Ohio State took a huge step forward in its quest for an eighth national title with a 36-24 victory over Miami on Saturday. However, it also became clear that the Buckeyes have taken a huge step backward in special-teams play.
In 13 games last season, Ohio State’s special teams surrendered only one return touchdown and held their opponents to an average of 21.2 yards per kickoff return and 5.4 yards per punt return. They allowed only three returns of 40 yards or more.
Through two games this season, the Buckeyes special teams has given up three times as many touchdowns as the defense and has already allowed four returns of at least 40 yards.
In its 45-7 win against Marshall, Ohio State allowed a 63-yard kickoff return by Thundering Herd running back Andre Booker and a 61-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown by defensive back Ahmed Shakoor.
Saturday against the Hurricanes, the Buckeyes allowed Miami running back Lamar Miller to return a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown and wide receiver Travis Benjamin to return a punt 79 yards for a score.
Last year, Ohio State gave up only 49 yards in punt returns—total, all 13 games combined.
So far, in 2010, the Buckeyes are allowing 27.1 yards per kickoff return and a staggering 40.5 yards per punt return.
The fact that the special teams play, particularly the return team, has been so poor in the first two games of the 2010 campaign is a bit of a head-scratcher, especially given how important coach Jim Tressel thinks special teams and field position are.
The man has said many times the most important play in football is the punt.
In the previous seven seasons, the Buckeyes gave up only four special teams touchdowns—that includes all kickoff returns, punt returns and any blocked punt or blocked field goal returns—and under Tressel, Ohio State has never allowed more than an average of 21.5 yards per kickoff return and 12.8 yards per punt return in a season.
Coincidentally, both of these highs for return yards occurred during the 2002 National Championship season. I’m not advocating lack of return coverage by any means, it’s just an interesting tid-bit.
Certainly, inexperience can be attributed to some of the special-teams' problems, as the Buckeyes have several new starters on special teams including a new punter, kickoff specialist and kicker, but that excuse can hold only so much water. There comes a time when players need to step up, do their jobs and execute.
Perhaps the graduation of kicker Aaron Pettrey hurts Ohio State a bit more than expected, and in an unexpected manner.
From 2006-2009, Pettrey was the primary kickoff specialist for the Buckeyes. He averaged 64.5 yards per kickoff in four seasons and had 58 touchbacks.
This year, between Drew Basil and Devin Barclay, Ohio State is averaging only 56. 4 yards per kickoff with only one touchback.
For one, less touchbacks means more chances for opponents to return the ball, and two, an eight-yard difference is huge for a team’s kickoff coverage.
Say an opponents kick returner runs a 4.4 forty-yard dash. That means that it would take him 0.88 seconds to go eight yards. Therefore, an extra eight yards on the kickoff would give the kick coverage team almost an extra second to shed a block or make a tackle.
With the fast paced action of the return game, a second could be difference between an 88-yard TD and a meaningless 3-yard return.
Although special teams, specifically the return coverage, is a weakness right now and needs attention, there is still time for the Buckeyes to turn it around.
Defending BCS-Champion Alabama allowed two return touchdowns in its first two games last season. A 98-yard kickoff return against Virginia Tech and a 96-yard kickoff return against Florida International. They also gave up a 47-yard kickoff return to the Hokies that wasn’t taken to the house.
In their last 12 games, the Crimson Tide allowed four yards less per kickoff return than they did in their first two, 28.4 down to 24.4. In addition, they gave up only one 40-plus yard return in their final 12 contests, a 78-yarder against Mississippi State, and most importantly, zero touchdowns.
Champions are always improving: it is what makes them champions. If Ohio State wants to reach its goal of winning a national title, it will have to improve on special teams.