Urban Meyer opened his first spring game at Ohio State with his players gathered at midfield for a series of one-on-one battles.
It started with defensive tackle John Simon and offensive lineman Jack Mewhort pushing and shoving like sumo wrestlers until one appeared to have the upper hand. Even the top two quarterbacks, Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton, went at it. Cheering and taunting teammates circled the combatants.
"I’ve got a little bit of a quick whistle when some of those guys are in there," Meyer said with a grin. "I just wanted some good energy in there. Our quarterbacks, like anybody else, they’ve got to put their nose on people. You have to be very careful and very smart. And sometimes I’m accused of neither. But it was fun for the fans and I know that our players came out of their shoes when we did that."
Rod Smith ran for a 7-yard touchdown with 5:29 left and Christian Bryant made it stand up with a late interception to lead the Scarlet to a 20-14 victory over the Gray.
The crowd was announced as 81,112 on a misty, chilly day at Ohio Stadium, although there appeared to be far fewer.
Meyer wore a white pullover as the Buckeyes wrapped up 15 spring practices, often standing just a few feet directly behind as his quarterbacks ran plays. He took over the program last November in the wake of a year of NCAA violations, suspensions, player departures and coach Jim Tressel’s forced resignation.
An Ohio native who was a graduate assistant at Ohio State in the mid-1980s, Meyer led Florida to two national championships. He stepped aside after the 2010 season citing health and family considerations and spent last year as a college football analyst at ESPN.
He conceded that his emotions got the best of him at least once.
"`Hang On Sloopy’ was kind of a touching moment, having grown up watching that," he said of the signature song played by the Ohio State band.
The scrimmage offered a glimpse of Meyer’s hurry-up offense. There were hits and misses as he and his staff try to find playmakers to run the scheme made famous at Florida by Chris Leak, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.
"It was fun getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands," said quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes’ top returning offensive threat who completed 24 of 31 passes for 258 yards with an interception. "I felt pretty good. We didn’t show too much today."
Kenny Guiton, calling signals for the Gray, was 17 of 26 for 191 yards with the late interception. He threw for a touchdown and ran for another. Guiton completed passes of 21 and 23 yards to Corey Brown to move the Gray downfield for a go-ahead touchdown.
Meyer had promised a pass-first scrimmage, but there weren’t a whole lot of big plays or offensive stars beyond the two quarterbacks and freshman wide receiver Michael Thomas, who had 12 catches for 131 yards. To put that into perspective, no Ohio State receiver had more than 14 receptions — total — last season.
The Buckeyes are trying to turn things around after going 6-7 and losing their final four games under interim coach Luke Fickell, who was retained by Meyer as the defensive coordinator.
The Buckeyes will not have a bowl game as motivation this fall because of NCAA sanctions. But the competitive juices were flowing right away after what players call the "circle drill" at midfield.
"It was fun. It was competitive. It got the crowd into it," Miller said of his time squaring off against Guiton. "We’re good friends. We were just competing. We were just laughing at each other, like, `Are we really in the circle drill together? That’s crazy.’"
Meyer praised the effort and enthusiasm, but also recognizes that the Buckeyes are far from game-ready. After the scrimmage, and after he had continued the Tressel tradition of joining the team in singing the alma mater in front of the band, he challenged his players.
"Yes, we identified our issues and we also identified our strengths," he said. "I just told them that it has to be the best offseason in the history of college football. That has to happen. It starts Monday.