Ohio State: This One Counts
By Matt Natali
COLUMBUS, Ohio — This week has been in the making for Ohio State for more than two years.
After a one-year suspension from postseason play and a ban from BCS Bowl competition, the Buckeyes are primed under second-year head coach Urban Meyer to take the field as the No. 2-ranked team in the country for a game that actually counts.
Coming off an undefeated 2012 campaign, Ohio State (0-0, 0-0) welcomes MAC opponent Buffalo (0-0, 0-0) to Columbus at noon Saturday for one of the most anticipated seasons in recent Buckeyes history.
“I want us to play well and I want us to play clean,” Meyer said in his weekly press conference Monday. “Fundamentally, we were 12-0 (last season) and some really great things happened — some incredible leadership, motivation and a team that got really, really close, which is probably more important than everything. Not probably — it is.
“I'm hoping that we leave that field Saturday, obviously with a win, but you feel good about the fundamentals of your football team. If you do that, that's a real positive.”
Buffalo was a lackluster 4-8 last season, including 3-5 in conference play. The Bulls lost the season opener last year to Georgia, 45-23. The Bulldogs essentially were one play away from the BCS championship game. Buffalo suffered through a six-game losing streak and won three of its last four games.
While not the most imposing opponent to kick off the season, Meyer is not overlooking Buffalo.
“I think they play extremely hard and they have good players,” he said. “That staff has been together, also. It's not an unprepared team, so I think that it's a good team, with good players, and a unique scheme that's hard on offense.”
Buffalo has had only one winning season since 1996. The Bulls went 8-6 in 2008.
For The Record
Meyer faced Buffalo in his second game as a head coach at Bowling Green in 2001 — also his second game ever as an FCS head football coach — and defeated the Bulls 35-0.
Despite the program’s shortcomings on the gridiron for the better part of 20 years, keep an eye on Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (6-3, 248). The senior holds the school record for tackles for loss (56), forced fumbles (11) and boasts 18 career sacks. He is on the 2013 watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award and Butkus Award.
Some NFL draft experts project Mack as a late first-round pick.
“They have a really, really good linebacker,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “He is an extremely, extremely talented player, so he poses some matchup issues that we'll have to game plan for.”
Most recruiting services ranked Ohio State's 2013 class in the Top 5 nationally, and it appears many of those youngsters will get on-the-field experience early.
In the depth chart released early in the week, six freshmen on offense, nine on defense and two on special teams are listed in the two-deep and the buzz around camp this season has focused on running back Dontre Wilson (5-10, 180).
“(Wilson is) going to touch the ball. We’d be foolish not to have him touch the ball,” Herman said about Wilson playing on Saturday. “I think that you have to be careful with a true freshman that has to play some running back, has to play some wide receiver, has to flex out and run routes, yet be in the backfield and run plays.”
Meyer said that Wilson will “return the opening kickoff of the 2013 Ohio State football team” Saturday and added that fellow freshman running back Ezekiel Elliot (6-0, 218) and defensive end Joey Bosa (6-6, 275) “for sure will play.”
Next Man Up
With preseason-projected starting running back Carlos Hyde on the shelf for the first three games of the season due to some off-the-field transgressions in July and junior ball-toter Rod Smith sidelined for disciplinary reasons as well, 2012 captain Jordan Hall will be taking the handoffs Saturday.
“Jordan Hall is the best running back on our team right now,” Meyer stated confidently, “and so he'll have to lose that spot. I'm talking next week, the week after, whatever. He’s a tailback at Ohio State, and he’s earned that right.
“Jordan is a little smaller but he is arguably one of the tougher guys pound-for-pound on our team.”
Meyer said sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball are next in line, with Elliot not far behind.
Junior quarterback Braxton Miller begins his bid at a Heisman Trophy on Saturday behind four seniors on the offensive line (LT Jack Mewhort, LG Andrew Norwell, C Corey Linsley, RG Marcus Hall) and highly-touted sophomore Taylor Decker at right tackle. Coupled with the depth at the running back position and — oh yeah — his talent, Miller is an early preseason pick to be invited to New York come December.
Miller, who was 148-of-254 passing for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns with six interceptions last season, adding 1,271 yards on 227 carries and 13 more scores, has made strides in his second season in the system.
“Fundamentally he’s a much different player than he was at this time a year ago,” Meyer said of his signal caller. “Pocket presence, which includes (breakdowns) and getting plus yardage — (he was) not a very good scrambler. Most of his yards last year were on design quarterback runs and maybe a play that got screwed up.
“He was not a very good scrambler. He's much improved.”
Ohio State will send eight new defensive starters out on the field Saturday (All-American CB Bradley Roby is suspended one game for disciplinary reasons as well). While talented, the unit lacks game experience and is a concern for a team that is in the discussion for the national championship.
“Hopefully we put them in the toughest situations they could possibly have been in,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of his unit. “They have grinded through some great things — played in some great competition day-in and day-out; the offensive line that we have played against, the quarterback that we played against, the tailbacks we've played against. We want those guys to feel confident in what they are doing, go out, let their actions speak and play the game of football.”
Junior linebacker Curtis Grant is listed as the starter at the Mike position despite suffering a concussion in preseason camp.
Man of ‘Steal’
Ohio State locked up its first commitment to the 2015 recruiting class earlier in the week when Canton (Ohio) McKinley athlete Eric Glover-Williams (5-11, 165) pledged the Buckeyes. Glover-Williams, nicknamed ‘Superman,' is a four-star prospect and also had offers from Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and West Virginia.
At quarterback last season, Glover-Williams was 75-of-154 passing for 1,114 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 1,574 yards on 243 carries and 22 scores. He projects as either a running back or corner in college.
Prediction: Ohio State 67, Buffalo 10