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. 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.

Ohio State vs. Indiana Preview

Indiana fans probably haven’t been this eager to play Ohio State since 1942, which is the last time the Buckeyes and Hoosiers collided in a game where both teams were undefeated and it wasn’t a season opener.

They’re so excited, in fact, Indiana’s supporters lobbied for ESPN’s Game Day to come to Bloomington for the first time ever…and ESPN actually considered it.

They’re also probably motivated by the memory of last year’s game in Columbus, which they led 20-14 midway through the third quarter, and by the heavy, Ohio influence of the Indiana coaching staff.

Indianas Ohio Coaches

What has them most excited, though, is their 4-0 start and their wins over Southern Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky, and Wake Forest. Yes, they’ve had to come from behind in three of those four victories. Yes, they’re one of the most penalized teams in the nation, averaging a little more than 8 penalties per game. Yes, they’re giving up 32 points and 360.5o passing yards a contest. But they’re undefeated through 4 games for the first time since 1990.

Obviously, when there are 96 defenses giving up fewer points than yours, it has to be the offense carrying the team, and carrying the Indiana offense is the nation’s current leading rusher, Jordan Howard.

His sophomore season, Howard set the single-season rushing record at UAB with 1,587 yards, but then the Blazers eliminated their football program. The Hoosiers have reaped the benefit with Howard running the ball nearly 28 times a game and averaging 6.1 yards a carry. He’s scored four rushing TDs this year.

At around 230 pounds, Howard can wear down a defense. In fact, his third and fourth quarter numbers (8.0 and 6.0 yards/carry respectively) are better than the numbers he’s posted in the first half of games this season.

Running back Devine Redding of Youngstown is slightly smaller, but has contributed 237 yards and 3 touchdowns of his own.

Indiana can throw, too. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld is ranked 16th in the country with 1,143 passing yards. He’s completing more than 61 percent of his passes, and has 7 touchdowns to just one interception.

Already three of his receivers have reached double digits when it comes to receptions, led by Ricky Jones with 18. He is, without a doubt, a threat. There are only 6 players in the FBS right now with 10 or more catches who average more than 22.5 yards/catch. Jones (22.83) is one of them.

Their offensive line has over 100 combined total starts, and not only have they paved the way for the success of Howard and Sudfeld, but they have only given up 2 sacks so far.

For as much as Indiana has struggled defensively, they, like the offense, are especially prolific in the third quarter. The Hoosiers have outscored teams by a combined total of 51-0 coming out of halftime. Plus, they play a 3-4, which Ohio State has struggled with this season. And they do force turnovers, already with 4 fumble recoveries and 4 picks.

Those turnover numbers are somewhat surprising when you consider that the Hoosiers aren’t otherwise very disruptive. They are ranked 123rd nationally in tackles for loss.

Defensive tackle Darius Latham has 5 of those TFLs. Defensive end Nick Mangieri paces the team in sacks with 3. Linebacker, and Hamilton, Ohio native, Oliver Marcus has the lead in total tackles with 28, and he’s forced two fumbles.

The secondary is littered with freshman and sophomores, and they’re still recovering from the offseason dismissal of Antonio Allen, but corner Rashard Fant has shown some flashes with nine pass breakups.

The Hoosiers host the Buckeyes this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

Ohio State vs. Western Michigan Preview

Expect to hear a lot of talk about Broncos coach PJ “Row the Boat” Fleck this week. Despite currently being the youngest coach in the FBS, he already has some impressive credentials.

As a former 49ers receiver and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers coach, Fleck is one of three men now at the helm of a college team to have also coached and played in the NFL. (The others are South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.)

He has been an understudy to Jerry Kill, Greg Schiano, and Jim Tressel. Brian Hartline, Ted Ginn, Jr., Brian Robiskie, Roy Hall, and Anthony Gonzalez might remember Fleck as an offensive graduate assistant with the Buckeyes in 2006.

He also has some continuity when it comes to his own coaching staff. One of the Broncos most recent additions, former Michigan running back Mike Hart, is in his second year.

However, all this has yet to pay off in the win column for Western Michigan’s head man. To be fair, the team he took over in 2013 had gone 4-8 the year before. Since then, the Broncos have a record of 10-18, including a 1-11 inaugural season and a 1-2 start this year.

It was certainly expected that they would drop their opener to Michigan State, a game in which they looked more than respectable. But what followed was what Fleck called a “royal whupping” at the hands of Georgia Southern. Spurned by that 43-17 loss, they then went on to crush FCS team Murray State 52-20. (For comparison’s sake, consider Northern Illinois beat the Racers 57-26.)

Quarterback Zach Terrell is playing in his third season with the Broncos, and his completion percentage has gone from 53 percent to nearly 68 percent to over 70 percent so far during this year’s campaign. He has thrown five picks, but he’s also tenth nationally right now with 947 passing yards.

That’s partly due to the fact that Western Michigan has quite a pair of wide receivers in Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis. Already, they have four career games where both have registered 100+ yard performances.

Braverman, with 40 catches, has 17 more receptions than any other player in America at this point. It is the 6’3″ Davis who is the deep threat averaging 17.2 yards/catch.

Despite these gaudy numbers, WMU is not really a tempo team. In fact, they are 35th in time of possession, just a few ticks over 32 minutes/game.

Sophomore running back Jarvion Franklin really didn’t find his game until last week’s 161 yard-performance. Prior to that, he’d only traveled a total of 81 yards on 25 carries. Count him out at your peril, though. He’s the first ever player to win Mid American Conference Freshman of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in the same season. He ran for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns to garner those honors.

The offensive line has given up 10 sacks, as much as Penn State, and more than all but 5 FBS teams.

On defense, the Broncos are giving up a total of 413 yards/game. They only stop opponents on 48 percent of their third downs. And, despite having arguably the best secondary in the MAC a year ago, they only have one interception this year. (The team’s fastest player, Darius Phillips, who also returns kicks, not surprisingly, did return that pick for touchdown.)

Safety Asantay Brown leads the team in tackles, followed by linebacker Robert Spillane. Fellow linebacker Caleb Bailey has 3 TFLs to pace the team in that category.

They have a smallish defensive line, which may be why opponents have rushed for 224 yards/contest.

But if you want storylines, look no further than the Western Michigan specialists.

Kick returner Phillips has already run one back for a score and is averaging a 30.0 yard return. Punter J. Schroeder is a Columbus, Ohio native, who played for St. Charles, volunteers at Children’s Hospital and referees youth soccer, among other community service activities. The team also has a kick off specialist, much like OSU’s Jack Willoughby. Derrick Mitchell is a Philadelphia Phillies draft pick. He graduated high school in 2005 and, at 28, is just six years younger than his head coach.

Ohio State will be playing Western Michigan for the first time this Saturday.