(Left) Andrew Holleran / Photo editor, (Right) Courtesy of MCT
What’s the mindset of a 37-point favorite Ohio State football team?
It might be a lot of things.
For one, Saturday’s game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham could be a tune-up for the Buckeyes before they enter Big Ten play on Sept. 29 against No. 21 Michigan State in Spartan Stadium.
It might be a chance for No. 16 OSU to showcase its attempt at remedying tackling woes shown throughout its first three games of the season.
It could be an opportunity – score permitting – for the Buckeyes to rest some of its starters and give others the chance to gain experience they might not see otherwise this year.
Regardless of the approach, first-year coach Urban Meyer and a handful of players said they aren’t making the mistake of looking past their opponent at hand.
“We’re gonna play hard because we practiced real hard,” Meyer said Wednesday.
In what might have been a difficult week to command concentration for a team facing its fourth straight noon non-conference game against perceived inferior competition, Meyer said the Buckeyes haven’t wavered in their focus.
It’s not a difficult demand, he said.
“I think if we were playing great, it would be (a difficult week) because you would see a team overlooking a team,” Meyer said.
And with winless UAB ranked 123rd out of 124 teams in scoring defense and 110th in scoring offense, the temptation to think about next week’s game against the Spartans rather than the one at hand might be challenging.
Despite the Blazers’ two-way misery, though, Meyer thinks UAB could exploit weaknesses in the Buckeyes’ defense.
“This is a very good team that has athletes all over the place,” Meyer said, “and they launch it down the field and we haven’t been stellar on pass coverage.”
It’s why senior captain and defensive lineman John Simon isn’t concerned about a team-wide breakdown in effort.
There won’t be necessarily any speeches from Simon this time around.
“I don’t think you have to tell them anything, we’ve had two close games – I mean, three tough games in a row,” he said. “So really (it’s) just making sure that we come into this game not taking anything for granted, they got a lot of skill position players, a great O-Line so, I mean, they’re a dual threat team on the run game and the pass game.”
ClichÃ©, but some Buckeyes said they’re just taking it one game at a time – even with the temptation to dwell on MSU.
“Sometimes it’s a little trouble not looking forward to it cause it’s the Big Ten opener, it’s Michigan State and everything,” said sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier. “I know they’re probably talking some type of junk or whatever. But we’re going to take it one week at a time, one game at a time, so we’re just taking care of UAB right now and getting ready for them and then we’ll get ready for Michigan State.”
And getting ready for the Spartans might mean shoring up a defense that gave up 160 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries by one running back.
In last Saturday’s 35-28 win against California, Golden Bears running back Brendan Bigelow gashed the Buckeyes’ defense for totes of 81 and 59 yards – the former being the longest run ever given up inside the confines of Ohio Stadium.
After three missed tackles precipitated Bigelow’s historic run, perhaps unsurprisingly, Meyer said he’s stressed the fundamental skill throughout the week.
“It was a tough week for some people who have to learn how to tackle better,” he said.
Part of it, Meyer said, was because of stress over other things.
“We made such an emphasis because of lack of turnovers, and I heard it and I listened, ‘Strip the ball, strip the ball,’ and, you know, I think there’s an element before strip the ball and that’s put their butt on the ground,” he said.
Shazier credits laziness for the defense’s struggles tackling.
“It’s human nature, some people get lazy or whatever but we can’t let this happen going into the Big Ten season and everything,” he said. “The thing about tackling is it’s a basic part of the game, everybody should know how to tackle and we (are) just being too lazy, not wrapping up, or really just haven’t been finishing through.”
For Shazier, the contest against UAB is a chance to work on exactly that.
“I’m really happy we have this game to get us ready for the season,” he said.
But the sophomore doesn’t exactly expect the Blazers to roll over.
“Coach Meyer was just telling us the other day like, don’t be surprised by the athletic ability of some of these guys because a lot of these guys are really good athletes,” he said.
But for Meyer, that’s not an excuse.
“We better be better,” he said.
OSU is scheduled to kick off their last non-conference game of the season Saturday at noon in Ohio Stadium.