Urban Meyer hears your cries, your concerns and your discomfort. He recognizes his current Ohio State team isn't where it needs to be so it can compete for championships and meet the standard of making the College Football Playoff that fans demand. But he also knows it doesn't have to be.
All he cares about is the next game on the schedule, his team improving and being good enough to beat its opponent. This week, that is the No. 9 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
“I think '14—I'm just thinking back, with the young teams, '14—and I hate to keep putting everybody in that category—but '14 was the team that we had the double overtime win (at Penn State). We didn't play exceptionally well that game. And that's just college football now right now, too,” Meyer said on Monday. “So I do, I guess I'm not normally like this, but I see a lot of positives from our team because I know what we're playing and I know these young guys and they are getting better because I see it from maybe a different angle, viewpoint than a lot of other people.”
There are problems with Meyer's team. The lack of a deep threat is a problem that doesn't appear to be going away. The offensive line, though it played better in a 24-20 win against Northwestern, must be better before the season ends. Play calling through eight games at times has been interesting.
Above all, however, the Buckeyes are 7-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country as the calendar readies to flip to November. Everything is in front of them, which isn't a bad place to stand.
“Do I wish that we were (scoring) 56 points and all those kind of things? Sure,” Meyer said, “but we're a work in progress.”
Meyer joked with reporters Monday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, doing his best to keep the mood light as questions flew toward him about the struggles with J.T. Barrett and the deep passing game, the biggest recruiting weekend of the season on tap and other growing pains that come with losing 16 starters and 12 NFL Draft picks.
“Do I wish that we were (scoring) 56 points and all those kind of things? Sure, but we're a work in progress.”– Urban Meyer
Ohio State is expected to reload every year and remain near the top of the sport. It's done that. Meyer is 57-5 in now his fifth season at the helm in Columbus, yet unrest is prevalent because the Buckeyes aren't blowing out what is some solid Big Ten competition like it did against lowly Bowling Green, Tulsa and even at Oklahoma.
“I do see some very good positives. I like the fact that you get in a street fight and you win it,” Meyer said. “And that's a good sign of the future's very bright here. We have really two seniors that are playing in Pat (Elflein) and Tyquan (Lewis)—well, Tyquan's not, he's got another year—and Dontre (Wilson).
“You've got a bunch of young cats going and swinging hard and practicing hard.”
The leaders on his team feel the added weight of the expectations too but aren't focusing on it. When they spend time in front of a camera answering questions, players like Barrett, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive end Jalyn Holmes do their best to stress the positives.
“When you say lacking, it's almost like we can't produce it where I tried to express after the game that they're playing off,” Barrett said on Monday, answering an inquiry about the lack of explosive plays from the offense. “It's hard to run past people when they're 10 yards off of you before the snap then when the snap happens, they back up even further. So you can't beat them.”
Barrett is right, as teams are playing deep Cover 3 to take away the downfield passing game and forcing him to throw short and in the flat to give his guys chances to make plays and pick up first downs. A monster like Ezekiel Elliott is no longer in the backfield. Another draft pick at wide receiver in Michael Thomas plays for the New Orleans Saints. There are three new starters on the offensive line. Things are different.
“That's the thing that's happening this year is that they're not packing the box like they did last year with Zeke and making us throw it where as this year it's like 'OK, we see you have weapons, so we're going to back off and make y'all nickel and dime us down the field,'” Barrett said. “That's what we've been able to do.”
Barrett didn't record a touchdown on Saturday for the first time in his career during a game in which he started. But he and the offense executed at the end of the game to bleed the clock out so the Buckeyes could beat a Northwestern team riding a three-game winning streak.
He also didn't turn it over because he didn't force the issue on certain plays, something that holds his focus on each week.
“That's part of it but as far as the passing game, as far as situations, even 3rd downs we don't have to force it,” Barrett said. “We have a really good punt team, we can punt the ball and we have a good defense. So we're going to play defense. So I don't think there is any forcing the ball in the passing game.”
Barrett said teams are scheming Ohio State up to eliminate downfield throws after seeing what the Buckeyes did in their first three games where they averaged 56 points. All of those new faces in the lineup kind caught opponents by surprise, McMillan added, but the now eight games of tape allow for opposing coaching staffs to better prepare.
Then when things don't go right, first-time starters or freshmen react differently to adversity. Ohio State chooses to focus on that in addition to doing whatever it takes to win a game, even if it doesn't look as shiny and pretty as some fans might like.
“Just the pressure around here that we always have, you tend to get tensed up and not play loose and start worrying about 'What ifs' like 'what if this happens?' Or win or lose and start worrying about the playoffs,” McMillan said. “Like I said a couple weeks back, we just gotta worry about the next day getting better and the task at hand.”
The next task at hand is a good Nebraska team entering Ohio Stadium off its lone loss so far this season for a night game. It is one neither team can afford to lose if it wants to stay in the Big Ten race and College Football Playoff conversation.
So even though things aren't perfect and Ohio State's offense isn't rolling like it was at the end of the last two seasons, there remains time to correct it. Meyer knows what issues remain with his team. But things aren't as bad as everyone thinks they are, and the Buckeyes are still young and coming into their own.
“Every player's different. Every team's different. Now we've got the wear and tear, because the bye week was so early. So you have to be very cautious of that,” Meyer said. “You're entering week nine and ten of a season with little depth—some depth issues.
“So that's the essence. Take us a couple of hours to have that conversation about who we are as a team and who the individuals are that we have to coach through growing pains, I guess. I don't think growing pains is—it's part of the way it is. Every school in the country is dealing with it. I would say this, too, that it's very fragile. You just go home at night, sink into that chair and go, 'Oh, that team lost, that team lost.' It happens. It's very fragile. You've just got to keep swinging—one game at a time, one quarter at a time of play.”