COLUMBUS — It was an especially long, cold winter for The Ohio State University.
A relatively stress-free 2006 season for the Buckeyes, who had been top-ranked since the dog days of summer, came down to a stunning, humiliating conclusion on Jan. 8 before millions of viewers in the BCS national championship game.
It became an enduring black eye: Florida 41, Ohio State 14.
Now, while looking ahead to a season of promise in 2007, the Buckeyes still must shake off the flashbacks from that final game of last season.
“I don’t think that there’s any question in the back of everybody’s mind — I mean, how does it not?” defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said when asked whether that game affects this year’s squad. “You’d be crazy to think that it doesn’t. I don’t know that there’s many days that something doesn’t come up that you think about it.”
The loss of so many well-known standouts from last year’s team — Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith, wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr., tailback Antonio Pittman, three defensive linemen, two starters in the secondary — may actually make it easier for the Buckeyes to purge those dreadful memories. Or, at least, that’s the hope.
“I think they’ve probably been beat up enough. We’re ready to move on,” Heacock said of the returning players.
A year ago, the Buckeyes returned only two starters on defense but there were enough spare parts and budding stars around to come up with a stellar unit. This year the replacements are needed on the other side of the ball.
“Considering that everyone thinks we are about to be the worst team in the Big Ten on offense, it seems, we’ll be all right,” returning offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. “I never get too high or too low about things. You know, ‘We’ll have to win every game 6-0 and kick two field goals and hopefully our defense throws a shutout.’ I let things play out.”
The defense features All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had 115 tackles to win the Nagurski Award. Marcus Freeman is also back at linebacker, along with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and free safety Anderson Russell, who missed the second half of last year with a knee injury. Vernon Gholston is an enforcer on the line.
“We wanted to shut out every team we played last year,” Laurinaitis said. “We didn’t go into the games saying, ‘Hey, we can relax a little bit because our offense is going to score 40-some points.’ So even if you let up 14 points, we look at that as hurtful.”
There are plenty of quality candidates to fill any vacancies. Lawrence Wilson at defensive end, linebacker Larry Grant (one of the few seniors on the entire roster) and strong safety Kurt Coleman all seem primed for prime time.
On the other side of the ball, the line appears to be a strength, where Barton, fellow tackle Alex Boone, guard Steve Rehring and tight end Rory Nichol are back. But there are lots of holes everywhere, despite a number of strong candidates.
That includes at quarterback, where Todd Boeckman, Robbie Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton are vying for the job. Boeckman was No. 2 last year and has a slight edge, but don’t be surprised if all three get to prove themselves against the Buckeyes’ soft non-conference schedule (I-AA Youngstown State, Akron, Washington and Kent State).
“We have guys that you really haven’t heard about who are waiting in the wings who are just as talented,” Boeckman said. “We recruit guys who are the best players in the country. They’re just going to wait for their chance and hopefully they’ll do a lot of great things for us this year.”
Chris “Beanie” Wells steps in for Pittman at tailback. He was one of the most acclaimed high school players in the country, then backed it up by rushing for 576 yards and seven TDs as a freshman. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, he’s able to punish defenders inside and has enough acceleration to pick up yardage out wide. He’ll likely get lots of work while the introductions are made in the huddle.
Wells would have no problem with Ohio State turning back the clock to “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
“It seems OK, but you have to put it in the perspective of what the game plan is and what team we’re playing and how it fits in with our scheme,” he said. Then he grinned.
Both kickers are also back, although the loss of the speedy Ginn is particularly troublesome since he would have been the perfect return weapon with the new rule pushing kickoffs back 5 yards to the 30. Remember, he took back the opening kickoff against Florida — oops, there’s another shot to the heart of the Buckeyes — before everything turned to ashes for the guys in scarlet and gray.
Head coach Jim Tressel seemed immune to criticism while rolling to a 62-13 record with a national championship in his six seasons leading up to the BCS final. But in the days immediately after, he was criticized for not having his team ready against the Gators and for not adapting during the game as it got out of hand.
“I would think all of our people who came up short in a big opportunity will use that often,” he said. “It’s a great reminder when you don’t do as well as you can.”
The Buckeyes need to win — and soon — to finally rid themselves of such “reminders.”