Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Ohio State-Nebraska: The What-If Bowl
By Adam Rittenberg
Luke Fickell's and Bo Pelini's teams aren't where they thought they'd be at this point in the season.
As spring ball reached the home stretch and people began to scan the Big Ten schedule for the coming season, one game practically jumped off of the page.
It pitted two teams many expected to reach the inaugural Big Ten championship game. It marked a historic event for the Big Ten's newest member. It paired two likely top-10 squads -- the league's flagship program against a potential emerging power. It featured a delicious quarterback matchup.
And the unique circumstances surrounding the game made it a must watch.
We're not talking about Nebraska-Wisconsin. Sure, it was a big game and a historic one for Nebraska, but Russell Wilson was still playing minor league baseball at the time.
Back in the spring, the Huskers-Badgers game was merely the undercard. Ohio State-Nebraska was unquestionably the Big Ten's main event.
Now it might as well be called the What-If Bowl.
This spring, you'd have a hard time finding a matchup anywhere in the country that had more storylines and national intrigue than Buckeyes-Huskers.
An Ohio State program that had dominated the headlines throughout a rough offseason was set to welcome back coach Jim Tressel, quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others from suspension. Many thought if the Buckeyes could just survive the first five games with a shorthanded roster and an inexperienced game coach (Luke Fickell), they could once again make a run at a Big Ten title and possibly more.
Love or loathe the Buckeyes, you would have a hard time not tuning in to see how the team responded with Tressel, Pryor and the others back on the field. The reality: Tressel and Pryor are gone and only two of the so-called "Tat-5" will return in Lincoln.
The what-ifs could drive Buckeye Nation batty: What if Tressel were manning the sideline Saturday night? What if Pryor returned to call signals in the type of road setting where he thrived for much of his career? What if DeVier Posey returned to provide some much-needed experience to a green receiving corps? What if Fickell could return to what he does best, coaching the linebackers? What if the Buckeyes had survived the opening stretch at 5-0 instead of 3-2?
The pattern continued Monday as Posey and top running back Dan Herron, two players Ohio State expected to return Saturday, were ruled ineligible for a separate NCAA rules violation. What if Posey and Herron were back?
It's painful to think what Saturday night might have meant for a sputtering Buckeyes offense ranked last in the Big Ten and 108th nationally. Ohio State would regain the services of four multiyear offensive starters: Pryor, Herron and Posey, along with left tackle Mike Adams, who will be on the field in Lincoln. It also would regain Tressel, who had tremendous influence over the quarterbacks and the offense and could provide direction.
Nebraska also can play the what-if game, especially after its humbling loss to Wisconsin last week. What if the defense had played to its potential from the start of the season? What if top cornerback Alfonzo Dennard hadn't gone down with an injury midway though camp and missed the first three games? What if Nebraska continued to run the ball in Madison rather than assume risk with Taylor Martinez and the passing game?
Maybe we'd have two 5-0 teams squaring off in Lincoln in a national showcase game. Instead, the game pits an underachieving 4-1 Nebraska squad against an unranked 3-2 Ohio State team that already has had two of the worst offensive performances in team history.
The game still has some interesting plot lines: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini facing his alma mater, the Huskers' first Big Ten home game, Adams and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas returning for Ohio State, the Buckeyes' response to their latest off-field setback.
Maybe we'll get an instant classic Saturday night.