Friday November 2nd, 2007

They are a rock in this season of upheaval; of Appy State over Michigan and Stanford over USC. In 2007, Ohio State stands as a traditional bulwark against the gatecrashers swarming the BCS Top 10 -- your BC Eagles and Arizona State Sun Devils; your Oregons and Kansas Jayhawks and Mizzous. Going into Saturday's game against No. 21 Wisconsin, the undefeated Buckeyes stand atop the BCS poll. And that, frankly, rates as one of the larger surprises in a season of them.

Was it so wrong to expect Ohio State to fade from view for a season or two? Following its 41-14 pratfall against Florida in last season's national title game, this humbled program commenced hemorrhaging studs.

No, it was not wrong to expect his team to enter a valley, Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman assured me earlier this week. "I guess after you lose a Heisman Trophy quarterback [Troy Smith], a 1,200-yard rusher [Antonio Pittman] and two first-round draft picks at receiver" -- Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez -- "it's tough to say this is going to be a Top 5 team. But among ourselves, we knew we had the guys."

Forgive me, Todd, for jumping to the unfair conclusion that you would spearhead a regression in the Buckeye offense; from the wide-open pyrotechnics of the Troy Smith era back to the dink-and-dunk days of Craig Krenzel. Certainly we heard those phrases in the preseason that are uttered around caretaker quarterbacks. He's got enough talent around him ... All we're asking him to do is not lose it for us.

"Todd is a different player from Troy, but he's also a different player from Craig Krenzel and from Steve Bellisari." The speaker is Gonzalez, the ex-Buckeye slot receiver who lived with Boeckman for three years. Gonzo now backs up Marvin Harrison for the Indianapolis Colts, who took him in the first round of last spring's draft. (His friend and bookend, Ginn, was taken 10th overall by Miami). "What Todd does, that Ohio State hasn't done a whole lot of lately, is he throws the deep ball a lot. We took our shots, certainly, but they're throwing the ball downfield a lot more than we did."

Ask the poor Penn State corners, whom Boeckman picked on right out of the gate in a commanding 37-17 win in Happy Valley last Saturday. A 6-5, 243-pound junior lauded for his accuracy and vision, Boeckman hit wide out Brian Robiskie for a 27-yard gain on Ohio State's second play from scrimmage. On his first pass the next series, he connected with quicksilver Z receiver Ray Small for a 60-yard gain.

A polite, intelligent product of St. Henry (Ohio), where he was a four-year starter, Boeckman nonetheless strikes a cocksure note as he talks about taking what the defense gives him. "If I see that they're stacked at the line, I'm gonna hit 'em over the top."

The confidence in his tone is a measure of how far he's come in just two months. Asked to name the area in which he's improved the most, Boeckman speaks of a skyrocketing "confidence level ... the more reps you get, the more comfortable you're going to feel." Each passing week, he says, adds to his knowledge of "what my guys do best."

By "his guys," he means The Brians, who've proved to Buckeye Nation that there is life after Ginn and Gonzo. In alphabetical order, they are:

Brian Hartline: a lanky, 6-3, 190-pound wide out from North Canton, Ohio, "B-Hart" is the older brother of Mike Hartline, the backup to quarterback Andre Woodson of Kentucky. (Brian, in fact, was quarterback at North Canton until his brother "was ready", says the elder Hartline -- a euphemism, one suspects, for "beat me out.") A ferocious competitor, Hartline made a huge impression on the Buckeye coaches in summer camp before his junior season. (A good thing, since a broken leg cost him his senior season).

He does everything at one speed, says Buckeyes receivers coach Darrell Hazell. All out. A slot receiver like Gonzalez, Hartline "has a knack for finding soft spots in zones," says Gonzo, "a way of creating separation for himself." A pronounced strength: "He seems to make all the tough catches. That's part of his makeup as a player."

Hartline's 34 receptions include five touchdowns. But his season highlight was a school-record 90-yard punt return against Kent State. If B-Hart didn't exactly show a Ginn-like burst getting around the corner against the Golden Flashes, his friends aren't about to hold that against him. "Well, he set a school record," said Gonzalez, mustering as much tact as possible, "so you knew it was going to take awhile."

Let people think these Buckeyes don't have wheels. As Hartline says, "We've been attacking that misconception."

Brian Robiskie: the 6-3, 193-pound junior starred at Chagrin Falls, (Ohio) High, but was born in Beverly Hills. His father, longtime NFL coach Terry Robiskie, was then receivers coach for the L.A. Raiders. Often, when his son was "five or six," Terry would pick Brian up from daycare and bring him to the Raiders' offices, where another coach took pleasure in playing catch with him, instructing him on the finer points of catching a football, then tucking it away.

"That was Fred Biletnikoff," says Terry (who's now working with Ginn as Miami's receivers coach). The day before, he'd learned that Brian, who's caught 41 passes for 787 yards and eight touchdowns through nine games, had been named a semifinalist for this year's Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver. "It's a small world," marveled Robiskie père.

Unlike Hartline, who broke his leg as a high school senior and redshirted a year at Ohio State, Robiskie got into the mix as a true freshman. From the get-go, says Gonzalez, "Robo was a lot more mature than most incoming freshmen. He did the extra things. You didn't necessarily know what kind of player he was going to be, but you knew he was going to be the best player he could be -- that he was going to get everything out of his talent."

That talent includes Robiskie's "tremendous range," says Hazell, the receivers coach, "and very good speed." Deceptive speed. "Brian gets on you, he's got that long stride, and all the sudden he's by you," says Hazell, who saves for last perhaps his most obvious gift: an "uncanny" ability to track down and catch the long ball. It's one of the toughest plays in football: you're sprinting 50, 60 yards downfield, "getting tugged on, getting nudged," and you've got to find, then snag, a spheroid dropping from the heavens.

Robo is a master, says Hazell, of "the subtle push-off," the boxing out and gaining position to make that grab. And he doesn't give up on plays. That was Robiskie, you may recall, on the business end of Troy Smith's "Heisman moment" TD pass in the fourth quarter against Penn State a year ago. He ran a five-yard hitch, saw the protection collapse, went vertical, saw Smith reverse his field -- Heisman moments require at least one reversal of field -- and broke to his left across the end zone. "Troy saw him just before he popped open," says Hazell, "and let fly."

Almost as exciting, for Buckeyes fans, was the sight of the new guy, Boeckman, toying with the Nittanies a year later. That 60-yard bomb to Ray Small -- like Ginn a product of Glenville (Ohio) High, who may be, in time, better than either Brian -- gave the Bucks first and goal at the eight. Boeckman finished the drive with a TD pass to Robiskie, then changed gears. He fed the ball to Beanie Wells, (who finished with 133 yards rushing). He checked down to his tight ends. (Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard had eight catches between them.) He took what Penn State gave him.

While it lost players to the NFL, Ohio State lost none of its versatility. "We can tighten it up this year, or we can spread it out," says Hazell. "We've had success both ways. We've got a bunch of guys at wideout we can win with. Our quarterback is doing an exceptional job, and we're playing behind the defense" -- the Buckeyes lead the nation in total defense -- "which helps immensely."

So stout is the Buckeyes' D, in other words, that Boeckman & Co. know they're going to get plenty of possessions.

After Wisconsin, Illinois comes to the Horseshoe. If those games go as expected, the Buckeyes will go to Ann Arbor with nothing less on the line than a berth in the national championship game.

How were so many people so wrong about the '07 Buckeyes?

"Everybody on the outside saw everything we lost," Robiskie explains. "But everyone on the inside saw the potential."

Boeckman, it turns out, isn't the only Buckeye with excellent vision.

For a copy of Austin Murphy's latest book, Saturday Rules, go here.

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