Split your lungs with blood and thunder, When you see the white whale. Break your backs and crack your oars, men If you wish to prevail.
From Mastodon's Leviathan, an album that pays tribute to Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, this particular song and verse seemed appropriate for this week. Jeff Tedford's white whale has become the elusive road win against a ranked opponent. Our last one? At Oregon in 2007. We'll have our shot this weekend, as Cal visits Columbus to take on the #12 Ohio State Buckeyes. What will it take to prevail? A defensive effort we've yet to see from this group.
There are plenty of reasons to feel totally not at all confident about Cal's chances, too. Ohio State is off to a 2-0 start under new head coach Urban Meyer, and he's got a hell of a talent at the quarterback spot with sophomore sensation Braxton Miller. He's fast, he's mobile, he can run. And this is a zone read offense. Cal, meanwhile, is 1-1 with an utterly uninspiring win over FCS foe Southern Utah under our belts. Defensively, we've already been abused by one running quarterback, and Miller is better than Nevada's Fajardo. A lot better.
Ranked team. On the road. Mobile quarterback. ERMAHGERD.
After the jump, we'll look at the Buckeyes' offensive personnel and see if we've got what it takes to prevail on Saturday in Columbus.
2011 Record: 6-7
2011 OFFENSIVE STATS
RUSHING: 190.92 yards/game
PASSING: 127 yards/game
SCORING: 24.5 points/game
2012 THUS FAR: 2-0
Week 1: Win vs Miami (OH) 56-10
Week 2: Win vs UCF 31-16
STARTER- Braxton Miller, Sophomore - 6'2, 220 lbs
After taking over starting duties as a true freshman in the fourth game of the 2011 season, Braxton Miller is the undisputed main guy in 2012 and really showing what he can do in this Urban Meyer offense. He accounted for 20 touchdowns (13 passing, 7 rushing) in 2011...starring for an otherwise pretty toothless Buckeye offense. He's already tallied 7 total scores (4 rushing, 3 passing) and 664 yards of total offense in two games this season. At 6'2/220, Miller is a lethal athlete from the quarterback position. And while he isn't the sharpest passer we'll face, his athleticism and mobility more than make up for any limitations he has as a pure dropback passer. He's clearly benefited from additional experience and Meyer's spread option offense, as his completion percentage has risen from just 54.1% in 2011 to 66.7% thus far in 2012. Of course, Miller's accuracy seems to go hand in hand with his yards per attempt. He hasn't been asked to throw the deep ball much, which is where he struggles with accuracy a bit more. His pass attempts (48) and carries (44) after two games are almost even. A true dual-threat quarterback...although he scares me much more when he's running. The true question that Buckeye fans seem to already be asking, is if putting too much of a workload on Miller in the run game will jeopardize his health at some point this season. I'd sure love to find out this weekend.
Upside: Speed, athleticism, mobility, BRAXTON MIILER
Downside: Accuracy on downfield throws
What to Expect: Potentially severe embarrassment, if the Nevada game was any indication. While our 3-4 defense is geared towards stopping the run (in theory), offenses that utilize the quarterback as a running threat scare the shit out of me, and Braxton Miller makes Cody Fajardo look about as mobile as post ankle injury Nate Longshore. With Miller being as dangerous as he is, this is not a game where we should employ the scrape-exchange defense of the zone read. I repeat: THIS IS NOT THE GAME TO EMPLOY THE SCRAPE-EXCHANGE DEFENSE. The last thing I want to see is our faster, more athletic OLB's crashing the line while our less mobile inside backers try to take on Braxton miller in space. If there can be any bright side whatsoever, it's that Miller appears to BE the Buckeye offense at this point. They key to stopping them...is stopping him. That's not gonna be easy to do though. And I have little faith that we'll be up to the task. We could certainly try to employ the spy tactic where we assign a safety to shadow Miller at all times. I'd guess the guy would be Josh Hill. That will put additional prssure on the other members of our secondary to stay disciplined and tight in coverage...something they haven't been able to do thus far in 2012. And it puts a ton of pressure on Hill to make tackles in psace on a very slippery guy. Still, going with a zone 2 coverage would be the proper tactic since the bulk of Miller's passes are on short and intermediate routes. This will also keep more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. In that same vein, let's blitz the shit out of him. Bring one safety on a backside blitz, or send Hurrell/Mullins inside and keep our outside backers on contain. Hit him every play, and make him hand it off. Better yet, force Ohio State to abandon the zone read and start chucking the ball around. Will an aggressive scheme leave some gaping holes in our secondary? Hell yes. Will Ohio State find a way to take advantage of that with their tight ends? Probably. But if Miller is going to beat us, I want him to beat us throwing. This kind of approach would be best, if it were to be properly executed. Our defense has shown me little thus far to convince me they're ready to step up against an athlete of this caliber though. So...fuck it. Throw the kitchen sink at him and see what happens.
Bri'onte Dunn, Freshman - 6'1, 214 lbs OR
Jordan Hall, Senior - 5'9, 194 lbs
Things are a little shaken up at the running back spot for the Buckeyes, as the leading returning rusher who is not named Braxton Miller, junior Carlos Hyde, sprained his MCL last week against UCF and won't be available this weekend. Senior Jordan Hall is still recovering from an offseason foot injury that saw him in a walking boot for 6 of the past 10 weeks. Hall has been medically cleared, but whether he will be able to go remains to be seen. Hall rushed for 408 yards on 100 carries in 2011, and would provide a more explosive element to tOSU's running back position. Whether or not Hall can go, we'll likely see plenty of true freshman Bri'onte Dunn, who is more of a bruiser inside,but does possess some burst and good vision. Dunn has 60 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown thus far in 2012. At the fullback spot, senior Zach Boren (6'1/245) is a guy to watch. Boren is used as more than just a blocker, with 9 carries for 26 yards and a touchdown on the season to go with 3 catches for 31 yards. It's possible he'll see some snaps at tailback as well. Any back that the Buckeyes trot out there will benefit from a defense keying on Miller though.
Upside: Skill, size
Downside: Depth, experience, not Braxton Miller
What to Expect: Hard to say, really. Miller has served as the primary rushing threat the last two games, but it seems like the Buckeye coaching staff would prefer to not expose him to too much punishment. That would lead me to suspect that they'll call Dunn/Hall/Boren's number a bit more. Frankly, I'd be more comfortable with that. The less time the ball is in Miller's hands, the better. None of these guys are scrubs though. Dunn seems to be the most promising, but he's still getting a grasp on the offense as a true frosh. And the running threat that Miller poses should free up space for the backs inside. As we witnessed against Nevada, we're not nearly as stout up the middle as we were last year. I'm optimistic that a healthier defensive line rotation will help us here, specifically getting a healthy Vei Moala some snaps in the middle of the defense. Payne will get pushed around by this Buckeye offense, and we'll need to be able to hold our ground and take away the inside run. But while we seem to have the personnel and the ability to stop the run, the execution has been sorely lacking. Will that change when we're in a hostile road environment against a talented team? Wouldn't bet on it.
Corey Brown, Junior - 6'0,186 lbs
Devin Smith, Sophomore - 6'1, 200 lbs
Evan Spencer, Sophomore - 6'2, 205 lbs
This is an athletic bunch with some big-play ability, although they've been slightly constrained by a somewhat limited amount of deep balls. Corey "Philly" Brown is the main dude at the wide receiver position, and a guy who Miller seems to target the most frequently with 13 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown on the year. He's quick and athletic, also carrying the ball twice for 33 yards and returning punts at times. Brown does the bulk of his work out of the slot, and will be targeted frequently on screens. Not a guy we want to see in space. It's also possible that with the depth issues at running back, brown sees additional carries in the run game. Sophomore Devin Smith is no slouch either, as this ridiculous catch will attest to. He's got 8 catches for 88 yards and the previously viewed touchdown on the season thus far. Sophomore Evan Spencer is another guy we should expect to see. A bit taller and thicker than Brown and Smith but slightly less dangerous with ball in hand, Spencer has 4 catches for 60 yards this year.
Upside: Speed, athleticism, playmaking ability
Downside: Not Braxton Miller
What to Expect: Brown and Smith are very good wideouts; both are explosive and athletic. If they're given space, they'll take advantage of it. As porous as our secondary has looked, I don't much care for the idea of either guy being given 5-yard cushions to operate in, which seems to have been the norm against two much less athletic receiving corps this season. If we're going to play a cover-2, we need to be more aggressive on the short and intermediate routes. I'm all for keeping Brown and Smith in front of us, but Ohio State will take that all day...just like Nevada and SUU did. The difference is, these guys are YAC machines and have the ability to break big gains at just about any time. We cannot afford to just give up the short completions all day long, because there's a high likelihood that they will break one if given space. Not to mention Miller has shown deadly accuracy on short and intermediate routes. So we can't be content to just give the Buckeyes short passes all day long. If we want to get them off the field, we need to make them attempt to throw it deep. Burn us there, fine. But I've had enough of this "bend and then break" crap.
STARTER- Jake Stoneburner, Senior - 6'5, 245 lbs
Jake Stoneburner is listed as an H Receiver, but he's more of tight end so I'll list him here. He's a big target who excels in the red zone, with 7 of his 14 catches in 2011 going for touchdowns. Thus far in 2012, he's tallied 4 catches for 48 yards and 1 score. At the more traditional tight end spot, we'll see either redshirt frosh Nick Vannett (6'6/255) and sophomore Jeff Heuerman (6'5/250). Both guys are loads and pretty sturdy in run blocking duties. Between them, they've recorded just 3 catches for 22 yards on the season. For what it's worth, Cal's two tight ends have combined for 2 catches and 34 yards. Huh.
Upside: Size, run blocking
Downside: Not Braxton Miller
What to Expect: These guys will be dangerous up the seams and in the red zone, and Pendergast's defense seems to always be vulnerable to tight ends. Furthermore, using a safety to spy Miller will put more pressure on the other safety in coverage. Our inside backers aren't great cover guys either, but i'm thinking about the lesser of two evils here. If we're focusing on stopping the run, it puts the onus on Miller to find these guys in space. If we're getting pressure on him, they will also likley be keeping at least one tight end in to provide extra pass protection. If any of these guys is gonna be capable of stuffing a stat sheet, it'll be Stoneburner. If we're forcing Ohio State to get the ball to their tight ends, it means the ball isn't in the hands of Miller, brown, or Smith. I'd call that a good thing.
LT Jack Mewhort, Junior - 6'6, 312 lbs
LG Andrew Norwell, Junior - 6'6, 310
C Corey Linsley, Junior - 6'3, 295 lbs
RG Marcus Hall, Junior - 6'5, 315 lbs
RT Reid Fragel, Senior - 6'8, 310 lbs
A group that struggled a bit last season and is replacing three starters from that group. They're a large, if unspectacular bunch in my opinion. Mewhort is the most experienced guy in the bunch, having started every game last season, 5 at left guard and 8 at right guard, and appearing in an additional 10 games in 2010. He moved to left tackle in the spring. Norwell is equally experienced, having started the first 5 games of 2011 at left tackle and then playing the last 8 at left guard. He also served as the backup right tackle in 2010 and played in all 11 games. Center Corey Hinsley is replacing departed All-American Mike Brewster, a starter of 49 games. Hinsley's appeared in 16 games over the last two seasons in reserve duty. Hall started the first five games of 2011 at guard before being benched. He's back as a starter at the right guard spot. Right tackle Reid Fragel is a converted tight end that has played in all 39 games of the previous three seasons. This is his first season at tackle, however. He's adjusted well with run blocking, but has struggled a bit in pass protection. Through the first two games of 2012, the left side of the line is looking like the strength of this group. In 2011, Ohio State's offensive line surrendered an eye-popping 39 sacks. They gave up 3 to Miami-Ohio in week 1 and just 1 sack to a pretty good UCF defensive front in week 2.
Upside: Size, run blocking, Braxton Miller
Downside: The right side of the line, pass protection
What to Expect: Not sure, but I'll be very interested to find out. This is a group that's still acclimating to a new offense under Meyer, so that should help us. At the same time, they're a talented group with some muscle and experience. UCF threw a pair of 300+ pound defensive tackles at this line last week and they handled them well. They seem better in run blocking than pass protection, and it's likely that they would surrender more sacks if not more Miller's ridiculous escapability. He makes them look better than they are. Still, they're not to be taken lightly by any means, especially when our front 7 got pushed around by Nevada. Given Ohio State's style of offense and reliance on Miller to move the ball, we'll need to win the battle up fron to have any shot in this game. Again, I believe we have the ability to do that. However, we have yet to prove we have the discipline to do it. Another poor performance in the trenches and we'll be thoroughly embarrassed.
However, this group is not without issues. They're all still grasping the nuances of Meyer's offense, so they're not firing on all cylinders just yet. The offensive line still has some question marks when it comes to pass protection. Miller is absolutely carrying this offense right now, which isn't quite what the staff or Buckeye fans really want to see. A heavy workload will expose him to more hits, more potential more injury, and a general wearing down that could jeopardize the effectiveness of this unit as a whole. As a result, Meyer is looking for someone else on the offense to step up and make plays. They have guys who could do it, and may do so this weekend.
So is Braxton Miller good enough to best our defense by himself? That depends on what Cal defense shows up in Columbus. For us to have a chance, it'll have to be a whole lot better than the ones that faced Nevada and Southern Utah; no missed gap assignments on the line, no cheating in and breaking contain by the outside linebackers, inside linebackers making reads and finishing tackles, no treating the short zone in the secondary like a luxury resort for wide receivers, and make a goddamn stop on 3rd down. All these things are possible. And yet, a good showing hinges on execution. Against a better opponent. On the road.
I'm expecting the worst, but if this defense plays it's best, a win is by no means out of the question. I liked the way we matched up against Ohio State before the season started. But then...the season started. We'll need to play our best in an environment where we have lately played our worst. Surprise me this week.