NCF Nation: Evan Spencer
There are eight different Buckeyes with more receptions than his pick. The guy has only one rushing attempt to his credit. And, sure, his athletic recovery of an onside kick helped seal a win in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but even that doesn’t really show up in the box score.
But it’s the plays that can’t be summed up numerically that highlight Evan Spencer’s value to the No. 4 Buckeyes during their run to the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T. In the semifinal victory over Alabama, he did just about everything Meyer could have possibly wanted from the senior without ever drawing that much attention to himself. But his fingerprints were all over the team’s success.
“He’s unbelievable,” Meyer said. “He's the MVP of our team. He's the leader of our team. He's the guy that at the right time, I'll probably make an executive decision and make him a captain.
“He's a wonderful kid. He's really, to me, what football is all about.”
Spencer actually did put his name on the score sheet in the win over Alabama, throwing a touchdown on a trick play that was crucial in leading a first-half comeback after the Buckeyes had fallen behind early. But thanks to his typical team-first attitude, Spencer actually was more proud of the play he made in the closing seconds to grab the onside kick, and a teeth-rattling block he had thrown a couple of minutes earlier to spring Ezekiel Elliott for a long touchdown, a pair of plays that don’t truly reveal his impact on paper.
That’s largely been the case with the senior’s contributions all season long, though the Buckeyes haven’t taken the role Spencer has played for granted for a second. And while it’s a willingness to blow open holes for others as a blocker, his work ethic and vocal leadership that have often been pointed to most, Spencer isn’t exactly a slouch athletically, either. While the personal numbers might not stand out much on such a loaded offense, he’s averaged nearly 10 yards per touch, he’s thrown for a score and also has a sparkling one-handed grab among his three receiving touchdowns on his résumé this season.
“There's a lot of things I can do on the football field,” Spencer said. “I just try to do everything I can when I'm out there. Whether it's block or throw something or catch something, I try to do it to the best of my ability. I guess the best of my ability is sometimes kind of cool.
“I don't know if it surprises me that people are starting to notice. I go out there and I bust my butt every time I can and I do what I can. I guess I'm glad people are noticing, but that's not my main focus. My main focus is not to make sure everybody else sees it, it's to make sure the job gets done. That job isn't going to be complete until Monday.”
If the Buckeyes are going to finish it with a victory and a championship, there’s no doubt Spencer will have a hand in it.
It may not be as obvious as it was when he took the reverse and delivered a strike to fellow wideout Michael Thomas for a touchdown, or even measurable like his only other entry on the stats sheet, a reception that went for just 7 yards.
It could require watching closely to see just who it was crashing down from near the sideline to take out two defenders, clearing the path and springing a tailback with 85 yards of wide-open turf ahead of him.
But one way or another, the Buckeyes will be leaning heavily on a still-unofficial captain and an unsung MVP.
“The captains of the teams are the guys who are remembered forever,” Spencer said. “And the captains of a team that gets to go to a national championship, those guys have their names kind of written in stone. That would mean the world to me.
“It's good to be getting praised, I guess. It's an incredible honor and I'm going to keep working to make sure that it does happen. But I just try to be a servant to my guys and do whatever I can for them, whatever I can to win games.”
Some guys might make it easier from the outside to evaluate the most valuable player. But inside Ohio State, there’s no doubt who it is.
That’s not guaranteed, obviously. But if there is such a thing as a stone-cold lock, the boost Ohio State figures to receive from having the starting left tackle around for one more season might just qualify.
Though, of course, he’s not yet done with his work as a junior with the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T set for Monday night against No. 2 Oregon.
“I wasn’t really wanting to get into that prior to this game, but I’m coming back for my senior year,” Decker said. “You know, personally, growing up I wanted to play here and this is my first year at a new position, and I’ve seen projections of where I could go, but I think for the most part I’m kind of under the radar. So, I think another year, barring something drastic happening, can only benefit me.
“You know, my draft stock can only go up, and I have goals that I haven’t accomplished yet here.”
Since his decision has been made prior to the title game, it’s safe to assume that those accomplishments are probably personal, so Decker declined to go into any detail about what they might be for fear of calling too much attention to himself.
That’s yet another example of the team-first approach that has already made Decker so invaluable to the Buckeyes this season, even if for the most part seniors like Michael Bennett and Evan Spencer have carried the torch and set the tone on the run to a Big Ten title and a victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
But Decker’s impact as the only returning starter on an offensive line that was effectively rebuilt entirely from a year ago shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly given the early struggles for the unit as Ohio State was shockingly upset by Virginia Tech in Week 2. He called back to his own transition into the lineup the previous season and the rude awakening to the demands of playing a full-time role he had as a sophomore to help bring along his inexperienced teammates. That, in some ways, gave offensive line coach Ed Warinner another assistant to help speed up the process on the practice field and in games. And while it has already given him a valuable leadership role within that group, it seems like a safe bet to expand to the rest of the team moving forward.
Certainly, his contributions on the field are nothing to scoff at either. And with defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and postseason superstar quarterback Cardale Jones both joining him this week in expressing their desire to return, the Buckeyes appear to pretty much be retaining all the pieces they need to make another push for a championship again next year.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t think it was going to happen, because I didn’t really get any interest from here,” Decker said. “But it was something that I really wanted, and to be given that opportunity, I’ve just done everything I can to be successful. You know, it is a really good feeling and gratifying when you accomplish something huge like that, and I’ve loved my time here. I like being here, I like playing for Ohio State and representing this university, and that’s important to me.
“I love playing with my friends, on the line especially. Once I leave here, I can never come back.”
So Decker is in no hurry to find the exit. And however that might help him individually, it figures to benefit the Buckeyes even more.
But as news of Jim Harbaugh's hiring in Ann Arbor filtered down to the Buckeyes, who are in New Orleans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a funny thing happened. Some of them actually started dishing out compliments about the new coach of the team they dare not name.
"It's real good," Ohio State junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. "Think he'll be a great coach, and the people who say he's not, I think, are a little bit nuts. He's had a lot of success everywhere he's gone. I like the thought of the team up north becoming back to the level it's been before, where they are a really strong team year in and year out."
What's going on here? Has the rivalry softened? Not at all. But the Ohio State-Michigan game hasn't been nationally important since the 2006 contest, when the Buckeyes and Wolverines were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Even the Buckeyes players would like to see The Game regain that kind of meaning and intensity.
"I think it's exciting," sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa said. "What's a rivalry if both teams aren't doing well? And he obviously will turn that place around, in less than a year. [It's] the greatest rivalry in sports, and you need something like that."
Said Perry: "That helps the Big Ten, obviously, but that's what the rivalry is all about. You want to go in there and play when Ohio State is ranked really high and the team up north is ranked really high. Everybody gets that much more fired up."
Ohio State has gone 25-1 against Big Ten teams since Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus. The only league team that has really challenged the Buckeyes has been Michigan State. Expect Harbaugh to change that.
"What it can do on a daily basis is create some more competitive nature, some of those competitive situations in recruiting," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "That’s going to create that 365 days a year. Competition, challenge."
As one would imagine, though, the Buckeyes aren't conceding any ground.
"I know Coach Meyer is going to do everything that he can to beat 'em up, pretty much, as bad as we can every time we play them," wide receiver Evan Spencer said. "It will definitely be a good football game every time we play them. But I like our guys."
One thing seems clear: The Game has changed.
"I'm looking forward to what's going to happen," Perry said. "Sooner rather than later."
A year later, he and the Buckeyes will get a chance to prove that they can actually “wipe the floor” with the top-ranked Crimson Tide -- and they might even get a shot at both of them.
“I was confident in my team then and confident in them now, and I’m really glad that we get to play them,” said Spencer, whose team will face Alabama on Jan. 1 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. “Obviously being a competitor and the type of guy that I am, I want to play the best team in the country, I want to play the best athletes in the country and I want to play the best-coached teams in the country.
“And the fact that we’re in the playoffs gave me a chance to play, hypothetically, the best teams in the country. Every athlete, that’s all they can wish for. I’m confident in my guys and I think that we’ll do well.”
Spencer was joking with reporters when he made those comments last November, but the situation blew up in his face a bit. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer publicly rebuked the receiver and temporarily banned him from speaking to the media.
Spencer later tweeted an apology for showing what Meyer deemed a lack of sportsmanship.
I did not mean to disrespect any FB team today. I am confident in my team, and as is evident in the video, I was having fun ...— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
...with the media answering their questions. I should have chosen my words more wisely. There was no intent to disrespect any other team.— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
“I just felt that it was necessary,” Spencer said Sunday. “Maybe some people were taking it differently than the intentions that I meant it. I solely meant it in the purpose of just showing my confidence in the guys that we had and none other than that.”
Spencer said he thought back on the controversy over his comments when he learned that the Buckeyes would face Alabama in the playoff. But he has bigger concerns than validating his comments from a year ago -- namely getting a win on New Year’s Day in order to play the Florida State-Oregon winner on Jan. 12 with a national title at stake.
“[I thought about it] little bit, but I was more thinking about the fact that we get to play the No. 1 team in the country and we get to show how good a team when we are,” Spencer said.
Of course, the Buckeyes never got a shot at Alabama or Florida State last season. They were undefeated at the time of Spencer’s comments and riding a winning streak that would stretch to a school-record 24 games before Michigan State upset them in the Big Ten championship game.
Auburn, which knocked Alabama out of the mix with its own upset win, went on to play Florida State in the BCS title game instead. The Buckeyes would close the season with another loss, this time to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and Spencer learned a valuable lesson in humility.
“We did a lot of great things in that season,” Spencer said. “Granted, we didn’t finish it the way we needed to and wanted to, but I felt that last year was definitely a really great learning experience for me personally and us as a team.”
The Ohio State running back shows off his stomach during games -- even those, like at Minnesota, that are played in sub-freezing temperatures -- by turning his jersey into a half shirt. The throwback look has brought comparisons to another famous Buckeye back in Eddie George. Or maybe Britney Spears.
But Elliott, who started rocking the midriff last season as a freshman, says there's not much to it.
Elliott's game really isn't about style and flashiness, anyway. He likes to block a defensive back almost as much as he enjoys carrying the ball. Yet down the stretch of the season, he started putting up some elite rushing numbers.
In Ohio State's last five games, he averaged 138.6 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry while scoring seven touchdowns. He put an exclamation point on his sophomore campaign with a huge performance in the 59-0 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, running for a career-high 220 yards on 20 carries.
Elliott has posted numbers that are similar to Heisman Trophy winner George's in each of their first seasons as a full-time starter. George had 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 13 games; Elliott has 1,402 yards and 12 scores.
But the St. Louis native has done it all somewhat quietly, as the quarterbacks get most of the attention in the Buckeyes' offense. Even during Sunday's media session for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the placard for Elliott misspelled his last name, leaving off the second 'T.'
"That happens a lot," he said. "It's something you've got to learn to deal with."
Clearly, though, Elliott has Alabama's attention. The Buckeyes like to run the ball first and foremost, and with J.T. Barrett sidelined, Elliott is their primary option on the ground.
"He's tough and he runs behind his shoulder pads," Crimson Tide safety Landon Collins said. "He's got great vision, and he hits his hole as hard as he can."
It's more than just Elliott's running that makes him special, however. Coach Urban Meyer has called him one of the best skill players he's ever had without the ball in his hands. Elliott relishes blocking downfield and is a big reason why Ohio State has sprung so many big plays.
"They run those sweeps and plays to the perimeter, and he just mows 'em down," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.
Elliott says he likes contact and tries to "take a very unselfish approach to the game." That has, not surprisingly, made him a popular teammate.
"There will be somebody 50 yards downfield, and Zeke is going to go find him, cut him and take him out of the play," wide receiver Evan Spencer said. "He's like our Energizer bunny; he never seems to get tired. I watch film of him and am like, 'Geez, dude, how do you keep doing that?"
Ohio State will need every bit of Elliott's blocking, energy and speed on Thursday against Alabama, which leads the FBS in rushing defense by allowing just 88.7 yards per game and and 2.8 yards per carry. The Tide have given up just three rushing touchdowns all season, due mostly to their standout defensive line, which Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said was the deepest and stoutest he's ever seen.
"They're really, really big," Herman said. "I mean, really big."
"You watch them on film," Elliott said, "and offensive lines don't really move them."
Ohio State is confident that its offensive line, which improved so much this season, can handle Alabama's size up front. But at some point, it will be up to Elliott to help counter the Tide's strength, both with his running and his blocking. If so, America may finally learn how to spell his name, while doing some rather unavoidable navel-gazing.
Obviously the quarterback was no slouch on the field, and his individual numbers and piles of wins while leading Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, were what really drew the spotlight on him as he emerged into a recruit worth chasing for Ohio State.
“It was always the pregame speech,” said Jim Garfield, Barrett's coach at Rider. “We would always come in before warmups and J.T. would have free rein. Really I can’t focus on just one that stands out, because it was throughout his career, and he was doing that for us since his sophomore year.
“Everything he says was like gold.”
The Buckeyes will likely need more than just a golden voice to replace two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller. But as far as first impressions go, Barrett may have a head start thanks to his confidence as a speaker and a knack for motivating his teammates.
While the Buckeyes haven’t yet heard him in a game or seen what he can do on the field for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, they’ve had the better part of a year to get used to him in Miller’s place on the practice field and also had plenty of time during his redshirt season to learn how Barrett carries himself. And to a man, the entire program has come away raving about his leadership skills, maturity -- and when it’s time to stop talking, his physical tools.
“He’s got a great voice in the huddle,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’ll pick guys up and he just displays confidence in himself, which is good to see.
“He’s become the face of our program, basically overnight. He’s definitely coming along with that voice, that leadership role, which is good to see. But other than that, he’s always gone about his business and handled himself well. I’m not worried about that at all. ... There’s just something about him.”
That realization may not come for everybody around Barrett at exactly the same time, but the opinion might as well be universally shared ahead of his first start on Saturday against Navy.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has long praised Barrett’s work ethic, but his interest on the recruiting trail was really piqued by the consistent feedback he received about his desire to compete against the best competition. That’s been reinforced by the way he dove into what was initially a battle to back up Miller, which he won over Cardale Jones just two days before a season-ending injury earned him a promotion to the top gig.
Wide receiver Evan Spencer pointed to Barrett’s ability to motivate, stressing that Ohio State would be “way more than all right” after hearing him boost up the offense with his encouragement during rough patches in training camp.
And while Garfield was sold early on, his belief was truly cemented during Barrett’s junior year when Rider was facing its own adversity as it trailed Abilene Cooper 28-0 in the third quarter.
“We ended up winning it, and it was because of J.T.’s motivation,” Garfield said. “He called the guys up and in his words, he just basically said we’ve got to get this done. He had everybody up, everybody’s attention -- I’m talking like defensive linemen and things like that. Everybody was drawn to him.
“When he started to speak, everybody sat up and listened.”
Barrett has a new audience now, and the Buckeyes are all ears.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.
Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.
“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”
Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.
“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”
This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.
“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”
An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.
“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”
Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.
The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.
“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”
Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.
“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”
By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.
“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It says a lot about the place Ohio State finds itself that a 25-point conference road victory, in which it scored 60 points, provides fodder for critics and detractors.
But that's the nature of college football in late November for an undefeated team. Politicking and nit-picking all play into a sport that chooses its championship game largely by way of popular opinion, creating a week-to-week beauty pageant.
Urban Meyer admitted after Saturday's 60-35 victory at Illinois that he and his team got a little too caught up in all the national title talk recently. Following a performance filled with warts, if not outright worry, Meyer wants the No. 3 Buckeyes to hop off that carousel.
"We need to make sure our focus is on just getting better each week instead of all the national stuff," Meyer said. "I think I'm learning a lesson. Just shut your mouth and quit worrying about this, quit worrying about that."
Any distractions that might have caused didn't surface until well into Saturday's game. Ohio State, as it does just about every week, seized immediate control of the game, racing out to a 28-0 lead with 10:20 left in the first half. The Buckeyes have outscored opponents 63-0 in the first quarter in their past three games.
But the Illini -- who now own the nation's longest conference losing streak at 20 games, the second-worst streak in Big Ten history -- found a hole in the Buckeyes' most airtight unit this season: punt coverage. V'Angelo Bentley scored on a 67-yard punt return in the second quarter to give his team some life. Led by a gutsy effort from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois sliced the lead to 14 early in the second half and trailed by only 12 with less than five minutes to play.
"When we got up big, everybody just kind of mellowed," Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "We thought they would give up and they didn't. ...
"It was a big-time wake-up call."
Unlike the previous two games, the Buckeyes had to play their starters the whole way. Meyer had hoped to rest left tackle Jack Mewhort, who tweaked his knee in practice Wednesday, but he was forced to put Mewhort back in during the second half.
Ohio State couldn't exhale until Carlos Hyde ripped off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs in the final 4:03, and on a windy day that made passing a challenge, Meyer rode the running skills of quarterback Braxton Miller harder than he had all season. Miller finished with 184 yards on 16 carries.
But it was the defensive effort that proponents of teams such as Baylor and Stanford will harp on, as Ohio State gave up 420 yards and its highest point total of the season. Few will give the Buckeyes a pass for missing starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant or for losing starting defensive lineman Joey Bosa to a neck injury after he had rung up 2.5 sacks. Meyer called the defensive performance simply "not good enough."
"That is unacceptable from us," safety C.J. Barnett said. "Illinois is a good team with some great athletes, but at the same time, we expect more from ourselves."
Only in college football would a team that secured its 22nd consecutive victory with a 25-point road win be scrutinized and criticized. And make no mistake: The Buckeyes were not satisfied with their showing. The truth is that they're not going to the BCS title game unless Alabama or Florida State lose, and their best argument remains the long winning streak.
Just don't expect to hear much about that subject from the Ohio State camp in the coming days.
"There will be a lot more focus on Indiana this week," Barnett said, "instead of worrying about the big picture or what's in the future. We need to worry about the right here and now."
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.
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.
If you're a defensive coordinator, that might qualify as a special kind of torture. Think of all the possibilities with that trio. There's Hyde, the 235-pound power back who at times couldn't be tackled by Wisconsin. There's Wilson, still just a freshman but already one of the fastest players in the Big Ten who's fulfilling the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer's offense. Then of course there's Miller, who can beat you with his arms or his legs.
In fact, Meyer's biggest lament about the offense after Saturday's game was that he couldn't find playing time for Jordan Hall and Kenny Guiton. Hall, who leads the team with 427 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, got one carry against the Badgers. Guiton -- who leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns with 13 -- never saw the field.
Miller quickly showed why the "debate" over whether he or Guiton should start was always silly, because he simply can do so many more things. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday that Miller still made some mental mistakes and needs to do a better job scrambling straight up the field. But Herman praised Miller's back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a touchdown, and Ohio State has now incorporated a vertical passing game to go along with its strong rushing attack. Receivers Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Evan Spencer are drawing praise not scorn from Meyer these days, and the trio has combined for 13 touchdown catches.
"They use their weapons well at every position," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "They can get the ball to anybody, and they can score on any given play."
Fitzgerald should know exactly what that looks like, because he has built the same thing with his team. In fact, when Northwestern hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston, we will see arguably the two most versatile offenses in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats, of course, employ a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the former excelling as a runner and the latter serving as something like a designated passer. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall can use the option game with Colter or spread the field with Siemian and a deep group of wide receivers. The two quarterbacks are completing 69.8 percent of their passes.
In fact, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing yards, the only team to rank in the top four in each of those categories. The Wildcats have accomplished that almost entirely without star tailback Venric Mark, who has dealt with an unspecified lower body injury all season. But Mark, who ran for 1,371 and was an All-American punt returner last season, is listed as a co-starter on the team's depth chart this week.
Fitzgerald said Monday that if Mark gets through practice without issue, "we will have him in some capacity" on Saturday. Treyvon Green (404 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in nicely for Mark and brings a bit more power, but Northwestern's offense takes on a different dimension with Mark's speed, especially when paired with Colter.
Northwestern will likely need every available weapon against Ohio State, which managed to shut down Wisconsin's running game on Saturday while allowing some big plays through the air.
All coaches talk about being "multiple" on offense, but the Wildcats and Buckeyes truly embody that this season. Nebraska can also do just about everything, though the Huskers' offense sputtered against UCLA, while Penn State can keep defenses guessing with many formations and plays. Just about everybody else in the league is looking for a consistent passing game (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), a dependable running attack (Indiana, Illinois) or both (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue).
Ohio State and Northwestern both have inexhaustible options on offense. The trick will be finding which ones work best on Saturday night.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Contrived or not, there’s officially no controversy now.
The conversation about whether Kenny Guiton had done enough to take over as Ohio State’s starting quarterback had drawn on with Braxton Miller defenseless, unable to make his case while recovering from a sprained knee.
Finally able to play again, Miller made it abundantly clear that he’s not only the best option for the Buckeyes, he’s among the most dangerous players in the entire country.
In case anybody had forgotten how lethal he is with his legs or improved he is with his arm, Miller provided a refresher course in a 31-24 win over No. 23 Wisconsin and its stout defense that should silence any remaining skeptics over who should be taking Ohio State’s snaps.
“I don’t really look into how the media deals with that,” Miller said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.
“I was proud of Kenny and the way he led the team while I was out, and I look at him as a big brother. So, no controversy with that.”
There was never really any to begin with inside the program, and despite the bracketing of his top two quarterbacks on Urban Meyer’s depth chart earlier in the week, the Buckeyes coach made it clear again after knocking off the Badgers that Miller solidly remains his first choice.
He dropped in a 25-yard strike to Evan Spencer on the opening drive of the game. He delivered a gorgeous, driven, back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a 26-yard touchdown. Then, after one of his worst tosses of the night, Miller capped the first half with a 40-yard bomb to Philly Brown that sent the Buckeyes into the locker room with all the momentum before going to work on the clock with his legs down the stretch.
In all, Miller completed 17 of his 25 passes for 198 yards and 4 touchdowns and tacked on 83 more yards on the ground, turning in exactly the kind of versatile performance that made him a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy and the Buckeyes a threat in the national title race.
“No [doubt about the starter], not if he’s healthy,” Meyer said of Miller. “When I saw Braxton on Thursday, there was no doubt who was going to be our starter.
“The team we played is very good, should be undefeated except for some ridiculous call. ... I think he played very well. Braxton did have a heck of a day.”
Miller has had more than a few like it before, though the fresher memories for the Buckeyes have been of Guiton after a prolific touchdown binge while filling in over the past three games that rewrote the school record books.
Ohio State has brainstormed for ways to get both quarterbacks involved in the offense, either together in one formation or through some sort of rotation. But that never looked to be a realistic option against the Badgers, particularly when Miller started darting all over the field, using his elusiveness and acceleration to escape pressure in the pocket and pick up yardage in a way that few quarterbacks can.
And as long as a left knee that was covered by a thin brace under his pants and long, black socks can hold up, the stage will continue to belong to Miller.
“I’ve been working really hard these last couple weeks because I’ve been hurt,” Miller said. “I felt good, my legs felt good. Energy-wise, I wasn’t out of shape and felt good.
“I’ve been in there [working] all day. I felt like I had a job without getting paid.”
After all that rehab was done, his real job for the Buckeyes was waiting. There was never any question who it belonged to.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The face of the program has spent more time in sweats than pads on game days.
Last year's top rusher and automatic touchdown machine in the red zone has played in only one game, and even then he was barely used.
An offensive line that needed to manage a couple of injuries coming out of training camp has been called on really only once for a full shift as a complete first-team unit.
And yet, as Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman glanced down at a box score to make sure his numbers were right after a wildly prolific performance he was comparing to a similar outing the week before, a smile started creeping across his face.
How much better can the No. 4 Buckeyes get on offense? Until they actually get everybody on the field, they might be only scratching the surface.
"Our offense has been rolling," Heuerman said on the heels of routing Florida A&M 76-0. "We had 603 yards [last week], I think we had 608 [against California], so these last two weeks, our offense has really been clicking.
"But seeing Carlos [Hyde] back out there was good, that's definitely a player who carries a big load with us. And I think getting Braxton [Miller] back this week will spark some things up."
The fire already has been burning pretty steadily for the Buckeyes early in the season, and Urban Meyer's spread attack has been ruthless and close to unstoppable while racking up more than 52 points per game outside of Big Ten play. And while the competition hasn't been all that stiff, Ohio State also has been working without two of its most critical contributors essentially throughout the first four weeks and has barely missed a beat.
There was time to plan for the absence of Hyde in the backfield, because his three-game suspension was handed down far enough in advance to make other arrangements at running back coming off his breakout, 17-touchdown junior campaign. But the knee sprain Miller suffered on the seventh snap of the second game had a chance to significantly disrupt what Meyer wanted to accomplish early in the season as Ohio State tried to build toward Saturday's meeting with No. 23 Wisconsin, particularly given how critical the junior quarterback was to the game plan last year on the way to a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy race.
"The expectation level on offense is real high," Meyer said. "We have some weapons, you know, and I kind of like where we're at.
"The best way to think about it is checkers. There are some pieces on the board, and I like the checkers that we have right now. So, it's just a matter of our staff putting them together at the same time, getting them healthy and making sure they're in great shape."
Putting two pieces with the skills of Miller and Hyde on the board actually might change the game completely as the Buckeyes get healthy and whole again offensively.
There was nothing wrong with checkers. But now they might be able to play some chess.
"I've never heard of having too many weapons being a bad thing," wide receiver Evan Spencer said. "We know as players that pretty much everybody can go in and get the job done.
"The sky is the limit for our offense. We've got so many weapons, and we can do so many different things, I mean, I can't even imagine all the things we can do."
They certainly haven't shown all they're capable of with the football yet, regardless of what the stats sheet has shown. Once again fully loaded, Heuerman and the Buckeyes might soon have even more reasons to smile.
It’s mostly a light week in Big Ten football, and Wisconsin and Ohio State will kick off Saturday night with no other competition from league games.
That’s perfect. You should watch as this matchup takes center stage. Savor it. This is the rarest of rivalries, one that is simultaneously waxing and waning before our eyes.
Though it’s the Big Ten opener for Ohio State and we haven't yet reached October, this game might just decide the Leaders Division race. That should come as no surprise, as these two teams have played several high-stakes showdowns in recent years.
“All my years that I've been here,” Wisconsin senior running back James White said, “this has been a great game. It has always come down to the wire."
The past three meetings have produced instant classics. The Badgers knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 at home in 2010. In 2011, Braxton Miller’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left lifted the Buckeyes to a 33-29 win at the Horseshoe. Last season, Ohio State won 21-14 in overtime at Camp Randall Stadium.
While Ohio State has won five of the last six against Wisconsin, the Badgers have won or shared the last three Big Ten titles. They’ve also represented the Leaders Division in the first two Big Ten championship games, including last year when Ohio State was ineligible.
That both compete in the same division while Penn State remains on probation has added meaning to this game, which wasn’t always so competitive. The Buckeyes lead the all-time series 55-18-5 and beat Wisconsin every year between 1960 and 1980. The Badgers won twice (with one tie) between 1988 and 2000.
“I was here a long time ago, and it was not a rivalry,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who was a Buckeyes assistant from 1986-87. “You have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with coach [Barry] Alvarez, and then the following coaches have done a great job. They are one of, if not the best, programs in the Big Ten right now, and because of that, it’s become a very good rivalry.”
The intrigue between the teams’ head coaches cooled considerably when the Badgers hired Gary Andersen, who served as Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Utah. When the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises asked Meyer this week if he missed Bielema, Meyer chuckled and said, “I’m good with Gary.”
"Not to get too much into things, but obviously Coach Andersen and Coach Meyer have a relationship in the past,” Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “There's a mutual respect between Coach Andersen and that staff over there.”
“That may be something that might be a little different this year, without getting too detailed or specific."
Friendship between coaches is not the only reason this rivalry may have already peaked. After this season, Ohio State and Wisconsin will play in separate divisions as the Big Ten expands and splits into East and West branches. The two teams are not scheduled to meet in 2014, 2015 or 2017, though they could still face each other in the conference title game.
That’s particularly a shame for the Badgers, because as their historic rivalry with Minnesota has become one-sided and Iowa went missing off the schedule for a few years, Ohio State has loomed as potentially their biggest game.
"You enjoy going up against great teams like Ohio State,” Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon said. “I mean, it's Ohio State. So it's kind of disappointing, but I'm sure if things go how we want, we'll probably see them again."
Things are a little different from the Buckeyes’ perspective. Wisconsin has become a rival because of division alignment and the Badgers’ contention for Big Ten titles. But Ohio State doesn’t view this game as the one it must win.
"When it comes to rivalries, no,” Buckeyes receiver Evan Spencer said. “I mean, just because The Team Up North, it's hard to place words on that one. Wisconsin is a big game, don't get me wrong. It's one of the biggest ones we have on the schedule.”
The schedule brings few guaranteed rematches between these two teams. So make sure to watch Saturday’s game. Savor it.
“We like playing these guys,” Allen said. “We've had great games, and that's why you play college football. You want to play great teams, you want to play great games, and you want to play great players. That's what we've had between the two of us."
When he reported to campus in the summer, veteran teammates started raving about his physical skills and the impact he was already having in offseason workouts.
While the Buckeyes have occasionally tried to temper the buzz that is building exponentially with seemingly every practice, the problem with tapping the brakes on something that moves as fast as Wilson and the hype around him is that it barely slows them down at all.
“Man, I’m going to tell you, that little joker right there is quick,” junior Evan Spencer said. “You’ll see, he’s so explosive, and you never know where he’s going to go or what kind of move he’s going to make.
“He’s a real guy -- he can move.”
The Buckeyes already knew that based on the blistering times he posted on the track in high school, and more confirmation arrived when he clocked a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash shortly after arriving for the offseason program. They had also seen plenty of evidence of what Wilson could do in pads as he racked up more than 4,400 all-purpose yards and 81 touchdowns at DeSoto High School, testing himself against some of the toughest competition in the country in Texas.
But if Ohio State coaches needed to find out first-hand if that natural athleticism and a versatile set of skills that makes him dangerous as both a rusher and receiver was going to transition smoothly enough to contribute to the nation’s second-ranked team, Wilson didn’t make them wait long to decide.
In one 7-on-7 session during the first week of camp, Wilson grabbed three touchdown catches in short succession with each of them showing off a different aspect of his game. There was a double move that highlighted his acceleration and ability to change direction. He used pure speed to get behind the secondary for another, and later turned a simple out route into a score by cutting up field and darting between two oncoming tacklers on the way to the end zone.
The practice performance and the glowing reviews from teammates and coaches alike have only added to the anticipation for Wilson’s debut against Buffalo on Aug. 31. But if it’s increased the pressure on him, he is certainly hiding it well.
“I’m aware of it, but I don’t really pay it any attention,” Wilson said. “I just come here and play football and do what I love.
“I mean, I’m handling it. ... I think I’ve done pretty good, just have to live up to high expectations because of the way I was recruited and all the hype. I think I’m doing pretty good so far.”
It is still early in camp, there’s still plenty of room to grow for any freshman at this stage and Wilson still hasn’t even played a game yet to allow for a true evaluation of how much he might help as the Buckeyes try to make a push for a national title.
There’s also some uncertainty about where exactly Wilson will fit in the lineup and how often as he splits time with the running backs and receivers, learning responsibilities as both a rusher and an option at the H-back position that Percy Harvin made famous under Meyer at Florida.
Comparing Wilson to perhaps the most dangerous hybrid weapon he’s had, though, is at least one area where Meyer is quick to bring the conversation to a complete stop. But short of that, the Buckeyes are full-steam ahead with their new toy.
“He’s got something that we didn’t have, and that’s just electric speed,” Meyer said. “He also has a unique skill set where he’s extremely dynamic and fast, which we all now what that means in the game of football -- especially in an offense where you try to create space.
“He goes hard. We just have to point him in the right direction now.”
Based on the seasons leading up to it, the Buckeyes are clearly setting the course for something big with Wilson for the winter.
Not in the minds of the Buckeyes, who thought they could have fielded a much better all-around attack.
"I feel like last year we didn't play a complete game as an offense," running back Carlos Hyde said. "Some games it was all running, while others it was just passing."
Head coach Urban Meyer rarely seemed happy with the offensive production last year, outside of the running skills of Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller. He often expressed his dissatisfaction over a lack of speedy playmakers and an inconsistent passing game.
"I'd get frustrated," Meyer told ESPN.com. "But the bottom line is, name an offense that doesn't have guys who make people miss and are dynamic with the ball in their hands, and that's not a great offense. We don't have enough."
The names on offense haven't really changed much this spring. But the hope is that with another year of understanding the system, some improved throwing and catching and maybe some reinforcements from the recruiting class, the Buckeyes will come closer to fulfilling Meyer's vision of a truly great offense.
It all starts, of course, with Miller, whose efforts to become a more accurate passer this offseason have been well documented. Ohio State also needs continued development from its receivers, which is not a very deep group right now. Meyer singled out Corey "Philly" Brown, who led the team with 60 catches for 669 yards, as someone who's becoming one of those dynamic playmakers he's seeking.
"I've tried to work on my open-field running and body control so I could cut faster," Brown said. "It's really paying off for me right now."
Brown is the clear No. 1 receiver, but he needs more help. The team has only six scholarship receivers this spring, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he'd only feel comfortable playing four of them for a whole game. Devin Smith made some highlight-reel catches on deep balls early last year but was less effective down the stretch, as he had only 13 receptions in the final eight games.
"People, for lack of a better term, figured him out," Herman said. "He wasn't a very versatile guy. He did a couple of things really well, but the other things that he tried to do, he was very below average. He's starting to improve some of his weaknesses to be a more complete receiver, and he has a lot of physical tools and a great attitude."
Herman said Chris Fields has had a really good spring, and Evan Spencer is a reliable target. Sophomore Michael Thomas, the star of last year's spring game, has shown flashes of his talent but needs to progress in a lot of areas. Herman called the receiver depth "a bit scary right now." But the Buckeyes recruited several receivers in this year's class, including Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. They're hoping at least one or two contributes right away.
"You hate to count on [recruits] because they're usually overrated," Meyer said. "But that's why we went out and recruited them."
"We're not asking them to come in and be Jerry Rice," Herman said. "We just hope they can provide some depth and maybe add some skills that we don't currently have in that room right now."
One area certainly not lacking in depth is at running back, where Hyde returns after rushing for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Rod Smith is having a good spring, Warren Ball appears to be coming on and if sixth-year senior Jordan Hall can ever stay healthy, he'll provide lots of versatility. There was a buzz last week in practice when the Buckeyes lined up with Hyde, Smith and Ball in the same backfield with Miller in a formation Meyer cribbed from the San Francisco 49ers.
"That can give a bunch of trouble to defenses," Hyde said. "They just see three big backs in the backfield and a quarterback who can also run the ball. They don't know who's getting the ball or who's going where."
Ohio State's offensive players do know where they're going, which is different than last spring. Now in the second year of the system, Herman says he can teach his guys not just what to do but why they're doing it.
"It's not just the memorization of, 'OK, I have to line up on the left here,'" he said. "I could train a monkey to do that. What separates really good offenses from average to below-average offenses is all 11 guys understanding the big picture, the entire concept and scheme we're trying to accomplish. It's been nice to kind of dive into that with all of our players this spring."
Knowing how to change a route against a certain defensive look, for instance, should help the Buckeyes play faster this year. The coaches have challenged the players to be a Top 5 offense in the nation this year. That's a lofty goal, but remember that this team is starting from an already high level despite its flaws.
"I definitely think we can be one of the top offenses in the country if everybody takes care of business and is mistake free," Brown said.