10 Things We Learned from a Strange Win over Cal
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a strange, often ugly, and yet not entirely meaningful win for the Buckeyes on Saturday. For a while, it looked like they might win easily. For a quarter, it looked like they were going to allow Cal to pull off the upset. In the end, Ohio State had just enough to pull out a 35-28 win over the Golden Bears.
Here’s a look at what we learned this week as the Buckeyes improved to 3-0 on the season.
1.Talent is not the issue with Braxton Miller. Watching him pick apart the Cal defense in the first half of Saturday’s game, it became clear to me that Braxton Miller can do just about anything. He is fabulously gifted runner who can make a defensive end and a safety look silly on the exact same play. He’s one of the most natural one-on-one players I’ve ever seen and I can only imagine what it was like for kids trying to tackle him in the parking lot growing up.
Photo by Dan Harker
He said after the game he doesn’t even know exactly what he does or how he does it. He just lets his feet to do the work. He also let his arm do the work in the first half against Cal, completing 10 of his 14 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Of his four incompletions, one was a lazy pass where he threw flat-footed to the sideline and out the bounds. The other three were drops.
The 10 completions weren’t spectacular catches either, although Devin Smith made a big-time catch in the front corner of the north end zone. Miller also made a big-time throw on that play, an NFL-caliber throw and he showed what he’s capable of when he’s got it rolling.
Then everything fell apart in the second half. His footwork abandoned him and his mechanics were all over the place as he completed just 6 of his 16 passes.
Photo by Dan Harker
2. Devin Smith is on the verge of greatness. This kid has shown he can make every catch there is on the football field, and he has sprinter speed when he gets in the open field. I’m not going to go as far as Corey Brown, who told Smith he looked like Ted Ginn Jr. streaking down the sideline on his 72-yard touchdown, but he was flying as fast as anyone I’ve see at Ohio State since Ginn was there.
The more impressive catch, however, was the grab he made in blanket coverage in the end zone on that first touchdown pass from Miller. It showed how much trust Miller has in his favorite target, and it also showed how Smith’s ability to ‘make touchdowns’ as Meyer called it. He has to work on bringing in the easy ones, but like Meyer said, this team needs a home-runner hitter who can knock one out of the park when the game is tied. Just like he did Saturday.
Photo by Dan Harker
3. Jordan Hall still looks pretty rusty, though I'm not sure exactly what to expect. It only makes sense Hall would be rusty after missing all of fall camp and the first two weeks of the regular season with a foot injury. That’s different than being out with a shoulder injury because he couldn’t really run around do much football activity until he was cleared. This was his first showing in the new Urban Meyer offense, and while it was largely unspectacular, it wasn’t a complete bust.
Hall finished with 87 yards on 15 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but his longest run was only 15 yards. He showed glimpses of being the type of explosive runner this offense really needs to compliment Miller, but all we have ever seen from Hall is glimpses.
4. This team is going to need Carlos Hyde to get healthy. Even if Hall turns out to be a dynamic playmaker, this team is going to need a healthy Carlos Hyde to carry the rock between the tackles. There were way too many inside runs for Hall on Saturday, and that simply is not his specialty. We learned that last season, but it was obvious again this week. His two best runs both came on the perimeter, where Hall can use his shiftiness to make the first man miss. Hyde would be the perfect compliment as a tough, inside runner who can break tackles and move the pile.
5. The Buckeyes showed they could get more pressure, but at what cost? The Buckeyes got six sacks against Cal and they were consistently in the backfield with quarterback Zach Maynard. That would make everyone in Buckeye Nation happy, if only it was because their front four completely dominated the game. Because teams have had a habit of playing max protect against Ohio State, Luke Fickell felt he needed to dial up the blitz this week. He brought six or even seven on a few occasions, included a corner blitz from Bradley Roby that led to the team’s first sack.
But a good coach like Jeff Tedford is going to expose a misplaced blitz, and that’s exactly what happened on Saturday. There were a few occasions where Maynard checked into the perfect hot read against Ohio State’s blitz and it burned the Buckeyes for a big play. The screens were particularly successful against Ohio State’s aggressive front, and this staff is going to have to learn from this and realize they need to better disguise when and where they are coming from.
6. This defense may be fundamentally flawed. One thing that needs to be considered is the fact that maybe this group is just fundamentally flawed. With Storm Klein back in there this week, it is basically the same group as last year. Whether they drop 8 or rush 6, there seems to be something flawed with this group, especially when it comes to tackling.
It’s easy to blame Fickell, but it was no different last year with Jim Heacock. I think a big part of it is the fact Heacock catered always his coaching around having good players on defense. Everyone does their 1/11th and only makes the plays as they come to them. But these guys aren't all 1/11th kind of guys. Simon is and Hankins is, but there's no Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis or A.J. Hawk out there.
I don't think Fickell is a mastermind defensive coordinator and neither was Heacock, but I also don’t think they suddenly forgot how to coach. As much as it hurts to hear, what Greg Mattison did with that Michigan defense last year was absolute magic. Heacock and Fickell would have been lost with that group, but they are excellent at taking a strong group of guys with a lot of talent and getting them to play together as one. Not sure if this defense has the potential to turn into that or not.
7. Nathan Williams is a difference-maker on the D-line. One thing that could help change that is if Williams can stay healthy and be on the field the rest of the year. He would have been the biggest difference-maker on the defense last season, and having him out there with Simon and Hankins could really be something special, particularly when they get Michael Bennett back.
Photo by Dan Harker
8. Hankins dominated these last two football games. Speaking of Hankins, has there been a more dominant player on the team (outside of Braxton) over the last two weeks? It might not seem like it if you’re only watching the edge to see Simon or Williams rushing the quarterback, but no one has caused more havoc on the defensive front than Big Hank. It’s difficult to fill the stat sheet as a defensive tackle, but Hankins finished with 10 tackles and a big sack on Cal’s final drive, just before the pick by Christian Bryant. There’s a reason Hankins is being projected as a high first round pick, and he’s playing like it right now.
9. Simon is the heart and soul of this team. He only had one tackle Saturday against the Bears, but it’s impossible to overlook what Simon means to this defense. He is the heart and soul, the guy who leaves it all on the field every time he’s out there. He takes on double teams and always, always puts the team above himself. He is a lead-by-example type of captain, but this week he came undone a little bit after the game. Simon was playing with a shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness, but after the game Simon broke down and told his teammates how he was giving everything he’s got. Even Meyer said it made him realize he’s not giving as much as John Simon. No one is.
10. This team could be in trouble down the road if they can't find a MLB. This one is self-explanatory for anyone who watched the game Saturday. Sophomore Curtis Grant really struggled, which is something Meyer said could not happen if this was going to be a good defense. They ended up turning back to Storm Klein, who missed all of fall camp, but who knows what they are going to do moving forward. This could be a real problem for the Buckeyes defensively, and might help explain some of the issues they are having on that side of the ball.
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