The Ohio State Buckeyes enter a strange juncture of the 2012 season. While the team is 7-0 for the first time in a half decade and playing some of the most consistently entertaining football since the best parts of the now NCAA vacated 2010 campaign, a mental and/or physical checkout at the end of last week's Indiana campaign have many unable to see the season in context of anything else.
Fans are flooding message boards and sports talk radio stations alike to discuss firing Buckeye legacy and mastermind of three top 10 defenses as principle defensive principle play caller in the late 2000's, Luke Fickell. You see there's no way the issue at hand could remotely be the fault of a combination of injuries, recruiting swings and misses under the collective of the previous administration, nor the talented embryonic stars of defenses simply lacking the evolved football sensibilities to consistently matter this early in their college careers. Sure for every Noah Spence, a so freakishly talented hybrid end that potentially spelling some time at linebacker is rapidly becoming a viable option, there's a David Perkins who doesn't have the breadth of defense committed to memory not unlike a freshman struggling to stay near the top of the class in a first year Computer Engineering class.
And yet, advanced metrics (not to mention a broader view of the season as a whole) seem to see the situation at hand from a far more balanced, realistic perspective. Fact of the matter is that Ohio State's slate to point has been constituted by almost exclusively efficient offenses. And besides, after a while, "it's Indiana!" is a pretty weak over simplification when you try to explain the reasons why an extremely accomplished offensive architect like Kevin Wilson is calling the shots and having success on that side of the ball doing so.
For the hyper cynics, the good news is the same defensive efficiency metrics rate Ohio State's remaining opponents as the 74th easiest slate in the country (relative to their 28th rank for the offenses they've seen to date). From a more literal sense, the remaining schematic atributes of the teams comprising the rest of the Buckeyes schedule are also favorable. The more run oriented and less spread-lite pass offensive attacks, the better equipped this group (which is by no means recruited to counteract those) will be.
While in a perfect world (well...their perfect world) Danny Hope and the Purdue Boilermakers would fall into that latter camp, by virtue of a paltry passing game and a not much better rushing attack, they might be the closest thing to the medicine Ohio State's fans' bruised egos need to get past the cloaked reality of an unbeaten season and remember that the Buckeyes are still unscathed with few caveats.
Ohio State is as high as 19 point favorites now in some notable sports books. And it's not at all by accident.
Purdue's three headed monster under center is an extended epitomization of the cliche, "if you've got two quarterbacks, you don't have any." The Boilermakers ostensibly have three at their disposal, but none of them are particularly the sort of signal callers you feel anything more than anxiety having to win you games. Sure there was last season's mercy game extension [via Drew Basil fail] and subsequent chicanery which let Robert Marve experience his first on field glory since that time he filled in for an injured Jim Kelly while still at Miami, but outside of comfy confines of Purdue's homefield, The Stanley Hotel, they'll be hard pressed to recreate the (black) magic.
Caleb TerBush is listed as the starter on Purdue's, which is only an honor when you ignore the fact that is also means he's the first quarterback to be substituted for. 27th year journey man (and alleged Nevin Shapiro snitch) Robert Marve has been the least terrible during stretches this season while the other assistant to the regional quarterback, Rob Henry, reminds us all that he too once did quasi-successful football things.
Can any of these guys be a difference maker Saturday? Of course. If Purdue returns to their basketball on grass roots and one (or a Island of Dr Moreau-esque hybrid) QB plays within themselves and the receives bring their A-games, anything's possible. More realistically? It's going to be a mixed bag of frustration with long plays being supplemented by turnovers.
A pair of Akeem's (/obligatory "GOOD MORNING MY NEIGHBORS" joke) share the wealth at running back. Cumulatively they help form what's been the 64th best rushing attack in the nation, but a hair under average. Sophomore Akeem Hunt found long play success against Wisconsin in the form of a late 81 yard touchdown run and might be worth keeping an eye on given Ohio State's defenses track record against those this season. The Texas product senior (and starter) Akeem Shavers averaged a completely respectable 5.6 yards per carry against Bucky Badger. He managed a far more pedestrian 3.4 against the Wolverines a week prior, however. While slightly undersized, these guys don't quite fit the quarkback territory which seemed to burn the Bucks against Cal. Even given the thinness at linebacker, if Ohio State manages to keep the pair in front of them, they should survive.
Senior Antavian Edison leads Purdue in receiving on the year with 371 yards and 5 TDs. Not far behind is senior Gary Bush, one of several Miami natives on this Boilermakers team. O.J. Ross is the other starter at wide out and has 299 yards on 38 catches to his name. Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright share the responsibilities at tight end, and both inexplicably have right around 87 yards receiving on the year. Somewhere Stills, Nash, and Young smile approvingly.
Purdue's line is dominated by upperclassmen. The OR starters at left tackle are juniors Justin Kitchens and Kevin Pamphile. The two guards are relative giants, with 6'6" fifth year senior Peters Drey starting at left guard and 6'7" junior Michigander Devin Smith the right guard. Cincinnati product senior Rick Schmeig is the center. Another junior, Trevor Foy, fills things out at right tackle. While this group could certainly use the likes of former all-Big Ten tackle Dennis Kelly, now of the Philadelphia Eagles, Hope's background on the line helps ensure it's not a full on train wreck. They certainly didn't look the part against Wisconsin's front four, but there are worse o-lines in the Big Ten, for whatever that's worth.
Purdue, under first year DC (and former holder of the same job with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes) Tim Tibesar, looked into incorporating a 3-4 defense over the offseason with mixed results. The team still lists their base formation at 4-3 though perhaps will go multiple at times. Kawann Short is the name to know and you probably are already well acquainted with. The fact that with 54 tackles, 17.5 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks in 2011 he wasn't first-team all-Big Ten is pretty much straight up heresy. Short already has 18 tackles, 9 for a loss, and 4 sacks with 5 games to go. The DT will keep Corey Linsley and co. on their toes much of the afternoon.
Defensive end Ryan Russell is the Boilermakers' likely second best d-lineman. The sophomore has two sacks on the season and should be all-Big Ten by 2013 at the latest. He's flanked opposite by Ryan Isaac who's supplemented by Bruce Gaston as the tackle closest to him. Defensive line coach Kevin Wolthausen, who's also in his first year after stints with U.S.C., Arizona State, Louisville, and Oklahoma (not to mention the UFL's Las Vegas Locomotives), has a pretty solid group at his disposal. Their predecessors were in the backfield almost all day last year against Ohio State and while this offensive line is much better coached and a better fit for this offense, they might represent Purdue's best chance to wreak havoc on the Buckeyes' offensive attack.
Junior Will Lucas, the starting weakside linebacker, leads the team in tackles with 33 total. He's also got 3.5 tackles for a loss and a pick. Former three-star sophomore Joe Gilliam brings a burst of speed from the middle linebacker position. Robert Maci, a 5th year senior, starts at strong side, and while respectable is probably not a world beater.
The secondary tasked with slowing down Tom Herman and Braxton Miller's vertical passing game begins with junior Ricardo Allen. He and partner in crime, senior Josh Johnson are battle born but were last year forced to make far too many tackles from the cornerback position and the first two thirds of 2012 haven't been much of a departure from this. Strong safety Landon Feichter leads the team in turnovers forced with an impressive three interceptions on the year. Free safety Taylor Richards, who looked solid against Western Michigan in last year's Little Caesars Bowl, plays his role just fine. Johnson is probably the most "prolific" playmaker in the bunch, but none of the four can be slept on if Ohio State is going to be able to pursue the offensive balance they covet.
Ohio State has every reason to want to come out with all cylinders filing. With Urban Meyer taking an increased role in the defense, Luke Fickell and Everett Withers undoubtedly feel the pressure to turn things up and even in spite of a paper thin linebacking core, can't look anything but better this week.
Purdue brings a worse offense to the table than Ohio State's last several opponents and unless they've finally figured out how to transport the wish granting gypsy from "Big" with them to the Horseshoe, this should be a return to spread covering form for Urban, et al.
Holy diver. Ohio State 37 - Purdue 17.