USC Preview


The Trojans are fresh off their first conference title in 9 years…and I do mean fresh, as they had a bye week prior to their 31-28 win over Stanford.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold improved his record as a starter to 20-3 with that victory. Plus, he notched his 11th career game with 300 or more yards passing.

Those numbers help explain why the 6’4″, 200-pound signal caller won the 2016 Archie Griffin Award at the Touchdown Club in Columbus.

Without receivers Ju Ju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, Darnold’s stats actually dipped slightly in 2017.

His redshirt sophomore season, however, has still been impressive. Darnold has 3,787 yards and 26 touchdowns. His completion percentage stands at 63.7 percent, but it’s 69.9 percent against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll. He’s thrown 12 interceptions. Only four of those happened after September. And he’s tied with Ohio State’s JT Barrett (among others) for 25th nationally in passes of 40+ yards.

USC has balanced their pass game with the running of Ronald Jones II, who is riding his second straight 1,000-yard season. He’s been incredibly consistent, averaging 6.1 yards per carry this season and last, and that has him as one of the top rushers in school history. The four players ranked ahead of him are all Heisman winners, or Heisman runners-up.

All in all, this has the Trojans scoring 34.5 points per game. If they have one weakness on offense, it is that they have given up 22 sacks this season.

On defense, it’s been high risk, high reward for the men of Troy. They’re one of the top teams in the country in sacks, and have four players who have brought down the opposing quarterback at least six times.

They have forced eight fumbles, while grabbing 16 interceptions.

However, they are also 77th nationally in total defense. They are 118th in giving up chunk plays of 20+ yards. Finally, they have sometimes struggled against mobile quarterbacks. Both Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (106) and Arizona’s Khalil Tate (161) gouged the USC defense for 100 yards or more.

When things are going well on defense, the Trjoans are paced by Butkus Award semifinalist Cameron Smith; sacks-leader Rasheem Green; First-Team All-Pac 12 defensive back Marvell Tell, Jr.; as well as senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who has 43 solo tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 13 passes broken up, and a fumble recovery.

One last note on USC? They have blocked four kicks this year.

Ohio State plays the Trojans in the Cotton Bowl December 29th at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.


Hooker, Line, and Sinker

I’ve been reading a lot of criticism regarding the beltway press and their coverage of the upcoming presidential election.

It’s made me think quite a bit about the ways that sports media might be coming up short in our coverage.

After floating this thought to my Twitter followers, I got a lot of good feedback.

People suggested that we need greater diversity, a greater willingness to dig for root causes, more impartiality, less sensationalism.

My personal pet peeve is that sports reporters, and I am not immune to this, tend to stick to established narratives.

I’ll give you an example from this week: After Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes beat Bowling Green 77-10 in the season opener, Meyer gushed about the performance of defensive back Malik Hooker. It was amazing, Meyer said, that Hooker had gone from a player who once floated the idea of leaving the program to the guy who intercepted two passes in his first collegiate start.

When Hooker himself sat down with the media, he confirmed that he had discussed transferring with his Mom, but she talked him down.

The narrative of this type of comeback is well worn by now, so we accepted it uncritically.

Was Hooker sincerely considering bolting? No, he eventually clarified.

He pointed out that he isn’t the type of man to quit, he’d never cleaned out his locker, never even discussed the idea with anybody but his Mom.

Meyer later conceded that 95-99 percent of young players blow off steam like this.

But, oh, the narrative.

The idea of a guy with one foot out the door turning things around is much more compelling than the story of a player who was simply a bit frustrated.

We talk about how the athletes we cover battle complacency. I’m going to try harder to do that myself. At the same time, I will admit, it’s sometimes hard not to fall for these types of stories Hooker, line, and sinker.

Ohio State vs. Michigan Preview

This Saturday will mark the 112th time that Ohio State (10-1) and Michigan (9-2) have met.

Almost just as importantly, this game is the first of the Urban Meyer/Jim Harbaugh era.

The two were born in the same hospital. They grew up in the 1960s about ten miles from each other. And while Meyer returned to the school where he earned his Master’s Degree, Harbaugh, the man once called “Captain Comeback,” would eventually come back to coach his alma mater.

RankESPN went so far as to call them “Natural Born Rivals.”

And just like the coaches in this rivalry, the teams coming into this Saturday’s clash, poetically mirror each other in certain ways.

Both play tough defense. Both have found enough offense to win, despite both teams struggling to win the turnover battle.

Both suffered heartbreaking losses to Michigan State on the last play of the game.

And, yes, both have excellent coaches. Meyer is 152-27 with two national championships. Harbaugh is 58-29 in the college ranks. Like Meyer he has won The Woody Hayes Trophy, a fact gleefully pointed out on Michigan’s website, six bullet points above a mention of his appearance on “Saved By the Bell.”

Interestingly, while few would question the credentials of the Michigan staff (they have a combined 85 years of coaching experience, including 36 in the NFL), the Wolverines have not excelled in some of the areas traditionally pointed to as indications of greatness in that area.

They take penalties, they have been gashed on special teams, and they’ve lost the ball 5 more times than they’ve managed to take it away from their opponent.

Where they’ve excelled is in developing their players and getting the most out of their talent. That’s especially true of graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock.

Rudock is completing 64.4 percent of his passes, which is more than 3 percentage points better than his best year at Iowa. He also has more yards than his previous high, even though he has fewer attempts to this point. He has 16 touchdown passes, 10 of which have come in the past three games. Although not the most graceful of runners, he has four rushing touchdowns.

Sure, it’s a stretch to compare him to some other signal callers Harbaugh has coached, a list that includes Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick when Kaepernick was at his most successful, but Rudock certainly has improved.

Of course, it helps to have such immense targets. If you take a look at the four players who lead Michigan in receiving yards, the shortest of them is 6’2″, and that happens to be leading receiver Amara Darboh.

Two of the Wolverines top pass catchers are tight ends out of the state of Ohio. Cincinnati’s AJ Williams has a dozen receptions. Jake Butt of Pickerington has 43 and 3 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, despite missing the Maryland game with an injury, De’Veon Smith paces the Michigan rushing attack with 621 yards on 145 carries. Just as they’ll throw to the tight ends, UM will use the running backs in the passing attack, and Smith has 15 receptions.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan has been unforgiving. They sack the opposing quarterback almost 3 times per game. They’ve allowed just two red zone touchdowns over the course of the last four games (17 possessions). They’re giving up an average of 14.9 points a contest.

They are led by players like 6’3″, 232 pound linebacker Joe Bolden, who has 67 tackles, and corner Jourdan Lewis, who has 19 pass breakups and two interceptions.

Defensive end Chris Wormley, all 6’5″ and 300 pounds of him, has crashed into the opponents’ backfields enough to rack up a dozen tackles for loss.

And Desmond Morgan and Jarrod Wilson each have 33 solo stops.

Then there is Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is not only 5th on the team in tackles, he’s 5th when it comes to all-purpose yards as well. The safety sometimes shows his youth in pass coverage, but still has 10 pass breakups. He has all 194 Michigan punt return yards, and returns kicks as well. Although he has yet to run one back for a touchdown on special teams, he’s still been in the end zone twice this year, as they use him on offense, too.

Ohio State has won four of the last five times they’ve traveled to Ann Arbor. Peppers and his teammates won’t make it easy for the Buckeyes to continue their run when they kick off Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.

Ohio State vs. Minnesota Preview

It was an irony of Big Ten football that the league’s most stable coaching situation was simultaneously its most fragile.

Minnesota head man Jerry Kill, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover all worked together since their days at Emporia State in 1999. They followed each other to Southern Illinois and then Northern Illinois before landing with the Golden Gophers in 2011.

Several other of Minnesota’s coaches shared time with Kill with either the Hornets, Salukis or Huskies. Sometimes all three. In fact, the school notes that, “The group of Kill’s
nine assistants and strength and conditioning coach…served under him for a combined 141 years (counting 2015), which is the most in the nation.”

There was no doubt, the Minnesota staff knew each other, depended on each other, and shared a philosophy.

But because of Kill’s health, there was always a chance that a major change would eventually be needed.

That happened this past week as Kill stepped down. The Gophers responded with an inspired performance that ended up just inches short of an upset against Michigan.

The 317 passing yards were atypical for a Gophers team that averages 209 a game, and is ranked 82nd nationally. The 29 points given up by the Minnesota defense was likewise somewhat anomalous, given that they only allow an average of 23.9 points a game and are ranked 49th.

The frustration, however, was all too familiar. Minnesota beat Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by a combined 9 points. Then they went on to lose three of their next four, including that close call with the Wolverines.

When they have stumbled, it’s tended to be the result of lack of scoring (ranked 107th in points per game), an inability to win the turnover battle (84th in turnover margin), and miscues in special teams (97th in kickoff return defense, 102nd in kickoff returns, 100th in punt return defense, and 122 in punt returns).

Youth has been a factor. (Seventy-nine of their 119 players are underclassmen.) Injuries have also hit the team really, really hard. Eleven starters have missed at least one game after getting hurt, which includes Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek, an offensive lineman who’s been out the last three games.

Mitch Leidner is the Minnesota quarterback. He’s completing 57.8 percent of his passes, with 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He tends to throw short. He averages a mere 4.67 yards per attempt in road games.

Leidner can certainly run. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher, and with 21 rushing TDs in his career, he’s only three shy of tying Rickie Foggie’s (1984-87) record for a Golden Gophers signal caller.

The players pacing the Minnesota run game are both freshman out of Georgia. Rodney Smith has 541 yards, a touchdown and averages 4.3 yards per carry. Shannon Brooks has run for 349 yards, 3 touchdowns and averages 6.1 yards per carry.

When it comes to receivers, 5’10”, 199 pound senior KJ Maye is the main threat with 39 receptions, 408 yards and three touchdowns.

And although the offensive line has been especially unlucky when it comes to injuries, they give up fewer than 2 sacks a game, good enough to be ranked 49th in the country.

As you might expect from a team that was coached by Kill and is now led by Claeys, the Golden Gophers have been tough on defense, especially against the pass (ie. 16th nationally in passing yards allowed).

Defensive back Jalen Myrick  already has three interceptions, three pass breakups, and three tackles for loss.

Steven Richardson, a sophomore defensive tackle, leads Minnesota in the category of tackles for loss. He has eight. And the leading tacklers overall are linebacker Cody Poock and defensive back Antonio Johnson, who’s a Cleveland native. They both have 55 stops.

One last note of interest: Minnesota has four sets of brothers, including the Huff twins, who play for them; while Braylon Edwards’ brother, Berkley, is a running back who did see time in a lopsided victory over Purdue.

The Buckeyes host Minnesota this Saturday at 8 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

Ohio State vs. Rutgers Preview

A week before Rutgers coach Kyle Flood returned from a suspension for violating university policy by contacting a professor without using an academic support staffer as an intermediary, the Scarlet Knights had a comeback come up short against Michigan State. That rally ended with a 31-24 loss after Rutgers infamously spiked the ball on fourth down.

Against Indiana, it was an entirely different story. Rutgers scored the game’s final 28 points, including a 26-yard field goal as time expired to beat Indiana 55-52.

Those two weeks might be a perfect summary of the Scarlet Knights season, because all year long the team has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic.

On the field, up-and-down performances have led to a 3-3 record. Off it? There have been arrests, suspensions, and Flood’s e-mail scandal.

Not even their starting quarterback has been immune. Sophomore Chris Laviano was kept out of the first half of the season opener versus Norfolk State after he used a fake ID to get into a bar.

Since then, the 6’3″, pro-style signal caller has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, while throwing 12 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions.

Nine of those touchdown passes have gone to receiver Leonte Carroo. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Over the course of his career, 28 of 104 or roughly one in four of his catches have resulted in scores. On top of that, he’s averaging 22.5 yards/reception in 2015. He’s the team’s leading receiver in both yards and catches, even though he’s missed 11 quarters due to suspensions and injury.

And speaking of injury…

Carroo vows he will play against Ohio State, which is good for the Scarlet Knights, as he is probably their most talented player,

But it might be the run game that is most crucial to the team’s success.

In their three wins, Rutgers is averaging 271 yards on the ground. In their three losses, just 127 yards. Throwing the ball to try to erase a deficit offers only a partial explanation for a discrepancy that large. Also consider that since 2011, Rutgers is 27-6 in games where they run the ball 35 times or more.

There are three players who already have at least 48 carries for the Knights. starter Paul James (48 carries, 285 yards), Josh Hicks (78 carries, 420 yards), and Robert Martin (41 carries, 437 yards) have all contributed to making them the 32nd ranked rushing attack in the country. On a related note, Rutgers is ranked 20th in time of possession.

The offensive line is coached by a former Ohio State graduate assistant. Mitch Browning was in Columbus in 1982.

Meanwhile, opposing teams have found it tough to run against Rutgers. They’re only giving up an average of 126 yards/game on the ground.

Linebacker Steve Longa has had a big hand in this, and is second in the nation with 45 solo tackles. Fellow linebacker Quentin Gause paces the team when it comes to tackles for loss with 5.

Teams have thus opted to pass, and the Scarlet Knights consequently have the 124th ranked passing defense in the country. Although, Anthony Cioffi does already have three interceptions.

Rutgers is a somewhat slow starting team. They’ve been outscored in the first quarters of games this year by a combined total of 31-to-21. Saturday’s game against OSU starts at 8 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

Ohio State vs. Penn State Preview

Penn State has weathered some adverse conditions this year, literally. At least a couple of their games have been marred by rain. And they’ve been hurt by injuries, again literally. The Nittany Lions have used 34 different starters this year, at least in part due to players getting banged up.

Despite that, Penn State has jumped out to a 5-1 start. It hasn’t always been pretty. They’re ranked 103rd nationally in total offense, after all. They are 86th in rushing offense; and despite the fact that 6’4″, 228 pound quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still under center, they are 99th in passing offense. Plus, Hackenberg has a modest completion percentage of just 53 percent, even while limiting himself to just two interceptions.

If you watched the season opener against Temple, you might think the blame for that rests entirely on the Nittany Lions offensive line. However, after giving up 10 sacks in that game against the Owls, they’ve only given up a total of 9 sacks in the 5 games since.

Receivers have dropped some passes. However, Chris Godwin has snagged at least 4 catches in each game. DeSean Hamilton, whom Ohio State fans might remember for setting a Penn State record with 14 receptions against the Buckeyes last year, has just 17 total this season. He does lead the team with 2 touchdowns grabs.

When it comes to the running game, leading rushers Saquon Barkley (42 carries, 373 yards, an average of 8.9 yards/carry) and Akeel Lynch (49 carries, 262 yards, 5.3 yards/carry) have both missed time after they were injured. So freshmen Nick Scott, Brandon Polk and Mark Allen have been asked to run the ball as well. Hackenberg isn’t considered to be an especially mobile signal caller, but he did rush for two scores last week in a 29-7 win over Indiana.

The Nittany Lions offense has especially struggled on third down, converting only 31 percent of the time, which ranks them 120th nationally.

Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense has held opponents to fewer than 325 yards in 13 straight regular season games, which is the longest such streak in the country. They are also one of the nation’s leaders in sacks, with just over 4 a game. Only Pitt has more. And they are forcing turnovers, recovering 8 fumbles and registering 4 interceptions.

Freshman corner John Reid has done a lot of that damage, with two picks while recovering one fumble. No player, though, has been as disruptive so far as former walk-on Carl Nassib, with 27 tackles, 10 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss. At the same time, he’s working toward graduating with a biology degree this December, then plans on going to medical school.

Sophomore linebacker Jason Cabinda leads the team with 46 tackles and 5 pass breakups. We haven’t even mentioned returning First-Team All-Big Ten defensive lineman Anthony Zettel, who has 6 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups and a forced fumble. Jordan Lucas, whose 7 tackles against the Buckeyes last year was a season-high for him, has moved from corner to safety without missing a beat.

About the only area where the Penn State defense has struggled is in the red zone. They’re ranked 106th, partly because opponents rarely make it inside the twenty. Eleven times opponents have done so; ten times they have scored, which includes 2 field goals.

Last week, Penn State pulled kicker Joey Julius after he missed two extra-point attempts, and Tyler Davis took his place. As noted, this is one of just many lineup moves the Nittany Lions have made this season.

Ohio State hosts Penn State at 8:00 pm Saturday on 97.1 The Fan.

Ohio State vs. Maryland Preview

During his time as Maryland’s head coach, Randy Edsall has gone 0-11 against ranked teams. His current quarterback situation suggests it will soon be 0-12.

Caleb Rowe already has 12 picks this season, including 7 in the past 2 games, so Edsall has indicated he’s going to go in another direction.

Daxx Garman saw playing time in the Terps most recent game, a 28-0 loss to Michigan, but he went 2-9 for 29 yards and was sacked 3 times. If he starts against the Buckeyes, it will be just the next step in what has already been a nomadic playing career for Garman. The signal caller switched from an Oklahoma to Texas high school, started college ball at Arizona, then went to Oklahoma State before ending up at Maryland.

Maryland’s other option is Perry Hills, who began the season as the starter before being benched in favor of Rowe following the team’s 48-27 loss to Bowling Green. Hills was only averaging 6.0 yards per attempt, had a completion percentage just under 53 percent, and didn’t even appear in the two-deep following his demotion.

For that reason, the Terrapins are ranked 103rd nationally in passing. In other words? A mess.

They are somewhat better rushing the ball, ranked 83rd in the country, averaging 162 yards a game, and 5.08 yards a carry.

Senior Brandon Ross, a 5’10” running back, leads the team with 402 yards on 73 carries. Interestingly, with Maryland trying to erase deficits late in games this season, they’ve had to abandon the running game, and so only one of Ross’s 402 yards has come in the fourth quarter of a game.

Wes Brown is the team’s second-leading rusher with 31 carries and 151 yards. His fourth-quarter total? 32 yards.

The offensive line, even though they’ve done some shuffling up front–moving Ryan Doyle from right tackle to left guard and inserting right tackle Damian Prince into their starting lineup–has only allowed 6 sacks in 5 games.  All the lineman weigh 300 pounds or more. (Prince alone is 328.) So they are one of the bigger outfits in the Big Ten.

The defense looked competent against Michigan, but has struggled overall. Right now they are the 95th ranked scoring defense in the country, giving up almost 32 points a contest. They have lost defensive lineman David Shaw (whose family owns two worm farms) and linebacker Jefferson Ashiru to injuries. Plus, they are making a transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter leads Maryland with 36 solo tackles, 54 tackles overall, and he also has 6 tackles for loss. That’s perhaps not surprising. Athletic ability runs (and dunks) in his family. His cousins are Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.

Yannick Ngakoue, a junior defensive tackle, has 6.5 sacks.

But the most prolific member of the defense is 5’7″, 175 pound corner William Likely. He already owns at least a share of 8 team records (2 on defense, 6 on special teams). He has 7 pass breakups this season and has forced 2 fumbles.

As mentioned, he’s also a special teams standout, and has returned four punts for touchdowns over the course of his career. Likely also returns kicks.

They have 2014’s Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock on the roster. He’ll be hard pressed to repeat, though, as he has missed a 28-yard attempt this year and also had a missed extra point.

Ohio State welcomes in Maryland as their homecoming guest this Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.