His own men called him, ‘The Butcher.’
In 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln
determined it was time to end the bloody American Civil War; Jefferson Davis and
Robert E. Lee, were not of the same opinion. The latter pair were tried to
whittle down the resolve of the North and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat
with a George McClellan presidential election, but Grant knew he had more guns,
more ammunition, more money, and more men. Lee and the Confederacy were short
on all accounts and while Lee was a formidable strategist, there is only so much
one general can do in the face of such long odds.
The end result was a grisly series of battles in which
Grant threw soldiers’ lives away like chattel. He forced Lee to engage and over
an eight week period from May 5 to June 30, 1864, the Army of the Potomac lost
over 61,000 men. Figures are unavailable for the Confederate forces, but one
can safely assume at least a figure of 25,000 plus. That means for the
four years the war raged, between 10-15 percent of the total casualties were
confined to just two months when Grant earned his not so flattering nickname.
Fast forward 142 years to the game of college football.
The generally accepted tactic used in the sport is to find one set of players
who are better than the rest and play them against the best players from the
other team. Barring mistakes or injury, the best players and best prepared
players should win.
In Columbus those tactics are taking a slight hit – if not
a full frontal assault.
Hints were dropped before the season started this might be
the case, but they were mostly on the defensive side of the football.
Head coach Jim Tressel said following the jersey scrimmage,
“I would guess in the first two games at least we are going to have a whole
bunch of people playing a lot of positions on the defensive side for sure - for
a couple of reasons. One, we don’t know for sure (who is the best) and two, I
think when you go and play an early September game in Austin you are going to
need to roll people in.”
He reiterated and expanded upon those remarks following the
open night practice at Ohio Stadium: “In the first third of the season we are
going to play a lot of guys on the defensive front, offensive front, in the
secondary, at linebacker, at running back, (and) at receiver. We are going to
play a lot of guys for a couple of reasons. One, we want to see who emerges on
game day. Two, we know it is going to be warm at 3:30 on September 2. We know
it is going to be warm at 7 o’clock at night central September the 9th.
You are going to need to play a lot of guys. I think a lot of guys deserve to
play just to see how they will do when the lights come on for real.”
Playing a number of players on the defense was not new.
Ohio State, following a physical beating of horrendous and memorable proportions
to Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, began rotating more linemen nearly a
decade ago under now defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. In 2005 and even 2004,
Ohio State looked prepared to rotate more linebackers and perhaps try a 3-4 look
before injuries first to Mike D’Andrea and then to Marcus Freemen nipped this in
the bud. Couple this with the increasing role of the defensive back; at one
time teams could drop four men back, two of whom mainly helped support the run
while the other two covered receivers. Now, with the importance of special
teams and spread offenses all the rage, a team without 5-7 able defensive backs
finds itself on the wrong end of the score too often for comfort, and it hasn’t
been unusual in the slightest to see Ohio State use better than half a dozen
defensive backs every season.
Even so, not many outside of the football offices at the
Woody Hayes Facility were prepared for a rotation on this scale.
This season, the Buckeye sidelines have often borne more
resemblance to a turnstile than a traditional college football team. In the
middle of the game against No. 2 ranked Texas, Ohio State’s coaching staff sent
in not just one or two new offensive linemen but their entire second unit.
Several of these players hadn’t seen meaningful minutes in a game against
Sisters of the Poor U., let alone played on the road against the reigning
national champion. They rewarded their coaches for the confidence by driving
down the field for a touchdown. In fact, between the special teams, offense,
and defense, Ohio State set a goal of playing over 50 players in the first
quarter against the Longhorns, and even with Austin far off in their
rearview mirror the rotation continues.
The players have taken notice; “It is totally different
than it has been,” said Doug Datish. “Since I have been here the starters
played and if we run it up enough the two’s or three’s would come in.”
Now, it seems to be just the opposite.
So what exactly are the benefits of this rotation, and how
is it visibly impacting this team down the stretch?
1. Depth for 2006
In the past month, Ohio State has lost no less than six
players (five starters) for parts of or entire football games. Right tackle
Kirk Barton had a minor foot procedure and had to be brought back slowly to
ensure proper healing. David Patterson, a stalwart on the interior found
himself on the bench healing up after a minor knee injury. Defensive tackle
Quinn Pitcock, a probable All American, suffered a concussion and needed to sit
out the contest against Minnesota. Wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Ray Small both
left the game against the Gophers after what looked like sharp blows to the
head; Small is fortunate to still have a head after the helmet to helmet shot he
took. Place kicker Aaron Pettrey had to take a break on kickoffs with a nagging
injury, so Ryan Pretorius simply stepped in and filled the void. Nor does this
count the loss of starting safety Anderson Russell for the season with a knee
injury against Iowa.
In the case of Schafer and Barton, the coaches had long
planned on this ‘what if’ scenario; said Tressel early in the year, “Both
Schafer and Steve Rehring have to be ready to play tackle and they have to be
ready to play guard. What we've been trying to do is make sure we even get a
series for the entire second offensive line so they've been in there and they've
been under duress and maybe even upgraded their preparation knowing that, hey,
I'm going to be out there. We're trying to become as deep as we can. We're
trying to become as fresh as we can. We need to rotate people around so that
when you get into this grinder called the Big Ten, and especially the other
factor involved is now you're in a 12-game season that's 12 straight weeks and
we think that's important to build that depth and those experiences.”
The net result is the Buckeye train didn’t even slow. It
just chugged and slugged its way on down the tracks. In fact, if one wasn’t
looking or paying close attention, they wouldn’t even have noticed the absence
of the starters because their replacements played that well. Brian Hartline
looked like a gazelle in the slot with Troy Smith rifling 4 balls to him for 69
yards. Joel Penton has logged extensive minutes and totaled 7 tackles at
defensive tackle in the spots of both of his teammates. Tim Schafer, a former
starter at guard and tackle, stepped in for Barton to keep opponents off of Troy
Smith. Safety Jamario O’Neal has been playing increasingly well and even broke
on the football for an interception this past week; that is great news for the
defense considering pass defense has been considered his greatest weakness.
With most starters returning healthy soon, Ohio State could
probably field two full units of almost equal ability. Very few players on this
team are irreplaceable. It could be argued aside from the possible exception of
Troy Smith – not one starter could not be lost and ruin a game plan. This is in
direct contrast to previous seasons where the loss of a Kirk Barton against Penn
State probably cost the Buckeyes the football game (or at the very least
directly contributed to the loss).
Said Tressel earlier this year,
“We talk to our team all the time about the fact that a lot of guys are going to
play and people are going to have to show over time that they may become a
starter. And we've still got a lot of positions where we're alternating a lot. I
think of Tim Schafer and Steve Rehring who are alternating a lot. (Brian)
Robiskie and Hartline are playing out wide a lot. In the running back world,
we've got three guys that are very involved. Linebacker-wise, (John) Kerr and
(Ross) Homan have been playing a lot interchangeably, (Curtis) Terry and Marcus
Freeman up front of course on defense, we rotate just naturally. In the
secondary, we've had a lot of rotation, and so we're a long way from being as
good as we want to be. We want a two-deep that's ready to be as good as the next
Don’t look now, but they are very
close to reaching their goal.
2. Team Cohesion
“As an aside, that was probably my favorite part of the
game,” said Gonzalez. “Once they (the second team line) went in, we drove down
and scored. I thought that was awesome.”
No, he wasn’t talking about the Indiana game nor the
Minnesota tilt. Gonzalez was speaking of the Texas contest. Never mind that he
had a touchdown and 8 receptions for 142 yards. Never mind his performance came
on national television in a 24-7 win over the second ranked Longhorns. Never
mind that he had a kickoff return opportunity to push his total yards on the day
to nearly 160.
Gonzalez’s favorite part of the game was watching his
young, mostly inexperienced teammates manhandle the Longhorn defensive front on
their way to a touchdown.
Coach John Peterson said, “I think it was a boost to
everybody. I know how hard those guys work and the unsung heroes who practice
every day. It was great to see them have success on such a tremendous stage
that we had.”
This season has been littered with such moments. Teammates
mobbed Pretorius after he hit a 52 yard field goal attempt against the
Cincinnati Bearcats. Justin Zwick found he had a passenger on his back Saturday
after scoring his first career rushing touchdown; it was Troy Smith who appeared
to celebrate more than anyone. Ray Small was toasted by his Glenville teammates
following his score against the Bowling Green Falcons. The entire sideline
erupted when Antonio Smith, a current starter but former walk on, intercepted a
pass against Penn State in the waning moments and returned it for a touchdown.
These – and other moments like them – give credence to the
positive benefits of playing more than just the first string. When a team is
busy being a team, they work together toward one goal. There is little (or at
least less) grumbling or sabotaging of efforts because each and every player is
trying to build up the other. They all understand and know; that might be them
on the field next week. First string, second string, and yes, even third string
– they may get to play, and they better be ready.
3. Fewer Injuries and Fresh Legs for the Stretch Run
This is not about the season ending or game concluding
injuries – though certainly these are impacted. This is about injuries of the
nagging, ‘no longer full speed’ variety. In very few contests this season have
the Ohio State starters logged more than three quarters. Offensively, Troy
Smith is competing for a Heisman, but he has spent the equivalent of nearly two
games resting and watching teammates.
Smith is fresh as a daisy for the stretch run. With a few
questioning why he wasn’t running the football more this season, he has started
taking off against tired defenses for large chunks of yardage. He put moves on
Minnesota defenders on his way to the end zone this week that haven’t been seen
since the days of disco and Grease.
Meanwhile, no less than three players have been logging
meaningful minutes at tailback. Tressel’s adage that he picked up from past
coaches, ‘A pair and a spare’ has proven accurate. Antonio Pittman, the
unquestioned starter, has 163 attempts for 894 net yards (99 per game) and 10
touchdowns. His back-ups, Maurice and Chris Wells, have also been busy moving
the chains with 530 yards and 5 touchdowns on 121 attempts.
Smiling, Antonio Pittman admitted to reporters one evening
that he would, “Rather be worn out,” after a 30 carry game, but he knows it is
helping he and the team and approaches it from that perspective.
“I feel a lot fresher with (the rotation). It is keeping
me – I play about a quarter less (per game) with the rotation of the other two
backs, but that’s fine. Later on in the season I’ll be a lot fresher while
defenses are worn down.”
That ‘later on in the season’ is here, and on just 21
rushes Pittman had 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns this past week. He made
it look easy, gaining the outside edge on a tired and beat up Gopher defense and
scampering for big yardage.
Doug Datish, the senior offensive lineman frequently seen
sprinting down the field trying to get in one more block for his teammates said,
“It is totally different (this year) than it has been. Since I have been here
the starters played and if we run it up enough the two’s or three’s would come
it, but they (the coaches) are trying to do it to conserve some of the offensive
linemen’s legs, to give a different look to the defense – make them think about
something else that is going on.”
Take a look at that offensive front when they line up
against the Illini. Yes, they are taped up and braced up, but they lack the
limp which accompanies most fronts at this point in the season. They look more
like they might in late September or early October than early November.
Defensively, they have played everyone but the kitchen sink
and have even rotated linebackers, which, according to Coach Luke Fickell, “You
talk to people around college and the NFL, and they don’t do that a lot at
linebacker. Maybe that’s just because of guys getting set in the front, making
checks, and making the calls, but right now we are going to keep doing it.
Hopefully we can get six or seven guys playing real well and go accordingly.
That’s the luxury of having six or seven guys who can play now. I think it is
going to give us a lot more in the end.”
Given the Buckeyes are closing in on their tenth contest
ranked number one in the land without losing any starters up front for the year
or even more than two games – all the while pummeling their opponents on both
sides of the football, it appears to be working.
4. Building for the future
Ohio State looks to be hurting in 2007. The defensive line
will lose four seniors up front as well as defensive back standouts Smith and
Mitchell, and the offense will be without the services of Doug Datish, Smith,
T.J. Downing, Stan White, Jr., Roy Hall, Zwick, and probably Ginn.
Normally this would equate to green players having to fight
down nerves while trying to remember what it is exactly they are supposed to do
on a given play.
Troy Smith laughingly spoke of freshman tight end Jake
Ballard’s first experiences playing this season: “We got in the huddle, and I
was looking at Jake Ballard’s eyes. It was like, I could tell it was a feeling
he wasn’t used to, and I was the same way. Calling my first play, I was a
shambles. I was shaking, I was nervous, and I asked him today, ‘Were you
nervous?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ I told him, ‘It is all right to be nervous.
That is pretty normal. Just the next time, we can’t have that again.”
Everyone shared a good laugh at the story, but Indiana
wasn’t laughing when Ballard fully extended and snagged a pass for a touchdown
later in the season. Message sent, message received, and Ohio State has added a
building block for 2007 while winning in 2006.
Chris Wells, expected to perhaps challenge for a Heisman
before he leaves Ohio State, has had his share of growing pains. He has
victimized his team on more than one occasion with fumbles, but the coaches have
continued to play him. With the confidence of his coaches, he again put the
ball on the turf this past week. Pulled out and sitting on the bench until the
injury of his running mate, Maurice Wells, he entered the game determined. How
determined? His first carry went for nearly ten yards, most of that carrying
literally half the defense of the Gophers.
Message sent, message received, and add another building
“I think the young guys that are able to come in and give
the starters some relief are guys that are going to get playing time in the
future,” said Smith. “They need that feel, to be in there and feel the crowd,
feel the game atmosphere so when they get in there it isn’t just a shock.”
Hartline, Robiskie, Small, Cordle, Skinner, Mitchum, Robert
Rose, Alex Barrow, Andre Amos, Curt Coleman, Doug Worthington, Lawrence Wilson,
Ross Homan, and on and on one could go – these players have been seeing the
field, adjusting to the initial shock, and have then had to see themselves on
film with coaches and teammates.
Sometimes that is a great experience and at others – you
can bet it is humbling. That is all part of maturing as a player and learning
exactly what it takes to help lead a team to a championship.
Tressel alluded to this dynamic on the defensive side of
the ball, “I think the older guys like Joel Penton, Quinn (Pitcock), David
(Patterson), and Jay Richardson – I think they've done a great job of setting
the tone. ‘Here's how you prepare, here's what you need to do if you really
want to be a good defensive lineman in the great history of defensive linemen
here.’ I think those (other) guys have paid attention, and we do have some
young guys that have given us some time and rotated in there. I’ve liked what
I've seen from a standpoint of their willingness to learn and be taught by the
guys that really know.”
The cynics had seen great Ohio State teams come and go, and
they weren’t easily convinced. Losing nine starters on defense as well as
several like Santonio Holmes and Nick Mangold on offense spelled trouble – or so
it was thought. Coupled with the serious gaps in the run defense early, and
players were repeatedly pressed to explain why they believed (and why others
should believe) this team would achieve its goals. In particular, why was this
team different than say the 2003 unit on which several played or even started?
Senior safety Brandon Mitchell probably described it the
best saying, “I think the difference between the 2003 team and this one is we
had a lot of returning guys. This year if I mess up even as an older guy, if I
mess up and have a bad game I know I have guys right behind me who can step in
and will start.”
Those words, as described above with the depth that has
been built have proven to be prophetic.
Mitchell continued, “I think the competition is great.
Everyone knows they can’t have a bad game or they might not be playing anymore
for the rest of the season, or they might lose their starting job. I think the
competition is one of the things that will really motivate guys to get better
and just be a better team.”
Starting linebacker Freeman indicates it isn’t even just
playing time in the games which is at question, “You know you have to go out
there and perform in practice. You can’t coast. Just because you have a
starter spot that guy behind you or that guy you are rotating with – he is going
out there practicing just as hard. In practice there are times when if you mess
up the coaches will put someone else in so you just have to go out there and
perform the best you can"
Far from being upset or pining over whether he might lose
his position, he said, “I think it is going to be a tremendous help for us.”
Their words have been proven correct. At no point in the
season has players been seen loafing or taking the opponent for granted and only
a few times have players been spotted not going 100 percent. They understand
that even if the opponent should be an easy mark, if they are not prepared as if
they were playing Michigan, they will lose their job. Will – not might –
So, every play, every game, every Buckeye is trying to give
it his best effort. Opposing teams, used to seeing Ohio State athletes are not
used to this full assault for sixty minutes. With no place to run and nowhere
to hide, they usually end up hunkering down and taking their beating while
hoping the next week is better.