With new personnel and coaches, Urban Meyer still trying to find Ohio State's offensive identity
Since Ohio State opened the season with a 42-24 victory at Virginia Tech, skepticism has surrounded the top-ranked Buckeyes. With its struggles in the red zone, quarterback uncertainty and weak schedule, Ohio State has somehow managed to underachieve without losing a game (the Buckeyes have won a nation's-best 19 straight).
The strange season has tested the patience of coach Urban Meyer, rekindling memories of Florida's 2009 campaign. The Gators entered that year as prohibitive favorites after winning the 2008 national title and returning Tim Tebow and 11 defensive starters. Ohio State brought back 15 starters this season, including quarterback Cardale Jones, linebacker Darron Lee and defensive end Joey Bosa.
"People have brought up 2009, and it's very similar," Meyer said in a phone interview Sunday. "There was some offensive coaching transition, the smoothness wasn't there early. I think we're playing much better now. But when we're winning 38-0, people are saying, 'Boy, you guys played awful.' "
Ohio State hosts Penn State on Saturday, the latest chance for the Buckeyes to live up to the unrealistic expectations where anything short of a blowout is perceived as underachieving. (That 2009 Florida team went undefeated before losing to Nick Saban's Alabama squad in the SEC Championship Game).
Prior to Ohio State's 49-28 victory over Maryland last Saturday, Meyer made a key adjustment that may jumpstart the Buckeyes' season. (If an undefeated season would require a jumpstart). Meyer put J.T. Barrett, the starting quarterback for most of 2014, into the game in the red zone to spell Jones. The move was risky in a sense, as Meyer has been sensitive to Ohio State's chemistry. "I didn't want to mess it up," he said.
Against Maryland, the Buckeyes ended up scoring touchdowns in each of their six trips in the red zone with Barrett, a drastic change from earlier this season (Ohio State entered the game at No. 121 in the country in red zone offense).
Jones didn't appear bothered, as he completed 21-of 28 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Meyer felt like he needed to add the element of the quarterback run in the red zone to give Ohio State a better chance there, and the unorthodox gamble worked. So far, anyway.
"The threat of the quarterback run, from Tebow to Braxton to J.T., that's been our little edge down there," Meyer said. "That's not really Cardale's game."
The reality of Ohio State's offensive struggles this season is that the Buckeyes have had to develop a new identity with a relatively new starter at quarterback, new play caller in Ed Warinner and the lack of an elite field-stretching threat of Devin Smith's caliber. Meyer has been worried about trying too much to recreate the 2014 offense, which averaged a Big Ten-best 44.8 points per game. The Buckeyes average 36.8 this year.
"There's a huge danger there," Meyer said of trying to re-create that offense with different personnel. "I only try and use it as a template. You can't ever go back. I almost catch myself."
One of the tricky things to quantify is the loss of offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who has Houston off to a 5-0 start and ranked No. 24 while averaging 46.4 points per game. The Buckeyes also had to replace running backs coach Stan Drayton, who left for the Chicago Bears. Drayton worked for Meyer at Florida and knew his offense as well as anyone.
"It's evolving," Meyer said of the offensive transition. "Both Tom and Stan are dynamic personalities. People come in here, and the tempo is pretty quick and the expectation levels are pretty high. The offense is evolving to a good place, in a good way. But we're not where we need to be yet."
Tennessee rallies behind coach Butch Jones
When hope was dim last Saturday as Tennessee trailed by 21 points late in the first half against No. 19 Georgia, Volunteers coach Butch Jones noticed that his players started approaching him one by one. The Vols had entered the crucial home game having already blown leads of at least 13 points in each of its three losses this season, raising questions about Jones's future in Knoxville. Tennessee was now on the verge of being blown out for a third straight defeat to open SEC play.
But each player who approached Jones relayed the same message. It was one that had been emphasized in the week leading up to the game during an outpouring of support from former players. "We got your back coach," Jones recalls being told repeatedly.
The Volunteers lived up to their word and went on to score 35 of the game's final 42 points to rally for a stunning 38-31 win, the third-largest comeback victory in school history. "We needed that," Jones tells The Inside Read. "We needed to win a game like that in that type of fashion."
Expectations were extremely high for Tennessee this season, Jones's third in Knoxville. The young Volunteers returned 17 starters from a 7-6 campaign that was capped by a victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But Jones has been heavily criticized for coaching blunders in this season's 3-3 start as Tennessee has failed to hold on to double-digit leads in tight losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas.
"Through all this, I've seen us making progress week in and week out," Jones says. "Those efforts were rewarded Saturday."
The triumph came after a week of overwhelming support from former Tennessee players, whose backing was critical to the psyche of Jones's youthful team. The night before Saturday's win, former Volunteers offensive lineman Trey Teague, who played in the NFL for nine seasons, drove in with his daughter and ate dinner with the players.
Another alum and retired NFL veteran, Deon Grant, spoke to the team about leadership sprinkled in with the importance of rising to the occasion, unity as a team and trusting in one another. Former Tennessee legends Jamal Lewis and Heath Shuler also were in attendance for Saturday's game.
"It showed our football team that, 'Hey, we are a family and we stick together,'" Jones says.
After Saturday's win, many of the Volunteers players who reassured Jones during the game sought him out in the coaches' locker room to celebrate. "We still have a long ways to go, but this was a defining moment in terms of how you hit adversity head-on, how you persevere and how you just keep your head down and keep working," Jones says.
The victory was also vindication for Jones, who last week shot down a rumor about him and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Mack Crowder having a physical altercation, which he called "absolutely ridiculous." The Vols are off this week and play next Saturday at 10th-ranked Alabama before closing the season with five straight games against unranked opponents.
Jones, who has a 15-16 record at Tennessee, insists he's never gotten caught up in all the criticism swirling around him this season. He has adopted a "bunker mentality" to make sure his full attention goes to his players.
But he admits he's appreciative of their support like what he received during the Georgia game. "The players at times uplifted me and inspired me," Jones says. "That's what it's about. It's all about them."
And hopefully for Jones, it's less about him the rest of this season.
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Coordinator John Pease has energized Utah defense
As Utah coach Kyle Whittingham stood in the sweltering Houston heat on a nearly triple-digit temperature day in June, he raved while watching septuagenarian defensive coordinator John Pease pinball around the field of a satellite camp. "Look at him go," Whittingham told The Inside Read. "He's got the energy of a teenager."
Back out of retirement for a second time to be an assistant at Utah, Pease, who turned 72 on Wednesday, has energized fourth-ranked Utah's surprising 5-0 start this season entering Saturday's matchup with Arizona State. The Utes are tied for second in the FBS in turnovers gained (17) and 33rd in scoring defense (19.8 points per game).
"Thank God for Advil," Pease tells The Inside Read. "Ibuprofen has saved my life."
In Utah's 30-24 victory over previously undefeated California last Saturday night, Pease's 4-2-5 scheme forced Golden Bears star quarterback Jared Goff into throwing a career-high five interceptions. As impressive as that was, it's relative for Pease, who was tasked in the NFL with trying to stop legendary quarterbacks such as John Elway, Dan Marino and Joe Montana.
Pease spent nearly two decades as an NFL assistant, most recently as the New Orleans Saints' defensive line coach from 2004-05. He then retired for three years before taking the same position at Utah under Whittingham from 2009-10. After those two seasons, Pease retired again before returning in his current role in early February. He played for the Utes from 1963-64, was a graduate assistant at the school from 1968-69 and was the program's linebackers coach in 1977.
"We've got very good players, and they've bought into Kyle's system in how he wants things run," Pease says of Utah's success this season. "We've got a really good defensive staff. It's easy to coach with those guys."
And while many have been surprised by Utah's play this season, Pease isn't one of them. He was vocal about the team's potential upon his arrival this past spring. "We can be a pretty good football team," Pease told Utah's players. "Just hang with the program Kyle's setup and we'll be just dandy."
Pease didn't intend to return to coaching when he and Whittingham started having conversations about Whittingham's defensive coordinator position that opened when Kalani Sitake left for the same position at Oregon State in December. Whittingham and Pease's initial conversations were about a friend Pease had coached with at the New Orleans Saints who was interested in the position. After a couple of weeks talking, Whittingham asked Pease if he would take the job.
Pease was intrigued but said he would have to first have to check with "the boss," his wife, Chris. "She's a good sounding board for me," Pease says.
Pease's wife asked him if he would be able to handle the position's heavy workload and long hours. He thought he could, so she encouraged him to take the job.
"It was a great chance to go back to work for some very good people, which was key," Pease says. "When you get to be my age, character means a lot. You don't want to go through some guy that's just getting his wings in the coaching profession and needs to be a movie star. Kyle's a pretty down-to-earth guy."
Prior to Pease's return, he had been doing pre- and post-game shows for Utes broadcasts on a local radio station. He also spent his time playing golf and working out daily.
But for someone who says he didn't plan to return to coaching, he still studied football carefully. He analyzed statistics such as turnover ratios and researched clock management, specifically on when to use timeouts.
Pease did the latter work by hand and from play-by-play available on the Internet. He's admittedly not "high-tech" and has been surprised in his return by how instrumental email and social media have become in recruiting.
"It was Chinese to me for about two weeks, but then you start to figure it out," Pease says. "It's unbelievable. Technology has just rocketed out of this world."
Pease's stories of coaching in the NFL are spellbinding. He reminisces about Elway as if had faced him earlier this season.
"He didn't care what coverage you were in," Pease says of Elway. "He could jam the ball in there. If you got him hot, just enjoy it, go to dinner and say you watched a great player work."
Pease tells similar stories about Montana, but he's glad to be back coaching in college. He was the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator as recently as 2002.
Pease doesn't anticipate retiring again in the near future. "I'll do it as long as I can be productive," he says. "If I start to slip mentally or something, I'll obviously get out of it."
That's unlikely to happen anytime soon at Pease's rate. He works out early every morning and drinks a few of cups of coffee to be ready to coach the rest of the day, but not without a couple of ibuprofen.
"That," Pease says with a laugh, "is the secret to life."
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