After three games, Ohio State remains undefeated, although you might not know it from reading the message boards. Big Ten play is just around the corner, but the Buckeyes must first battle the UAB Blazers, a team that is mostly unknown to the Columbus faithful.
There is a reason for this. UAB isn't some hipster midmajor with a long, proud history that "you probably haven't heard of yet". They joined FBS in 1996, have made exactly one bowl game, and haven't won more than 5 games since 2005. The Blazers went 3-9 last season, where they mixed occasional saltiness with spectacular bouts of uncompetitiveness. They upset #20 ranked Southern Miss 34-31, then lost to a winless FAU team the next week. They topped preseason CUSA favorite UCF 26-24, then lost by 39 points to Tulane. TULANE. It's hard to keep a D1 coaching job if you're losing to Tulane by 39 points, and UAB coach Neil Callaway didn't.
UAB is now run by former Arkansas Offensive Coordinator (and Northwestern assistant) Garrick McGee. The Blazers sit at 0-2 now, after dropping a close game to Troy and a blowout to South Carolina. Will they suffer a similar fate at the hands of the Buckeyes, or can they hang around for a while, like OSU's previous opponents?OFFENSE
The Blazers are led by their quarterback, junior Jonathan Perry. Perry improved over the course of last year, completing 62% of his passes over the last six games of the season, topped by a 410 yard effort against Memphis. He isn't quite at that pace this season, but he's been respectable, going for 536 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT with a 52% completion percentage. Perry doesn't have legs like Braxton Miller (though really, who does?), but he isn't immobile. Perry ran for 46 yards and a TD against Troy but was sacked 5 times against South Carolina.
The strength of the Blazer offense is at the skill positions, particularly their receiving corps. They average 282.5 yards a game passing (good for 30th in the country), and returned nearly every pass catching threat from the previous season. Junior Jackie Williams is the leader of the group. He caught 58 passes last season, and has 11 grabs for 202 yards so far this year. Williams is flanked by senior Patrick Hearn (11 catches, 174 yards), senior Nick Adams (4 catches for 28 yards), and sophomore Jamarcus Nelson (team best 21.1 yards per catch last season, 2 catches for 55 and a TD this year). Williams is somebody who caught some preseason all-CUSA love, but Perry has multiple weapons that are capable of making catches.
That's fortunate for the Blazers, because they have been totally incapable of running the football. They're currently 117th in the country in rushing yards at 80.5 a game. Big sophomore Darrin Reaves is the leading rusher with a measly 58 yards, although junior Greg Franklin will get carries as well. Perry technically has the most carries on the team with 24, but averages a paltry 1.6 YPC. Overall, the Blazers haven't had a run longer than 16 yards in two games, and average a mindbogglingly low 1.9 YPC. While McGee would undoubtedly love his running game to share more of the production, if UAB is going to enjoy offensive success, it appears it will need to run through Perry.
A big reason for that, as is usually the case, is poor play along the offensive line. UAB actually had a decent line last season, and certainly an experienced one, as the 2011 squad had 118 career starts along the line, 3rd most in all of college football. Five of the six linemen with starting experience have now graduated, including all-conference takle Matt McCants. Chris Hubbard is the lone returning linemen at tackle and while he's solid (Phil Steele also had him as a preseason all-CUSA candidate), the rest of the crew is green and has played like it. Senior Cody Pane, who has bounced all over multiple positions starts at guard, along with sophomore Brian O'Leary, Kyle Hix stands in as the Blazer's undersized center. Both QB protection and run-blocking have been issues so far for UAB, and this group is going to need to play out of their minds to avoid being overrun by OSU's formidable defensive front.
Sorry if I offend any Blazer fans here, but I have to be blunt: UAB's defense was a tire fire last season, and it doesn't look like it's a whole lot better so far this year. They're giving up 44 points per game, good for 123rd in the country. This squad gave up 38 points to Florida Atlantic, 35 to Memphis, and 49 to Tulane last year (seriously, Tulane!! That's a FCS school that just happens to play in the Superdome), and that was a relatively experienced group. The Blazers replaced seven starters from last year, and the results have not been particularly promising.
The defensive line was particularly horrible last year, but they at least had a built in excuse, as all six returning linemen with at least 5 tackles were underclassmen. Sophomore end Diaheem Watkins might be the best of the bunch, as he was second in tackles on the team last year as a freshman, and apparently had a strong offseason. His running mate on the other end, Connor Boyett, made the switch to tackle, leaving Watkins without an experienced co-defensive end, and leaving the Blazers a little undersized in the depth chart on the line. Chris Walton and Trey Grisset fill out the group, and I mean that a bit literally, as both packed on a little extra size over the offseason.
The star of this defensive unit appears to be senior linebacker Marvin Burdette, who had 92 tackles and may be one of the best linebackers in the conference. He's flanked by fellow seniors Greg Irvin (66 tackles) and D.A. Autry (39 tackles). There isn't a whole lot of depth behind these three however, particularly at the weakside.
The secondary will need to be completely rebuilt, as this unit was hit the hardest by graduation. Cornelius Richards is the only one of the squad's top four corners returning. He'll be joined by Lamar Johnson and Cortez Webb at safety, and then a whole lot of youth. Jake Ganus, one of the new safeties, already has an interception on the year. The good news is that inexperience may not be a bad thing when last year's defensive unit didn't perform well. The bad news is, well, that's an awfully young defensive backfield heading into the 'Shoe tomorrow.
Despite newfound offensive innovation coming out of Columbus, it's been a little tricky to get the Buckeye faithful totally excited about the early season slate this year, if ticket sales and stadium volume are any indication. I wouldn't except that to change too much this week, since this looks to be a really bad matchup on paper.
UAB feels like a worse version of Miami. OSU should be able to force the Blazers to be one dimensional on offense, and Jonathan Perry isn't the QB that Zac Dysert is. If OSU brings the kind of pressure that they did against Cal, they should be able to overpower an inexperienced and undersized line and either sack Perry, or force him into making bad decisions. The Blazers may be able to sneak a few big plays past a somewhat questionable OSU secondary, as others have done, but it's hard to see a way for them to sustain multiple drives.
OSU should be able to exploit the youth and size mismatches all across UAB's defense in multiple ways, ideally providing enough of a cushion to let Braxton Miller take some time off, and give Dunn or Smith a few carries. You never say never, because we expected the Cal game to not be as close and a 3rd string RB torched us for a gazillion yards...but this game should not be close.
Holy Diver Ohio State burnanates UAB 52-7, with Miller getting a chance cool his heels before the Big Ten slog starts next week.