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MEET YOUR FRONTRUNNER: OHIO STATE

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There's one area this year in which Ohio State has been consistently terrible: kick returns. The Buckeyes average under 17 yards per return, worst in the nation, with a single return over 30 yards and none over 40.

This could be because OSU intensely misses Ted Ginn. Or, more likely, a simple lack of opportunity: the Buckeyes have only returned 16 kickoffs in eight games, by far the fewest in the country (the only team even close to so few returns, Kansas, actually leads the nation in return average), which is just a cross to bear, I guess, for any team that leads the nation in scoring defense, total defense and pass efficiency defense, that ranks second against the run and has held seven of eight opposing offense to seven points or less.

I-A Offenses' Departure from Season Average vs. OSU
Points Total Yards Yds./Play
AKRON -18.5 -219.6 -3.1
WASHINGTON -13.0 + 8.5 -1.1
NORTHWESTERN* -27.9 -330.9 -4.0
MINNESOTA -22.8 -161.3 -2.0
PURDUE -28.8 -162.3 -2.0
KENT STATE -18.3 -124.3 -1.8
MICHIGAN STATE* -27.4 -150.6 -2.4
Average -22.4 -162.9 -2.3

* - Northwestern scored on a kickoff return and Michigan State on two defensive touchdowns, included in season scoring averages but not in points vs. OSU.
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Carl Bonnell's H*i*m*n moment was on 4th-and-13 at the OSU 32, with Washington hopelessly trailing at home, 27-7, with about a minute to play, when he hit Marcel Reese for a 25-yard gain that put Washington over its season average in total yards against the Buckeyes. It took a while to get there, but no other team has come anywhere near the outer limits of the adjacent zip code to its typical output, so we have to assume it was a titanic effort on the part of Bonnell and Reese and the spirits of great Huskies past filling them with the desire to persevere for one last, meaningless touchdown (which U-Dub got two plays later to cut the final to a slightly misleading 27-14).

As a matter of fact, while we're reviewing historic lows for Minnesota's defense and Notre Dame's offense, there's this to note about the Buckeyes:

Best Defenses by Year, 2000-07
Year Team Yds. Allowed/Game Yds./Play
2000 TCU 245.0 3.8
2001 Texas 236.2 3.8
2002 TCU 240.3 3.6
2003 LSU 252.0 4.02
2004 N.C. State 221.4 3.5
2005 Virginia Tech 247.6 4.1
2006 Virginia Tech 219.5 3.8
2007 Ohio State 208.5 3.3

Someone wrote me and wanted to point out that the Buckeyes had forced more punts this season (73) than they had allowed points (63, including the non-offensive scores), so throw that in there, too.

This may or may not mean anything for the next month, or beyond it, to the mythical championship. It's not possible to overlook the relative wimpiness of that schedule - of the seven I-A opponents, there are three wins against teams with winning records, those three teams with two wins over teams with winning records, those two with just one win over a team with a winning record, and so on - and it's not like Ohio State is foreign to the position of poll frontrunner, assumed for part of 1995, most of 1998 and all of last year by great teams that fell short of the mythical championship. The 2002 team that won the crystal ball was never number one and was so unimpressive at times on its route to the Fiesta Bowl that there was even some wistful chatter that one-loss Georgia or Iowa might be more deserving.


Boeckman: Better than you think. So far.
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This team seems to most closely resemble that one in philosophy, for obvious reasons, but is possibly better in every phase (excluding kick returns, of course). Certainly it's showed more alpha, throat-stomping killer instict than never-say-die will. Todd Boeckman is a beacon of efficiency but also, contrary to the lo-fi reputation of Tressel Ball, the national leader in yards per attempt touchdown percentage - a number, remember, that goes an awfully long way to winning football games - with Brian Robiskie his unsung bombing partner at 19.7 yards per catch and seven touchdowns, four of them longer than 25 yards. Chris Wells you know, in the role of a non-flakey-criminal Clarett, and the defense you know. The whole general pastiche, run-run-run-run-bomb-defense-special teams-run-run-run-defense-kill-kill-kill-etc, you know. The regular season winning streak, now at 26 games, that you probably know, too.

We do not know yet whether all that is a mirage born of schedule that, at year's end, more likely than not will fail to feature an opponent ranked in the top 20. Right now, the concern is only that the schedule to date has either inflated OSU's dominance or somehow left it unprepared for the unquestionably stiffer stretch run; because this is Ohio State, after all, there is none of the skepticism currently hounding its fellow unbeatens about OSU's legitimacy as a mythical championship contender or its chances of securing a spot . Ohio State doesn't need any help - we're all aware of the scenario here: if the Buckeyes win, they're in, whatever the proven merits of Arizona State or Boston College at the end of the year.

The general consensus seems to be that Penn State will be the first team to challenge the premises, so to speak, on the same field OSU last lost in the regular season two years ago, but after watching the Lions against Indiana, I find this dubious - Jay Paterno and Anthony Morelli, against the defense of the decade? I should note that I've barely seen snap one of Ohio State, and might find some of the hyperbole suggested by the numbers equally sketchy, as I did with last year's defense, right up to the point I picked it to stifle Florida for the championship. This closing month, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, it may be the best the Big Ten has to offer, but it's not much. All four of those teams have played two consecutive, head-slappingly bad games at some point already this season. So if Ohio State really is all that, I'm not sure we'll know it before January. And by that time, well, you know.