If we're really talking about Rose Bowl colored glasses, it only makes sense to start with the returning Big Ten champ, and unquestioned leader of the conference this decade, the Ohio State University.* The Badgers travel to Columbus on October 10. In the Tressel era, we're 2-1 in Columbus (0-1 in the Bielema era), and in the last decade we're 4-4 versus the Buckeyes (0-2 in the Bielema era). There's little doubt that the Buckeyes are the early favorite for yet another Big Ten title, so this is, as always, a big game for the Badgers (and hopefully for the Buckeyes).
Anyway, below is what our friend Vico, at a great Buckeye blog, Our Honor Defend, had to say about our visit to the 2009 Buckeyes (I've gotta agree: we should definitely bring the band!). You can see my effort to address his questions about Wisconsin at their blog.
without further ado . . .
The Wisconsin Badgers come off as something of a non-conference opponent in the eyes of Buckeye fans. They were cycled off the Big Ten docket for all too important seasons in 2005 and 2006. As Tressel forged his own legacy independent of John Cooper, the Badgers were only a name in the Big Ten standings. Perhaps some of the unfamiliarity with the Badgers of late comes from the early dominance of the Badgers over Tressel. Tressel started off 1-3 against Alvarez, with a crushing blow delivered in 2003. Even with recent gains against Bielema, the Badgers are the only team over whom Tressel does not possess a winning record.
In 2009, the Badgers return to Columbus, where they even have a winning record against Tressel. Below, I take an early glimpse at this matchup, introducing Badgers fans to the Buckeyes we expect you will see in 2009.
Terrelle Pryor will be in his second year as a Buckeye. In most Buckeye fans view, he will be measurably better than he was as a true freshman. Mind you, Terrelle Pryor -- unlike Tim Tebow -- was not an early enrollee. He did not have extra time to work under the current coaching staff, only getting a condensed playbook from the coaching staff to look over in his Jeannette hometown while he prepared to enroll at Ohio State. He was also greatly distracted with high school basketball.
With an all-Big Ten grayshirt senior quarterback (Todd Boeckman) returning to the helm in 2008, Pryor was expected to be used in gimmick situations. A potent offense to be led by Boeckman was supposed to be made more dynamic by the introduction of Terrelle Pryor on gadget plays that ultimately required Pryor to be able to do only a few things as a true freshman. Consequently, the theme during the summer of 2008 was to not overload the freshman with the intricacies of the playbook. He was to be brought in principally as a run-first quarterback and an athlete that most defenses would not look forward to seeing. It was therefore disconcerting to all involved that Pryor had to be subbed in for Boeckman after the USC debacle. With an offensive line degenerating in front of our very eyes (more on that later), a quarterback that's able to scramble -- read: run for his life -- was necessary if the offense was to score any points. As a result, his deficiencies in the passing game were glaring.
Hope springs eternal that this will be corrected in a big way by time the Badgers, and even the Midshipmen, come to town. It almost has to improve by default. This is the longest that Pryor has had to work under a QB-oriented head coach, and he's already professing marked improvements in decision-making and ability to read coverages. Pryor's work ethic alone suggests a rapid improvement from his freshman form is inevitable, and remember: he was one of the Big Ten's most efficient quarterbacks as a true freshman. Elsewhere, Pryor has admitted that knowledge he's acquired in the past few months on how to read opposing defenses has probably been the area he's improved the most. In the same breath, he admitted an embarrassment that he wasn't able to see this as a true freshman. Still, in spite of the gains we expect in the passing department, making Terrelle Pryor throw will be the way most teams will probably approach beating the Buckeye offense. It's no secret that Ohio State relies on a run-first mentality to shorten down and distance.
Busting up the offensive line (more on that later) forces Pryor to throw in improbable situations for most QBs. At this point, Pryor's mechanics -- including an irregular delivery and a bad habit of relying on his upper body to power passes in the pocket (especially under pressure) -- will show.
Where Buckeye fans are not too thrilled about the prospect of Terrelle Pryor finding himself in third and long situations, they are thrilled about the prospect of a backfield that consists of Pryor and the post-Beanie back Dan "Boom" Herron. Herron's story resembles that of former Buckeye quarterback Joe Germaine. He was buried on the depth chart when he got to Columbus, but worked so hard and improved so much during his redshirt year that the coaching staff could not keep him off the field. Going from 4th string tailback to a productive, 2nd string tailback behind Beanie in 2008 is no small feat considering that a senior (Maurice Wells) and a highly-touted sophomore (Brandon Saine) started the summer ahead of him on the depth chart. His stiffarms won't be as lethal, and he won't be able to gain the big yards after contact that Beanie did. However, don't assume Ohio State's rushing attack will necessarily suffer for Beanie's absence, especially with Pryor in the backfield with him. I think Buckeye fans want to see Pryor lead the way more than they do Boom Herron, but Boom is going to get serious yards in 2009.
And now, as promised: the feature attraction. I argue that Ohio State's offensive line is the most important reason why the Buckeyes have suffered of late on the national stage. They returned their entire starting unit from 2007 and got WORSE in 2008. They were slow to pull and trap on running plays and cannot pick up the perimeter heat on the pass rush (see: USC, Purdue, Texas, and especially Penn State in 2008 alone). They could not even get a push on the line against the likes of Ohio University, Purdue and Northwestern. In the first two games, Ohio State's offensive line was the most important reason why the Buckeyes were trailing in the 4th quarter against the hapless Bobcats and why they could not score an offensive touchdown against Purdue. The Buckeyes routed Northwestern, but no part of that was attributable to stellar line play. In fact, Pryor and Beanie succeeded in pounding Northwestern in spite of the offensive line. The Buckeyes were at 3rd and 10 or longer repeatedly during that game, only to have Pryor pull a rabbit out of his hat to keep the offense going.
The natives are getting restless in Columbus, but we're hopeful that a new set of higher ceiling prospects can do the trick. Ohio State recruiting on the offensive line has been unfortunately awful for the years that mattered most. They recruited 50 percent less linemen overall than the past 5 national champions from the years 2003-2007 and over 60 percent less 4-5 stars during that time as well. This year's line should see some improvements, we hope. Michael Brewster and Mike Adams are both 5-star offensive linemen that are likely to start in 2009. Justin Boren was an all-Big Ten linemen for Michigan before infamously transferring to Ohio State. He will likely be the left guard in 2009. The right side of the line seems a little shaky because it involves position changes for two starters from 2008's unit. Bryant Browning -- the right tackle from 2008 who was more liability than lineman -- will be moving to right guard it seems. This should be an improvement from his position in 2008, as it became apparent against USC and Penn State that opposing defense identified him as the weakest link on the line and identified him as a man playing out of position. Jim Cordle, the starting center from 2008 who was moved to guard after an injury to another lineman, will again be moving: this time to right tackle. He has speed to spare on the line, so there's some optimism he'll be up to the task in 2009.
The consensus from Buckeye fans seems to be that the 2009 line, with so many new faces and unproven players, will actually be better than the 2008 line full of returning starters. The recent hire of Keith Uecker bodes well for further development as well. Run blocking should improve considerably. Justin Boren, a veritable road grader, will be a much welcomed leader on the line. However, pass protection remains a little hazy, and the inability for Mike Adams to assert himself as "the guy" to protect Pryor's blindside at left tackle lends itself to more nervous thoughts.
I'm not sure if you know this, but James Laurinaitis' father used to be a professional wrestler. If you did know, you will no longer have to be reminded of it since he and running mate Marcus Freeman have matriculated to the NFL. Looking ahead to 2009 following the Fiesta Bowl, I assumed that Ohio State would have a stable corp of 3 linebackers entering 2009. After watching the Spring Game, it's not quite clear what's going on. I would've expected Etienne Sabino, a highly touted true sophomore from Pryor's recruiting class, to have established himself as the middle linebacker. If anything, Tyler Moeller -- a sparsely used 5th year senior -- has emerged as a player in that unit to remember. If pressed for an immediate comparison, I'd liken Moeller's presence in the linebacker corp as equivalent to Brit Miller for the Illini in 2008. Yes, it's a preliminary association, but both have that unsung, unathletic appeal to them, and always find themselves close to the ball regardless.
A discussion over at my blog on the issue, here, puts a different spin on it. The Buckeyes are not lacking for options at linebacker for 2009. The wealth they have at the position may allow the defensive coaches to effectively "plug and play" contingent on the opposing offense, and not really lose a step for it. Against conventional, pro-style offenses like the one the Badgers will bring with them, the Buckeyes will "go big" and feature linebackers like Ross Homan, Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller. Homan was the weakside linebacker in 2008. Against, smaller, faster spread offenses, the Buckeyes can sub in Etienne Sabino and Brian Rolle, matching speed with speed. If leadership at the position may be absent (at least immediately) because of the wealth of options and absence of mainstay Laurinaitis, the Buckeyes have the advantage of being flexible.
With so many new faces in 2009, and a veritable youth movement going on in the football program in general, there is no shortage of possible players to recommend Badger fans to write down for future reference. If Ohio State is to repeat as Big Ten champion again, several players need to step up. Justin Boren and Michael Brewster will have to lead the way on the line. Boren has the experience and Brewster is an unofficial leader of his 2008 class, members of which will feature prominently in the 2009 offense. DeVier Posey, a close confidante of Terrelle Pryor through the recruiting process and himself another 2008 signee, will have to be on the same page with Terrelle. Similarly, slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, arguably Pryor's favorite target in 2008, will have to prove himself durable during the season since his backup, Lamaar Thomas (another 2008 signee), doesn't seem to have made the transition from tailback to college wideout just yet. Maybe the biggest factor will be the defensive line. The defensive line will unquestionably be the strength of the defense in 2009, and Thaddeus Gibson has dedicated himself to destroy everything moving in 2009.
The performance of the defensive line in 2009 becomes even more important considering the uncertainty at linebacker and the admission of most Buckeye fans that the secondary will be our achilles heel in 2009. In the secondary, Ohio State returns its two safeties, but loses both corners. Chimdi Chekwa seems to be a lock to secure one of the spots vacated by Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington, but his iffy performance in the Spring Game does not inspire confidence. Beyond Chekwa, there are even more question marks. RS freshman Travis Howard, Devon Torrence and Andre Amos are in the discussion for the other spot. However, both Howard and Amos have noticeable injury histories and Torrence has devoted a lot of time playing minor league baseball. Beyond those three lay even more freshmen and worst case scenarios.
Another pursuit at a national title is always nice, but the performance of these players is necessary to securing a January bowl game. Of those players, keep Thaddeus Gibson in mind. Buckeye fans think his offseason improvements should result in 1st Team All-Big Ten honors.
As previously mentioned, the Badgers are the only team against whom Tressel does not have a winning record. Tied 3-3 in the Tressel era, I think many Buckeye fans are expecting this to be the year where Ohio State has a winning record against all Big Ten teams in the Tressel era. Bielema's performance of late does not inspire the sense of fear and trembling that Buckeye fans had thinking of Barry Alvarez coming to town. Bielema had a fantastic inaugural season in 2006, where his 12-1 Badgers seemed like they were on the verge of being worldbeaters. After that, things seemed to get ugly for Buckeyes watching the Badgers from afar. Weak scheduling, bizarre results against the likes of Cal Poly and an offense more conventional and uninspiring than our own seemed to characterize Wisconsin. I'm expecting 2009 to be more of the same for the Badgers. They'll benefit from a light schedule (for the most part) and having some important foes at home, but will seem to have as many new faces on defense as the Buckeyes will have. Both have that same problem, but I give the advantage to the Buckeyes for bringing in higher-caliber recruits than Wisconsin has. A dynamic quarterback like Pryor should give fits for the Badgers in front a raucous home crowd sympathetic to the Buckeyes. Long story short: I don't expect the Badgers to have the horses to hang in for a full race with the Buckeyes.
Naturally, I don't want to be proven wrong.
If you're a Badger fan, I wouldn't walk in with a bravado that you could've easily strolled into Columbus with in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Alvarez undeniably had Tressel's number. Still, there are important question marks at important spots on the Buckeye team that allows for restrained optimism. Enjoy the game and your time in Columbus if you make the trip, and please bring the band with you. It's just not Wisconsin football without the band.
* As a rule I don't refer to OSU as tOSU or the Ohio State University, but I figured since OHD threw me a bone here, I'd throw them one back. Thanks, Vico!