September 22, 2012

Buckeyes survive again with up-and-down play

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The first words spoken to Urban Meyer in his postgame press conference on Saturday were telling.

"I can't figure your team out," a reporter prefaced, before asking Meyer his question.

But what was perhaps more telling than the statement was the response that it drew.

"I'm with you," the Ohio State head coach said.

The Buckeyes had just come off of a 29-15 win- their fourth in as many games- and will head into next weekend's Big Ten opener against Michigan State undefeated. Yet given that OSU's latest win came against UAB, whom came into the game as a 37-point underdog, more questions asked of Meyer dealt with what went wrong rather than what went right on Saturday.

And although he's never one to talk down his opposition, it was clear that Saturday's far-from-dominant victory left the first-year OSU coach with the impression that something is wrong with his team.

"We seem like a very passive team," Meyer said. "We've got a long way to go."

After getting off to a slow start in its season-opener against Miami (OH), the only thing that's remained consistent about this OSU team has been its inconsistency. In each of their four games this season, the Buckeyes have had moments where it has looked like a top-25 caliber team with some of the best talent in the nation- which it is- and also a team coming off of a 6-7 season that is still learning a new offensive scheme under a first-year head coach- which it is.

In any given sequence, the Buckeyes can look lethargic, putting together uninspired three-and-out drives before punting the ball back to their opposition- as they did five times on Saturday. They can also put up numbers in bunches in a short amount of time- as they did on Saturday when they scored 21 points in the span of less than six minutes in the second quarter.

Slow and scoreless first quarter starts in the Buckeyes' wins over Miami and UAB have only added to their enigmatic identity, and is something that OSU quarterback Braxton Miller would like to see come to an end.

"We're not coming out with enough energy. Somebody's got to get our energy to rise," Miller said. "Our mindset isn't where it needs to be at the start of the game."

Although clearly the team's offensive MVP through the first third of the season, Miller's play hasn't exactly help define the OSU offense. After attempting 44 rushes in the Buckeyes' first two games, Miller has carried the ball just 23 times in the team's final two out-of-conference games.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that OSU's two most recent games have been its closest. In fact, Meyer last week admitted that he was worried that he had gotten in his quarterback's head about when to run and when not to, but on Saturday reiterated that he'll use Miller however he needs to in order to win a game.

"He's going to play quarterback in a spread offense and we're going to do what we're going to go do to win a game," Meyer said of Miller. "He's got to play better, too. We've all got to play better."

It's not just the OSU offense that makes it to difficult to figure out just what to make of this year's squad. After holding their first two opponents to an average of 332 yards per game, California and UAB combined to gain an average of 457.5 yards against the Buckeyes. The OSU defense has struggled in multiple facets of games, giving up big plays through the air, and failing to bring ball-carriers to the ground on consistent basis.

"It's hard to pinpoint one thing we have to get better at," Meyer said. "But tackling is something we'll continue to- that's the fundamental, that's the essence of tackle football- and we've got to continue to improve."

In fairness to the Buckeyes' defense, they have been bitten by the injury bug a bit with starters Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier, Michael Bennett, Nathan Williams, C.J. Barnett, and Travis Howard all having missed various lengths of time throughout their first four games. Meyer, however, isn't a big fan of excuses, and it's apparent that his players aren't either when it comes to shoring up what has been a consistently inconsistent unit this season.

"As a team, we want to keep it on and keep our foot on the pedal and just go," defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said. "Sometimes, stuff doesn't go our way."

Yet despite the current question marks surrounding this team, the fact remains that the Buckeyes are sitting with the best possible record that they can have heading into conference play. But can they leave East Lansing next week with a 5-0 record if they give a performances similar to the ones that they've given in recent weeks? That remains to be seen.

"Right now, this is not a good effort," Hankins said. "We were talking in the locker room and we need to get prepared for Michigan State and that's where our focus is."


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