Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Still Up For Debate
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
Ever talk to yourself?
I used to wait tables many moons ago to pay for college – I only wish it could be that easy for my kids someday, but I digress – and a co-worker of mine used that phrase all the time when he would catch someone muttering to themselves or counting change out loud, or rehearsing how they were about to greet a table.
So we all do it, right?
Good. OK, I’m not insane.
Multitasking often leads to the practice of self-conversation, it seems. Still, my brain decided to take it to another level this week.
After watching a very spirited presidential debate on television but then shifting my thoughts back to my current job – trying to analyze this very head-scratching Ohio State football team – I found the two ideas morphed, which led my positive persona to argue against the negative reality of what I see from these Buckeyes right now.
Weird, I know.
I can’t say I was dreaming, more playing out how the two inner me’s would handle this debate. For the sake of recreation, let’s call my positive voice Skippy Rapp and the negative version Jeffrey Downer (not to be confused with Jeffrey Dahmer, who also went to Ohio State).
Here’s the way the showdown went down (and remember, I’m not crazy):
Skippy Rapp: You know, Jeff, you’re just like the rest of the cynics – never satisfied. That’s your problem. Ohio State won six games all of last year and has already won seven this fall with Urban Meyer at the controls. I know you’ve heard of Urban Meyer, Jeff. He held up two crystal trophies in a three-year span at Florida.
Jeffrey Downer: Oh, yeah, I remember him. He’s the guy whose Gators team made Ohio State’s offensive line and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback look overstocked on In-N-Out Burger when clobbered the Buckeyes, even though you said Ohio State went into that game as the clearly better team …
SR: … Still, how can you not give him credit for doing a masterful job now? The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll. One more 7 – hey, about seven touchdowns against Michigan – and you’ve hit the jackpot.
JD: Actually seven might not be enough, Skip. Did you watch the Nebraska game? Did you see OSU’s defense at Indiana? Can this team not sight ball-carriers when the lights are on? Even Saint Urban said it the other day: You can’t keep playing defense this way and think it’s not going to catch up with you. Where is the strong safety on the 59-yard run? Where is anybody on the 76-yard pass? Those are huge plays, Captain Sunshine.
SR: Whoa. Hold on there, Frownie. You’re implying the coaches aren’t working on it and don’t know what they’re doing. You’re saying Ohio State doesn’t have anyone who can play defense. Ever heard of John Simon and Johnathan Hankins? How about Bradley Roby? That kid looks like an All-American to me. I suppose Ryan Shazier has 65 tackles by accident.
JD: Granted, those are all talented players, but there are still too many holes out there. Too many breakdowns. Too many missed assignments, bad angles, poor tackle attempts. Where’s the pursuit? They keep talking about being Silver Bullets but the chamber is half-empty right now. When’s the last time a team ran wide and five defenders flowed to the football and piled on for the stop?
SR: Well, obviously, they are getting spread out. And it’s difficult to have more than a couple pursuers near the ball when these QBs are getting rid of the ball so quickly. And these offenses are pretty evolved these days. Kevin Wilson, Indiana’s coach, was probably the best offensive coordinator in the country when he was at Oklahoma. I mean, that guy has binders full of plays.
JD: Yeah, but here’s what’s so disturbing: The Hoosiers scored 49 points, racked up 481 yards of offense and compiled 26 first downs – and they did it in 23:06 of clock time. That’s right, Ohio State had the ball for 36:54, easily its best time-of-possession stat of the season, and still never put the game away. You realize we’re not talking about 2001 Miami or 1993 Florida State or even some gimmicky offense like at Boise State. This was Indiana, sir.
SR: Well, I’m going to have to check your math on that. Besides, those numbers don’t measure the most important stat of all – wins. They won the game. They slogged through a low-scoring game at Michigan State and won that 17-16. They lit up Nebraska and didn’t need to play great defense in that one. They struggled with Cal but came up with a backbreaking touchdown.
That’s why they keep moving up in the polls. Other teams are flawed as well but the Buckeyes are one of – what? – maybe a dozen teams that are undefeated to this point. I …
Moderator: Gentlemen, I’m going to stop you right there because there is another issue that developed this week and I’d like both of you to comment on it. Zach Boren, a longtime starter at fullback and a team co-captain, shifted over to defense at the behest of Coach Meyer last week and ended up leading the Buckeyes with eight tackles from his newfound linebacker position against Indiana. I’m just wondering if you see this as a positive or as perhaps troubling.
Mr. Rapp …
SR: Well, I think you know my position. What’s not to like about Zach Boren? He’s one of the most likable kids on this team, he’s a football player with toughness branded into him, and he’s a leader. Nothing wrong with a little shakeup, especially if it’s done in part to show all those freshmen linebackers what it takes at this level to make it on the field.
And I’ll add this: It’s refreshing to see a coach make a move like this in a season that can’t really go anywhere. The coaches are trying to set a framework for how they want the players to be: selfless, attentive, ready for action. Zach Boren encapsulates all those things and a remark against him is like a criticism of our troops.
JD: Huh? Easy there, Sgt. Happy. Anyone who thinks Zach Boren – a wonderful kid and a fine player, granted – moving over to play linebacker isn’t a clear sign of the fragile state of this defense just isn’t paying attention to the facts. Meyer said as much himself on Monday. And why are we suddenly in favor of outsourcing players? Should Urban check the waiver wire next and see who wants to transfer over from Chico State? Hey, I know, maybe Ben Buchanan should play some safety, too. He had a 6-yard run this year. …
SR: … You call it outsourcing and I call it job creation. This is what Urban does. He goes and looks for answers elsewhere and takes risks. He moved Mike Pouncey from guard to defensive line for a few games before letting him take over at center for his brother, Maurkice, at Florida. That worked out pretty well, by the way.
JD: It’s not job creation if it comes at the expense of someone else. Where is Curtis Grant? The kid was considered a stud LB in high school and started the season in the middle then disappeared.
SR: Meyer said Monday they are not giving up on Grant. Funny for you to pay attention to recruiting rankings when you usually decry such things. I remember you saying something skeptical of recruiting on the radio just the other day.
SR: Job creation!
Moderator: Gentlemen, gentlemen! OK, I’m going to need each of you to go back to your seat. Looks like I struck a nerve there. Let’s move on. We’ve spent time on pooling resources for defense but we haven’t really addressed the other side of the equation.
Mr. Downer, I’m going to go to you this time with a two-part question: Is this an offense built to move the ball on anyone and should Braxton Miller really be receiving this much recognition as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy?
JD: Well, an independent study recently showed that OSU ranks just 103rd in the nation in passing yards per game at 188.9, which is dead-last in the Big Ten.
SR: Here we go with a bunch of stilted figures again. If I can just interject, Ohio State actually has moved up to ninth in the conference in passing.
JD: May I please finish? Thank you.
JD: As I was saying, that’s not the way to go about it. Sure, the 263.6 yards rushing per game is more than respectable, good for eighth in the country, and I’m sure the coaches are happy to be averaging 40.4 points per game, which ranks 20th. My plan, however, would be for the passing game to be more diverse and be used to set up the run.
All this talk about Ohio State running a spread like it’s a new prescription for success is silly to me. We witnessed a similar policy in 2006 and you may recall that team was able to get the ball out to four, sometimes five wideouts in any down-and-distance and then popped Antonio Pittman through the gut of defenses for a 1,200-yard season.
Troy Smith was always a threat to run but he was at his best that season by staying in the pocket or creating from behind the line of scrimmage and hitting receivers with accurate passes. That’s why he was the best player in the country that year, because he developed as a passer, made everyone around him better and allowed the offense to be balanced and prosper.
Miller is having a very good year for a sophomore but he’s not close to that ’06 performance we saw out of Smith. He’s not consistently accurate and he doesn’t make good decisions sometimes. Plus, he’s the only Buckeye who is going to sniff a 1,000-yard season rushing the football and that’s not how you balance the budget, er, I mean offense.
SR: Wow, that comparison might work if this year’s team were built anywhere near the same, only it isn’t.
First of all, there’s no need to set up the run. The run is working. You, sir, want to develop multiple sources of energy when it is simply not necessary.
I agree with Mr. Downer that it would be ideal to have more than three receivers with double-digits in receptions to this point. See, I know a few numbers as well.
JD: Very good.
SR: Still, I like what I’m seeing with Zach Smith as receivers coach. Philly Br …
Moderator: … I’m sorry, Mr. Rapp, he likes to be referred to as Corey Brown.
SR: OK, that’s right. I’m still not sure why they would both want to be known as Corey, but anyway, Corey Brown has been a terrific possession receiver with 41 catches, Devin Smith is a big-play option with 21 catches. He’s averaging right around 21 yards per catch, which is fantastic. Jake Stoneburner has come back into the picture with 11 grabs. And then you’ve got four more guys with five catches.
JD: That’s not an impressive number, Goldilocks. And one of those guys is Boren, who may not play offense anymore. Plus, Smith still has a case of the dropsies, if you hadn’t noticed.
SR: Regardless, I see some good things with the passing game. See, I don’t merely use numbers to measure what’s wrong or what’s not up to snuff like my opponent here. I go with my gut, and my gut tells me Braxton is going to be just fine throwing the football going forward and this budget, er, offense will balance out over time.
Miller’s got 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions so far. That’s pretty good. He’s completing right around 60 percent of his passes. That’s pretty good. He’s third in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. That’s pretty good.
JD: Really? Comparing him to other mediocre QBs in the conference and using a system that barely takes into account total yardage?
SR: My point, folks, is that Miller is progressing at a more-than-adequate pace as a thrower and is the most dazzling runner in the country. The question was raised, is he a legitimate Heisman candidate and my answer is yes. My opponent didn’t even answer the question.
JD: Well, allow me to answer it. Not yet he’s not. I agree he’s on a good career path, but I have to believe more veteran players such as Matt Barkley and Montee Ball are going to get back into the picture and voters eventually are going to realize that Ohio State is not going to any postseason games, which is going to hamper him severely. He may get invited to New York, but …
SR: … isn’t that indicative of being a candidate?
Moderator: Mr. Skippy, I mean, Mr. Rapp, please allow Mr. Downer to finish.
JD: Thank you. I think it’s a down year for college football. There are just not that many great teams or standout players, in all honesty. Sometimes these things go in cycles and the American people have to be patient. Braxton Miller could possibly take advantage of the void and be named a finalist for the award but I see no way he wins it. Not this year anyway.
As for the offense’s effectiveness overall, I’m seeing Penn State on that schedule. I’m seeing an at Wisconsin. I’m seeing Michigan on Nov. 24. Again, those are not elite teams but they are well-coached enough to slow down the Buckeyes, make them one-dimensional, and cause their impending doom. I’d say at least one of those teams clips Ohio State by making this offense appear mortal and the defense, well, defenseless.
SR: I just have to disagree with that. There is no team left on this schedule that Ohio State can’t beat and therefore should not lose to. In fact, I would venture that the Buckeyes will be favored to win all of their remaining games.
JD: Maybe because they are overrated now, but they are still going to be in trouble here soon.
SR: When? I’m sure you don’t believe they are going to lose this week at home to Purdue with revenge on their minds. And Illinois is inept. That leaves your three noted games, Mr. Downtrodden, I mean Downer.
Urban Meyer is not going to go into Penn State and let the Buckeyes lose that game. I just don’t believe that in my heart. He isn’t going to go in there and feel sorry for anybody. And that game will be very similar to the Michigan State game, only likely not as close.
At Wisconsin could be tough, I grant you. But Bucky is going down. They haven’t solved their quarterback issue and that defense isn’t exactly scary. They’ve got two picks all season.
And you’re going to lean towards That School Up North coming into Ohio Stadium for what will be OSU’s bowl game? Are you delusional, sir? That is going to be an electric atmosphere.
JD: It’s the biggest rivalry in sports, and Michigan is starting to get in gear. Would the Wolverines be 7-0 and Ohio State be 4-2 if their schedules were traded out? I think so.
Moderator: OK, gentlemen, we are running very tight on time and I need a closing statement from each of you. Mr. Rapp, I’ll begin with you.
Skippy Rapp: Thank you. I believe I’ve made my case for why this is becoming a special year and why the Buckeyes are on their way to a 12-0 season. Luke Fickell is no novice, folks. He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation. You’re going to see new vigor and a fresh start with that unit beginning this weekend and Purdue is about to get squashed. Danny Hope and change, I don’t think so, Boilers.
Once Zach Boren plays another week alongside Ryan Shazier and a healthy Nate Williams returns, we will see Noah Spence continue to prosper up front and a secondary that will begin to take form.
The kicking game is solid, the running game is terrific, the offense is finishing off drives – 23 out of 30 scoring touchdowns in the red zone – and the coaching is top drawer.
My opponent will point out all the shortcomings, as he is known to do, but the bottom line is this form of football government has produced seven wins in seven weeks and will continue to thrive. Thank you. O-H!
Moderator: I-O! Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to get carried away. Mr. Downer, your turn.
Jeff Downer: Well, I can see I’m outnumbered here, but I pride myself on leveling with Buckeye Nation and not skewing the facts. The truth is an 11-1 or 10-2 season should be celebrated given the turmoil this program has undergone in the last couple years, and that’s exactly where we are headed.
It won’t resemble the daunting recession of last year, in which we saw the Buckeyes lose seven games for the first time since the Great Collapse of 1897, but fans need to brace for the fact that defeat is coming.
The defense has been a sieve, mistakes on special teams are mounting, and the passing game, while much improved, is not sophisticated enough for this team to expect to maneuver through the remaining landmines. Urban Meyer can “love” this team all he wants because of the important first steps it is taking, but he knows deep down it is not well-constructed and certainly not deep enough to even compare to his best outfits or the more successful ones at Ohio State.
You may admire my opponent’s optimism as I do, but don’t be fooled into believing he has laid out a path to perfection. It simply isn’t going to happen.
I’ve been serving the followers of this program for a long time and I have covered several great teams including the undefeated squad of 2002, and this folks, is not 2002.
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.