Friday, September 16, 2011

GAME PREVIEW: BUCKEYES, 'CANES VIEWED MORE OFF FIELD THAN ON IT

Miami quarterback Jacory Harris (12)
(The Buckeye Times/Josh Stueve)
MIAMI — Less than nine years ago, Ohio State and Miami (Fla.) did battle in what was arguably the greatest BCS national championship game ever.

The classic 2003 Fiesta Bowl tilt took two overtimes to decide its fate, as the second-ranked Buckeyes eventually outlasted the No. 1 Hurricanes, 31-24, to win their seventh national championship in school history. The game is still broadcast regularly on channel's such as ESPN Classic and the Big Ten Network ... nearly a decade later.

However, this Saturday night's showdown at Sun Life Stadium in Miami between the No. 17 Buckeyes (2-0) and unranked Hurricanes (0-1), isn't being viewed as a classic battle renewed. It is being looked at as two teams that have made more headlines off the field in recent months than on it.

Between the Tattoo/BMV/Charity-Gate at Ohio State, to Miami players getting thousands of dollars in cash, invites to illegal drug parties and other outlandish gifts that would rival game shows like The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune, the national perception of this rivalry has gone from being a clash of college football titans to being mocked on social media networks as the "Ineligi-Bowl."

"People are paying a little more attention just because of the adversity that both teams have gone through," said Ohio State senior defensive back Tyler Moeller. "I think for us — from the outsiders looking at us — people kind of want to see us fail. That's what I take out of it."

Miami senior quarterback Jacory Harris, who was suspended in the Hurricanes' season opener at Maryland for receiving improper benefits, agrees with Moeller's take on the game's unsavory perception around the country.

"(The adversity) does kind of take away from it," Harris said. "That's all you see, the suspensions here, the suspensions there and it kind of takes away from the actual game. There's a lot of other things that are involved in this game rather than the suspensions. You've got when they beat us (in the BCS title game) and last year when they beat us.

"There's a lot of things we want to go out and play for."

Whatever the perception may be, the fact is, Saturday night's game will be a contest between two teams searching diligently to find their identity.

The Buckeyes, who looked great in their season opener against Akron, took a huge step backward last week against Toledo, where it took a punt return, a batted pass on the final defensive series and a load of Rocket penalties for Ohio State to avoid the upset.

In what was supposed to be a two-quarterback system at Ohio State became a one-man show, as fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman took all 64 snaps in the win over the Rockets. However, he didn't excel the way he had in the opener, completing just 16 of his 30 pass attempts for 189 yards and a touchdown, while struggling to guide the offense to any steady success.

His less than spectacular performance, coupled with Ohio State interim head coach Luke Fickell's decision not to insert the multi-talented true freshman Braxton Miller into the game, prompted the 105,000 plus fans on hand to boo throughout the contest, as well as chanting phrases such as "It's Miller time!" and "Braaaxton!"

"Obviously you can look back every week and try to find ways that you can get better ... (But) you've kind of got to adjust on the run." Fickell said. "We are not going to look back on it. We know that most importantly we'll make sure that those guy's minds are right and they understand the situation we are in. We communicated with them so that there's no guesswork involved and to me the most important thing is that they can stay focused and move forward and not dwell on the past."

Miami also has a bit of a two-way battle going on at quarterback between the incumbent Harris, and talented sophomore Stephen Morris.

During the Hurricanes' loss at Maryland two weeks ago, Morris looked impressive at times throwing the football, but had many moments of inconsistency — much like Harris has displayed much of the past two seasons. 

During last year's 36-24 loss in Columbus, Harris didn't have his best outing, throwing four interceptions against a Buckeyes defense that put heat on him for most of the day.

Harris is the type of player that when he's on, he's on ... but when he's off, he goes down in flames. Ohio State needs to keep the pressure on this Saturday for the latter to repeat itself.

"I think he's a great quarterback," Moeller said of Harris. "He throws the ball well. I think last year the defensive line did a great job of pressuring him and getting him rattled a little bit. 

"This year we have to make sure we do a great job (again)."

With so much uncertainty at the quarterback position for both teams, the running game will be depended upon greatly in order to find success.

Preseason starting tailback Jordan Hall, who missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension, will return to the Buckeyes' lineup Saturday night. He will combine with now starter, sophomore Carlos Hyde (39-169, 2 TDs), and red-shirt freshman Rod Smith (25-98, 1 TD), for a formidable backfield-by-committee.

The Buckeyes' running game must find more success against Miami than they did against Toledo, where they averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.

"Obviously, we have to do a better job," Fickell said of the run game. "We have to block it better. We have to run it better."

The Hurricanes have a budding star in their backfield in sophomore Lamar Miller. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound back looked great against Maryland, rushing for 119 yards and a touchdown on 18 totes. He also collected another 100 yards in kick returns.

He could be priority No. 1 for the Buckeyes' defense come Saturday night.

Chris Fields (80) celebrates with Ohio State teammate after returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown in the Buckeyes' 27-22 win over Toledo last Saturday in Columbus. (The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)

Bottom Line

It's going to be a close game any way you cut it. There's a ton of talent on each sideline, but enough inexperience to prevent me from thinking either team will run away with a victory.

Games like this usually come down to special teams play. That certainly doesn't bode well for the Buckeyes, who have yet to make a field goal this season — albeit on just two attempts — and have already had a punt blocked, something that nearly cost them a victory in the Sugar Bowl this past January.

Ohio State did record a touchdown on a Chris Fields' punt return last week, but the kicking woes are quite concerning for the Buckeyes, who are making their first road trip of the season this Saturday night.

Logic would say the Hurricanes — being the home team — would squeak out a close victory due to the issues I've stated prior.

However, the Buckeyes have a history of playing their best football when situations look less than promising.

Prediction: OSU 20-16