The Big Ten season has concluded, and Ohio State's on top of the standings.
While Illinois and Wisconsin still have some non-conference action to attend to, this past weekend's games marked the end of the regular season for most of the teams in the league, and (sadly) marks the end of another season of "Carrying On".
If you need to step away from your computer to shed a tear or five, now's the time.
Ahem...moving right along...
As always, we start with the spotlight game.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: OHIO STATE 21, MICHIGAN 10
Five things I learned during a relatively dull Buckeyes-Wolverines clash:
1. Brandon Graham is incredible
The senior defensive end put on a clinic in a losing cause Saturday, including back-to-back plays you had to see to believe. With Ohio State trying to extend a 14-10 lead, the Buckeyes drove into the red zone and had 1st-and-goal at the Michigan 2-yard line.
That's when OSU running back Daniel Herron met Brandon Graham.
Make that 2nd-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
Graham followed up his impressive tackle for loss with another one...on the very next play. Pryor took the snap, tried to buy his receivers some time, and found himself wrestled to the ground eight yards behind the line of scrimmage.
All of a sudden, Brandon Graham had single-handedly driven the Buckeyes back 10 yards in two plays as they were headed for a touchdown that would have broken the game open.
That's a potentially season-changing series right there.
2. You can't design and execute a play any better than the Ohio State screen pass from Pryor to Herron
If Bill Belichick going for fourth down in his own half of the field was a compliment to Peyton Manning, Ohio State's 3rd-down screen call was a compliment to Brandon Graham.
Translation: if you can't block him, quit trying.
With the Bucks facing 3rd-and-goal from the 12, Ohio State invited the rush, dumped a screen pass to Herron, and watched him waltz into the end zone with the afternoon's most critical touchdown. The play was set up perfectly, as at least eight Wolverines defenders found themselves behind Herron and out of position while he raced for paydirt.
I was also impressed with the way Pryor threw the pass. He didn't lob it too high and allow a defender time to read the play and react, but at the same time he put enough air on the ball to get it over all the oncoming rushers (and believe me, there were a lot of oncoming rushers).
Compare Pryor's textbook throw to Ben Chappell's attempted screen in the fourth quarter against Purdue. Same play, but Chappell didn't put any air on the ball, and Boilermaker defensive lineman Kawann Short jumped up and caught the ball like it was thrown right at him (because it was).
When the screen is called, the quarterback is inviting pressure from everywhere, and Pryor showed his talent by handling the rush perfectly and making the throw that basically won the game look easier than it really was.
3. Oh my goodness! It's the zone read!
I fall into the camp that believes if Ohio State coach Jim Tressel were to call the zone read every offensive snap, the Buckeyes could probably be national champions. I admit that part of this belief is because that's how I tend to use Tressel's squad when I attack opponents on my PlayStation 2.
However, I've also seen how easily Pryor can chew up yardage in real life when the defense is forced to react to his pitch/fake pitch. Against Purdue (in the Buckeyes' only conference loss), Ohio State scored easily on the zone read in the first quarter and then (inexplicably) barely considered reprising the play the rest of the game.
So imagine my considerable glee, surprise, shock, amazement, awe, wonder, and baffled enjoyment (sorry for the over-abundance of descriptive terms...suffice it to say that I was really, really surprised!) when Pryor and his backfield buddies Brandon Saine and Boom Herron ran the zone read with a good amount of regularity against Michigan.
Oh, and one small editorial "I told you so" detail:
The Buckeyes outrushed Michigan 251-80, with Herron, Saine, and Pryor alternating to do the damage. The Wolverines had no answer for the Buckeyes' backfield talent, and every time Ohio State needed a positive gain, they had the luxury of pulling out the "Old Faithful" option play.
Bottom line: if I were the Oregon or Oregon State coach game-planning for the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, I'd expect to see a lot more of the zone read. (Of course, if it's Oregon, they run the read option better than anyone, so I doubt they need a ton of practice defending it...imagine lining up across from Jeremiah Masoli in practice every single day!)
4. What a great day to be Justin Boren
Boren was obviously a big storyline in this edition of the Ohio State-Michigan game because he transferred to Columbus from Ann Arbor after the 2007 season. (Talk about a highly-publicized transfer: the only other person who's gotten that much attention for switching sides was the House Republican who voted for Obama's health care policy!)
Anyway, Boren had to put up with the inevitable heckling at the Big House, but he left with the last laugh. Not only did his Buckeyes win the game—and the outright conference title--but they did it with a powerful ground game, led by Boren and his mates on the offensive line.
Ohio State gained 15 of its 18 first downs by rushing the football, a stat that would have made old-timers Woody and Bo proud. (Okay, so Woody would have been proud and Bo would have been furious, but you know what I mean.)
I'm guessing while Boren didn't enjoy what he was hearing during the game from the fans, he had to love what he heard afterwards...
5. Has Tate Forcier regressed?
Remember those Forcier-for-Heisman signs we saw in September? With the Wolverines finishing in the Big Ten cellar, they're long gone. The confident playmaker that pulled off dramatic last-second drives to beat Notre Dame and tie Michigan State has been replaced by a reckless gunslinger that appears to have checked his decision-making skills at the door.
The most egregious example? Down 21-10 with just over eight minutes to play, Forcier panicked and tried to force a ball on 2nd-and-5 from the Ohio State 6-yard line, directly resulting in a Devin Torrence interception.
In that situation, it's imperative that the quarterback consider the time and score. The Wolverines were in chip-shot field goal range, and with the three points in his back pocket, Forcier can't even consider a risky throw that might cost his team a turnover. The nearly-sure-thing field goal would have made it 21-13 and brought Michigan within a single possession while more than eight minutes (an eternity in football) remained on the clock.
A smart quarterback throws it out of bounds or (worst case) takes a sack, setting up a third-down play in the red zone and keeping the field goal as a solid back-up scenario.
A freshman does what Tate Forcier did.
MAYBE BROADCASTING ISN'T SO IMPORTANT
No announcer quotes this week. Instead of our usual feature where we make good-natured fun of television broadcasters and the silly things that come out of their mouth, I want to use this column space to pay tribute to Stefanie Spielman , who passed away last week after a long fight with cancer.
Stefanie left behind husband Chris (a former Ohio State and NFL linebacker and current ESPN announcer) and four children. From her obituary :
Stefanie Lynn Spielman, age 42 of Upper Arlington, Ohio went home to be with God on Thursday, November 19, 2009. Her deep and abiding faith in her Lord, Jesus Christ sustained her, gave her peace, and the assurance that she would spend eternity with Him. She touched many lives reflecting God's goodness, grace, and love to all that knew her.
I offer my condolences and prayers (as I know Big Ten fans everywhere do) to the Spielman family at this difficult time.
MAYBE PROGNOSTICATING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
On a lighter tone now...time for some shameless self-promotion. In case you missed it, I wrote a column in the middle of August predicting the result of every game of the season. I also wrote a sentence or two about each game with some details (mostly silly, a few serious).
I've enjoyed going back and reading how close (or usually, how far off) I was as each game has played out.
With only three regular-season games left for Big Ten teams, it's time to look back and see how I did.
...and the verdict is: not so bad!
My record (the best I could calculate) is a respectable 60-25, for a winning percentage of 70.6%. Considering I wrote this entire column three months ago, before injuries to stars like Jewel Hampton and Eric Decker, I don't think that's all that horrible. For comparison's sake, ESPN blogger Adam Rittenberg has been making picks every weekend up until now and he's one game better, 61-24, on the season.
My biggest mistake: assuming the Illini's talent on paper equaled offensive success.
My proudest moment: correctly tabbing Central Michigan to upset the Spartans in East Lansing.
My biggest mistake, part two: picking Western Michigan to go 2-1 against the Big Ten.
My proudest moment, part two: picking the exact regular-season record of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and Purdue.
THANK GOODNESS FOR MY DVR
Did you see Brandon Saine's run where dragged tacklers for about 15 yards? I think there were 13 Wolverines hanging on him as he continued to motor downfield...
What about the nasty hit Minnesota's Ryan Collado put on James Vandenberg when he came unblocked up the middle?
Loved the touchdown grab by Garrett Graham against Northwestern, double-covered in the end zone...
Speaking of amazing touchdown catches, Charlie Gantt's diving first-half score was amazing..
After twelve weeks of "Thank Goodness for my DVR", what do you think was the best play of the entire season? I'd love to hear your comments!
Last, but not least, thanks to each of you who have faithfully read Carrying On every week during the season - let's do it again in 2010! Or, you can follow me on Twitter and we'll talk sports year-round!