10 Things We Learned from a Wild Orange Bowl Loss
By Tony Gerdeman
For the first time in school history, the Buckeyes finally lost a game when they scored at least 35 points. Just a few years ago, that record seemed like it would never be broken – after all, how many teams would actually ever score 35 points against Ohio State. Well, in the last three games, that undefeated streak with 35 points on the scoreboard was almost ended twice.
The defense once again let the Buckeyes down, and yet had Braxton Miller been able to pull off a game-winning drive, the refrain from Luke Fickell would have once again been, “Did we win?” Perhaps it's best for the long run if the wins stop masking the problems, because there's a few of them on defense.
Still, it was apparent that the coaches felt they were in a very tough situation defensively, and so they had to be as vanilla as possible so that their own players could keep up. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, we learned that the Clemson offense loves vanilla.
Here are a few other things that we learned as well.
1. Braxton Miller is a tough hombre. After taking a hit early in the game, Miller began working on his shoulder, stretching it out and loosening it up. After a huge hit later in the game, he was getting his midsection worked on. Each time – save for a failed two-point conversion – he limped his way back out onto the field, wanting to do what was necessary for his team to win. Even battered, he didn't hesitate to take the ball up the middle, and for a split second his burst would come back. While fans may have been clamoring for Kenny Guiton at the end, both Urban Meyer and Tom Herman want a quarterback who will claw his way out of his own grave in order to lead the game's final drive. So they let him, and the game ended with an interception on a terrible throw. Should Miller still have been in the game? Probably not, but as long as he was able to take the field under his own power, he was going to be out there. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the same people who are criticizing Miller for continuing to play were also criticizing Bradley Roby for not playing despite an injury.
2. He still isn't the passer Ohio State would like him to be. It's quite clear that the Ohio State offense has been held back by Miller's limitations as a passer this season. While Tom Herman would never admit it, based on the play calling, it certainly seems like he has a lack of confidence in Miller's passing. After three years as a starter, his career high for passing yards in a game is just 252 yards. Yes, that's partly a product of having a terrific running game, as well as inconsistent receivers, but it's also a product of a quarterback who isn't the thrower that a dynamic offense needs. Obviously, he needs another year in college football (if not more) before he heads to the NFL, and if he was to improve from his junior to senior season as he has from his sophomore to junior season, then things could be very exciting next year on offense. But there are still long stretches to his game when I am surprised if he completes a pass, and I wonder if another year changes that, or if they just find more ways to mask his inabilities. That being said, he's still the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, so let's not pretend he's a detriment to the offense.
3. A muffed punt with a lead and momentum is a killer. What a shift in fortunes after Philly Brown's muff with a 29-20 lead. The Buckeyes had forced yet another punt, and it felt like they were going to drive down the field for another score, and there is every possibility that that's when Clemson would have finally checked out. They have no discipline, and they have checked out before. A score on that drive could have very well done it. Instead, Brown muffs it, Clemson recovers, and they are reawakened. The Buckeyes regained the lead after losing it, so it's not like the muffed punt lost the game. Had Brown simply fair caught the punt, however, that could have been enough to win it.
4. Clemson was the better prepared team – or at least their preparations were more functional. They set out to shut down Ohio State's inside running game, and for the most part they did. They attacked with blitzes that Ohio State couldn't answer. Offensively, they ran the hitch to the receivers to death, and should have actually done it more than they did. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris did the Buckeye defense some favors by not doing it more. They also completely neutralized Ryan Shazier, who finished with just seven tackles, and none behind the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes' preparation, meanwhile, was to try to keep Clemson's offense in front of them, even if it meant a 12-yard gain every time. Offensively for the Buckeyes, the game plan was to do what they've done all season. It worked, but not well enough to outscore a high-scoring team like Clemson.
5. Playing timid on defense works better if your offense scores 45 points instead of 35 points. It's never easy for a defense when you have to protect players, which the Buckeyes seemed to be doing in the secondary. They were scared to death of being beaten over the top by Sammy Watkins, and instead they let him catch about a dozen short passes, thinking that that wouldn't hurt as bad. It only led to an Orange Bowl record 227 yards receiving. Ironically, it was back in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game when the Buckeyes had to protect Jamario O'Neal. Urban Meyer attacked that game plan relentlessly. He is an aggressive coach, so while he was likely unhappy with the defensive plan in this game, he understood it given the patchwork nature of the defense. I can't imagine he continues to be so understanding moving forward.
6. If there are no further changes in the defensive coaching staff, then Urban Meyer is putting the blame on Everett Withers and injuries. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they may not know if Meyer is right or wrong until they are finishing third in the Big Ten East next year. Meyer continues to say that this type of defense is unacceptable at Ohio State, and while it's hard to change things mid-year, the time for changes is now upon us. Have the changes that are going to be made already been made, or are there more to come?
7. While the defense the last two years is certainly unacceptable to Meyer, another year of it, and it will become part of his legacy at Ohio State. Like it or not, Meyer's Buckeyes are just as well-known for their high-scoring defense as they are their high-scoring offense. Coaching changes, attrition, youth and injuries are all very valid excuses, but three years should be enough for a coach to get his system going on defense, and as the head coach, he does have the right to tell a defensive staff how he wants his defense to play. He is not locked into Luke Fickell's preferences. Fickell works for him, so ultimately the defensive struggles fall on Meyer.
8. The Ohio State offensive line isn't infallible. While the Buckeyes may have had the best offensive line of 2013, they were certainly mortal in 2014. This was as bad as we've ever seen Jack Mewhort play, and the interior of the offensive line wasn't able to get much push in the first half. Though even when they did give Braxton Miller time, too often he would drift right into a pass rusher who was being blocked. Urban Meyer said earlier in the season that people better appreciate this offensive line, because it's not going to be as comforting next season. I think next season began on Friday night, but I don't even think we'll see many performances next year as rough as this one.
9. Mike Vrabel needs to make friends with a more liberal defensive line rotation next season. When Noah Spence was suspended, I didn't think it would affect the Buckeyes too badly because Jamal Marcus has played well in the very few snaps he has gotten this season. It turns out that he was one of the Buckeyes' more productive defenders in the Orange Bowl, and it's clear that he needs to see the field more next season. Vrabel doesn't like to take Noah Spence off the field, and I'm not sure that he even needs to. Certainly there is a place for two speed rushers on passing downs, right? As it is, there is a tremendous amount of talent on the Ohio State defensive line, and Vrabel owes it to the the back seven to keep the front four fresh. After all, what is the point of bringing in all of these defensive linemen if only six of them play?
10.Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell appear to be players, and the bowl practices should lead well into spring practices for them. I think we can forgive Bell getting beaten deep by Sammy Watkins, as there will likely be NFL cornerbacks who get to experience it next year as well. Other than that, I liked the way that Bell flashed to the ball. He tied for the team lead with seven solo tackles, but the key moving forward will be getting those tackles closer to the line of scrimmage. His interception at the goal line was magnificent and isn't something that can be taught. He was in an unwinnable situation trying to defend both Watkins and Tajh Boyd, and he somehow managed to do it. That's the type of play that tells you that not only does a kid have intangibles, but he knows how to use his athleticism to make those intangibles tangible. As far as Powell, he had some nice moments in this game, including a solid tackle of Tajh Boyd on a quarterback draw. He finished with five tackles, and a superb pass breakup on a deep ball. He certainly showed some potential in this game, and he probably flashed more in this game than he has throughout most of the season. He and Bell will be the likely starters at safety next year, and the fact that they'll have 15 bowl practices, 15 spring practices and then an entire fall camp to get ready will make replacing a pair of three-year starters at safety a much smoother transition.
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