Buckeyes and Gators Share Similar Problem: Youth, Inexperience
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is a reason Ohio State is playing in the Gator Bowl after six straight appearances in the BCS.
The same goes for the University of Florida, who make its first trip to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl since Dec., 1992. The Gators had been to three-straight BCS bowls under Urban Meyer—including the 2009 BCS national title game—but it has been a rough transition for first-year head coach Will Muschamp.
The same goes for the Buckeyes and interim head coach Luke Fickell.
No team has been through more in the last 12 months than Ohio State, who lost not only a beloved head coach but also a star quarterback. The fight to stay afloat amidst NCAA investigations and multi-game suspensions has been tough for Fickell, who will remain on Urban Meyer’s staff after the bowl game.
Both teams have had inconsistency at the quarterback spot this season, although Braxton Miller certainly seems to have a bright future in Meyer’s offense. It is the defensive side of the ball where both of these teams have shared a similar problem in 2011: youth.
There is no substitute for experience, which is why the Buckeyes and Gators enter their Jan. 2 matchup as a pair of 6-6 football teams. Assuming linebacker Andrew Sweat (concussion) is able to play, both teams start exactly one senior on defense.
It should have been two for the Buckeyes, but defensive end Nathan Williams has not played since the season-opener against Akron.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Nathan Williams, I got to see him. I think he's not a good player, I think he's a great player,” Meyer mentioned during his introductory press conference.
“He's kind of the heart and soul. When he went out, that hurt us, hurt Ohio State.”
Without Williams, who was expected to be the team’s top pass-rusher, among other things, the Buckeyes dropped from No. 4 in the country in total defense a year ago to No. 24. That is still a pretty good ranking, all things considered, but not when Ohio State finished 107th in the country in total offense.
With DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and Mike Adams back in the lineup, the Buckeyes do have five seniors in their starting lineup on offense. That is two more than the Gators, who feature just three seniors in tailback Chris Rainey, receiver Deonte Thompson and guard Dan Wenger.
Defensive tackle Jaye Howard is their only senior on defense. The rest of the group is comprised of two juniors, five sophomores and two true freshmen—cornerback Marcus Roberson and safety De’Ante Saunders.
One of their key sophomores, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, will miss the game after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the ACL his left knee.
“It’s unfortunate for him, but he’ll be back (next season) and ready to roll,” Muschamp said.
Easley, who was a 5-star prospect and the No. 7 player overall in the class of 2010 according to Rivals.com, was injured in the second quarter of the Gators’ regular-season finale against Florida State.
He was seventh on the team in tackles with 37 and tied for fourth with 7.5 tackles for loss to go with 1.5 sacks during the regular season. No player on the Florida defense had more than 86 tackles during the regular season. The unit finished ninth in total defense, but 25th in scoring defense, just one spot ahead of Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have had their own issues with inexperience on defense this season. If Sweat isn’t ready to play against the Gators, Ohio State will likely start with five juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen on defense, including linebacker Ryan Shazier.
This OSU defense has struggled with tackling like few in recent Ohio State history. It started really with the loss at Miami (Fla.), but came full circle in the Buckeyes’ 40-34 loss in Ann Arbor.
“I think we had a lot of—we had some breakdowns, mental breakdowns. But you know, it is what it is,” OSU Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock said.
“It's probably been pretty consistent throughout the year. We've had some good quarters and some bad quarters and good halves and bad halves and just haven't been able to put together a complete game the way we like to.”
Or the way they are used to. Since Heacock took over as the defensive coordinator in 2005, the Buckeyes have had one of the top-ranked defenses in college football. They also won a national championship in 2002 with Mark Dantonio running the defense.
The 2011 version is a far cry from the one Dantonio coached to a championship nearly a decade earlier. The loss of Williams has crippled their ability to get consistent pressure, but they did finish with more sacks (23) during the regular season than they had (22) all of last year.
“I think there were times when we dominated the line of scrimmage and times when we got dominated,” Heacock said.
“So here again you watch through it and it was, ‘wow that's really good, and that's not so good.’”
There has been more of the latter in 2011, but the Buckeyes have a month to prepare for the Gators, and a new head coach who knows a thing or two about their offense.
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