Talented Buckeyes must patch O-line, secondary
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- So Urban Meyer and his wife were coming back from the victory at rival Michigan last season, and he turned and asked a question.
"In your wildest dreams, could you have imagined we’d win our first 24 games at Ohio State?" he said.
Shelley Meyer thought a second and then replied, "Honey, you’re not in my wildest dreams."
Regardless of whether that tale, told by Meyer at a women’s clinic this summer, is true, there’s no question that he could hardly believe his tenure with the Buckeyes opened with two dozen wins -- or that last season would close with two painful losses.
Now 2014 beckons with a couple of units needing major overhauls -- and a franchise quarterback in Braxton Miller returning for a final hurrah.
WHAT NEEDS WORK: The offensive line, perhaps the strength of Meyer’s first two Ohio State teams, lost four of five starters. Unfamiliar names fill the two-deep.
"We’ve got six or seven guys that we like," line coach Ed Warinner said. "We just have to see where we go from here."
Meyer and his staff blew up the pass defense after it was shredded by Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Now the Buckeyes will play press coverage with a rotation of cornerbacks in hopes of limiting completions over the top and underneath.
"That’s not a concern," safety Vonn Bell said of the secondary. "I’m not concerned and they (the fans) shouldn’t be."
THREE-PEAT? Miller, a two-time winner of the Big Ten’s top player award, missed all of the spring after surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder. He said he had some soreness after the first week of fall camp and was held out.
"I’ve dealt with guys with arm issues before, and we’re being very cautious," Meyer said. "He could have practiced but we’re in it for the long haul. He’s right on schedule."
Miller may figure in the Heisman race and should set most of Ohio State’s QB records -- if he’s healthy through that long haul.
IT’S WHAT’S UP FRONT: The O-line may have doubters, but the D-line doesn’t.
Tackle Michael Bennett (7 sacks) is the only senior on a young unit full of blue-chippers. First-team All-Big Ten end Noah Spence (8 sacks), Joey Bosa (7.5) and Adolphus Washington should be good enough to lend a giant helping hand to the inexperienced secondary.
MISSING MR. HYDE: Carlos Hyde was suspended for the first three games of his senior season in 2014 and still piled up 1,527 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Now Ohio State will rely on several backs to fill his sizable cleats: sophomores Ezekiel Elliott, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball, fifth-year senior Rod Smith and freshman Curtis Samuel.
All have pluses and minuses. Still, the four veterans combined for a little over a quarter of the yards last year that the bruising Hyde provided.
ALL EYES ON MSU: A lot can happen before the calendar turns to November, but Buckeyes fans are already focused on the Nov. 8 meeting with the Spartans in East Lansing, Michigan.
The 10th-ranked Spartans ended No. 2 Ohio State’s school-record winning streak and knocked it out of the national championship game with a 34-24 win in the Big Ten title game.
The 2014 showdown figures to loom large for both teams, well aware that the winner is in the driver’s seat of the conference’s new East Division race.
Still, Meyer said, "There’s zero conversation about tomorrow or November."
That’s only a topic in his dreams.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It wasn’t until November last year -- after Michigan State pounded rival Michigan -- that the idea of the Spartans playing in the Rose Bowl started to feel like a serious possibility.
This season, coach Mark Dantonio’s team won’t have the luxury of remaining under the radar.
"You’re always trying to I think build on things you’ve been able to accomplish and we are trying to do that," Dantonio said. "But we have got to handle success, and I guess that’s been one of the main focuses or topics here."
The Spartans went undefeated in the Big Ten last year, which was a surprising rise after the team could hardly move the ball on offense during the first couple games of the season. The question now is whether Michigan State can handle heightened expectations. Dantonio’s program has always seemed to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder. That’s an attitude that has served Michigan State well recently, but will the Spartans be able to maintain that hunger after everything they accomplished last season?
"We still feel that we need to prove ourselves nationally," defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. "Nationally, we don’t still feel like we’re respected in the way that we should. And maybe we shouldn’t be respected that way because we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. That’s our goal. Try to be consistent."
Here are five things to watch as the Spartans try to repeat as Big Ten champions -- and possibly secure a berth in the four-team playoff for the national championship at season’s end:
COOK’S POTENTIAL: After being named the starting quarterback early in the season, Cook looked more comfortable as the year went on. He finished with 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and with that extra experience under his belt, he could help Michigan State’s offense reach another level in 2014.
TOUGH DIVISION: After the latest realignment of the Big Ten, Michigan State is now in the same division as Ohio State, the team the Spartans beat in the conference title game last year. It figures to be a spirited race in the East Division, which also includes Michigan and Penn State.
Michigan State hosts Michigan on Oct. 25, then has a weekend off before hosting Ohio State on Nov. 8. The Nebraska game Oct. 4 is also at home, but the regular-season finale against Penn State is on the road.
NONCONFERENCE SHOWDOWN: Before Michigan State even begins its defense of the Big Ten title, the Spartans will play a marquee September game at Oregon. The Ducks’ formidable, quick-paced offense should be quite a test for a Michigan State defense that was among the nation’s best last year.
REPLACING STANDOUTS: Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone from that terrific defense, and so are defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. Calhoun will likely be the center of attention on that side of the ball after he had 7 1/2 sacks a season ago.
"He’s done a great job from the leadership standpoint," Dantonio said. "I think actually his personality, when he has meetings and such, he likes to have a good time and he keeps things fun for our players. He’s always sort of up. I really don’t ever see Shilique down in the dumps."
RUNNING HARD: Although it took Cook a little while to grow into his role at quarterback, Jeremy Langford turned in a remarkable 2013 season as the team’s top running back, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Langford had eight straight 100-yard games during one stretch, capped by a 128-yard performance in the win over Ohio State.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin slams on the brakes of his speeding golf cart, which comes to a screeching, skidding stop, and causes a few of the people in the small crowd milling around just inside Beaver Stadium to practically jump out of their shoes.
Franklin lets out a big laugh as he gets out of the cart.
Penn State’s new coach believes in emphatically announcing his arrival. He’s done just that since taking over in January, injecting his in-your-face enthusiasm into the program and cleaning up on the recruiting trail.
The toughest part is next. The Nittany Lions are still recovering from NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that included a massive reduction in scholarships. They are also still banned from postseason play.
Penn State lacks depth and experience throughout the roster, and is painfully thin at linebacker and along the offensive line.
There is also some front-line talent and potential spread around the Nittany Lions’ depth chart, including one of the most promising quarterbacks in the country in Christian Hackenberg.
Here are five things to know heading into Year 1 of the James Franklin era at Penn State, one filled with much hope for the long-term and a fair amount of concern for the short-term:
HACK LEADS THE PACK: Hackenberg started every game for Penn State as a freshman and played about as well as could be expected for someone whose first practice with the team came in August. He threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.
"Getting that first spring under my belt was good," Hackenberg said. "Feel like the meetings and studying the film and studying the playbook all summer has really helped my confidence, and our team’s confidence."
The challenge for Hackenberg is to improve while mastering a new offense in the transition from former coach Bill O’Brien’s system to Franklin’s.
"But he’s been great and I think the parallels and the similarity between the way Billy (O’Brien) does things and the way we do things has been really helpful," Franklin said.
TIGHT END U. The departure of star wide receiver Allen Robinson leaves Hackenberg looking for a new favorite target. There’s talent and speed among the wide receivers, but not much experience.
"I actually think where a lot of the makeup for the production that we lost will come from the tight end position," Franklin said. "I believe that that’s where we have the most veteran players."
Juniors Jesse James (25 catches, 333 yards) and Kyle Carter (18, 222) are two of the Big Ten’s best, and coaches are already talking about freshman Mike Gesicki as player who can contribute immediately.
The position took a hit this week with the announcement that talented sophomore Adam Breneman has an undisclosed injury and will need season-ending surgery, but if there is one place Penn State can sustain that type of loss it’s at tight end.
PRIME TIME FOR DEION: Defensive end Deion Barnes had a so-so sophomore season in 2013 after showing glimpses of stardom as a redshirt freshman. The Nittany Lions need the 255-pound junior to become one of the Big Ten’s best pass rushers in 2014, and have plans to help him do that.
"We are going to make teams put you in a position where the weak person is going to protect you whether it’s a running back or the weakest pass protectors, things like that, put him in a position to make plays," defensive coordinator John Shoop said.
SANCTIONS: Penn State got some relief from the scholarship sanctions last year, creating hope on campus that the NCAA might also decrease a four-year bowl ban that has two years left.
DUBLIN BOWL: For now, Penn State’s bowl game will be at the start of the season when it plays Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.