Whether the Ohio State football team plays in the BCS National Championship Game at the end of the season could be determined in part by the strength of its non-conference schedule. San Diego State’s season-opening 21-point loss to Eastern Illinois won’t help the Buckeyes in that capacity.
OSU was originally scheduled to play Vanderbilt this Saturday before the Commodores canceled that contest in October 2012 because of schedule changes in the Southeastern Conference. That left the Buckeyes scrambling to find a new non-conference opponent for the second game of their 2013 schedule. Enter the Aztecs.
Instead of an SEC opponent, the Buckeyes are now scheduled to play a team who fell to a non-NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision school. Eastern Illinois plays in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, a level of Division I college football one step below the FBS.
Aztecs coach Rocky Long said his team played “terrible” in the 40-19 loss.
“We’re a pretty hurting football team right now,” Long said during a media teleconference Monday. “We expected to play better than we did. We were bad on offense, defense and special teams.”
After losing to an underdog opponent, SDSU will be trying to turn the tables against the No. 3 Buckeyes Saturday.
“We know we’re playing a great football team in Ohio State this weekend,” Long said. “We’re hoping to fix some things that we did wrong and play a competitive football game.”
Although the Aztecs are coming off of a 21-point loss, junior linebacker Curtis Grant said the Buckeyes will not take their opponent lightly.
“Everybody’s respected, so they got the same respect as anybody else that steps into the ‘Shoe,” Grant said. “When that ball sets down, it’s go time.”
The Aztecs put up 440 total yards of offense, but were beset by four interceptions thrown by redshirt-junior quarterback Adam Dingwell. Dingwell threw for 318 yards, but only completed 27 of 63 passing attempts.
Both Long and SDSU quarterbacks coach Brian Sipe expressed confidence in Dingwell bouncing back against the Buckeyes and said there are no current plans to make a quarterback change.
“I don’t expect (Dingwell) to struggle,” Sipe said Monday. “I don’t see him on a hot seat. I’m absolutely convinced and I think the players are that he’s our man … he has intangibles that are very important to this team and I expect him to play well on Saturday.”
Dingwell said he takes responsibility for the loss.
“I’ll put that loss on my shoulders,” Dingwell said during a press conference Tuesday. “I didn’t play well enough for us to win, I didn’t get the ball in the end zone and that’s my job as a quarterback and a leader on this team. I’ve watched the film, I’ve seen what I’ve done wrong and now I just have to go out there and practice and (get) better.”
While Sipe expects Dingwell to play better, he also expects the Aztecs’ offense to have a better balance between passing and running plays against the Buckeyes, after passing on 64 of 99 offensive plays last week.
“(Running a balanced offense) was (offensive coordinator Bob) Toledo’s intent going into the season, we just found ourselves backed into a corner,” Sipe said. “Statistics tend to get skewed when that happens, but absolutely, we run a balanced offense here.”
The Aztecs’ ability to run a balanced offense may have been affected by the loss of redshirt-junior running back Adam Muema, who left the game early due to an ankle injury. Long said Tuesday he expects Muema, who ran for 1,458 yards and 16 touchdowns last season but only gained 17 yards on 10 carries before his injury last week, to be “full speed” for Saturday.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday Muema could be the best running back the Buckeyes face all year.
“When he went down, they weren’t quite the same,” Meyer said. “We’re preparing to see a heavy dose of No. 4 (Muema).”
SDSU gained a total of 122 yards on 35 carries versus Eastern Illinois. While Muema’s injury may have played a factor in the Aztecs’ game on the ground, senior left tackle Bryce Quigley said responsibility also falls on the offensive line.
“We have to be more physical up front,” Quigley said Monday. “We didn’t prove that we can run the ball. If we don’t do it on the field, then we have to resort to the passing game.”
Defensively, the Aztecs are looking to bounce back after giving up 533 yards and six touchdowns to the Panthers.
Meyer said the SDSU defense, whose base scheme uses three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, could present a challenge.
“It’s an odd-stacked 3-3-5 defense that they blitz, high percentage of pressures,” Meyer said Monday. “Their movement, they are a chaos defense that play really hard with some good players.”
Redshirt senior safety Nat Berhe said the defense has to “move on” from the disappointment of last week.
“I think we came in and we thought it was going to be easy, and that’s our fault,” Berhe said Monday. “We have to get everybody on the same page.”
The Aztecs won’t be underestimating their opponent this week. Long said Tuesday he thinks OSU might be the “best team in the country.”
“They’re as good as anybody else I’ve seen on film over the past 2-3 years,” Long said.
Long said he considers OSU junior quarterback Braxton Miller to be the “leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.”
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s got a great arm,” Long said Tuesday. “He’s improved his accuracy tremendously since last year, and not only that, he’s a really big running threat. He’s hard to tackle, he makes people miss, he can outrun people. Let’s just put on ESPN and (see) what they say about him, because it’s all true.”
The key to holding Miller in check will be whether or not SDSU can bring pressure and get to the quarterback, redshirt-junior defensive end Cody Galea said.
“He’s a good quarterback, but they’re all the same,” Galea said. “If you hit them enough times, they’re not going to play as well, so you just got to get there.”
As for Meyer, Long said he considers his counterpart to be “one of the top five coaches in the country.”
“I think there’s a lot of good football coaches in the country,” Long said. “There are a few coaches in this country that have, I call it, magic. They have a special feel or touch that make their teams a little bit better than other teams that have similar talent. And now (Meyer is) at a place that he’s got really, really good talent, so he’s a great coach and he’s got talent with a little bit of special magic.”
While Long had no shortage of praise for the Buckeyes, he said he is more concerned with his team improving than he is about the competition.
“I sense that our team is upset and embarrassed about the way they played, and they’re more worried about getting better than they are about who they play,” Long said.
Long said there are multiple benefits to playing OSU, including the $1.2 million that SDSU receives for the game, according to an Associated Press report.
“There’s some real financial benefits,” Long said Tuesday. “No. (3), it gives your players an opportunity to compete against the best. Everybody that’s a competitive athlete wants to try to compete against the best to see where they stack up, so that’s the case, if we are competitive and play well, it could help some other things.”
The Buckeyes will likely be considered heavy favorites to win this game following SDSU’s loss, but Long made it clear the team has not lost confidence in its goal of winning the Mountain West Conference title this season.
“One game does not make a season,” Long said. “We’ve got a lot more games to play.”
Kickoff between the 1-0 Buckeyes and 0-1 Aztecs is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium.