They Are Marshall - A Preview

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They Are Marshall - A Preview

On Thursday night, the Ohio State Buckeyes will embark on the journey that is the 2010 season.  The Buckeyes take on Marshall out of Conference USA, a team most remembered for a plane crash, a broken shin, and a Mike-Nugent-field-goal shy of upsetting the Buckeyes in 2004.  Things are a little different this time, as the Buckeyes return a majority of starters from last season and will hope to be playing for the MNC in January.  But before the Scarlet and Gray start thinking about bowls played next year, they’ll have to get past a new look Marshall team lead by first year head coach Doc Holliday.

 Not this Doc Holliday

Not this Doc Holliday

On Thursday night, the Ohio State Buckeyes will embark on the journey that is the 2010 season.  The Buckeyes take on

 

 

Thursday Nights Are For Contenders

 As Jim Tressel likes to say, “September is for pretenders, and November is for contenders”.  For Ohio State, they’ll hope Thursdays are for contenders, as the Buckeyes open their season at home, under the lights, on a Thursday night for the first time in recent memory.  This will mark the first time since 1997 that the Buckeyes played a Thursday night game, a slot typically reserved for Big East and lower division teams.

 

Thursday night games are an interesting proposition, but typically to media deprived teams and conferences, as previously stated.  Gene Smith had the idea to grab the ESPN opening day slot and put his Buckeyes in the spotlight.  A funny thing happened when 16 matchups were also announced for Thursday night and ESPN picked up the Southern Miss at South Carolina hum-dinger instead.  That left the Buckeyes with a Big Ten Network slot in addition to the game being played while Fall Quarter isn’t in session and most people in attendance will be working the next day, let alone the visitors who typically travel 2.5 hours or more to see a game in the Shoe.

 

Fortunately, the Thursday time slot means you don’t have to wait 2 more days to start the football season. So there’s that.

 

Been Herd Before

The Buckeyes haven’t lost a season opener since 1978 (Penn State, 19-0) and don’t typically lose to non-BCS opponents, but there have been some close calls.  One close call was courtesy of the Marshall Thundering Herd in 2004, when a Mike Nugent field goal put a W in the win column of what would become a disappointing 2004 season for Ohio State.  By halftime of the 2004 opener, Justin Zwick connected for 3 TDs (2 to Santonio Holmes and 1 to Roy Hall) for 21 points and all were rejoicing, but Marshall put up 14 of their own on a short run and a fumble return for a touchdown.  After halftime adjustments, both defenses tightened and only 10 more points were scored.  Luckily for the Buckeyes, Mr Automatic Mike Nugent was called on with 2 seconds on the clock to save the day and break the tie…and Mike Tirico goes wild. 
Little did fans know that the close call against Marshall would be foreboding of the painful (by Ohio State standards) 8-4 season that would include losses to Northwestern and Purdue, but also the discovery of Troy Smith and Ted Ginn.

 

West Virginia Buffaloes

For those complaining about opening against 1-AA (FCS) and MAC teams, they will be happy to hear that Marshall has made the jump…or drop…to Conference USA since their last visit to Columbus.  They’ve also seen Bob Pruett retire, Mark Snyder get fired, and the hiring of John “Doc” Holliday. 

This IS Doc Holliday...terrified of the Horseshoe.

This IS Doc Holliday...terrified of the Horseshoe.

Mark Snyder rings a bell? He was the Ohio State defensive coordinator in 2004 (yes, that 2004) only to ‘move on’ to Marshall after 1 season of firing the Silver Bullets.  That whole ‘moving on’ didn’t work as well as hoped for the Herd, and announced Doc Holliday as the head coach on December 17, 2009.  He brings 31 years of coaching experience to his first head coaching position, including assistant positions at Marshall, West Virginia, NC State, and Florida.  That Florida stop just happened to be as an associate head coach and safeties coach between 2005 and 2007, and those historians among us might be able to piece together some events that transpired on January 8, 2007 between Florida and Ohio State.  However, unless Doc is bringing some evil mojo (or Gatorade) and Ron-Zook-recruited players from Florida, this should have little affect on Thursday night’s game.

Marshall does return Senior Brian Anderson from last season to run Marshall’s spread attack.  Anderson isn’t afraid to take to the air, passing for 2,646 yards and 14 TDs in 2009, but the Buckeye defense should be on its toes as he also threw 13 balls to wrong team.  Unless the Ghost of Anderson Russell starts haunting the safeties, the combination of a strong Buckeye defensive line and an experienced secondary should lead to a turnover or 3.  Ohio State starts and ends with its defense, and Marshall just won’t have the firepower to exploit the Buckeyes.

 

On defense, Doc Holliday sums up Marshall’s game plan as “hope and pray”, in regards to corralling Terrelle Pryor.  While “hope and pray” sounds good to Buckeye fans who like offensive fireworks, expect Holliday and his defensive coordinator Chris Rippon to have a real, live plan.  A detractor would say “pop in the Purdue tape”, but Marshall doesn’t have the defensive line of Purdue and if Marshall’s defensive line looks like it is playing on par with Ryan Kerrigan, start with your prayers on your holy rosary.  Marshall should look to, and may successfully, shut down the Ohio State power plays, but there will be no answer for an improved Terrelle Pryor, running and passing.  Marshall did have a Top 4 defense last season…in Conference USA.  While the Marshall defense should be able to pressure Pryor and make tackles, it won’t be for the full 60 minutes, and the Buckeyes should be able to take advantage.

 

The All Americans

“For us to mimic Ohio State is very hard. They’ve got All-Americans at every position,” Holliday said. “The speed is a little different.”

While not entirely true (Doc may not have a real Ph.D) but he is on to something.  It would be hard for Marshall to replicate the speed of Terrelle Pryor and the power of Cameron Heyward.  (I won’t mention the nastiness of Justin Boren, in fear of Justin Boren) Sprinkle in other future NFL draftees among the 15 starters back from last year’s Rose Bowl winning team and, well, you get the point.  There’s a reason Ohio State is carrying the #2 ranking into their opening game.

 

As Matt Hinton of Dr Saturday points out, “But as of the start of this season, this is the only team that checks off virtually all the boxes on the “preseason favorite” checklist.”  There aren’t a bunch of unknowns with this bunch.  With most Tressel coached teams, there are and will be few surprises.  For this Tressel coached team, the key to the National Championship is big time plays by its veteran players.  Consistency is important in title runs, but you don’t become a champion without some luck, as the 2002 team, nicknamed for better or worse The Luckeyes, will tell you.

 

Buckeye Newcomers

It wouldn’t be college football without the addition of impact freshman (true or redshirt).  If they’re going to bite, they’re going to bite as a pup.  The Buckeyes feature 3 true freshman on the two deep including Jonathan “Big Hank” Hankins at NT/DT, Christian Bryant at the Star, and Corey “Philly” Brown as the ‘OR’ 3rd or 4th receiver with Chris Fields (in addition to punt returns).  Drew Basil, also a true frosh, will be handling kick offs and backing up Senior Devin Barclay on field goals.

 

But you don’t have to be a freshman to make an impact, as Solomon Thomas, Andrew Sweat, and CJ Barnett hope to prove.  Andrew Sweat beat out Etienne Sabino in a high contested battle for the open linebacker spot vacated by Austin Spitler.  In the end, Sweat’s instincts are believed to have sealed the deal, but expect both to see the field often.  CJ Barnett came out of figurative nowhere to be listed as the starting strong safety over spring favorite and the team’s best athlete, Orhian Johnson.  Johnson has been limited in practice due to a hamstring issue and while Tressel stated that Barnett won the job outright, Johnson is expected to fight for a starting spot when healed.  Solomon Thomas, a RS junior is looking to make his first start and see his first significant playing time.  The junior is filling in for an injured Nathan Williams and has packed on the weight to translate his spring production to games that count.

 

Sure, Sure, Unsure

There are things that OSU does well, there are things that OSU does not so well, and then there is scoring touchdowns in red zone.  A conservative Jim Tressel, working with an inexperienced offense, will always play for the guaranteed points and the +4 differential on a touchdown is merely icing on the cake.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Buckeyes converted 25 of their 48 red zone possessions for 7 points in 2009 (roughly 50%) while settling for 3 points 13 of the remaining 23 tries.  In total, the Bucks were 38/48 in the red zone, for a 79.2% conversion rate.  Not bad for a Big Ten Championship winning , Rose Bowl winning team. 

 

But the Buckeyes have their sights set on running the table, and the best way to ensure that the ball bounces their way is by converting opportunities for points.  For example, Wisconsin scored on 54/58 (93.10%) attempts in the red zone, including 40 touchdowns and 11 field goals.  Texas scored on 53/58 (91.38%) attempts in the red zone, including 42 touchdowns and 14 field goals.  Alabama scored on 51/59 (86.44%) attempts in the red zone, including 28 touchdowns and 23 field goals.  The random sampling of 3 teams, chosen because they had high percentages than the Buckeyes, doesn’t mean that more conversion equal appearances in the National Championship game (just ask Wisconsin, undone by its defense and Scott Tolzien’s pick-6-fest).

 

For reference, Ohio State converted 85.19% of red zone trips into points in its 2006 championship run and 87.23% in its 2007 championship run.  Florida converted 91.18% in 2008.  LSU converted 93.33% in 2007.

Buffaloes Don’t Roam

Poe’s Prediction: Ohio State over Marshall - 38-6

This game should play out like the typical MAC outing, where the opponent puts up some points (6-10) and doesn’t let Ohio State score over 40.  Could Marshall call up the spirits of 2004 and hang with the Buckeyes?  Absolutely, but Terrelle Pryor and whoever is the RB are upgrades from Justin Zwick and Lydell Ross.  Heacock and Fickell are calling the shots on defense.  If you think Marshall has a shot, Vegas would like to disagree with you to the tune of 28.5 points.  Marshall was actually one of the more successful teams in college football in the 1990’s and they hope to be born again under Doc Holliday.  Unfortunately for the Herd, their rebirth, and brutal baptism, starts in front of 105,000 scarlet and gray clad fans and 22 of the best football players they will see the rest of the season.

 

The real story line will be what Terrelle Pryor brings to the table and whether or not he is able to build on his Rose Bowl MVP performance and not revert back to the beginning of the 2009 season.  From most accounts, Pryor is throwing the ball as well as he ever has in Columbus and the addition of the backs and TE (I said it) in the passing game should help him make better decisions.  There shouldn’t be any surprises on defense, but the Buckeyes may miss playmaker Kurt Coleman calling the shots from safety.  There’s no such thing as a warm-up game when you’re gunning for a championship, but this should be as close as it could come to one.

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