Ice Balls On The Shoreline

Who says it’s dreary up on the shores of Lake Michigan?

It’s not uncommon, apparently, for the lake to create large ice balls during the winter.  The ice forms along the shore of the freshwater lake, breaks off, and tumbles back and forth in the waves, growing in size as it does so.  The churning action also knocks off the rough edges of the ice and leaves it looking uncannily like a white, smooth, round beach ball.  It’s a pretty amazing sight — like white mothballs or marbles along the lakefront, or the round ice cubes you sometimes see at fancy cocktail parties.

In Ohio, we typically don’t have much use for Michigan.  But even the most ardent Buckeye must admit that the ice balls of Lake Michigan are pretty cool.

The Big Ten Tightens Up

This year’s Big Ten has got to be the most entertaining basketball conference in years — and, perhaps, the best conference as well.

Over the past few days, the top three teams in the conference — Indiana, Michigan State, and Michigan — all have lost.  Ohio State’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday wasn’t that much of an upset, but Minnesota’s win over top-ranked Indiana last night was a real surprise, and Penn State’s victory tonight over Michigan, in a game in which Michigan frittered away a double-digit lead, is an absolute shocker.  Before that game, Penn State hadn’t won a conference game all year.  As a result of the upsets, Indiana leads the conference race with three losses, Michigan State and steady Wisconsin are right behind with four losses, and Ohio State and stumbling Michigan are one game farther back.

College basketball is a lot of fun because the players are kids, the students watching the game are into it, and emotion can play a significant role.  When a conference has have a bunch of very good teams, some good teams, and some teams that can rise to the occasion when their home court advantage comes into play, you get lots of surprises and unexpectedly close games.  The last few games of the conference regular season over the next week and a half are likely to be a free-for-all.  If a team like Ohio State wants to stay in contention, it had better be ready to play every game against every opponent — starting tomorrow night, when it travels to Evanston to play Northwestern.

After the regular season finally ends, we’ll have the Big Ten Tournament.  There’s a reason why this year’s tournament is the first one ever to be sold out:  it should be a very good show.

Rooting For The Unaccustomed Underdog

This afternoon the Ohio State men’s basketball team welcomes the Michigan Wolverines to the Schott.  It will be the first conference game in years where the rest of the Big Ten is rooting for the Buckeyes to win.

During most of Thad Matta’s highly successful tenure as the Ohio State coach, the Buckeyes have been at the top of the Big Ten.  They’ve dominated the Wolverines and knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament three years in a row.  This year, though, the tables are turned.  Michigan is unbeaten and, with Duke’s loss yesterday, will be ranked number 1 in the land if they can beat the Buckeyes today.  Ohio State, on the other hand, has seen its offensive struggles continue and isn’t the overwhelming force of the past few years.  The Buckeyes got crushed on the road at Illinois and will have to play their best game of the year to beat the Wolverines.

Michigan is talented and deep.  They’ve got the best point guard in the conference in Trey Burke, who dishes out assists and leads the Wolverines in scoring.  Tim Hardaway, Jr. and freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III also average double-digit point production.  The Wolverines have shot better than 50 percent from the field and are averaging more than 80 points a game.  Ohio State fans would love to see the Buckeyes put up those kinds of statistics.

The Big Ten is supposed to be competitive this year.  For that to happen, teams like Ohio State must beat the Michigans, Indianas, and Minnesotas at home and win on the road against the weaker teams.  So far in conference play, Michigan has beaten Northwestern, Iowa, and Nebraska, three of the struggling teams.  Buckeye Nation hopes that Ohio State introduces Michigan to a real, full-throated, hostile Big Ten environment today at the Schott.  I’m expecting the Buckeye Nut House — the student section located behind the visitors bench — to scream their brains out and get treated for laryngitis tomorrow.  With a little help from the crowd, Ohio State could pull off an upset.

Edited to add:  Ohio State got out to a big lead in the first half, then held on for dear life to hand the Wolverines their first loss.  The crowd seemed to be really into the game, and their enthusiasm clearly helped the Buckeyes.

Honoring Coach Tressel

During the break between the first and second quarters of Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, the University recognized the 2002 National Championship team and its head coach, Jim Tressel.  Tressel was hoisted onto the shoulders of his former players as the crowd at Ohio Stadium roared.

After the game, I was surprised to read some very harsh comments about this simple gesture.  Fans of Michigan, Wisconsin, and other schools — many of whom think Ohio State’s domination of the Big Ten conference is the product of a dirty program that skirts the NCAA rules and cheats — depicted the ceremony as Ohio State thumbing its nose at the NCAA and displaying its contempt for the rules and sanctions that ultimately resulted in Jim Tressel’s resignation.  I think that is a small, mean-spirited reaction to a desire to honor a storied Ohio State team on the 10th anniversary of its greatest achievement.

No one at Ohio State will forget how the Jim Tressel era ended — and I’m confident Coach Tressel won’t, either.  That reality shouldn’t mean that we can’t remember the good moments of the Tressel era, too.  There were many, and the 2002 National Championship is one of them.  I’m glad the members of that team, and Coach Tressel as well, were saluted for their accomplishment.

To Urban, And The Defense

Well, it doesn’t get much better than 12-0 and a win over Michigan.  Okay, it would be nice to have a bowl game in our future . . . but that wasn’t an option.  12-0 was the best we could do, and we did it.

I give a lot of credit to Urban Meyer.  He took a 6-7 team and turned it around.  He got it playing with passion, and he got it to believe in itself.  He had a great senior class and good coaches to help him, but Urban Meyer set the tone.  Obviously, we hope that he continues to recruit and coach as well as he did this year.  If he does, the future for Buckeye Nation is bright.

And how about the Buckeyes’ defense?  When they missed the tackle on Denard Robinson that allowed the long TD run at the end of the first half — and Robinson’s incredibly annoying spoon motion — I got a bad feeling.  But the defense rose to the occasion in the second half, belting around the Michigan offense, forcing Robinson to fumble, stopping him on crucial plays, delivering crushing hits, forcing turnovers, and sucking it up as the offense muffed opportunity after opportunity.  With the way the defense played in the second half, Ohio State should have won this game for two TDs or more.  This big win goes to the defense — and to Carlos Hyde, for finally grinding out those tough, classic Big Ten first downs on the ground that salted away the victory.

I also need to give kudos to Michigan.  One reason this game is the best rivalry in college football is that, year in and year out, the games are close and incredibly hard fought, no matter the records the teams bring to the game.  This year was no exception — a nail-biter filled with bone-jarring hits and great plays.  Every time the Buckeye defense forced a turnover in the second half, Michigan’s defense rose to the occasion and denied the Buckeyes the score that would have put the game away.  Michigan was in the game at the end only because their defense played tough-as-nails defense.  Anyone who watched the awful Michigan defenses during the Rich Rodriguez tenure has to give Brady Hoke some serious props for bringing the Michigan defense back to its roots and traditions.

For now, though, we’ll raise a glass to Urban Meyer, the Ohio State defense, and a much-cherished win in The Game.  Beating Michigan never gets old.

Let’s Go, Buckeyes!

Let’s go, Buckeyes!  It’s time to win The Game and kick some Maize and Blue butt!  (And enjoy Jocelyn Smallwood dotting the i in Script Ohio.)

Edited to add:  It’s cold here in Columbus on Game Day, with a brisk wind and a few snowflakes drifting down.  Perfect football weather!

Hunting For Wolverine

Tomorrow, Ohio State’s season boils down to one game.  Fittingly, the Michigan Wolverines stand between the Buckeyes and a perfect season.

This scenario has played out before.  Michigan has ruined the season for many otherwise perfect Ohio State squads, and Ohio State has wrecked Michigan dreams of unbeaten seasons.  Going into tomorrow’s game, every Ohio State fan knows that Michigan will do whatever it takes to beat the Buckeyes, smash the Buckeyes’ hope for perfection, and start Urban Meyer’s OSU coaching career off with a losing record against Michigan.  Every Michigan fan knows, too, that the Buckeyes want to crush Michigan, get revenge for last year’s loss, and return to the glory days when Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a 9-1 record against the hated Team Up North.

This will be a great matchup between two pretty good teams in the greatest rivalry game in college football.  In Ohio State-Michigan games, the great players have a way of stepping up — Denard Robinson, for example, probably played the best game of his collegiate career when the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes last year — and otherwise obscure players can achieve lasting gridiron glory by making the hard hit and recovering the crucial turnover.  We can expect a tough, hard-hitting game tomorrow, because that’s just the way The Game is always played.

I think the key to the game is the Ohio State defense.  The Buckeye D played its best game of the year last week against Wisconsin, but Wisconsin played a traditional Big Ten offensive game.  Michigan, on the other hand, has a bit more of a spread mentality, and Ohio State has struggled to defend against the spread.  If Ohio State can contain Robinson, in his new role as multi-purpose offensive sparkplug, and pressure Devin Gardner, that will take them a long way toward winning.  Consistent with my view that The Game sees big players rising to the occasion, I’ll be looking for John Simon, Ryan Shazier, and Bradley Roby to make some big plays if the Buckeyes are going to win.

Offensively, the Braxton Miller Show ground to a halt last week.  Wisconsin had a great plan, executed it to perfection, and kept Miller bottled up and off balance.  Michigan will try to do the same — but it remains to be seen if they can bring the same defensive assets to bear that Wisconsin deployed.  I think the answer for the Buckeyes may be Carlos Hyde, who has run with punch in recent weeks.  If the forecast for tomorrow is accurate — and they are expecting temperatures in the 30s, with some wind — being able to run the ball effectively may be the key.  Beanie Wells killed Michigan during his career; Carlos Hyde would like to do the same.

Columbus is stoked for The Game.  Let’s go, Buckeyes!

At Woody’s Gravesite

When Michigan Week rolls around, members of Buckeye Nation naturally think of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Ohio State’s iconic football coach who wanted — deeply, passionately, and unequivocally — to beat Michigan every year.

Recently I was near Columbus’ Union Cemetery.  It’s tucked right next to Route 315, one of the main thoroughfares that fans take to get to Ohio Stadium.  It’s also the location of Woody Hayes’ grave, and I decided to pay a visit.

Ohio State’s famous coach is buried next to his beloved wife, Anne, beneath a simple stone headstone in an unremarkable part of the cemetery.  His headstone, however, bears a memorable and beautiful quote:  “And in the night of death, hopes sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.”

As befits Hayes — a much more interesting, multi-faceted man than the media caricatures of the fiery coach ever depicted — the evocative quote has an interesting back story.  It is a quote of Robert G. Ingersoll, a towering 19th century figure who is little remembered today.  Ingersoll was a brilliant and accomplished lawyer, politician — he famously described Republican James Blaine as the “plumed knight of Maine” — defender of Darwin and the theory of natural selection, and religious skeptic.

The entire quote from Ingersoll, attributed by the 1919 edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Ingersoll’s statement At His Brother’s Gravereads:  “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud—and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word. But in the night of Death Hope sees a star and listening Love can hear the rustling of a wing.”

What better expression of the frail needs of the human condition for reassurance when confronted with the deep void of death?  And what does it say about the purportedly knuckle-dragging football coach when he chooses such a quote to mark his place of eternal rest?

When I visited Woody Hayes’ grave, a fan had carefully placed tiny pieces of homemade candy, in the shape of Brutus Buckeye’s face, on the top of the headstone, and another admirer had perched a small, painfully cute stuffed bear wearing an Ohio State sweater on the front of the marker.  They were part of the graveside scene, next to a military marker and an American flag moving gently in the breeze.  As I stood there thinking of Coach Hayes, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those dedicated and well-meaning fans, perhaps, appreciated only a small fraction of a vast and complex spirit.

The Mirror Lake Jump

What’s Michigan Week without a jump into Mirror Lake — the scenic little puddle that OSU students jump into every year before The Game against That Team Up North?  Tonight’s the night for the traditional Mirror Lake Jump.

This year participants will have information their predecessors didn’t:  OSU science students have tested Mirror Lake and determined that the waters are packed with microorganisms, animal dung, urine, sweat, and God knows what else.

Ah, what’s some garbage water between drunken friends, anyway?  The important thing isn’t the risk of disease, it’s recognizing the need to Beat Michigan!

A Bruising Win, And Now On To Michigan Week

Whew!  Ohio State escaped from Camp Randall Stadium with a 21-14 overtime win in one of the toughest, hardest-fought games you’re likely to see this year.

It wasn’t a pretty game offensively.  The Buckeye offense was pitiful during the second half, when it had multiple chances to put the game away.  The low point came when, with time running out in the fourth quarter, the offense could have salted the game away with one first down — but was unable to pick it up.  Wisconsin’s defense was terrific, and never let Braxton Miller shake loose.  The Badgers covered the Ohio State receivers like a wet blanket, and Miller often seemed baffled about what to do.  Ohio State’s coaching staff had better figure that out, because Michigan will be studying how Wisconsin defended the Buckeyes and will try to follow that approach next week.

The Ohio State defense, though, was stellar.  The Silver Bullets gave up yardage to Montee Ball — who doesn’t? — but penned him in and produced countless big plays.  The biggest was the lick Ryan Shazier laid on Ball to force a fumble on a fourth and goal with time ticking down in the fourth quarter, followed by a stout stand that gave the Buckeyes the win in overtime.  Defensive lineman John Simon was all over the field, playing his heart out.  He graduates this year, but his studly, never-say-quit play has earned him a place in the pantheon of Buckeye gridiron greats.

This was the kind of rugged defensive battle that epitomizes Big Ten football.  The Buckeyes prevailed, won the Big Ten Leaders division (who cares?), and moved to 11-0.  Now it’s on to Michigan Week, when the Wolverines come to the Horseshoe.  In football’s greatest rivalry game, Michigan will have the chance to ruin Ohio State’s perfect record, and Ohio State will have the opportunity to keep Michigan out of the Big Ten championship game.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

Not Very Good Right Now

The Ohio State Buckeyes won today because Cal has a pathetic excuse for a field goal kicker.  Period.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  It’s nice to put a W in the record books, but Ohio State almost lost — perhaps they should have lost — to a team that just isn’t very good.

Don’t be swayed by the big plays; for much of the game the Buckeyes  looked clueless on offense.  Cal outgained the Buckeyes and easily won the time of possession battle.  The offensive line isn’t very good right now, and the team seems to be incapable of moving the ball consistently on the ground through a traditional running game.  The defense gave up a huge number of big plays and let a previously unknown, unused tailback make them look slow and stupid.  The D experienced repeated failures at the most fundamental level — tackling. And the team as a whole played an undisciplined game, full of stupid penalties and cheap, embarrassingly chippy behavior.  In short, the game was not a pretty sight for a Buckeyes fan.

Next week Ohio State plays UAB, and then it’s into the Big Ten schedule, starting with an away game at Michigan State.  The Big Ten looks like it isn’t very good this year, but I’m guessing that teams like Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan are better than a Cal team that lost at home to Nevada earlier this year.  If the Buckeyes hope to be competitive, they’d better get focused and get better — pronto.

 

Beat The Wolverines!

Ohio State played very well last night against Purdue.  In an exciting, up-tempo game, they put the pedal to the metal in the last seven minutes of the game to pull away from the Boilermakers and win, 88-71.  Their reward is . . . Michigan.

The Buckeyes and the Wolverines have played twice this year and split the two games.  In Columbus, Ohio State spanked Michigan, 64-49.  In Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes played an uninspired game, shot poorly, and lost, 56-51.  It was one of those performances that caused some to question not only the team’s capabilities, but also its character.  This afternoon, the Buckeyes have the opportunity to win the rubber game.

I don’t care if Ohio State wins the Big Ten Tournament, but any game against Michigan is, well, a game against Michigan.  And if there is such a game, Ohio State must win, period.  I don’t care if its tiddlywinks or horseshoes, the good guys must prevail and the Maize and Blue must go down to ignominious, towel-crying, teeth-gnashing, humiliated-faced-fans-leaving-early defeat.

This won’t be easy, because this Michigan team is good.  Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are studs, the Wolverines can play an inside game and an outside game, and they have lots of experience and talented role players.  It’s a game that will help to get the Buckeyes ready for the NCAA Tournament.  When you get to the Big Dance, you’ll play athletic, well-coached teams like the Wolverines game after game, and you have to figure out how to get past them and move on.

Beat the Wolverines!

A Fine (Regular Season) Finale

Today the Big Ten regular season basketball season comes to an end.  Many consider the Big Ten to be the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country, and the competitiveness of the teams has made for a wild and entertaining ride.

Many people will focus on the game at East Lansing, where Ohio State seeks revenge for the Spartans’ win last month.  The Buckeyes’ dreadful showing in that contest triggered several inconsistent performances that have tested Ohio State’s mettle and raised questions about its NCAA Tournament hopes.  A win against a top 10 team, coached by legendary Tom Izzo, in a brutal venue — and on Michigan State’s senior day, to boot — would answer those questions.  Ohio State will need to shoot a lot better and rebound a lot better if they hope to do so.

If Michigan State wins today, the Spartans win the conference outright.  An Ohio State win means at least a two-way tie, and the Buckeyes and Spartans could be joined by Michigan if the Wolverines avoid stubbing their toe at Penn State.

The Wolverines are one of several Big Ten teams that must be pleased with their regular season performance.  The Wolverines have shown grit and won several close games.  Wisconsin overcame a bad start and has played well down the stretch. Purdue and Indiana, who are playing today in one of the sport’s great rivalry games, both have beaten low expectations, played tough, and will end up with winning records in the conference.  And Northwestern – scrappy, always-on-the-brink Northwestern — beat Iowa yesterday and hope to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament and make it to the Big Dance for the first time.

The stories aren’t so pretty at the bottom of the conference.  Minnesota’s season has been crippled by injuries, but Illinois has experienced an outright collapse that probably will result in the ouster of coach Bruce Weber.  The Illini are baffling because they have one of the best big men in the conference in Meyers Leonard and a great scorer in Brandon Paul, but they play poor defense and lack the leadership and chemistry needed to win consistently.  Nebraska’s coach, too, is likely on the chopping block; the Cornhuskers look to be far away from being competitive in the conference.  And Penn State, which has a new coach this year, always seems to be rebuilding, but never quite getting to the top.

I’m a traditionalist.  I think the Big Ten regular season title means a lot more than does winning the Big Ten Tournament, because success in the regular season requires winning at hostile venues and consistently displaying the teamwork and character that is essential to success on the road.  If the Buckeyes can win at the Breslin Center today, they will have truly earned some bragging rights.

Down To The Wire

The Ohio State Buckeyes are struggling, no doubt about it — but they aren’t out of the Big Ten race yet.

We’ve been saying all season that the Big Ten is balanced, and the regular season has proven that to be true.  The top team, Michigan State, already has four losses after getting drilled by Indiana last night, Ohio State and Michigan have five, and Wisconsin has six.  If The Buckeyes can win their last two games, against Northwestern and Michigan State, they would finish tied for first place.

That’s a big “if” right now.  The Buckeyes have lost two out of three at home and three of their last five.  In Sunday’s grim loss to Wisconsin, Ohio State had silly turnovers and couldn’t hit free throws, allowing the Badgers to stay in the game and pull out a last-second win.  The team seemed disorganized and undisciplined at crunch time.  These aren’t the kinds of qualities you want to see as tournament time arrives.  If a team can’t figure out to gut out close games, their season is likely to come to an early end.

Tonight’s game against Northwestern will be a good test.  The Wildcats are fighting for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and a win over Ohio State would bring that dream a lot closer.  Northwestern already has beaten Michigan State this season, and behind their senior and scoring machine John Shurna they are fully capable of hanging another loss on the Buckeyes.  If Ohio State hopes to win this game, key players like Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and William Buford need to step up and provide leadership at key moments, the team needs to play defense and rebound, and the players need to play smart basketball — which includes making their shots at the charity stripe.  It’s time for this Buckeye team to pull together and start playing like a contender.