Anyone hoping to see an exasperated Buckeye football team following six months of unrelenting media encroachment walked away from Ohio Stadium on Saturday both disappointed and possibly suffering from heat stroke.
The game with the Zips was very easily the most anticipated MACrifice in Ohio State's storied history of cutting large checks to its in-state little sisters. Akron had been paying rent in our frontal lobes for the better part of the last six months, not because of who Akron is, but because of what Akron isn't.
Akron represented a much-needed football game. Akron embodied a sunny September Saturday in Ohio's open-air cathedral.
Akron was not the steady trickle of very real or totally convoluted bad news that filled your eyes and ears going back to the early days of the current calendar year when you were still shoveling your driveway.
Akron could not get to Columbus soon enough. Akron was your happy place.
On Saturday the offseason that refused to end finally succumbed to the calendar. It probably never occured to you that technically Ohio State was going after its first victory since it imprisoned the Oregon offense on the sideline for 42 minutes of the 2010 Rose Bowl, because you were just ready to see football begin again.
There was never any apprehension if Ohio State could defeat Akron, which is still a terrible football team coming off of a 1-11 season under second-year coach Rob Ianello, plucked from the Charlie Weis balsa tree in favor of Luke Fickell. It was the manner in which Ohio State dispatched the Zips that precipitously shifted the narrative from recovery to redemption.
We all knew who Joe Bauserman was. He signed with Ohio State just a couple of months after Craig Krenzel exhausted his eligibility (this is not an exaggeration). He had been a designated placeholder for someone better and a safety net for Terrelle Pryor. Even when Kenny Guiton, who did not exist on the Social Security Administration's rolls prior to appearing in Columbus suddenly materialized on the roster he was automatically assumed to be better-equipped to ascend the depth chart.
The predictions of how the Buckeyes would scheme were nearly unanimous, even with Ohio State's top three running backs unavailable for the game: Bauserman would either be handing off or throwing short. For the latter, we would be holding our collective breath.
On the Buckeyes' first offensive play, he handed the ball off to Carlos Hyde. On their second, he dropped back to pass and calmly hit Jake Stoneburner in the flat for nine yards and a first down. We exhaled.
Three Hyde rushes later, Bauserman found his second read, Verlon Reed, for 28 yards on what was anything but a safe, short route. He jogged with the rest of his line to the new scrimmage as the stadium acquiesced loudly, earlier than anyone expected and for the quarterback that no one had predicted.
Grown men in C-deck cupped their hands around their mouths to shout both direction and approval to the only grown man on the field in pads. "Nice throw, Joe! Good throw, Joe!" Phrases that had not been heard in Ohio Stadium in 13 seasons.
Very suddenly Bauserman was a viable passer. In December when Pryor was suspended for the first five games of the season, the outlook of the 2011 Ohio State passing game - at least through Game Five - was bleak. It took Bauserman only two plays to upgrade that scope from mediocre to promising.
Two plays later Bauserman turned to hand off to Rod Smith and found nothing but space where his running back was supposed to be. A couple of nifty moves later he was diving over the goal line for a touchdown.
Ohio State's placeholder for someone better had turned a broken play into a gutty, improbable touchdown without a hint panic or the slightest insinuation of freakish physical talent. The hands were cupped again. "Nice run, Joe!"
As it turned out, we only thought we knew who Bauserman was. We had no idea what he could be.
Guess who's back. back again.
The Buckeye offense came back in following an Akron punt, and Bauserman quickly hit Reed again for a ten-yard gain. Then on his fifth carry of the drive, Smith lost the ball at the Akron two yard-line.
It would be the only drive of the entire afternoon led by Bauserman that didn't conclude with Drew Basil attempting to kick the ball through the uprights.
On Ohio State's third offensive possession, Braxton Miller made his long-anticipated collegiate debut. Three plays later - through no fault of his own - he was jogging back to the sideline to watch the Buckeyes punt.
When the offense came back onto the field for its fourth drive, it was not Miller but Bauserman who led them in the huddle.
If you had been told prior to Saturday that Miller would come in for only one drive before being replaced by Bauserman again, you would have predicted boos, and you would have been less accurate that George Dohrmann in a room full of talkative crackheads. The stadium was unexpectedly very comfortable with the idea of Bauserman leading the offense.
How amazing was this development? At the time, the score was only 7-0.
Bauserman hit Chris Fields twice to move the chains and then left the pocket after progressing through his reads for an impromptu nine-yard run. He marched the Buckeyes down the field before hitting Stoneburner again for a beautiful 28-yard touchdown. The lousy opponent no longer mattered. We had now seen what was possible.
That first of three touchdown connections between Bauserman and Stoneburner demonstrated both mastery of the playbook and the kind of precision timing throw that the previous QB incumbent had routinely struggled to capture: Bauseman did not throw the ball; he simply raised his arm and it departed from his hand - not to where Stoneburner was, but to where he would eventually be.
We had heard that he was performing well in fall camp and that along with Braxton Miller had redefined the quarterback competition from a four-man race into two two-man races. But that was fall camp. Fall camp is a time of unfettered optimism. It's more misleading than big sunglasses and sundresses on otherwise only marginally-attractive coeds.
Long memories triumph over the flowery bits and pieces that surface from the practices annually precluding the first kickoff: Bam Childress is impossible to stop in open space. Jamario O'Neal is finally figuring out the defense. There shouldn't be too much of a drop-off between Andy Katzenmoyer and Jason Ott.
And in 2011: Joe Bauserman had another great practice. Forgive us for having been skeptical. Boy, wolf, crying, etc.
the new normal
Once Miller came in for his second and then third drives, it was apparent that Bauserman was finished for the day. Again, over the past six months the thought of seeing Bauserman retreat to the bench for good was wrought with satisfaction. This was the correct sentiment, but with an entirely different backstory.
The inevitability of Bauserman as the temporary opening act for Miller is now, in the most pessimistic terms, in jeopardy of being delayed until 2012. Ohio State has struggled to move the ball with more experienced quarterbacks, more veteran receivers and without being burdened by only having its fourth and fifth running backs available to play.
Bauserman left the game having shown complete command of an offense that neither appeared to be simplified or overly-conservative. He was accurate, poised, resourceful, controlled and humble. He was not scrappy or emotional, and he failed to demonstrate the kind of moxie that would send Kirk Herbstreit into one of his Vitale-light mancrush soliloquies.
Perhaps at some point this season he'll need to show that kind of unconcealed leadership, but on Saturday Bauserman did not deviate from being a calm, capable steward of the playbook. This was all that was required for Akron, that embodiment of a sunny September Saturday in Ohio's open-air cathedral in which he had waited for seven years to finally lecture.
He made the most of it, and in doing so altered the complexion of a season that had promised to be marked by effervescent reminders of who was not on the field rather than who was.
The effect was palpable: Ohio State's defense, which held Akron to fewer total yards than several Buckeye players individually gained by themselves had taken a backseat to the unlikely star of the game. We thought we already knew what was possible with Bauserman. We were very, very wrong.
Back in 1996 Ohio State was coming off of a year when it was faced with replacing the Heisman winner at tailback, the Biletnikoff winner at wide receiver and a three-year starter under center. The incumbency was assumed to be a contest between Mark Garcia and Stanley Jackson, but once Garcia was lost to a knee injury junior college transfer Joe Germaine emerged and created the successful platoon that we have been reminded of throughout fall camp.
By the time he had completed his quarterbacking tenure in 1998, Germaine had solidified his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks the Buckeyes have ever produced. He did this without superior speed, arm strength or exaggerated character emotions.
They definitely did not "break the mold" when Germaine was created. We saw Bauserman emulate his style for the half that he played on Saturday. It was not the exceptional, highlight-reel manner that sends the college football hivemind into Heisman candidacy flagellation.
It was, however, star results without star quality. In light of how the Pryor era concluded, this is a very welcome flavor of quarterback play.
Ironically, for a player who will eventually take seven years to complete his college eligibility, Bauserman will not be afforded enough time to match Germaine in either statistics or legacy. If he fails to demonstrate the capacity to be the offensive custodian waiting for its designated stars to either return or emerge, the preseason clamoring for Miller will return.
At worse case, Bauserman holding onto the lion's share of game snaps only allows Miller to acclimate in his first year without the same fiery baptismal that Pryor found himself in 2008.
However, if he continues to establish himself as an efficient and qualified commander as this long-anticipated season progresses, Bauserman will have done the unthinkable: He will have shifted Ohio State's once-precarious quarterback situation from being the problem nobody wanted to the situation everyone wishes they had.