Ohio State enters its’ season finale on Saturday vs. Michigan at 11-0. The following are the 11 biggest reasons the Buckeyes have avoided defeat so far — along with a few reasons and notes that pertain to their chances of being 12-0 by late Saturday afternoon.
1. Braxton Miller
The sophomore quarterback has been a battering ram — and very rarely has he been anything but great. His passing is still a work in progress, but he’s been both a dynamic runner and a productive, dangerous player who seems comfortable as the focal point of an evolving offense. His future is very bright, and when it comes to the final game of 2012 there’s little doubt who will key everything the Buckeyes do offensively.
2. Urban Meyer
Is he really No. 1? Probably, considering the way he’s reshaped everything around the Ohio State program. But he will neither make or break a tackle on Saturday against Michigan, so he falls to No. 2 here. What Meyer has done this season is both remarkable and downright scary for the rest of the Big Ten, and he’s just getting started. The Buckeyes have played pressure-free football all season and now will play for everything on Saturday, but Meyer’s track record says his players will be ready.
3. The senior class
Meyer gets choked up talking about this group of 21 seniors, and frankly that’s understandable. A senior class that spent almost as much time on the suspended list as it did on the field played a big part in the turmoil of last year’s 6-7 season, and the leadership provided by this group, this year has been invaluable. Zach Boren has more than done his part, John Simon has been a nightmare for opposing offenses and seniors have made contributions and delivered in key moments on just about every level.
4. An improved – and improving – defense
Early in the season, the same bad habits when it came to poor tackling and poor angles kept showing up, and the Buckeyes were giving up too many big plays and struggling to put teams away. Big defensive efforts at Penn State and Wisconsin in big moments showed marked improvement, and with Michigan’s big-play ability, the defense will need to make sure its old habits don’t show up again.
5. The belief is back
This one goes to Meyer, and all his coaches, and the seniors. Confidence is contagious. The Buckeyes staying relatively healthy has helped, too, but more than anything this group has played confidently. Coming from two scores down with backup quarterback Kenny Guiton to beat Purdue in overtime is a credit to Meyer and his staff developing Guiton and making him believe he can play at this level. Guiton is far from the only one, and the way Ohio State has developed players at varying levels of the depth will serve them well both Saturday against a Michigan team that appears to be peaking at the right time and well into the future.
6. The offensive line
The spread offense is still new at Ohio State, and it’s still evolving. But it’s been mostly a smashmouth spread, and the fact that the Buckeyes’ rank ninth nationally in rushing offense at just over 245 yards per game says the holes have been there for Miller, Carlos Hyde and all others involved. Going back to the spring, Meyer would probably single out the offensive line as the group that’s made the biggest strides. Michigan is giving up 151 yards per game on the ground rushing this year, and it’s no secret how Ohio State would like to go about winning this game.
7. A path paved in … gold?
Ohio State played a bunch of nobody’s in the non-conference schedule and has certainly benefited from a down year in the Big Ten. Road wins at Michigan State and Wisconsin are impressive in almost any season, and probably the Buckeyes’ best game came in drubbing of likely Legends Division champion Nebraska last month. Most importantly, they’ve scored more points than 11 opponents, even on the days they’ve lacked style points. This team isn’t perfect, but its bottom line is.
8. The defensive line
Meyer calls Simon “the heart and soul of the program” and “the best,” that’s when he’s not in the mood for hyperbole. Johnathan Hankins has been dominant in stretches, too, and though this defensive line isn’t as deep or overall as athletic as Meyer would like (and will have in the future) it’s been a group that’s set the tone in many games and delivered in some of the biggest spots. Simon has nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss on the year — he had four sacks in last week’s overtime win at Wisconsin.
9. A long list of heroes
Chris Fields hadn’t caught a pass all year until the Purdue game, and then he made the touchdown grab that led to the two-point conversion to send it to overtime. Orhian Johnson isn’t technically a starter, but he’s become one of Meyer’s favorite players. Hyde was hurt early in the year and wasn’t on top of the depth chart until the Big Ten season was underway, but he has run for 15 touchdowns. It’s been an up and down year, too, for Corey Brown, but wasn’t his punt return touchdown last week pretty crucial? The list goes on. Again, the Buckeyes collectively and individually have made great strides to get to this point.
10. Last line of defense
Cornerback Bradley Roby is a top talent, and for most of the season, he’s played like it. Travis Howard is a different player as a senior, and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett have been pretty consistent, as well. It’s Michigan that comes into this game with a statistical ranking as the nation’s top pass defense, but the Buckeyes feel very good about the contributions and leadership they’ve received all season from their secondary. Both teams want to run first (and second) Saturday, so Barnett and Bryant’s ability to provide run support and limit big plays will be key.
11. Up for the challenge
Meyer coming in and almost everyone starting anew provided a challenge for every player, from the longest-tenured seniors to the wide-eyed freshmen. Meyer’s systems, philosophies and willingness to publicly demand better were new, too, and the Buckeyes have responded well. Three key road wins — Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin — set the stage for this to be possible, and the Buckeyes bring plenty of momentum into the game everybody always remembers. It’s hard to imagine anything vs. Michigan besides a close one that will ultimately be decided in the fourth quarter. It’s a season that will end up being two games short because of the postseason ban, but finishing at home against Michigan with an undefeated season at stake is about as good as it gets.