How one early-morning talk between Darron Lee and Billy Price keyed Ohio State's run to the national title. Plus, more Punt, Pass & Pork.
Offensive lineman Evan Lisle slept through one of the most important moments of Ohio State’s national title run. Lisle shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Most of the other Buckeyes were snuggled in their beds at 3:45 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 4, 2014 when linebacker Darron Lee approached the door of the room shared by Lisle and fellow offensive lineman Billy Price at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Price was “dead asleep,” but the racket roused the 315-pounder. Lisle didn’t move. Price opened the door to find an angry Lee. A few hours earlier, Ohio State had lost its second consecutive game. This time, the Buckeyes had dropped a seesaw Orange Bowl to Clemson. Neither Lee nor Price had played; each player was redshirting as a true freshman. Still, Lee might have taken a few years off his life stressing on the sideline. And while everyone else slept off the bitter end to a 12-2 season, Lee had more to say about the game and about the future of the program.
Worried that Lisle could only sleep through so much, Price ushered Lee out to the balcony. There, the players had a talk that may have helped alter the Buckeyes’ 2014 destiny as much as coach Urban Meyer’s hiring of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash or the maturation of quarterback Cardale Jones.
Looking back now, Ohio State’s national title run still seems improbable. But there are dozens of little stories, like the talk on the Westin Diplomat balcony, that help explain how the Buckeyes evolved from a fairly young team dealing with the loss of its best player in August to the national champions and the undisputed best team in America in January. For the 2013 recruiting class, the group that gave the Buckeyes the talent infusion that allowed them to ascend to a championship-caliber level, Lee and Price’s early-morning talk was critical. “I know a lot of people have defining moments in their lives,” Lee said. “Coach Meyer talks about defining moments. That was a real defining moment.” Said Price: “We went out on the balcony and just laid the foundation.”
What did they talk about? First, the game they had just watched. Helplessness didn’t suit Lee or Price, and neither could help that night. “I was just looking at them on the sideline,” Lee said. “That can’t happen. We shouldn’t have lost to Clemson.” The Buckeyes couldn’t cover Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins or get enough pressure on Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd. On the other side of the ball, they had once again relied too heavily on quarterback Braxton Miller to perform a miracle, and Miller wound up crumpled in a heap on the field. Miller had injured his throwing shoulder early in the game. That injury would require surgery in February. In August, the shoulder would falter again and require another surgery that would knock Miller out for the 2014 season.
Next, the two redshirts discussed what they could do to ensure Ohio State’s next season didn’t end the way that one had. They promised to police one another during the off-season program and make sure they were putting in the work necessary to earn a spot in the 2014 lineup. This was no small feat. Lee signed as a 195-pound high school quarterback, but when co-coordinator Luke Fickell and strength coach Mickey Marotti talked Meyer into signing Lee, they projected him as a linebacker in the 225-pound range. “I thought he would grow into a linebacker,” Fickell said this spring. “But who knows? … It’s an educated guess.” Still, Fickell saw two critical traits in Lee that gave him faith Lee would find a way to contribute. “It’s intelligence and passion,” Fickell said. “People who are intelligent find a way to be successful. If you have passion, you find a way to be successful.”
Price, meanwhile, had signed with Ohio State with the opportunity to play on the offensive or defensive line. He chose defense. Then, during preseason camp in 2013, Price went to Meyer and asked if he could move to offense. By the time he and Lee had their talk in South Florida, Price was still getting comfortable with the playbook. With Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort headed to the NFL—where all would start for playoff teams—starting jobs would be open. Price just had to win one. But Price and Lee agreed on that balcony that becoming starters wasn’t enough. They had to do more. “It was to become the leaders on the team,” Price said. “It was to become a vital part of the team.”
Lee worked his way on to the first team in spring practice in 2014. Meanwhile, Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner experimented with Price at center. Though Price showed promise, that didn’t seem the proper fit. During the summer, Price settled in at guard. If either player needed motivation, all he had to do was watch the other. “I see you working. You know I’m working,” Lee said of the unspoken message. “We were keeping that promise to each other. We were going to see the results. And we did.”
Lee, Price and some other members of their recruiting class played pivotal roles in the Buckeyes' run to the title. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott led the team in rushing. Quarterback J.T. Barrett prevented an offensive drop-off after Miller’s injury. Defensive end Joey Bosa led Ohio State in sacks. Cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell helped transform the secondary into a group that wouldn’t allow the Buckeyes to get sliced up the way they did in that game against Clemson.
Lee grew into the defense’s most versatile weapon. Just as Meyer and then-offensive coordinator Tom Herman drew up plays to get Elliott into the defensive backfield, Ash and Fickell drew up plays to get Lee into the offensive backfield. That allowed Lee to become the defense’s top stat-sheet stuffer, racking up 81 tackles (including 16.5 for loss), two interceptions, eight pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Meanwhile, Price and the offensive line went from an inexperienced group that was flummoxed by Virginia Tech’s Bear front in a 35-21 loss on Sept. 6 into a unit that steamrolled defenses for a combined 878 rushing yards over three postseason games. One of Price’s best plays came in the Sugar Bowl, though he still refuses to take any credit for it. Yes, Ohio State receiver Evan Spencer did wipe out two Alabama defenders to open a hole for Elliott. It was an amazing block, and Price is correct when he lavishes praise on Spencer. But few 300-pounders could pull through so much line of scrimmage trash as quickly and find the most immediate threat to the play in the second level. That’s what Price did when he pulled left from his left guard spot, turned the corner ahead of Elliott and shoved away Alabama’s Nick Perry before Perry could slow Elliott. Spencer’s block assured a gain of at least five yards. Price’s block sprung Elliott for an 85-yard touchdown.
Less than two weeks later, Price and Lee joined the rest of the Buckeyes on the trophy stand at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after crushing Oregon in the national title game. The chase was over, and a look at Ohio State’s roster suggested a dynasty could be in the works. Now, the Buckeyes are preparing for a season that they’ll enter as favorites to win the title. But the players who won it know they’ll need to be as hungry now as Lee and Price were this time last year when they were keeping that promise they made on that balcony in that Westin. Who knows? Maybe another group of young Buckeyes spent the wee hours in Texas in January making their plans to help lead the 2015 version of Ohio State.
And maybe one of their teammates slept through the whole thing and gave them a chance to say everything that needed to be said. “Thank God Evan is a heavy sleeper,” Price said.
A random ranking
I came across an episode of Press Your Luck on Game Show Network last week, and within five minutes my kids were screaming, “Big Bucks! No Whammies!” just like I used to when I watched the show at my grandmother’s house at their age. This reminded me that Peter Tomarken was a criminally underrated game show host. So, here are the top 10 game show hosts of all time.
1. Alex Trebek: Jeopardy, Classic Concentration
2. Peter Tomarken: Press Your Luck, Bargain Hunters, Wipeout
3. Richard Dawson: Family Feud, The Running Man
4. Chuck Woolery: Love Connection, The Dating Game
5. Bob Eubanks: The Newlywed Game, Card Sharks
6. Bob Barker: The Price Is Right
7. Don Francisco: Sabado Gigante
8. Ken Ober: Remote Control
9. Dick Clark: Pyramids of varying dollar amounts
10. Monty Hall: Let’s Make A Deal
1. Missouri defensive tackle Harold Brantley is in serious condition following a car crash Sunday afternoon. According to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report, Brantley, 21, was moving over the left side of the road and overcorrected, causing the 2000 Chrysler Concorde he was driving to slide off the right side of the road, strike a guardrail and overturn.
Brantley’s passenger, Missouri women’s basketball player Maddie Stock, suffered minor injuries, according to the report. The highway patrol report noted that neither person was wearing a seat belt.
We shouldn’t have to say this in 2015, but please wear your seat belts. It’s a tiny bit of common sense that can make a huge difference.
2. Four LSU players were arrested on June 18 in two separate incidents. All are suspended indefinitely, and besides the obvious embarrassment for the program, one of the incidents may also affect the Tigers’ search for a starting quarterback.
The worst of the two incidents involved defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao, who was accused of rifling through the pockets of a man who had been knocked out in a fight outside Reggie’s Bar in Baton Rouge. Witnesses told police that when the man’s girlfriend tried to intervene, Lealaimatafao punched her with a closed fist and went back to digging through the man’s pockets. Lealaimatafao, who took a redshirt last season after injuring his arm punching through a weight-room window and was also previously accused of stealing a bicycle, is probably gone from the roster. Even if Tigers coach Les Miles once again opts to have a team vote—his decision-making method in 2013 after tailback Jeremy Hill sucker-punched a man outside the same bar—it’s unlikely that LSU players are dumb enough to vote Lealaimatafao back on the team.
The other incident is more complicated. Police arrested quarterback Anthony Jennings, cornerback Dwayne Thomas and defensive lineman Maquedius Bain on charges of unauthorized entry into an occupied dwelling. Thomas, a projected starter, was also charged with simple burglary. The players are accused of entering an apartment on June 12. According to a police report obtained by The Advocate, a witness told police Thomas broke down a bedroom door. The men are accused of taking a laptop, a PlayStation 4 and three pairs of shoes.
What makes this case different is that those were the same items that Jennings had told police were stolen from his apartment on June 10. If the players were indeed retrieving stolen items, it changes the complexion of the incident. Police frown upon vigilante justice, but people who have been robbed don’t always want to wait for the cops to investigate if the victim has the information and the muscle necessary to retrieve the items. That doesn’t make breaking down someone else’s door and removing things from his apartment any less illegal; but, if true, it could mitigate the crime in the court of public opinion. If untrue, the three players have bigger problems.
The suspension of Jennings also changes the complexion of LSU’s quarterback race. Jennings started 12 games last year, but he spent spring practice competing with sophomore Brandon Harris for the starting job. When spring practice ended, the two remained deadlocked. “I think there’s a real closeness,” Miles said last month on a teleconference. “One guy hasn’t separated himself from the other, and both guys are playing much better.” Even if Jennings and his cohorts were just retrieving stolen items, their choice of conflict resolution calls Jennings’s decision-making skills into question. (Those are typically important for a quarterback.) That alone might give Harris an edge, and any time Jennings misses throwing with receivers while suspended would give Harris a chance to put more distance between himself and the junior from Marietta, Ga.
3. A few weeks ago, a reader asked a #DearAndy question about whether schools such as Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State will land any recruits by sending coaches to other states to work satellite camps. Last week, one such player committed to the Wolverines.
Cooper City (Fla.) High defensive end Rashad Weaver told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press last week that he pledged to join Michigan’s class of 2016. Weaver, who told Snyder that he also held offers from Illinois and Syracuse, met Michigan's coaches at a camp in Davie, Fla., on June 6. “The coaches probably noticed [my] size while we were stretching, and I talked to them a little bit, and they followed me the whole camp," Weaver told Snyder. “I played D-end the whole camp until, the last two minutes, I played tight end and caught a few balls.”
4. Ohio State coaches worked a satellite camp in Boca Raton, Fla., in conjunction with Florida Atlantic, and Meyer delivered a short but effective speech to the campers. Meyer targeted his message toward high schoolers who want to become college football players, but his sentiment pretty much applies to anyone in any field. “When there’s a problem, [the coach] wants a solution,” Meyer told the campers. “He doesn’t want a pain in the ass.”
Watch the full speech, courtesy of Josh Newberg of 247Sports.com.
5. Chip Brown of Horns Digest wrote a scathing report on the management style of Texas athletic director Steve Patterson last week. One interesting point: According to Brown’s sources, more than 10,000 fans had not renewed their football season tickets. Even for the wealthiest athletic department in the country, that’s a problem. We’ll see if Patterson can pull the Longhorns out of the spin before wearing out his welcome in Austin. In football coach Charlie Strong and men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, Patterson has made excellent hires in the two revenue sports. But he has not endeared himself to people in the department.
Early last week, Patterson jettisoned longtime football sports information director John Bianco, which made sense when it was revealed that Patterson thought Bianco didn’t “tell our story” as well as Patterson wanted. I’ve heard Patterson use this phrase before with regard to NCAA issues, and it’s the sort of thing people in power say when they think the general public is stupid enough to believe spin when the truth is fairly obvious.
Has the coverage of Texas football been overly negative of late? Absolutely. Is that the fault of Bianco? No. When a team loses games, the coverage of it tends to be venomous. When a team wins a ton of games, the coverage tends to be fawning. Bianco, a 23-year employee of the school who worked with three different head coaches, always put the university first. (This wasn’t always helpful to us in the media, but his job was to protect the school. If he could help us in the process, that was a bonus.) Whoever gets hired to replace Bianco will have a tough job if the Longhorns don’t get better at football and an easy one if they do. That’s the part Patterson does not seem to understand. Your “story” is what happens. No amount of spin can change that.
6. For instance, Strong, Longhorns strength coach Pat Moorer and some of their players spent Saturday in Wimberly, Texas, helping victims of the recent flooding. That’s a nice part of the Longhorns’ story. It doesn’t change their record and won’t make the coverage any nicer if their offensive futility stretches into this season, but it is a very kind act.
7. One Patterson decision should change the game-day experience for the quietest 100,000 people in college football, and it also teed up an all-time great jab from a rival official. Texas will begin selling beer and wine at home games in 2015, and that news prompted this barb from Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp.
A&M chancellor Sharp on alcohol at events: "Our athletic program has not reached the point where we require the numbing effects of alcohol."— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) June 18, 2015
Some of this statement is decidedly untrue. It’s likely that many Shiner Bocks and pickle juice-and-vodka shots were consumed outside Kyle Field last year to soothe the pain of a 3-5 SEC record. But even that doesn’t take the sting out of a mic-droppingly perfect quote.
8. Good luck to Central Michigan coach John Bonamego, who was diagnosed last week with cancer in his left tonsil. Bonamego described the cancer as “very treatable,” and he doubts treatments will affect his workload this year.
9. I was a guest last week on the always-excellent Solid Verbal podcast, and I faced off with cohost Ty Hildenbrandt in the first edition of “The Blame Game.” In the game, cohost Dan Rubenstein made Ty and I guess which coach uttered perplexingly generic words after a loss. I won’t spoil who won, but I am linking the show here, so that should answer the question.
10. College football fandom never takes a summer vacation …
What's eating Andy?
Even after the first Sunday without Game of Thrones for 10 months, I have so little to complain about. I got a new cast iron skillet for Father's Day, which means copious amounts of bacon are in my future.
What’s Andy eating?
Because it’s college football’s slowest season, I haven’t been traveling much to find
delectable food interesting stories. So, for the next few weeks, we’ll highlight a few the best spots I wrote about for my old Heaven Is A Buffet blog. If you weren’t one of the three people who read it, this will be new to you. This post originally appeared on Aug. 21, 2011.
Just eat it.
I’ll say these words often in the next few years. My son recently turned two. My daughter still has a few more months of sucking down formula.* At the moment, they have very little say in what they eat. But the day will come when they will demand input into their dining options. What am I going to say?
Just eat it.
*My son is now almost six and my daughter is four. He likes meats and sweets. She likes bacon and fruit. My food suggestions are usually rejected by one or both. I had a lot of ideas back then about the parenting I’d do. It was adorable.
I may not always win, but “Just eat it” will be my default mode, because I don’t want my kids to be That Kid. I was That Kid. When my mom sent me to a friend’s house, I came armed with a banned-food list in my head. No onions. No tomatoes. No mayo. No eggs. No mushrooms. I wasn’t allergic to any of these things. I was a spoiled brat. I’m sure my friends’ parents secretly despised me for disrupting their menus, but I blissfully ate mayo-free burgers or tomato chunk-free spaghetti sauce—tomato sauce was O.K., just not actual tomatoes; I was a weird kid—while they silently stewed.
Hopefully, my kids will heed my words. Because sometimes when you turn off your brain and open your mouth and chew, something amazing happens. Something amazing like The Notorious P.I.G. at Frank in downtown Austin.
Young Andy liked all of the following things: Pork sausage, bacon, barbecue sauce and macaroni and cheese. But young Andy’s plate looked like a map of Korea. Entrée and side dishes were separated by a clearly delineated demilitarized zone typically marked by some condiment river. Even though mac and cheese is the king of side dishes, young Andy never would have allowed it to cross the 38th parallel to his sausage.
But last week, after a long day that began in Michigan and ended in Texas, I didn’t want to fight my food. I wanted to eat. I had been meaning to try Frank for a year or so. It’s located two blocks from the hotel where I usually stay when I visit Austin. So, when I arrived—I had learned while on the runway in Detroit that the event I was to cover the next day had been canceled*—I resolved that a purveyor of artisan sausage and waffle fries would provide the perfect end to an imperfect day. I dumped my rental car in the hotel parking garage, left my luggage in the trunk and sprinted to Frank praying that I would make it before the place switched to what the Internet had told me was the more pedestrian late-night menu at 10 p.m.
*This marked the second time in two years I had headed to Austin for a legislative hearing on conference realignment that was canceled abruptly.
I arrived at 9:55, but the late-night menus had already emerged. Luckily, the Frank website sells short the treats available to the night owls. Not on the web version—but on the actual version—were the exact two dishes I wanted to try: The Notorious P.I.G and the Jackalope. I ordered without even looking at the menu. The names intrigued me, and anyone who reads my college football coverage knows I’m obsessed with intriguing monikers.
A few minutes later, my kindly hipster bartender placed before me a dish that would have horrified young Andy. Sausage made with ground pork, ground bacon—yes, I know that’s a kind of pork—rode in a bun and snuggled under a blanket of mac and cheese and barbecue sauce. I’m older and wiser now, though. Plus, I was too tired to protest. I bit down, and every Fourth of July party I ever attended exploded on my taste buds. The tang of the sausage and barbecue sauce remained tethered to the earth by the heft of the mac and cheese. Less than a minute later, I stared at an empty basket and wished there was some sort of Tupac-themed counterpart for the Piggie Smalls. Alas, there was not. But there was the Jackalope.
The Jackalope combines antelope rabbit and pork sausage, huckleberry compote, sriracha aioli and cheddar. I could envision a marriage of animal-product sausage and sriracha aioli, but the idea of adding huckleberry compote created a threesome that might cause even the most adventurous food swinger to bolt Frank’s culinary key party.
Just eat it.
That’s the only advice I can offer. The sausage is sublime, and the sweetness of the compote soothes the anger of the sriracha just so. Soak it up with waffle fries, and wash it down with a pint of stout. Then loosen your belt, sit back and celebrate your part in helping Frank negotiate an edible peace treaty.