards against every Big Ten foe, including Michigan State, which had not allowed an entire team to reach triple figures before it faced Nebraska. With two more 100-yard efforts this month, he’ll join Iowa’s Shon Greene as the lone runners of the past decade to top 100 in every conference game.

Ward: An absence that lasted nearly three weeks for Miller ended his shot at the Heisman Trophy, but it shouldn't impact his chances in the Big Ten at all. Miller could have conceivably returned to play a half against Florida A&M if it had been absolutely necessary and he might have been able to steal back some of the stats he lost to Kenny Guiton while recovering from his knee sprain. But even without those numbers, even while still fighting off rust against Wisconsin and Northwestern it was evident how badly the Buckeyes need him on the field. And once he got totally healthy, no defense in the Big Ten has been able to even really slow him down.

What does each candidate still have to do to win this award?

Bennett: First of all, help his team win. In just about any sport, the spoils go to the victors. Ohio State should win its final two games and finish unbeaten for a second straight year. There's a reason why the 2012 offensive and defensive player of the year trophies wound up in Columbus, and it could happen again. Abdullah needs to continue his excellent work, and wins over Penn State and Iowa to get Nebraska to 9-3 would be a big help.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah, Chance Carter
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has been the picture of consistency and carried a Nebraska offense that has dealt with injuries at the QB position.
Ward: With Miller and Hyde working side by side, it would be difficult for the pecking order to change between those two down the stretch. But a loss for Ohio State could potentially open the door for Abdullah to make up some ground, particularly if he closes out the year with a couple more prolific outings that drive up his yardage total or he makes a handful of visits to the end zone to close the gap with a touchdown machine like Hyde. That still may not be enough to overtake either Miller or Hyde, but he would at least remain squarely in the mix even if the Buckeyes stay unbeaten heading into the Big Ten title game.

Rittenberg: If Abdullah finishes with two more 100-yard performances in Nebraska wins, it's hard not to give him the hardware. There's a case to be made that the recipient should be on a better team, but Nebraska would have at least one more loss (Northwestern), if not more, without Abdullah's contributions. Hyde and Miller both have an opportunity to put up major numbers this week against the woeful Indiana defense. But they're sort of competing against one another, so one will really have to separate himself against Indiana and Michigan.

Sherman: For Miller, it’s pretty simple -- just win and keep leading the Buckeyes to those gaudy yardage and scoring figures. Do that, and, much like common Heisman scenario, he may win this award by default as the best player on the best team. Hyde will likely lose votes to Miller, so he needs to do more to get noticed. A 200-yard day against Michigan would help. With Nebraska sliding out of the spotlight, if Abdullah stays healthy and keeps his current pace, he’s already made his best case.

Who would get your vote if the season ended today? Make a case for your candidate.

Sherman: Abdullah, because of his consistency and importance to the Nebraska offense. His fourth-and-15 catch and run to keep the game-winning drive intact against Northwestern serves as a signature moment, but Abdullah has meant just as much to the Huskers every week. One measure of his value: Abdullah ranks second nationally in rushing on first-down plays with 822 yards. His per-carry average on first down is 7.4 yards -- more than a yard better than Boston College’s Andre Williams and Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona, who rank first and third, respectfully, in first-down yardage. If Adbullah keeps his per-game pace, he’ll finish with the third-highest single-season rushing total in Nebraska history, behind Mike Rozier’s Heisman season of 1983 and Ahman Green on the Huskers’ 1997 national-title-winning squad.

Ward: Miller. Playing quarterback at Ohio State already comes with ridiculous expectations, and Miller's sophomore season only seemed to raise that bar higher after finishing fifth in the Heisman race. The early injury skewed his numbers and seemingly left him as a forgotten man in September, and Kenny Guiton's fantastic work off the bench didn't help as it generated a mini-controversy about who should start for the Buckeyes. In reality, there has never been any doubt about who Ohio State's best quarterback is, or who the most valuable player in the league is overall. Miller hasn't needed to rush as often, but he's still a blur on the ground and averaging 74 yards per game. His passing ability can hardly even be compared to where it was a year ago, and no quarterback in the Big Ten can match his efficiency. And if that's not enough, he still hasn't lost a start in the last two seasons at the most important position on the field.

Rittenberg: It's Abdullah. He has put up All-America type numbers, even if his touchdowns total is a little low. Hyde would be my second choice as he has been virtually unstoppable in Big Ten play, but if another back gets it done for 12 games vs. nine, it's hard to go against him. I also look at Abdullah's leadership on a Nebraska team lacking it at times. Kenny Guiton showed that Ohio State can win without Miller. Jordan Hall and other backs filled in for Hyde. Abdullah's value for Nebraska goes a bit further.

Bennett: Abdullah. His lowest output of the season was 98 yards, and that came in the UCLA game where Nebraska had to abandon its normal running game after falling behind big in the second half. He has been the most consistent offensive star in the league and his leadership has been impressive to watch. Ohio State has both Hyde and Miller, while Wisconsin has both Gordon and White. For most of the season, Abdullah has carried the majority of the offensive load for the Huskers.

Bye week No. 2: OSU to-do list

November, 8, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offense and its quarterback have perhaps never played better.

A defense that was questioned at just about every level at some point this season is coming off a shutout and is finally playing the aggressive style its coach seeks.

And with both sides essentially racking up style points to impress voters while maintaining an unblemished record, Ohio State has seemingly left little to correct during its rare second bye week.

But that didn't stop coach Urban Meyer from throwing down the gauntlet immediately after throttling Purdue 56-0 last Saturday, challenging the No. 4 Buckeyes in his postgame conversation to come back "stronger and faster." Here are a few other things that might have been on the checklist as the final preparations are made for the stretch run.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's bye week gives right tackle Taylor Decker more time to heal.
Get healthy: Improving the strength and speed of the roster would be a bonus, but what the Buckeyes really need are a few key bodies to just get back to full health heading into the final three weeks of the regular season and a potential date in the Big Ten title game. Taylor Decker's left knee sprain, suffered late in the win over the Boilermakers, certainly put a scare in the coaching staff, and without much depth on the offensive line, ensuring the right tackle is ready to roll after a week of rest will be critical for a spread attack that is humming along. Linebackers Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry both are dealing with minor issues, though neither appears to be serious enough to keep them out of the lineup. And while Jordan Hall's nagging knee injury leaves his status a bit unclear, both the guys who are dinged up and those who aren't should benefit from the chance to rest this late in the season.

Keep building in the back: The secondary spent the first bye week directly in Meyer's crosshairs as the biggest concern facing the Buckeyes in the second half of the season, and they were scrambling then to replace safety Christian Bryant and looking to cut down on some explosive plays given up in the passing game. The defensive backs have certainly answered the bell lately, but the defense still ranks in the middle of the conference pack in pass defense, allowing an average of 223 yards through the air. That number is balanced out by the fact Ohio State has nabbed at least one interception in every game, and as Bradley Roby's consistency in coverage at cornerback has returned, the level of play overall has improved as well. But the next three opponents -- Illinois, Indiana and Michigan -- are each in the top five in the Big Ten in passing offense, which will continue to put the spotlight on the secondary.

Cheer for help: The fourth-ranked Buckeyes finally received some of the assistance they needed in the BCS standings when No. 3 Oregon lost at Stanford on Thursday night, and they will certainly be watching and pulling for LSU as it takes on top-ranked Alabama on Saturday evening. Ohio State obviously isn't a fan of having some of its destiny outside of its control, but it has also been pretty confident all year that everything would work out as long as it simply kept winning games. Even without a chance to do their part this weekend, the Buckeyes have a chance to come out a big winner while sitting on the couch, and they all are aware of what needs to happen for them if "The Chase" is bound for the national championship game.

Big Ten Week 10: Did you know?

November, 1, 2013
A full slate of Big Ten games awaits on Saturday. Here’s a look at facts and figures to preview the opening week of November football in the league:
  • The short-yardage run game is clicking for Minnesota. And we’re talking very short yardage. The Gophers’ past eight touchdowns on the ground have covered 1 yard. Eleven of their 19 touchdowns this season were punched in from the 1, and 15 covered 5 yards or fewer. Minnesota rushed for just 14 touchdowns last year. The Gophers are 13-10 under coach Jerry Kill when they score a rushing TD and 2-8 when they don’t.
  • Indiana’s offense is doing its part in the program’s bid for a winning season. The Hoosiers have scored 28 or more points in eight consecutive games, a first at the school. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards six times season in seven games. Indiana receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser have all surpassed 100 career receptions and 1,000 yards in the past four weeks. Indiana is the only team nationally and the first in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 2008 with four 100-1,000 players.
  • Despite scoring just three points last week against Michigan State, Illinois’ offense remains one of the most improved units nationally. From last season, the Illini have jumped more than 60 spots in the national rankings in passing efficiency, big plays (20 yards or more), first downs per game, passing yardage per game, turnovers lost and scoring offense. Illinois averages 400.7 yards of total offense, up 46 spots from last year, when it ranked 119th at 296.7 yards per game.
  • Penn State, under coach Bill O’Brien, has not lost consecutive games since it opened last season 0-2. Its Oct. 12 win over Michigan, 43-40 in four overtimes -- the longest game in Big Ten history -- prevented a two-game skid on the heels of a loss at Indiana. Penn State needs a win on Saturday over Illinois to prevent consecutive defeats in the wake of a 63-14 loss last week to Ohio State. O’Brien is 5-1 at PSU in games after a loss.
  • Senior Jeremy Gallon’s 369 yards on 14 catches last week against Indiana set Michigan and Big Ten records for receiving yardage in a game. It was the second-highest figure ever posted by an FBS receiver, and the 14 receptions were the second most at Michigan in one game. Gallon has recorded a reception in 33 straight games, with nine touchdown receptions over his past eight. He ranks second in the Big Ten in receiving yardage per game at 118.7.
  • A win for Michigan State on Saturday over Michigan would keep the Spartans in control of the Legends Division and mark their third consecutive victory over the Wolverines at Spartan Stadium, which has never happened in the 105-game series. Michigan is 19-12-2 against Michigan State in East Lansing, but under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium. A win for the Spartans would also be their fifth in six games over Michigan. That hasn’t happened since MSU won six of seven from 1956 to 1962.
  • No team in the Big Ten feels quite like Northwestern about October. The Wildcats went 0-3 to even their record at 4-4 as November arrives. This final month of the regular season has proven much more kind to Northwestern. It is 12-6 in November since 2008, with five victories over teams ranked in the top 20, including a 28-25 upset in Lincoln over No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. The Wildcats’ lone November loss a year ago came at Michigan in overtime.
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, set to start for the fourth time this season on Saturday, has guided Nebraska to scores on 12 of 24 possessions in his previous three starts. Armstrong again replaces senior Taylor Martinez, out after he suffered a hip pointer last week in his return at Minnesota after a three-game absence because of a foot injury. A fourth start by Armstrong would mark the first time at Nebraska since 1998, when Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch split time, that two quarterbacks started more than three games in the same season.
  • Ohio State has remained unbeaten this year to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 20 games in large part because of its success at running the football. OSU, after a season-best 408-yard rushing effort against Penn State -- the first 400-yard day at the school since 1995 -- ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with a 295.6-yard rushing average. Senior Carlos Hyde has rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have combined to rush for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns.
  • Purdue has taken Ohio State to overtime in the past two meetings, losing 29-22 a year ago at Ohio Stadium after a 26-23 victory by the Boilermakers in 2011 that marked the program’s second straight home win over the Buckeyes. Saturday appears to set up differently as Purdue starts one of the youngest teams nationally. Offensively, four true freshmen, including quarterback Danny Etling, and three redshirt freshmen have participated on the same play in the past two games.
  • Wisconsin needs one victory to become bowl eligible for the 12th consecutive season. Its run of 11 straight bowl appearances ranks as the longest in the Big Ten and ties the Badgers for the eighth-longest streak nationally. A win would also give Wisconsin an edge in the all-time series against Iowa. It is currently equal at 42-42-2. The Badgers have won six straight games that fall after a bye week, including a 35-6 win three weeks ago over Northwestern.
  • Iowa cornerback Desmond King is averaging 7.2 tackles in Big Ten games, according to the school, more than any other true freshman in the league. King, who has started seven of the Hawkeyes’ eight games, recorded a season-best 12 tackles at Ohio State on Oct. 19 and 11 against Michigan State on Oct. 5. King is the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since Jovon Johnson in 2002. His third-down pass breakup last week against Northwestern negated a potential first down in overtime, helping lead to the Iowa win.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Lessons from No. 4 Ohio State’s 63-14 rout of Penn State on Saturday night at the Horseshoe.

Style points are starting to matter: Just one week earlier, the conversation was centered around simply taking care of business, staying undefeated and letting everything else fall into place. The discussion from the Buckeyes after thrashing the Nittany Lions remained the same, but now that the BCS standings are out, their actions delivered a totally different message. Ohio State racked up style points early and with frightening consistency, and it would be tough for voters or computer formulas to ignore what it accomplished against Penn State. Whether the Buckeyes admit it, those style points could be critical if they don’t start seeing the teams ahead of them lose.

Spence is special: The potential has always been obvious, and playing in certain situations as a freshman was supposed to help speed up the learning curve for Noah Spence. But it still takes experience to help unleash potential, and midway through his sophomore season, the talented defensive end is starting to show that he’s truly capable of rushing the passer. Spence was close to unblockable against the Nittany Lions, and while he finished with only a pair of sacks, he was seemingly in the backfield on every snap and made life miserable in the pocket for Christian Hackenberg.

The rushing game is ruthless: The Buckeyes were tough enough to contain when it was just Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde in the backfield. Now Ohio State is incorporating even more weapons from its deep arsenal, and it’s getting more and more difficult to figure out what’s coming when it steps to the line of scrimmage. Dontre Wilson has been more valuable as a decoy than with the ball actually in his hands over the last two weeks, and his 26-yard touchdown catch against the Nittany Lions might make the mere threat of him getting a touch more terrifying for defenders moving forward. On top of that, Jordan Hall showed he’s healthy and capable of lending a hand when needed, rushing for 81 yards on eight carries and giving opponents yet another option to prepare for heading into the final month of the season.

What we learned: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Lessons from No. 4 Ohio State’s 34-24 win over Iowa on Saturday at the Horseshoe.

There’s no stopping the rushing game: The Hawkeyes came in with one of the nation’s toughest rush defenses and a streak of not allowing a touchdown on the ground that had lasted all season. The Buckeyes shredded both of them.

With quarterback Braxton Miller showing no more signs of being slowed by his knee injury, and tailback Carlos Hyde seemingly getting stronger with every carry he gets, Ohio State’s dynamic inside-outside rushing attack might be even more dangerous when Dontre Wilson and Jordan Hall are sprinkled into the mix than it was a year ago. Between the four of them, Ohio State rushed for 278 yards against a defense that was allowing fewer than 89 per game, and Hyde punched in a pair of touchdowns to end the streak of not allowing a score on the ground.

The margin for error remains thin in the secondary: The Buckeyes were having a few defensive issues even before Bradley Roby’s ejection for targeting in the first quarter left them without two starters in the secondary. And while there wasn’t much to complain about in a second half that only included one touchdown for the Hawkeyes, those points did come at the expense of a blown coverage that produced an 85-yard score and another ugly play for Ohio State to watch in the film room.

Removing Roby from the equation is a significant blow, and with Christian Bryant already out for the season with a broken ankle, the Buckeyes deserve some credit for adjusting and rallying after intermission. But defending the pass was a top priority over the bye week for Ohio State, and that work is clearly not done yet.

Wins, not style points, remain priority: The Buckeyes had a chance to compare themselves to some of the top teams in the country while off on their bye week, and they certainly are aware of the crowded field of unbeaten contenders at the top of the polls. But if they get caught up in winning over voters, Iowa offered a reminder of what can happen if the Buckeyes don’t simply take care of business on the field.

The Hawkeyes were certainly talented and physical enough to earn the lead they had at halftime, and despite the perception of the Big Ten being a bit down, there could easily be a couple more tests coming like the one Ohio State faced on Saturday. And while Iowa’s national reputation right now might not do the Buckeyes any favors when the voters cast their ballots for the rankings, as long as they keep winning, OSU is not going anywhere in the chase for a championship.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 16, 2013
It's mail time. I'll warn you in advance, it's going to get weird at the end.

Jason from Columbus writes: Brian, Iowa is the only FBS team in the country that has not allowed a rushing touchdown in the country this season. Ohio State is 12th in the country with 17 rushing touchdowns in only 6 games. Who comes out on top this weekend, Iowa's rush defense or Carlos Hyde, Dontre Wilson, Jordan Hall, and the rest of the Buckeyes who can run through a defense?

Brian Bennett: Good question. Urban Meyer is so impressed with Iowa's front seven that he mentioned them in the same sentence as Alabama this week. Not sure I'd go that far, but the improvement of the Hawkeyes' defense up front has been one of the pleasant surprises this season. However, as you mentioned, Ohio State has a great running game. And that all starts with what has been the best offensive line in the Big Ten for the past two years. The Buckeyes' blockers are big, physical and smart, and they pave the way for the speed of Hall, Wilson and Braxton Miller as well as the power of Hyde. That's going to be tough for any defense to stop, including one playing as well against the run as Iowa.

The bigger concern I'd have if I were Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker is Miller taking shots down the field. Ohio State is not a consistently good passing team but does connect at times on the deep ball, and the Hawkeyes are more vulnerable on the back end.

David K. from Oxnard, Calif., writes: First off, I'm biased: I've been a Badger football fan since November 1962, when I attended the UW-Minnesota game, which the Badgers won with a great comeback, led by Ron Vanderkelen and Pat Richter. And I attended the UW, off and on, from 1966 to 1974. Biases admitted, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon even being mentioned in the discussions regarding the 2013 Heisman Trophy? He's the 3rd-leading rusher in the BCS division with a 9.7 YPC average. Every time he touches the football, everybody holds their breath. I mean, c'mon, guys, what does he have to do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Brian Bennett: I love watching Gordon, and we named him our midseason offensive player of the year as well as an ESPN.com first half All-American. So he's on the radar for the Heisman, but there are a few things really working against him. One is that Wisconsin has two losses. For better or worse, the Heisman usually goes to players on national title contenders, although Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow both won it on teams with multiple losses. Another problem is that in the Badgers' signature game, at Ohio State in primetime, Gordon has his lowest output of the season and got injured to boot. Wisconsin simply doesn't have any marquee games left on the schedule, so he won't get the opportunity to make up for it. Gordon would have to put up insane numbers to get back in the conversation. He is, of course, capable of doing just that.

Alex H. from Bloomington, Ill., writes: Watching that Michigan-PSU game was a bummer, I will not lie. Can we not act like the sky is falling for a moment? The defense played opportunistic despite that last-minute 4th quarter drive, and even on those throws coverage wasn't bad. I was impressed with Gardner's 2nd half. The biggest concern is Lewan out, the run game stalling. This loss doesn't hinder there Big Ten championship goals as they still play Neb, NU, MSU in November. I'd still put them near the top of the Legends, am I being too optimistic in thinking Indy?

Brian Bennett: Michigan certainly can still win the Legends Division. But the Wolverines are going to have to fix some major problems first. You mentioned the running game, and it is abysmal. It's going to be hard to win those big games in November if Michigan cannot effectively run the ball. The turnovers by Gardner are of course another massive problem. The defense, meanwhile, has been decent but not overpowering, though Jake Ryan's return should help. As I've written and asked, what exactly is the strength of this Michigan team? I can't seem to find one. And so it's hard to envision a team like putting together a long winning streak, especially once the schedule toughens up in November.

John K. from Austin, Texas, writes: You and Adam noted that Brady Hoke "played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime" as if that is a bad thing. Now, I can understand if he was just going for the tie, but each time it was for the win. He has a good kick (or at least at that point no reason not to believe that). With a good kicker and 42 yards for the win... I'm taking that every day of the week!

Brian Bennett: To be clear, I'm not saying Hoke should have been going for it on fourth down when all he needed was a field goal to win. I have a major problem with the playcalling on first and second down, when Michigan gained two total yards after Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. I know Brendan Gibbons has been a very good kicker, but a 40-yard field goal on the road in overtime is by no means a sure bet for most college kickers. And then you run the risk of having it blocked, which is exactly what happened.

It's only fair to also point out that Michigan did throw a pass in the third overtime after Allen Robinson's fumble, and it gained nine yards. But then on third and one, I hated the call to have Fitzgerald Toussaint run it when Michigan's running game had been terrible all game.

We saw the same thing late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball at Penn State's 28-yard line with 3:10 left, leading by seven. The next three plays were Toussaint runs, which ended up losing two yards, plus a delay of game penalty, to take the Wolverines out of field-goal range.

I understand playing it safe with the lead on the road, but Toussaint had 27 rushes for 27 yards in last week's game. Why would you go to that well 27 times when it clearly isn't working, especially when the game is on the line? You might as well just kneel. And how many times over the years have we seen teams stop being aggressive and then lose?

Sam from East Lansing writes: First time, long time. Brian, as we progress through the season and my Spartan offense has appeared to return to average (very, very average), I have a scenario question for you. If a Legend' team plays an undefeated Ohio State team in the B1G Championship and loses, possibly putting the Buckeyes in the National Championship, does that mean the loser of B1G Championship game is put in the Rose Bowl automatically or would the bowl committee go back and look at win-loss records, including the B1G Championship lose? Should Legends contender teams who miss Ohio State on the schedule (ie. Michigan State, Nebraska) be rooting for Ohio State to go undefeated? Thoughts of Michigan 2012 Sugar Bowl mishap are dancing in my head. Please calm them.

Brian Bennett: Not sure you'll like my answer, Sam. If Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, then the Rose Bowl is free to choose any team that qualifies in the BCS standings as its replacement pick. That means the Rose could go outside the Big Ten for its choice, but with this being the 100th edition of the game and the last one before the playoff could disrupt things, I think the Rose Bowl will make every attempt to stage a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

The problem is that, historically, losers of conference championship games don't get selected for at-large spots. Bowls prefer teams who are riding winning streaks rather than ones coming off a loss. And Michigan State's issue could be a lack of signature wins. A team like Wisconsin, should it go 10-2, or a Legends runner-up like Nebraska or Michigan could leapfrog the Big Ten runner-up in such a scenario.

As an aside, I know Michigan State is dying to get back to the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned? Or does just getting to the Rose Bowl any way possible enough?

Glenn from Florida writes: Brian, aside from your's, Adam's, and all of ESPN's love for OSU, how can you justify the PSU-Michigan game as not the best and biggest game?

Brian Bennett: I guess you're talking about our choice of Ohio State-Northwestern as the top game of the first half. You know, just because games go to multiple overtimes does not mean they're great. Michigan-Penn State was very sloppy, and some of the continued failures in overtime was ugly to watch. Northwestern-Ohio State was a far better game aesthetically, in my opinion.

Barry M. from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: I'm guessing we will not see any Purdue players on [your fantasy teams] this season. You could make it interesting and add a rule that you must take a player from each team for at least one week during the season.

Brian Bennett: It's nothing personal, Barry, it's just that I want to beat Adam much more than I want to have every school represented on my fantasy team. This isn't the baseball all-star game. Purdue does not have a player in the top 10 in rushing or passing and is starting a true freshman quarterback. There's just not much to choose from. But I'll make you this promise, Barry. If I have either wrapped up the championship or am out of it in the final week, I will pick up a Boilermaker for my team. Even if it's just the kickers.

Bart from Waverly, Neb., writes: I see how you and Adam both voted Wisconsin in the 17-18 spot. My question is, how do you justify ranking them that high when they have two losses? Granted, one was to OSU, but the other was to a (currently) unranked ASU. I am just curious as the Huskers have had their defensive troubles, but our single loss was to a top-10 team in UCLA, and only Adam was generous enough to include Big Red in his rankings.

Brian Bennett: I've heard from a few Huskers fans who are miffed that I didn't rank Nebraska, and many of them try to use the loss to UCLA as some sort of justification. Sorry, but you don't get credit just for playing a highly-ranked team, especially if you lose to said team by 20 points at home while looking terrible in the second half. Nebraska just hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. I won't rank the Huskers until they do, and if that happens, they'll climb up my ballot quickly.

It's a much different story for Wisconsin, whose two losses were on the road to very good teams, and one of those defeats was a direct result of some of the worst officiating incompetency I've ever seen. The Badgers played Ohio State, clearly the best team in the league, to within a touchdown on the road and smashed what was a Top 20 Northwestern team. There's no doubt in my mind that Wisconsin deserves a Top 20 ranking.

Tim P. from Port Washington, Wis., writes: It is maddening to me to keep hearing about Michigan's "winged" helmets. The markings on a wolverine are the alleged "wings" on its head and stripes down the rest of its body. The Michigan helmet is thus simply a representation of the markings on the wolverine animal. Of course, the Michigan athletic department gets away with calling these helmets "winged" because few, if any, Michiganders have ever actually seen a wolverine. Wolverines are not indigenous to Michigan as their habitat is prmarily alpine tundra and mountain forests; environments which are found only in North America in Canada and the Western U.S. It is estimated there are only 250 to 300 wolverines still living and they are found in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. So I don't know who started this myth that the Michigan helmets are "winged" but I am sick and tired of hearing about it.

Brian Bennett: OK, then. It appears we've reached the bizarre part of the mailbag. Proceed with caution...

SSG Smith, Justin from Ft Campbell Ky writes: Hey Brian, I am not by any means the most knowledgeable NCAA Football fan out there. I say this to humble my self before I ask this question. Were you bullied by a Nebraska fan as a child (or young adult)? ... How do you give so many teams the advantage over Nebraska. Your Biased is unprofessional and your over all hate for the Huskers is blinding. Why do you blog for the Big Ten without being biased?

Brian Bennett: Ho, boy. Yep, I hate Nebraska so much that I picked the Huskers to win the Legends Division in the preseason. And I picked them to win the Big Ten title game last year. What a hater! Justin also included in his email the records of the teams Nebraska has beaten this year, as if that somehow helped his case. But he did admit right up front that he wasn't knowledgeable, so I can forgive.

John F. from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: IF you represent the BIG, you should parlay this into BIG votes, I constantly watch "How You VOTED" and ALL I see is YOUR votes for the SEC not the BIG ... YOU cannot say you are BIG representatives, and continue to give other conferences your votes....... this makes you 2-faced and opinionated as well, that's great for people who choose to pencil whip a conference for being the best in the nation... It is press writers who have a vote that are destroying the BIG .......... NOT THE PLAYERS

Brian Bennett: I only included about half of John's email, which if there were any justice would have been cobbled together by random letters from magazines. I guess the ESPN.com power rankings ballots that Adam and I submit each week are what's holding the Big Ten back. Sure, makes sense. Also, covering a league as a reporter and "representing" a conference are two very different things. Until the Big Ten starts signing my checks, I'll report, write and vote with my conscience, thanks.

OSU sticks to what works on ground

October, 7, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cupboard is fully stocked, and Ohio State could put together a recipe with as many ingredients as it wants and shoot for something exotic.

But when it comes time to actually prepare the meal that gets the job done, simplicity and proven success has a way of looking more appealing. And the Buckeyes are in no hurry to mess with what works.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde, Dean Lowry, Ibraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCarlos Hyde has picked up right where he left off from last season.
Sprinkling in some Jordan Hall when he's healthy might provide the potential for danger on the perimeter in the option game and he can be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. A pinch of Dontre Wilson's explosive speed can go a long way in a hurry, and his bright future certainly makes Ohio State want to start getting him involved.

But the meat and potatoes for the Buckeyes remain the same as they were a year ago, and there hasn't been any reason for them to try anything different when Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller are both on hand to shoulder the load for the rushing game. And as hungry as No. 4 Ohio State is for a national title, it's becoming increasingly clear that feeding those two as much as it possibly can remains the most fulfilling option heading into the second half of the season.

"[Hyde] is the horse right now, and I think he's a great player," Urban Meyer said after his 18th consecutive victory as the Buckeyes' coach on Saturday night. "It shows you how much I trust the kid to be able to do that. It was kind of him and Braxton Miller just trying to run that clock out."

The Buckeyes are obviously using the terrific running tandem to do more than kill off games down the stretch, and their workload in the 40-30 victory over Northwestern on Saturday made quite clear how integral the partnership between the bruising tailback and the versatile quarterback still is despite the extra talent around them this season.

Hyde was given the ball 26 times on the ground against the Wildcats, getting a steady diet of power rushes on the interior on the way to 168 yards and three touchdowns in a performance that gradually wore down a defense that tired of trying to bring down the 235-pound bruiser. Miller complemented that with 17 rushing attempts of his own, perhaps failing to deliver the kind of game-breaking runs he's known for, but providing 4 yards per carry anyway to keep the chains moving and the defense from keying on Hyde.

Excluding a rush for punter Cameron Johnston on a botched fake, that combination accounted for every carry but four for the Buckeyes a week after Miller and Hyde combined for all but three carries in a victory over Wisconsin. So while the offense has shown clear signs of improvement in the passing game, spreading around touches to receivers and tight ends a bit more often since Hyde's suspension ended and Miller's knee sprain healed, the basic formula on the ground remains almost identical to the one that produced an undefeated record last year.

And with it working just the same way against consecutive ranked opponents over the last two weeks, there doesn't appear to be any reason to make things more complicated.

"Coach [Meyer] told me [at halftime] that we were going to start riding me," Hyde said. "I get excited when they tell me that.

"I wanted it bad, and I like when games come down to the fourth quarter and coach will put the ball in my hands. He started off in the beginning of the game putting the ball in my hands. I was just trying to catch a rhythm, and I caught a rhythm."

Collectively the Buckeyes are back in an familiar pattern with their ground game, putting the football in the hands of their two best offensive players and keeping it there as much as possible.

A little variety might spice things up every now and then. But the Buckeyes obviously haven't grown tired of tasting success.

Five things: Ohio State-Northwestern

October, 5, 2013
The schedule doesn't appear to offer many more hurdles for No. 4 Ohio State, but there's a big one in its way at No. 16 Northwestern (TV: ABC, 8 p.m.) on Saturday. The Big Ten showdown comes fully stocked with talent, stakes and what figures to be an energized crowd under the lights.

Title chase is on: The Buckeyes haven't exactly hidden their goals for the season since putting up their enormous banner in the spring signifying the start of "The Chase," and this trip to Northwestern has always stood out as a defining moment in the pursuit. Ohio State typically gets strong support on the road, and the environment might not be overly hostile, but the Wildcats can make life difficult with a versatile offense and an opportunistic defense. Northwestern is also unbeaten and could put itself in the conversation for something more than a Big Ten title with a win, giving both teams plenty to play for as October action kicks off.

Secondary concern: Ohio State is still dealing with the disappointment of losing senior Christian Bryant to a broken ankle, and the players and coaches might not ever truly get over it this season. But the Buckeyes obviously have to fill the safety's on-field role somehow, and the schedule isn't going to stop to allow them extra time to process their emotions or tinker with the rotation. Corey Brown is next in line and will start alongside C.J. Barnett, which will continue to give the defense two veterans at safety. But Tyvis Powell and true freshman Vonn Bell should see expanded roles in the nickel and dime packages moving forward as well, and Northwestern is capable of giving all those defenders a stern test.

Individual awards up for grabs, too: Braxton Miller won't be able to recoup the opportunities he lost to pile up stats while effectively missing three games in September, but his return last week against Wisconsin certainly put him back on the map with Heisman Trophy voters anyway. The junior quarterback was superb delivering the football, showing off his improved arm with four touchdown passes, claiming yet another win over a ranked opponent and keeping his team on track to compete for trophies at the end of the season. Another performance like last week's could easily restore his standing among the top candidates for the game's highest individual honor.

Hall passed: Jordan Hall is again listed as the starting running back on Ohio State's depth chart, but that didn't mean anything a week ago when Carlos Hyde actually filled that job when the game started and then took almost every rushing attempt that went to a tailback in the win over Wisconsin. Urban Meyer lamented Hall's lack of touches shortly after the victory was in the books, and the Ohio State coach has continued to stress the senior's value in the attack throughout practice this week. But for however the depth chart might read, Hyde is clearly the top choice in the backfield, and finding ways to keep Hall involved while still getting the football in Dontre Wilson's hands is going to be a chore.

Roller coaster for Roby: The All-American skills were on display at times, but overall Bradley Roby delivered something of a mixed bag a week ago at cornerback. He made an athletic play in the backfield, but the tackle for a loss appeared to cost him a bit physically. He made an interception and broke up three passes, but he was also burned a couple timesm and Ohio State gave up more than 200 yards receiving to Jared Abbrederis. The junior's natural athleticism isn't up for debate, but Roby will have his ability to bounce back from an uneven performance put to the test. The reconfigured secondary will need him at his best against the Wildcats.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 3, 2013
RIP, Country Mac.
  • The team-first approach is working wonders for Northwestern as it prepares for the biggest game on its campus in years. Wildcats receiver Tony Jones is ready to measure himself against All-American cornerback Bradley Roby.
  • Ohio State is putting on an aerial show early in the season, and the spread offense is well ahead of pace to shatter school records. History seems to be repeating itself as the Buckeyes try to manage their depth at running back, keeping both Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall involved in the attack.
  • The ground game could help take pressure off Devin Gardner, and Michigan is ready to get Derrick Green involved to help do it. As for Gardner, he understands the public criticism that comes with the position and is just ready to play another game.
  • Positive reviews are rolling in for the Michigan State offensive line, which might be playing its best football in years just as it's needed most in time for a physical battle with Iowa. The chance to play defense helped Jamal Lyles pick between the Spartans and the Hawkeyes, but now he's embracing a role at tight end.
  • Jerry Kill isn't keeping his plan at quarterback a secret, but it's at least a possibility that Minnesota might play two of them at Michigan. Ra'Shede Hageman is finding other ways to evaluate his performance beyond just making sacks for the Gophers.
  • Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat have faced some adversity at Iowa, but the defense is better off with the defensive tackles around doing some heavy lifting in the trenches. The Hawkeyes have cut down on their penalties, becoming the more disciplined team they had set out to be.
  • Both father and son are grinders, though Donovonn Young gets to do his work on the football field carrying the football for Illinois. Working with one coordinator this season appears to be paying off for Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • Both Penn State and Indiana can put the pedal to the metal offensively, and the Nittany Lions know how critical shoring up their tackling will be this weekend. Controversial cut blocks are catching the attention of DaQuan Jones as he watches film of the Hoosiers.
  • Robby Howard wonders when "we don't leave" will be true for Indiana football fans. Cornerback Michael Hunter flashed on the scene then disappeared, but now he's back bigger and stronger for the Hoosiers (subscription required).
  • Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck goes way back with the coordinator calling the plays for Illinois this week, with mutual respect with Bill Cubit forged under hard-nosed coach Lou Saban. Randy Gregory is still waiting for a black shirt to show up in his locker.
  • Danny Etling is now the guy for Purdue at quarterback, and he's got one goal with his name on top of the depth chart. The two arrested Boilermakers are facing suspensions from coach Darrell Hazell.
  • Just midway through his junior season in high school, Wisconsin commitment Austin Kafentzis is already drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.

Carlos Hyde back in a leading role

October, 1, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The arsenal once again included a battering ram and that was the tool needed for the job.

Rather than wondering how else it might attack Wisconsin’s castle, Ohio State just kept hammering away with what was working instead of making sure every weapon got a little use.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesCarlos Hyde gained 85 yards on 17 carries against Wisconsin.
That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes won’t need a few different approaches to breach the various defenses it faces for the rest of the season, but at least against the Badgers in a physical win on Saturday night, the situation called for some heavy lumber. And for all the positive work Jordan Hall has done early in the season, Carlos Hyde was clearly the guy No. 4 Ohio State favored to handle the job.

“Jordan Hall has got to be involved, but that was a decision we kind of made,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “We thought and we knew it was going to be very hard to run in there the way they play their defensive line. They packed it in … and they are very good against the rush.

“But those are our top two backs, and we are working on that now. I want to make sure we get Jordan Hall involved.”

Based on the depth chart entering the game, Hall seemed to still be in line for plenty of involvement as the designated starter coming off a productive stretch outside of conference play.

But when the Big Ten slate opened, it was almost exactly like last year all over again as Hyde dominated the carries among the tailbacks. Rather than Hall being forced to the sideline with an injury like last season, though, he was instead limited to just one rush by coach’s choice as Hyde pounded his way to 85 yards on 17 attempts in his second game back from suspension.

Quarterback Braxton Miller still wound up shouldering more of the load than both of them. The junior carried 22 times through a combination of calling his own number on the option, designed draws and a few scrambles on passing plays that certainly had an effect on the number of touches available to the rest of the Buckeyes. And while one game is a small sample size and the plan is always subject to change on a weekly basis, giving Hyde the start against a stout Wisconsin defense and continuing to feed him the football consistently sent a strong message that he’s quickly regained his leading role in a crowded backfield.

“It wasn’t planned,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “I think the plan was to increase the role for Carlos, there was no doubt about that. We hadn’t gone into the game and said, ‘Jordan Hall is only going to get one carry.’ That’s not what we intended. “You kind of fall back into some habits, at least as a playcaller or as a position coach, and at the end of the day you look up and [Hall] has got one carry.”

Hall also isn’t the only other option who is pushing for touches as the Buckeyes start preparing for a visit to No. 16 Northwestern. Dontre Wilson was impacted by Hyde’s return as an every-down rusher as well, with the talented freshman only getting two rushes and catching just one pass.

The way the Buckeyes distributed the football still worked, since Hyde averaged 5 yards per carry, the offense put up 31 points and the program came away with yet another victory in the process. But potentially tweaking the formula after a win surely beats the alternative.

“Is it difficult? No, it's actually awesome,” Meyer said. “It's great. It's not as difficult as the other one where you don't have the puzzle pieces of the checkerboard that you like, and we have several.”

But if it only takes one running back to bust open the gates, the Buckeyes won’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Five things: Ohio State-Wisconsin

September, 28, 2013

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The race for the Big Ten championship kicks into high gear at the Horseshoe with No. 4 Ohio State hosting No. 23 Wisconsin (8 p.m., ABC) a game with so much intrigue, even the sideline will be worth watching.

Braxton's back: The brightest spotlight of all be on Ohio State's star quarterback, with Braxton Miller expected to be back in the starting lineup after missing the last two games and nearly all of a third with a sprained knee. Kenny Guiton has been nothing short of spectacular in his place, but Miller is the centerpiece of Urban Meyer's spread offense and should finally allow the Buckeyes to open up their attack after keeping it largely buttoned up leading into Big Ten play. Meyer has considered playing both Miller and Guiton and has experience managing two quarterbacks, dating to his days with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida. But if his starter is fully healthy, he's not likely to come off the field.

Key returners on defense, too: Miller commands the most attention, but the Buckeyes should also be as close to full strength on defense as they've been so far this season. Defensive end Adolphus Washington is expected to return from a nagging groin injury that has kept him on the shelf for the last two games, and tackle Michael Bennett also has been cleared after sitting out last week's blowout over Florida A&M with a stinger. Getting those starters back up front should be invaluable for the Buckeyes as they face what could be their stiffest test of the season: Wisconsin's power rushing attack.

Horsepower: There might not be a better collection of rushing talent on one field all season than what Wisconsin and Ohio State can put on display for a prime-time, national audience. James White and Melvin Gordon have been the more productive combo so far this season leading the Badgers, and the explosive ability of Gordon will certainly provide a test for the Buckeyes in the front seven. But with Carlos Hyde back after his three-game suspension, his partnership with Jordan Hall could provide a one-two punch that figures to be every bit as effective as White and Gordon, and there could be some bragging rights on the line in a head-to-head fight to determine the best backfield.

Bright lights, big stage: Bradley Roby has made it no secret that playing in big games in front of huge crowds, under the lights and with televisions tuned in to watch the Buckeyes, was a significant factor in his decision to return for another season. Opportunities for the redshirt junior cornerback to show his stuff don't get much much better than this, and Roby showed last year with two interceptions in similar circumstances at night against Nebraska that he doesn't shrink from the moment. When the Badgers turn to their passing game, Roby no doubtwill be looking to make something happen for the Buckeyes.

Pulling out the stops: As if an expected crowd of around 106,000 fans encouraged to "Scarlet Out the 'Shoe," the choice to wear rivalry uniforms or Meyer's praise of budding rivals Wisconsin as the "king" of the Big Ten didn't make it obvious how seriously the Buckeyes are taking this weekend as a showcase for the program, they pushed it over the top by confirming Friday that one of the most recognizable athletes in the world would be cheering them on from the sideline. LeBron James added yet another layer of hype to this critical division clash, and it also figures to impress a swarm of recruits on hand to experience what should be a wild atmosphere.


Ohio State Quarterback Competition
Marty Smith discusses the competition among Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller to be Ohio State's starting quarterback.