Gator Bowl: 4 Things to Look for from Ohio State Against Florida
This year was one of mixed signals for Buckeye fans. Against early foes like Miami, the offense was static and slow. Then, something changed as the Buckeyes pulled off improbable wins against Illinois and eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin. Finally, when Buckeye fans started to regain hope, the team finished the seasons with three straight losses.
Buckeye nation gained a lot of clarity following the hiring of former Florida head coach Urban Meyer, a premier coach who won two national championship during his time at Florida (one of which, Buckeye fans will remember, against Ohio State).
Even with Meyer, though, several questions remain about the team going forward. Here are the four things to look for in the Buckeyes' Jan. 2 bowl game that may bring clarity to the prospects of the team going forward.
4. Ryan Shazier and the Buckeye Linebackers
Linebacker play was clearly the weakest link in Ohio State's defense this year, a swift departure from the years of head coach Jim Tressel that produced great linebackers such as A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis.
Cause for optimism can be found, though, in true freshman Ryan Shazier. Filling in for the injured senior Andrew Sweat, who missed the final two games of the season following a concussion at Purdue and an elbow injury in practice, Shazier showed poise on the field as he recorded a game-high 15 tackles against Penn State.
Shazier hurt his knee against Michigan, and although he continued playing in a brace, it was clearly evident he was not playing at the same level he had the week before. He finished the game with eight tackles.
This makes his play against Florida all the more important for revealing what Shazier's future at Ohio State may look like. It's clear after the Michigan game that he has enough drive and passion for himself. After all, playing with a knee injury is no easy feat. Look to see if he can live up to the rapidly rising expectations for himself and if his energy can spread to his fellow linebackers.
3. A Tale of Two Coaches
Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 was a good day for Ohio State fans. Athletic Director Gene Smith stepped up to the lectern and introduced Urban Meyer as the new head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Buckeye nation quickly forgot the loss to Michigan two days earlier as it looked ahead to next season and what Meyer and his new staff can do.
But many have forgotten that current head coach Luke Fickell, who will remain on Meyer's staff next year, has one more game at the helm of this team.
While the media have seemed to overlook this fact, it will be interesting to see if the team can manage to remain focused on Fickell's game plan as it heads into Florida. Ohio State secured an NCAA waiver to have Meyer's staff focused on recruiting while Fickell still coaches the team for their bowl game, but the temptation may be strong for the Buckeyes to turn their thoughts to the future. Avoiding this will be essential for the Buckeyes' hopes in Florida.
2. Jake Stoneburner: The X-Factor
After the first two games of the season, it looked like Jake Stoneburner could have a record-breaking season and become of the best tight ends in the NCAA. Now, looking back, Stoneburner was the Buckeyes' biggest missed opportunity this whole season.
The junior has incredible size and speed for his position; he's 6'5" and 245 lbs but runs a 4.78 second 40-yard dash. In both of the Buckeyes' first two games, he had four receptions for 50 and 42 yards, respectively. In the first game of the season alone, a 42-0 rout of Akron, he put up three touchdowns and had another the next week against Toledo.
It seems that after that, Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman forgot about Stoneburner as he never had more than one reception in the Buckeyes' last seven games. Some of this may be traced to the struggles of true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller. But a tight end should be an inexperienced quarterback's best friend.
Stoneburner's name was one of the few mentioned by Meyer in his inaugural press conference, and with Miller looking improved in the air, look for him to put up some plays in Florida. The Gator Bowl could be a chance for Miller and Stoneburner to lay the groundwork for a connection that could have enormous implications next season under Meyer and his new staff.
1. Braxton Miller: The Wunderkind
Of course Braxton Miller was going to top this list. After not starting the Buckeyes' first three games, Miller had a great first season, eventually winning the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year award.
As anyone who watched will tell you, though, his season was not perfect, namely in the passing game. Miller finished the season with a completion percentage of exactly 50 percent and the Ohio State offense was forced to try an avoid the passing game altogether, such as against Illinois when Miller only attempted four passes. Ohio State finished the season 116th in passing offense.
But Braxton made up for it with his feet. He scored seven touchdowns on the ground and had three 100-yard rushing games down the stretch. He also showed improvement in the passing game against Wisconsin and Michigan. The Michigan game was by far his best passing performance; he completed 14-of-25 passes for 235 yards against the Wolverines.
If Miller can put up another game like that against Florida, it would mean a lot for his confidence and the Buckeyes' prospects going forward. Meyer has discussed his excitement about working with Miller already. Meyer's spread offense thrives under dual-threat quarterbacks, and Miller has the athleticism to run. But look to see if Miller can continue the improvement in the passing game against a Florida team that ranks ninth in total defense.
Miller will be the cornerstone of this offense in the coming years, and the Gator Bowl will be a big hint as to how that will work out.