COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer has not hidden his dissatisfaction with the way his Ohio State team has played this season.
So, with his team hitting the road for the first time in its Big Ten opener at Michigan State on Saturday, he switched gears and accentuated the positive.
“I know we’re Ohio State, and there’s all kinds of expectations here,” he said Monday. “I still am not giving up. I think by the end of the year this might be a hell of a football team. I mean, it might be sooner than that.”
In his first year at the helm of the Buckeyes, Meyer has been brutally frank in his evaluations of players and positions. After Saturday’s closer-than-expected 29-15 victory over 37-point underdog UAB, he followed his usual pattern and climbed all over his team.
He said after the game that his players were very passive, that it pained him to watch at times, that the Buckeyes had depth issues and were playing too many freshmen and that he was disappointed with all aspects.
Then, with those criticisms still ringing in their ears, he threw a change-up at them.
Meyer had a short clip of highlights created that he showed to the Buckeyes on Sunday. Here was offensive tackle Reid Fragel laying out a defender 10 yards downfield, there was defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins leveling a ball carrier. The offense looked invincible, the defense was unyielding.
Meyer said the video made the players feel better about themselves. Since he said he felt terrible about his team after the game, it also improved his spirits.
“I just put together a reel of four drives and it was about as well as we’ve played all year,” he said.
With a grin, he added, “I did that more for me, I think. I have to eat lunch and I wasn’t about to eat lunch after what I saw.”
The players loved it.
“I felt better, even more so than about myself, but the entire offense,” center Corey Linsley said. “It kind of showed everybody how good we can be.”
The star of the show, Fragel, a converted tight end who is still learning the tackle position, said it was a refreshing change.
“Coach Meyer kind of mixed it up on us a little bit,” Fragel said. “Normally we come in and we watch the entire (previous game) film. What he wanted to do was show us the positive drives that we had, focusing on the positives instead of the negatives and the bad things.”
Meyer knows his team cannot continue to play as erratically and sporadically as it has in its four victories so far. Forget expectations and point spreads, the Buckeyes have had difficulty moving the ball at times and have had a hard time stopping other teams. There have been stupid penalties, missed assignments and turnovers. The result has been a perfect record even though cracks have been visible on both sides of the ball and in special teams.
Michigan State (3-1), which is also disappointed by its early play, provides a perfect gauge of whether the Buckeyes are actually learning from their mistakes.
“One thing about this team, when it’s time to go win a game, to date they’ve gone and won a game,” Meyer said. “But we are what we are right now, and that’s just a workmanlike team that has to get better.”
Hitting the road for the first time will be a challenge, since Meyer says Ohio State is playing more freshmen than any other team in the nation. Only two Buckeyes have ever even seen action in a game at Michigan State, which hung an ugly 10-7 shiner on Ohio State a year ago that was built on nine sacks and its gritty running game.
A blank slate awaits in the Big Ten.
“You could feel it at practice yesterday,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “It’s a whole different mentality around here. I can’t really explain what it is, you know it’s different. It just feels different.”
After games against predominantly passing teams that like to throw short and keep the pocket pressure to a minimum, defensive co-coordinator Everett Withers said his unit welcomes playing the black-and-blue preferences of the Michigan State offense. The focal point is 6-foot-2, 244-pound Columbus native Le’Veon Bell, the nation’s third-leading rusher at 153 yards per game.
“This (Spartans) offense fits more with what we are,” Withers said. “This is a traditional Big Ten offense.”
Meyer said the trip to Spartan Stadium will provide a grade card for how far his team has come — and also how far it has yet to go.
“By the end of the year I think people will be thinking and saying great things about Ohio State,” the glass-half-full Meyer said. “I really do, if we continue to grow and mature.”