NCF Nation: Corey Linsley


MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ohio State has no reason to apologize for its 12-2 season, even if the Buckeyes did fall short of their goals by losing in the Big Ten title game and in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson.

Still, the Buckeyes are a program that expects to win championships.

“This would be an unbelievable season for some people,” center Corey Linsley said after the 40-35 loss to Clemson. “They would be building statues about it at other universities. This is just another year gone by for us.”

Ohio State should enter next season in or near the top 10, especially with Braxton Miller expected to return for his senior season at quarterback. But as Urban Meyer’s team found out after winning 24 straight games and then losing its final two, that last step toward winning a championship is often the hardest. And significant challenges await in 2014.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The offseason focus will center around fixing a defense that was dreadful in its final three games of the season. That job won’t include the services of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who announced on Saturday that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, or cornerback Bradley Roby, who is also bolting Columbus for the pros.

Meyer has given every indication that he intends to keep Luke Fickell on as defensive coordinator, but the departure of co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers opens the possibility of bringing in a veteran defensive coach who can offer strong input at the very least.

“We’ve just got to go out and recruit out tails off,” Meyer said. “Got to develop players and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”

The Orange Bowl offered an early look at the future, especially with Roby sidelined by a knee injury. The Buckeyes started six freshmen or sophomores on defense versus the Tigers. While the overall numbers weren’t good, there were encouraging signs of potential.

Sophomore Jamal Marcus got his first career start in place of the suspended Noah Spence and was very active, finishing with six tackles. With Spence also sitting out the first two games of 2014, Marcus could play early next season and, at the very least, create some excellent depth along a still-young defensive line.

“I’m really proud of what Jamal did stepping in for Noah,” fellow defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He had a great week of practice, we had a lot of confidence in him, and he went in there and played his heart out.”

The same could be said of Bosa, who turned in a terrific true freshman campaign and showed loads of toughness in the Orange Bowl despite a sprained ankle. Limping noticeably in the second half, he remained in the game and finished with a sack and a forced safety. He has super stardom written all over him.

“It was rough,” he said of the injury. “It was really hard to plant off it. I was just doing what I could do.”

Meyer called sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry one of the most improved players on the team during bowl practice, and if he can continue to develop, it could lessen the loss of Shazier. But Ohio State’s linebacker play needs to get better.

The secondary was depleted by the end of the season but has some promising prospects. True freshman Vonn Bell made his first start at nickel, and though he got burned early on a difficult one-on-one matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, he also made a one-handed interception near his own end zone that should be the first of many highlight plays for him. Sophomore Tyvis Powell also made his first start at safety, while sophomore Armani Reeves filled in for Roby.

“We’ve got a lot to build on,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “We’ve got some guys who can really play. I’m excited to see them play next season and see what they’ve got in the spring.”

The offense has its own question marks even with Miller back in the fold. Start with the offensive line, which was the engine of the Buckeyes' attack. It loses four senior starters, with only sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker returning. Senior Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in just 11 games, also will be gone. Same goes for the team’s leading receiver, Philly Brown.

The schedule finally toughens up, with nonconference games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the new East Division that will include reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans, who play host to Ohio State on Nov. 8, may begin the fall as favorites to win the division.

Meyer has talked repeatedly about wanting to field an angry and hungry team. The master motivator shouldn’t need many slogans this spring to push a team that suffered two crushing losses on its biggest stages.

“I hope there’s hunger,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “I hope that the guys who are coming back feel the knot in their stomach that I do right now and want to fix the things we need to fix to make sure we don’t feel like this again.”

Ohio State will still have plenty of talent in 2014 and a coach who knows how to use it. The Buckeyes weren’t far off from winning a championship this season and expect to be in position again next fall. This isn't a rebuilding job by any sense. But some repairs are needed.

“I think we’re extremely close,” Linsley said. “Everybody will say the O-line is down, that if Shazier is gone, if Roby is gone, those guys are going to slack [on defense]. But I’m telling you, some of these guys haven't gone through an offseason here before. I’m excited to see what these guys will do next year."

MIAMI -- Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner huddled with his position group in a corner of the team's locker room following a 40-35 loss to Clemson in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl.

Warinner's voice started to crack as he told the players what they'd meant to him and what they'd accomplished. Warinner wrapped it up by saying, "You all are champions in my heart."

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they'll have to settle for those kinds of fond memories from their supporters. They've won 24 games the past two seasons, but it's the "And-2" that will haunt them. As in, 24-2.

Those two losses came at the worst possible times, first in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State with a BCS title-game berth at stake, and then on the wrong end of a wild South Florida shootout. A program that went 12-0 the past two regular seasons managed to end up feeling disappointed at the end an otherwise magical run.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyBraxton Miller was on his back as much as he was on his feet at times, but his gutty performance almost got Ohio State a win Friday.
"It's bittersweet," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We had a great year, and the year before was great. But at the end of day, the last two seasons we haven’t won anything."

It's not hard to pinpoint why Ohio State fell short of earning a championship: a defense that literally limped to the finish line and a still-too-inconsistent passing game.

All of the pregame fears about Clemson's passing attack shredding the Buckeyes proved valid as the Tigers tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins abused a makeshift secondary. With star cornerback Bradley Roby sidelined by a knee injury and two players starting at their defensive backfield positions for the first time, Ohio State surrendered 378 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, while Watkins set Orange Bowl records with 16 catches for 227 yards.

Even when they applied solid coverage, the Buckeyes' corners and safeties found themselves almost helpless against the best receivers they'd faced in three years. At one point, Armani Reeves was called for pass interference and tipped the ball out of the hands of the 6-foot-5 Martavis Bryant in the end zone. Bryant still caught the ball for a touchdown.

"I can’t get any closer than that," Reeves said. "That’s what happens when you play great players."

Then again, Ohio State's defense made a lot of people look great down the stretch this season, giving up averages of 38.3 points and 539 total yards (Clemson piled up 576) in its final three games. If there's any optimism to be found there, it's that six players who were either freshman or sophomores started on defense Friday, and the future for guys such as Joey Bosa, Jamal Marcus and Vonn Bell looks bright.

Despite the defensive problems, the Buckeyes still had plenty of chances to win the game. They somehow led at halftime even after yielding 362 yards in the first two quarters. They were up 29-20 and were getting the ball back late in the third quarter when Philly Brown muffed a punt return to give the Tigers new life. That would be the first of four second-half turnovers that would ultimately doom Ohio State, the next three coughed up by quarterback Braxton Miller.

No one could fault Miller's effort. He accounted for four touchdowns while absorbing a severe beating most of the night. He injured his shoulder early in the game. He lay on the turf for a few minutes after taking a late hit on a touchdown pass to Carlos Hyde. Miller said he probably had a cracked rib to go along with his throbbing shoulder.

"That's probably one of the toughest games I’ve played in, as far as being hit-wise and being banged up," Miller said. "Probably the toughest one all year."

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer rightly called Miller "a warrior" for his performance. But Miller also turned the ball over twice in the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds and didn't see linebacker Stephone Anthony slide underneath a post route on the game-sealing interception near midfield. Miller was non-committal after the game about whether he'd go to the NFL or return to Columbus. Friday's game made it clear he still has a lot to work on in college as a quarterback, though he might want to save his body from more punishment with a nearly brand-new offensive line next season.

Miller had come through at the end of big games so many times before in his career that it was shocking to see him not do so against Michigan State and Clemson. Same goes for Meyer. Ohio State had made a habit out of choking out opponents in the fourth quarter in his tenure, and before Friday he was 4-0 in BCS games.

"That's what we train for," center Corey Linsley said. "We train to finish. It's definitely disappointing, because that was our M.O."

Ohio State was not far away from its championship goals this season. Another play or two against Michigan State, and maybe the Buckeyes are in Pasadena, Calif., right now getting ready to play Florida State, an admittedly frightening prospect given the tattered state of their defense. Friday's game went back and forth and could have ended differently if not for the untimely turnovers.

But a team's record tells the story. Ohio State won its first 12 games again this season. Then came the "And-2."

"Those were championship games," cornerback Doran Grant said. "And we didn’t win 'em. Plain and simple."
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Braxton Miller had a pretty uneventful New Year's Eve.

He went to the mall. Bought a new T-shirt. The most excitement he had was watching Johnny Manziel go nuts in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller, Isaiah Lewis, Darqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsIf this is his final game with the Buckeyes, Braxton Miller hopes to make it a memorable one.
"He was ballin'," Miller said Wednesday. "He's a baller. That's how you go out there for your last game of the season."

Manziel's performance -- 455 total yards and five total touchdowns -- couldn't help but inspire his Ohio State counterpart as Miller gets ready for Friday's Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson.

"Everybody is going to be watching so you've got to be prepared to go out there and have fun with it," Miller said. " That's what he was doing. He was having fun."

And like Manziel, Miller could possibly be playing his final college game this bowl season. The junior says he'll decide a few days after the Orange Bowl whether he'll head to the NFL early. He hasn't given any indications of where he's leaning yet, but he said last month that he was getting tired of taking hits as a runner and that he understands Ohio State loses four starting offensive linemen next season.

So the Orange Bowl looms as an important game for Miller. Colleague Andrea Adelson wrote today about how the game could be a legacy-defining moment for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who can add a BCS win to his already-impressive résumé. The same can be said for Miller.

Sure, in some ways, Miller has already built quite a legacy for himself. He's the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year. He has led the Buckeyes to a 24-1 record the past two seasons, including a perfect 12-0 season in 2012. He has beaten Michigan twice in three tries. Unlike Boyd, there were never really questions about whether Miller could win the big game early in his career, as he showed a preternatural ability to come through in clutch moments, like his game-winning touchdown pass to beat Wisconsin as a true freshman.

But Miller also plays for Ohio State, a place that aims for nothing less than championships and huge bowl victories. That's where Miller's portfolio could use some help.

Because of probation, he has played in only one bowl game -- the 2012 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Florida. The Buckeyes lost that game 24-17. Miller played decently, throwing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, but it was in an offensive slog that characterized much of his freshman year.

Miller has led the Buckeyes to two Leaders Division titles, but of course he lost the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State last month. He ran for 142 yards and two scores but went only 8-of-21 for 101 yards through the air, failed to complete a pass in the fourth quarter and got stuffed on a crucial fourth-and-2 running play. It was one of the few times where he didn't come through late in a crucial game.

Ohio State will need much more than that from its leader against Clemson, especially given the state of its defense right now. He understands that. Teammates said they have noticed Miller taking on a bigger leadership role lately.

"He's definitely been getting on us a little bit more than he has usually," center Corey Linsley said. "You definitely hear his presence more than you have in the past."

"You've got to get guys going," Miller said. "Guys get lazy at times, you've got to pick them up. As the leader I am, I just tell 'em to keep going."

Whether Miller will be staying or going becomes an immediate focus after the game. Head coach Urban Meyer said Thursday he has no idea which way that process will go.

"He's not there yet, but the ceiling is pretty high," Meyer said. "And it's a special place not many guys can go, [but] because he's got just incredible ability, quick release, and fundamentally, when he's on, he's on. So we just need to keep pushing that envelope."

Maybe Miller returns and shoots for a third straight Big Ten offensive MVP trophy, perhaps even a spot in the College Football Playoff. But if this is his last game at Ohio State, he can put himself in the discussion of all-time Buckeyes greats with a memorable final performance.

Buckeyes look to validate last two seasons

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The record books have been updated to reflect the longest winning streak in school history.

The trophy case has new hardware from a pair of Big Ten division titles.

One of the gleaming, gaudy rings from 2012 is shining on display at the front of the practice facility, and Ohio State's players have claimed a couple of pairs of gold pants after consecutive victories over their biggest rival.

The list of accomplishments is certainly long since Urban Meyer took over the No. 7 Buckeyes and won 24 games in a row. But with that winning streak now over as Ohio State prepares for the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson, Buckeyes players are well aware that there might be some quality missing among all that quantity, which adds to the stakes on Friday night with the credibility of those achievements seemingly on the line.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes have just one loss in two years, but their 24 victories wouldn't feel as fulfilling if they lost in the Discover Orange Bowl.
“It’s not really [about validating] in the eyes of others, but definitely more so in our eyes,” senior center Corey Linsley said. “Obviously in validating it in our eyes, it will validate it in the eyes of others. But the thing we’re worried about is just showing our character, showing who we are as people by working hard and working towards a win.”

The Buckeyes certainly have racked them up since Meyer took over, and rattling off that many victories without a misstep is impressive, regardless of the competition.

But there are some soft spots on the resume, starting with a relatively weak schedule that provided few opportunities to match up against ranked opponents. Ohio State received stiff tests from Wisconsin on two occasions. It won a tight, physical contest against Michigan State on the road last year. The Buckeyes knocked off competitive Nebraska and Iowa teams at home. And of course, there was a home-and-home sweep of Michigan.

But with this year’s edition of the Spartans qualifying as clearly the best opponent they had faced under Meyer, the Buckeyes lost more than just a perfect record when they came up short in the Big Ten title game.

Obviously the conference championship slipped away, leaving them without the biggest prize in the league after both seasons, as they were ineligible for the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA sanctions. For the same reason, the Buckeyes don’t have a bowl victory under Meyer, and missing out on the postseason robbed them of at least another crack at a victory over a reputable opponent. There’s a chance Ohio State could have been playing for the national championship had it been sanction-free last season, and it was absolutely in position to compete for it this year had it beaten the Spartans.

But aside from tallying the things the Buckeyes lost that could be easily quantified, what they really might be fighting is the perception that there wasn't much substance to go with the stylish offense, opportunistic defense and the division trophies. And as long as that list of accomplishments might still be, without at least a BCS bowl victory, the Buckeyes might wind up with little to show for that 24-game winning streak.

“A lot of these players, with what they’ve gone through the last two years, you could look in their eyes and they were very disappointed, but they understand there’s an incredible opportunity ahead of them,” Meyer said. “With opportunity comes responsibility, and they understand that.

“Last year we went 12-0 and they weren’t able to go to a bowl game. Now, first chance they have to go play in a bowl game, they’re in a BCS game against a great team. ... This group of kids wants to go win a bowl game and win their 13th game.”

Claiming it against the Tigers would probably do more than just add another trophy, another line to the resume and potentially start another winning streak.

It might just validate two entire seasons.

“Everybody has their own opinion,” Linsley said. “In my mind, I think that I’ll be extremely disappointed [with a loss], but I don’t know if I could call it a failure.

“I would definitely be extremely disappointed in myself and the leaders of the guys on this team if we come out and don’t do well, just because we haven’t faced real adversity like this since I’ve started, since Coach Meyer got here.”
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.


INDIANAPOLIS -- Urban Meyer sat in the passenger seat of a golf cart as his players streamed out of the locker room and toward the team bus.

In between bites of a small, pepperoni pizza from Papa John's and sips of red Gatorade, Meyer placed his head in his hands. His wife, Shelley, occasionally tried to console him. But mostly, Meyer just stared blankly.

It was a look that no one had seen Meyer wear in a long time. Since Nov. 27, 2010, in fact. That's when he suffered his last loss as a head coach, against Florida State when he still led Florida. His current team, Ohio State, hadn't experienced a defeat since Jan. 2, 2012, in the Gator Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesUrban Meyer suffered his first loss as Ohio State coach in the Big Ten championship game.
Several of the Buckeyes' underclassmen had never even known what it was like to lose a college game. Until Saturday, when Michigan State pulled off the 34-24 win in the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ohio State struggled with how to react to such a foreign concept.

"I’m just at a loss for words," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "I haven’t lost in a while and it kind of hurts. We worked so hard and it just slipped out of our hands."

Of course, this just wasn't any defeat. It's as if the football gods timed Meyer's first setback just right so as to inflict maximum pain.

Had Ohio State not blown a 24-17 second half lead, had it found a way to pull through as it so often had, then a date with Florida State in the BCS title game almost certainly awaited. The Buckeyes had to sit home and watch the national title game with a 12-0 record last year because of NCAA probation. They'll be watching it from afar again this year and thinking about it long after that. As Meyer put it, losing to the Spartans is "is going to haunt all of us, I imagine, for a little while."

"Man, it hurts," running back Carlos Hyde said. "To be that close to going to a national championship my senior year, that hurts."

What stings even more is the Buckeyes' first Big Ten title game appearance served as the inverse of what fueled much of their success. All season long, Ohio State jumped on opponents with early scores then broke their will with physical play in the second half.

On Saturday, Michigan State raced out to a 17-0 lead as Meyer's team failed to score in the first quarter for the first time this year and faced its largest deficit in two seasons. The Buckeyes made uncharacteristic early mistakes, like a mistimed snap, dropped passes and a unforced fumble from Braxton Miller that nearly turned disastrous.

Was it a case of buckling under pressure, or perhaps a hangover from the previous week's intense rivalry game win over Michigan? Center Corey Linsley offered another explanation.

"I think we hyped [Michigan State] up a little too much," he said. "They're a great team. But we came out like we were playing the Bears or something."

Miller's scrambling ability sparked a comeback, and the Ohio State running game finally revved up in the second half. Hyde and Miller broke off big chunks of yardage versus the nation's best rush defense, and both would finish with over 100 yards. The Buckeyes' offensive line looked like it would wear down Michigan State like it had just about every other Big Ten opponent.

"We started going back to our basic plays," Hyde said. "I felt like I could have gotten any yardage we needed. I felt like we could have run the ball the whole second half."

But Michigan State would own the fourth quarter, with the Buckeyes gaining just 25 total yards in the final 15 minutes. Hyde got only two carries in the fourth and just 18 for the game. On the most critical play of the night, with Ohio State facing fourth-and-2 from the Spartans' 39, Meyer made the call to put the ball in his best player's hands. For the first time since he was a true freshman, Miller couldn't deliver in crunch time, as linebacker Denicos Allen stuffed him.

"We actually had practiced that play against that blitz," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He was obviously running with some serious authority, and running the quarterback gets you an extra hat. We just didn't execute."

The Buckeyes' vulnerabilities on pass defense and in sustaining a consistent passing game of their own finally caught up to them against the best team they had faced in 25 outings. But while they may have at long last tasted defeat, all is not lost for this team.

Ohio State should still secure a BCS at-large bid, likely in the Orange Bowl. For a team that hasn't won a bowl game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, which was later vacated by the NCAA, that's still something.

But first, Meyer and Ohio State must rediscover a lost art: how to rebound from a loss.

"We'll always be disappointed with what could have been," Linsley said. "But whatever happens in the bowl game we go to is going to show what kind of people we are."

OSU starting to hit campaign season

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The preference would be to avoid politicking completely.

But if Urban Meyer needs to stump for his team, the Ohio State coach isn’t afraid to do it.

Corey Linsley is all for sportsmanship and isn’t necessarily a fan of style points.

But the OSU center has done some research on the BCS formula, and his analysis makes it clear to him that the Buckeyes can’t afford to take their foot off the pedal down the stretch.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Sandra Dukes/USA TODAY SportsIt's getting to the point in the season where Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes might have to start campaigning to get a shot at the title.
Despite repeated requests for Ohio State to compare itself to Alabama throughout the offseason and into the past few weeks since the BCS standings were unveiled, Buckeyes players have consistently steered the conversation back to the next opponent.

But Ohio State receiver Evan Spencer finally slipped up on Monday, becoming the first player to come out and publicly declare that the Buckeyes could “wipe the field” with the likes of Alabama or Florida State.

After spending the first two months of the season focusing solely on what they could control and expressing confidence that everything else would work out just fine, the Buckeyes are starting to show signs that they are aware their destiny isn’t entirely in their hands. And with just three games left before a potential appearance in the Big Ten championship to enhance their résumé, it appears the Buckeyes are now more willing to hit the campaign trail as they sit at No. 3 in the BCS standings -- just on the outside looking in at a chance to play for the national title.

“It’s awful, but I work for our players,” Meyer said last week. “I’ve been there before a couple times where some things had to happen right. For us to waste energy on that, it’s not fair to the players we coach.

“But at the end of the day, I’m working for the families of our coaching staff and the families of our players. That’s who we work for.”

The most important job remains keeping Ohio State unbeaten, because it will have no argument whatsoever if it trips up down the stretch given the crowded field at the top of the BCS standings and the weak perception of its schedule this season.

Oregon's losing to Stanford was a step in the right direction for the Buckeyes, and they were certainly pulling for an upset last week as they kicked their feet up on the couch during their second and final off week. But without another loss from a team ahead of them, the Buckeyes are not likely to climb any higher than where they’re at right now, and Stanford and Baylor are nipping at them from behind.

So while taking care of their own business remains the priority, it actually wouldn’t seem to hurt at all for the Buckeyes to call a little attention to themselves any way they can.

“We have to do everything in our power to not let anybody from behind jump us, and we’re absolutely interested in it because it’s no longer a case of us just playing our best,” Linsley said. “We also have to have somebody else not play their best. And if we beat Penn State 13-10 [instead of 63-14], we’re not in this conversation. Baylor jumps us or Stanford jumps us or whatever.

“But we did put up points, and we have to put up points and stop teams on defense. Call it what it is. We’re not facing the No. 5 team in the nation [Saturday at Illinois] or from then on out. ... Call it unsportsmanlike, call it running up the score, we’re trying to accomplish something that nobody else in our conference is trying to accomplish at this point.”

The list of programs around the nation capable of competing for that crystal football is starting to dwindle, and chances to stand out from the crowd are starting to get scarce.

That’s particularly true for the Buckeyes, who don’t play anybody in the Top 25 to close the regular season but could have a marquee showcase waiting for them in the Big Ten championship game if No. 16 Michigan State can close out the season without another loss and keep climbing in the BCS standings.

But if for some reason the Buckeyes don’t get any additional help, style points don’t have any impact or Meyer voting his team No. 2 in the coaches' poll doesn't change anything, maybe there’s a slim chance they can talk their way into a matchup with the Crimson Tide or Seminoles.

“I’m a little biased,” Spencer told reporters on Monday. “I think we’d wipe the field with both of them.”

At this point, there’s really nothing to lose by speaking their minds.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Several factors usually get mentioned first as reasons for Ohio State's 12-0 season in 2012. Braxton Miller's heroics. Carlos Hyde's emergence. The play of the defense down the stretch, led by John Simon and Ryan Shazier.

But one factor probably doesn't get mentioned enough: the performance of the team's offensive line. A major question mark going into last season, the line shaped up as one of the best in the Big Ten last year under the tutelage of Ed Warriner. And with most of the group back and some better depth, the unit provides a strong reason to believe in the Buckeyes again in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Jack Mewhort, an all-Big Ten-level talent in 2012, could be the Buckeyes' next great leader.
Warriner turned in one of the better coaching jobs in the league last year, rounding into shape a crew that was previously undistinguished and underwhelming. He turned Reid Fragel, a former tight end, into a standout right tackle who should get drafted later this month. Corey Linsley went from playing guard to one of the conference's top centers, while Jack Mewhort developed into a top-flight left tackle. One of the indelible images of the Buckeyes' season was the line pushing around Michigan State's terrific defense to grind out the victory in East Lansing.

About the only thing Warriner had to worry about last season was health, as there was no experience and precious little depth behind the starters. He doesn't have the same worries this spring.

"It's a nice feeling to know you probably have a backup tackle and a backup guard," he told ESPN.com.

Four starters are back, so the real battle this spring is to replace Fragel at that right-tackle spot. Right now, sophomores Chase Farris and Taylor Decker are splitting a lot of first-team reps there, with Darryl Baldwin also in the mix.

"Those two guys have a lot of ability," Warriner said. "The more comfortable they get and the more confidence they get, one of them could take off -- or maybe both will and we'll play by committee. But they have high-level talent and all the traits of really good linemen."

Head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Pat Elflein has been one of the surprises of the spring, and he could add depth at guard or tackle. Warriner also said Jacoby Boren is making strides at center. While the team suffered a setback when reserve Antonio Underwood tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last week, the Buckeyes should still be able to rotate more guys on the offensive line this fall.

"If the next man in can play a certain amount but the level doesn't drop off enough to hurt our team, we might do that just to keep the unit fresh and hopefully be smart throughout the season," Warriner said.

But Ohio State will want its veterans on the field as much as possible. Mewhort, whom ESPN.com voted as a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has been hailed as one of the team's best leaders and anointed by Meyer as a possible replacement for Simon in that regard.

"He's what you want in terms of an attitude, of work ethic, of being a competitor," Warriner said. "When you're a first-year starter at a new position with a new coaching staff, sometimes you just worry about your own business, and that was him to some degree last year. But now, he's taking kind of a bigger role with his leadership on offense and even the team as a whole."

Warriner said guards Andrew Norwell, a first All-Big Ten team honoree by the media last season, and Marcus Hall have made maybe the biggest improvements of anyone on the line this offseason. Along with Linsley, whom Warriner said has "elite-level strength," the Buckeyes have the potential to field four all-conference type linemen.

"We think we possibly could, if they play up to their ability level," he said. "The good thing about the group is, they don't really care about that. If we won the Big Ten and none of them made all-conference, they wouldn't care a bit. That's the kind of unselfish players they are."

Warriner said he has challenged the group to help lead a top-five national offensive attack this season. Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring last year (37.2 points per game) and finished second in rushing yards per game (242.3). The offensive line led the way, though players like Miller and Hall sure helped.

"We know the quality of our skill guys can erase some things and create some big plays," Warriner said. "If you block it for six, you might get 16. At some places, if you block it for six, that's what they'll get -- six yards."

Everything works in concert. But don't forget the Buckeyes' offensive line when talking about reasons for the team's success.

Imperfect Buckeyes keep on winning

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- We've spent a lot of time nitpicking Ohio State this early season for what the Buckeyes are not.

They are not a dominant team. They lack weapons on offense. Their defense hadn't lived up to preseason billing in the first four games. They can be maddeningly inconsistent.

But after a 17-16 victory at No. 20 Michigan State on Saturday, it's time to recognize the 5-0 Buckeyes for what they are and what they might end up being, which is possibly the best flawed team in an enormously flawed Big Ten.

"We stuck to our M.O., which is that we play to win," Ohio State center Corey Linsley said. "We may not finish every drive, and we may not score every drive. But when it comes time to win the game, we win it."

They certainly weren't perfect against the Spartans. But they answered the bell time and again and showed they could grind out a late-November type of Big Ten game in the league debut for first-year coach Urban Meyer.

"That was two sledgehammers going at it," Meyer said.

Ohio State simply swung the bigger stick. Its defense surprisingly came into the game ranked last in the Big Ten, plagued by poor tackling and a tendency to give up the big play. The first four opponents often spread the ball out and threw quick passes to neutralize the strength of the Buckeyes' defensive front.

[+] EnlargeOhio State quarterback Braxton Miller
AP Photo/Al GoldisOhio State quarterback Braxton Miller gained 136 yards on the ground against Michigan State.
Saturday brought a more familiar and welcome style with Michigan State's pro set. And the Buckeyes were ready.

Le'Veon Bell ranked second in the nation in rushing yards through four games, but the 244-pounder would have needed to hurdle the entire line of scrimmage to find any running room Saturday. Bell managed just 45 yards on 17 carries. As a team, Michigan State had only 34 rushing yards. Ohio State brought a safety into the box to slow Bell and felt confident playing man coverage against the Spartans' struggling receivers.

"The defense was really aggravated and frustrated by the way we played the first four weeks, because we know we're a whole lot better than what we played," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We were trying to show everybody in the world that we are a really good defense."

And against the best defense in the league, Ohio State showed it could gain the tough yards.

With 4:10 left, the Buckeyes took over on their own 18, clinging to that one-point lead. They proceeded to run the ball for three straight first downs, including a Carlos Hyde five-yard pile-drive on third-and-4 after the Spartans ran out of timeouts. Michigan State entered Saturday with one of the top rushing defenses in the country. The Buckeyes gashed it for 204 yards on the ground.

"Against that front, when they knew it was coming ... to just take the ball and end the game like that, that tells you a lot," Meyer said. "I didn't know we could do that."

The Buckeyes' offense mostly remains all about Braxton Miller. Any thought of limiting his carries has pretty much gone out the window by now. He rushed 23 times on Saturday -- more than every other teammate combined -- and gained 136 yards. It wasn't a vintage Miller performance, as he threw an interception and fumbled twice. But he also delivered a perfect throw to Devin Smith for a 63-yard touchdown -- beating All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams -- less than two minutes after Michigan State had taken its only lead of the game in the third quarter.

Miller's improvisation skills were on full display, especially after running back Jordan Hall left the game with a first-half leg injury. At one point, the sophomore somehow avoided the grasp of Denicos Allen and William Gholston in the backfield and hit Corey Brown for a 24-yard gain. Those weren't MAC defenders Miller shook off; they're two of the very best players in the Big Ten.

But Miller paid a price for those efforts. He got pushed into a metal stand in the first quarter after being hit out of bounds and went down clutching his left knee after a big hit in the second half, among many heavy shots taken. Though Miller waved off any questions about his health after the game, teammates said their quarterback was in obvious pain in the locker room.

"I knew since last year that he was tough," Smith said. "When he gets hit, he gets right back up. The desire for him to not want to leave the game is unbelievable."

That's good, because losing Miller for any length of time would wreck Ohio State's season. But if he can stay healthy, the possibilities become very intriguing.

Linsley said the Buckeyes knew winning at Michigan State was crucial to everything, because it looked like the toughest road game of the season on paper. Ohio State could now be favored in each of its final seven contests, beginning when it hosts Nebraska next week. The only dangerous road games left are at Penn State and at Wisconsin, while Michigan has to come to the Horseshoe in the finale.

Ohio State can't go to a bowl because of a probation, but it can win the Leaders Division title. And it is shooting for a 12-0 season.

"Where we could be right now, it's just awesome," Linsley said. "It's a great feeling to know we can be so much better than this."

Are the Buckeyes perfect? Not even close. But in a highly imperfect Big Ten, they could prove extremely hard to beat.
Going into this offseason, Ohio State needed to find a replacement for four-year starting center Mike Brewster. Many people thought Brian Bobek, Brewster's backup from last season, had the inside track. Few would have predicted that Corey Linsley would grab the job and make it his own.

It's not that Linsley lacked talent. It's just that he hadn't shown a lot in his first three seasons. Last season, he was suspended for two games and didn't get a lot of playing time as a backup guard.

[+] EnlargeCorey Linsley
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteOhio State's Urban Meyer, left, has been pleased with the progress of Corey Linsley this spring.
"I really didn't see myself as accomplishing too much," Linsley told ESPN.com about his career. "I wasn't putting in all the time to be a great player. I was just doing enough to get by, and thought that was good enough. Obviously, last year showed that it wasn't."

That's why Linsley felt like he had approached a crossroads this winter. He had a clean slate with new head coach Urban Meyer. But he also had to push himself harder than ever when new strength coach Mickey Marotti began the team's challenging early morning workouts. Linsley called it "do or die" time for him as a college player.

"We had a series of 5 a.m. workouts right when Coach Meyer started, and that's when it kind of clicked for me," he said. "I had to make a decision: Am I going to sit back and relax, or am I going to take the initiative to get better, to become a better player and a better person?

"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done. But every day I told myself, 'If I got through this, I can get through the next workout. And not only get through it, but get better while I was doing it.'"

Few players have transformed as much under the new Buckeyes regime. Linsley went from what Meyer called "a journeyman" to being anointed as the most improved player of the spring on offense by his coach. Linsley barely played in the Ohio State spring game because the staff was confident in and comfortable with what he could do.

“He was a pleasant surprise," Meyer told reporters last month. "He has the potential to be a very good player. His commitment to excellence right now is real strong.”

Linsley embraced those early morning workouts and started showing up before they began to get in extra snaps with quarterback Braxton Miller. He later realized how much that offseason conditioning paid off when offensive coordinator Tom Herman introduced the high-tempo offense this spring.

"I knew I had to be in shape after probably the first week [of spring practice]," Linsley said. "I've got to be the first O-lineman up to the line, the guy making the calls, and then make sure everybody is relaying that call further down the line. If you're not in tip-top shape, you can do it, but your mental aspects are really going to deteriorate over the course of the game."

The 6-foot-3, 292-pound Linsley has all the physical tools to make a great center. Teammates say he has bench-pressed more than 500 pounds this spring. What he's trying to do now is play with the fundamentals and technique that Brewster showed during his standout career.

"Mike has unbelievable knee bend and uses his hands the way you're supposed to use them," Linsley said. "I don't have the flexibility that Mike does, but I'm probably a little stronger. So I'm trying to take the strength I have and play with the technique he does."

Once a player who did just enough to get by, Linsley is taking to heart Meyer's challenge for the team to have the best offseason in Ohio State history. For him, that means not just doing the scheduled lifts and runs, but to always add on some extra film work or position drills. He says he's also making a point to try and lead the younger linemen and backups, making sure to pull them along to additional workouts.

That's not the Corey Linsley anybody knew before this winter. But that's why he could be known as the next great Buckeyes center.
Ohio State's first spring practice on Wednesday was significant for a number of reasons. Not least of which was the official return of Urban Meyer to a sideline for the first time since he retired from Florida.

“I felt great,” Meyer told reporters afterward. “It was great to blow the whistle and watch the guys run. It was great to coach punting, something I love to do, and to just watch the positions.”

Meyer knows he has some major work to do with these Buckeyes, especially at the receiver position. He has talked several times about the need for more playmakers at that position and he didn't see much change there in the first practice.

"At Ohio State, you should walk off the field going, 'Wow, who are those three guys?'" Meyer said. "I haven't done that yet and I still today haven't done that. There's got to be a wow factor, and you should have one, should have two, here you should probably have more than two."

Meyer did have nice things to say about sophomore wideout Devin Smith, calling him "a separator" and "a speed guy." Smith and Evan Spencer worked with the first team on Wednesday, while Corey "Philly" Brown -- the most experienced player at the position -- was on the second team.

A couple other notes:
  • There was a mild surprise at the pecking order at center, where Corey Linsley started with the first unit. Brian Bobek was thought to be the heir apparent to four-year starter Mike Brewster.
  • Curtis Grant, who came in last year as a heavily hyped recruit but struggled on the field, was the first-team middle linebacker. "He had an excellent offseason," Meyer said. "He is a guy that has to develop. ... He has to be a player for us. If he's not, we've got problems."
  • The Buckeyes' offense worked at a high tempo that Meyer said wore the players out. The pace is a product of offensive coordinator Tom Herman's preferences. “We weren’t that way at Florida,” Meyer said.

Big Ten Leaders Division notebook

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
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The first Big Ten coaches teleconference of the season was held Tuesday, while several teams also held their first game week news conferences. Here are some news and nuggets from each of the Leaders Division coaches:

Illinois
  • Ron Zook praised quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase for his development. "He seems to be picking up more and more of the offense," Zooks said. "And the more he learns, the quicker he is. He's taken another step not only with his play but with the way he's led this team as well."
  • Despite the loss of Mikel Leshoure to the NFL draft, Zook expects the Illini running game to keep on trucking and had positive words for starting tailback Jason Ford. "He had a great offseason and got his weight down to where he was as a freshman," Zook said. Zook also likes what he sees out of freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson at the position. "One thing in the Big Ten is, you'd better have more than one running back," he said. "We feel very fortunate that we've got a few guys who should help us maintain what we've done in terms of rushing."
  • Junior linebacker Ashante Williams, who was suspended following a DUI arrest, is back practicing with the team and working on the scout unit. Zook said he wants Williams, who is a semester away from graduation, to earn his degree. He hasn't made a decision on when or if Williams might play for the Illini.
Indiana
  • Ticket sales have not exactly been robust so far, but Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson says playing the opener against Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis should help both teams. "I'm interested to see if the fan bases come out to support both programs," he said. "Is it an advantage? I don't know. [But] I think it's a great opportunity for both teams to energize their teams."
  • With less than a week before the opener, Wilson said the staff still hasn't decided on a starting quarterback between Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. "Really, down the stretch, we're trying to decide which young man we think will manage the game, keep us out of turnovers and keep us in positive situations." He added that he's "really intrigued" by true freshman Tre Roberson. "He's very athletic, but at the same time he's a little overwhelmed," Wilson said. "I do think he can add to the mix as we go through the season."
Ohio State
  • The Buckeyes won't have permanent captains this year. Instead, they will name game captains each week. Center Mike Brewster, right tackle J.B. Shugarts and defensive tackle John Simon will be captains for this week's Akron game. Luke Fickell said he decided to do it this way to show his senior leaders that "we need every single one of them."
  • Fickell confirmed that offensive lineman Corey Linsley has been suspended for the first game and said Linsley may also miss Week 2 against Miami. Starting linebacker Etienne Sabino is expected to play despite breaking his left hand during training camp.
Penn State
  • While quarterback gets the most attention, the Nittany Lions haven't named a starter yet at right guard, either. John Urschel and Johnnie Troutman are still battling it out and Joe Paterno said he doesn't know who will get the call. Paterno called offensive line depth one of his main concerns, much more so than the quarterback situation.
  • Paterno confirmed that punter/kicker Anthony Fera is suspended for an alcohol-related arrest earlier this month, but he didn't divulge how long the suspension would last.
  • Paterno was asked about his former assistant, Al Golden, and the task that now faces him at scandal-ridden Miami. "Al's got a tough job on his hands right now," Paterno said. "I'm sure when everything settles down at Miami and he gets a hold of the problems and starts to resolve them and cure them, that he'll do well. But it's going to take a little while, if what people are saying is true. If it can be done, Al will get it done."
Purdue
  • Head coach Danny Hope has named Caleb TerBush his starting quarterback for the Middle Tennessee game in the wake of Rob Henry's torn ACL. Hope says the team is confident in TerBush, a junior who has played in only one career game. "He's far along," Hope said. "He's tall, he puts a lot of velocity on the ball, he's accurate and he's competitive." Though TerBush is 6-foot-6, Hope said he can run the ball and could even mix in some option plays.
  • Robert Marve still isn't practicing as he recovers from last year's knee surgery, but Hope said Marve should be ready in the next couple of weeks. "We're optimistic he can help our football team sometime soon this season," Hope said.
  • In some much-needed good injury news, the Boilermakers are happy with the way running back Ralph Bolden has returned from two knee surgeries. "It's been a real blessing," Hope said. "I didn't know what to expect, really. ... It doesn't look like he's lost anything to me. He's very fast, very sharp, very sudden. He's making people miss, is very confident on his cuts and is finishing runs." Hope said Bolden consistently punched the ball into the end zone during some goal line drills against the No. 1 defense this month. " He looks like one of the best players on our team again right now," he said.
Wisconsin
  • Redshirt freshman Kyle French will be pressed into field-goal duties on Thursday against UNLV, as regular kicker Philip Welch hasn't healed from a quadriceps injury. Head coach Bret Bielema said French is a "no-nonsense kid" who should be able to handle the situation. Bielema said he would rely on holder Brad Nortman to find out what French can do. "I usually lean on my holder," he said. "We'll come up with a number we feel he's good to kick from and hopefully just move forward."
  • Bielema said he's never sensed this much hype around the Badgers during his time with the program. Wisconsin is ranked No. 10 in the coaches poll and is a favorite to win the Big Ten. He said he noticed it during training camp, when media requests for interviews poured in from around the country. "It's fun and I think it's a sign of respect," he said. "I tried to emphasize to our players that right now the story about Wisconsin is a good thing. There's not a lot of negativity around our program. A lot of things going around college football have stayed out of Madison. I like the character and the kids we have. Hopefully, it doesn't go to their heads."
  • The series with UNLV comes to an end this year, but Bielema said the Badgers are interested in signing another deal with the Rebels. "Wisconsin people always need an excuse to run to Vegas," he said. "I think they love doing it."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The most significant number during Ohio State's preseason wasn't 2 (Terrelle Pryor's jersey), 3 (consecutive BCS bowl losses), 4 (consecutive Big Ten titles) or 5 (consecutive wins against Michigan).

It was 37.

"We had 37 guys that are new to the team," senior safety and co-captain Kurt Coleman said. "There's a lot of things that we didn't know what to expect heading into camp, but during camp, we definitely jelled and we've gone after it. The younger guys are definitely ready to step up and make big plays."

Ohio State lost 12 starters from last year's team, including national award winners like linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, as well as offensive skill threats like Chris "Beanie" Wells and Brian Robiskie. Head coach Jim Tressel's Week 1 depth chart features 21 freshmen or sophomores in starting or backup roles.

Several true freshmen could see the field in Saturday's season opener against Navy (ESPN, noon ET), including wide receiver Duron Carter, fullbacks Zach Boren and Adam Homan, and offensive linemen Jack Mewhort and Corey Linsley.

"This preseason was a little bit different than perhaps a year ago, when we had a lot of veterans," Tressel said. "We had a lot of kids coming back who knew why we did things and how we did and who could teach the group coming in. We didn't have quite the number of veterans in our camp [this year].

"So it certainly was a newer group."

As a result, the Buckeyes intensified their preparation for the season. The small group of seniors scheduled a Team Week (most called it Hell Week) midway through camp where all electronic devices -- cell phones, TVs, laptops -- were confiscated for a week as players spent all of their off-field time hanging out together and bonding.

There also were differences when the team hit the practice field.

"We definitely hit a lot more," Coleman said, "which is good. Usually we go into a season, and we're not really fully prepared for that first game. This year, we're definitely prepared for what we're about to go through. You go into the first week, you don't understand the game speed, you don't understand the real hitting of someone going live.

"Us hitting almost every day, it really conditions your body and conditions your mind."

Ohio State can't afford many growing pains from its young players this fall, especially with No. 4 USC looming in Week 2. Last year, the Buckeyes struggled through their pre-USC tune-up against Ohio, and didn't look much better the next week against the mighty Trojans.

A strong effort against Navy will be crucial, and Coleman expects a smooth transition from the team's underclassmen.

"I'm going to say this: The guys that play, they're ready," Coleman said. "I would think they were at least a year into the program, the way they play and the way their bodies are. It's amazing the way they came into camp ready to go."

This spring, Tressel discussed the importance of preventing a sense of entitlement from taking over the team. No players in the program have lost to Michigan or been on a team that failed to win at least a share of the league championship. Freshmen like Carter are joining a program used to dominating the Big Ten.

But Coleman and his fellow captains have ensured that the young players don't think success is automatic.

"We've told them several times that, this isn't easy," Coleman said. "This is going to be a long road and we're going to face a lot of adversity throughout this trip. We told them, 'What we've done in the past doesn't matter. That's not going to help us win.'

"It's tough helping them understand the troubles and the problems that we'll go through this season."

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