Urban Meyer doesn’t do anything halfway. So the Ohio State coach is going to make his spring football game matter, and matter a lot.
The Buckeyes are holding Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage in Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium, and the way Meyer talked Thursday during the Big Ten Leaders Division spring teleconference, his players would be well served to approach it like a game in the fall.
Last season the Buckeyes were 12-0 and ranked No. 3 in the final top 25. But it was all for naught because they couldn’t play for a Big Ten championship due to NCAA violations. Now eligible, and with almost everyone back from their prolific offense, they’ll go into the fall favored to unseat three-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin in the Leaders Division.
The urgency is palpable.
“A lot of times the spring game makes or breaks if we have enough trust to play them in a game,” Meyer said.
Some coaches look at spring games as just another practice. Nebraska, the first Big Ten to hold a spring game this year, tried to make it fun for fans by, among other things, having offensive linemen compete in a punt-catching contest.
“We attack spring a little different than other programs,” Meyer said. “When we’re done with spring, that’s the way it’s going to be in the fall. Of course, things change at times, but very rarely. In the fall we’re trying to win a game. In the spring we’re trying to identify the depth chart, not taking into consideration the freshmen that will show up in June. I want the mentality here at Ohio State to be that spring football is when you go earn a spot.”
Wisconsin is in transition, with Gary Andersen having taken over as coach after Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas. The Badgers also are looking to sort out their quarterback situation.
Penn State and Purdue also are holding quarterback competitions this spring. The Boilermakers have a new coach, too, Darrell Hazell.
Indiana has put an emphasis on toughening its moribund defense, and Illinois has done a major roster overhaul.
At Ohio State (8-0 Big Ten), conference player of the year Braxton Miller and eight other starters return from an offense that averaged better than 37 points a game.
The Buckeyes’ questions are on defense. The front four must be replaced, and Ryan Shazier is the only linebacker who has played a significant amount.
Meyer said the front seven has made improvement, but now he wants to see it carry over in a game-type setting. He hopes for that type of atmosphere in Cincinnati, where more than 26,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday.
“One unique thing to Ohio State and maybe five or six other programs is you can really play (a spring game) in a big-time environment and find out who will showcase,” Meyer said.
Among the players on the rise, Meyer said, are defensive back Tyvis Powell, defensive lineman Adolphus Washington and running back Rod Smith.
Meyer said Miller has continued to dazzle on the field. More important is how Miller has gone about communicating with teammates and showing leadership.
“He was a guy who when practice started at 3 o’clock, he was there at 2:59 because he was getting taped and taking care of his business,” Meyer said. “Now he’s one of the first ones out there. I’m pleased with a lot of things I’ve seen from Braxton. We’ve asked him to, and he’s done it.”
Andersen has eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense for his first season at Wisconsin (8-6, 4-4).
Andersen, 26-24 in four seasons at Utah State, arrived in Madison, Wis., after winning a school-record 11 games with the Aggies. Beyond getting acquainted with their new players, Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig must identify a starting quarterback.
Joel Stave and Curt Phillips will go into the fall as the top two candidates. Stave, who last year became the first freshman to start at quarterback since 2000, shared playing time with Phillips and Danny O’Brien.
Andersen said he wants to keep alive the tradition of Wisconsin having big and powerful offensive lines. T.J. Woods, who was Andersen’s line coach at Utah State, is the Badgers’ third line coach in a year. Bielema fired Mark Markuson after the second game and replace him with Bart Miller, who has moved on to coach the line at New Mexico State.
“They’ve handled it unbelievably well,” Andersen said of the tumult. “That line is going to be built off good players, a tough-minded group that has a huge care factor.”