April 24, 2014

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Ohio State football: Buckeyes must learn to close out games

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Urban Meyer could look at Ohio State’s record and see perfection.

He knows better.

The man with two national championship rings and a resume full of winning seasons understands better than anyone that if the No. 8 Buckeyes are going to keep winning, they must figure out how to close out games.

“I have to get more involved and find out what the issues are,” the coach said after the Buckeyes’ latest great escape, a 52-49 victory at Indiana on Saturday. “I know injuries are an issue. When you take your starting fullback and start him at inside linebacker, you have a little problem. I don’t think you can pinpoint any one thing right now. I have got to find out. I am going to increase my involvement with the defense.”

Offensively, the Buckeyes look fine.

Quarterback Braxton Miller delivered another masterful performance against the Hoosiers, rushing for 149 yards, scoring on a 67-yard run and throwing TD passes of 60 and 46 yards. It was Miller’s third straight 100-yard game, and he was equally efficient through the air, completing 13 of 24 passes for 211 yards.

As a team, the Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) ran for more than 350 yards for the second straight week — finishing with 353.

Defensively, though, Ohio State was not itself with starting linebacker Etienne Sabino out of the lineup.

Indiana (2-4, 0-3) ran 24 times for 129 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and threw for 352 yards while producing a school-record points total against the Buckeyes. The previous mark was 41 points in 1988 — the Hoosiers’ last win against the Buckeyes.

With Sabino expected to miss another three weeks because of a fractured bone in his right leg, the Buckeyes must find some way to get more defensive stops before they get another heart-stopping scare.

Already, they have held off California, then-No. 20 Michigan State and now Indiana, winning the three games by a combined total of 11 points and nearly blowing an 18-point lead in the final two minutes against the Hoosiers.

“We’re trying to get away from that and we’re not trying to have close games every time or stuff like that,” right tackle Reid Fragel said. “But as an offensive unit, we know we can get the job done when it matters, and I think we’ve shown that pretty well the past couple of games.”

Few expected the Buckeyes to have this much trouble against Indiana, which has lost 11 straight conference games and 21 in a row against Big Ten teams from outside Indiana.

The most stunning part: How quickly Ohio State wasted much of a seemingly safe lead.

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson inserted backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld with 3:58 left in the game, figuring he could use the snaps in a 52-34 game.

But Sudfeld got hot, connecting with Duwyce Wilson on a 12-yard TD pass with 1:40 to go and, after the Hoosiers recovered an onside kick, Sudfeld quickly found Stephen Houston for a 25-yard score just 35 seconds later. When Cody Latimer scooted around the right side for the 2-point conversion, Indiana was down just a field goal and an onside kick away from perhaps beating the Buckeyes or forcing overtime.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Corey Brown, the only player around the bouncing kick, secured it at the Ohio State 31.

With the victory, Ohio State is the first ranked team with seven wins, despite being ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA infractions.

But this is no way to finish games. What’s wrong?

“We’re a legitimate top 10 team and we can hang in and play with anybody,” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “But we play to our opponents’ skill level and that’s something we have to learn and mature as a team.”

Overconfidence could have been a problem, too.

Receiver Jake Stoneburner acknowledged that the Buckeyes may have underestimated the Hoosiers offense coming into the game, and Roby, who recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the first half, thought the defense let up after getting the big lead.

“Our offense got up two or three scores and as a defense, we just rely on that we won the game,” he said. “Just joking on the sidelines. I just feel like we have to stay focused for all 60 minutes. We were supposed to win the game, but a win doesn’t really feel good. It’s definitely better than losing the game, but I don’t feel too good right now. I feel like I left some plays on the field, along with everybody else.”

As Meyer knows, that’s not championship football.

So it’s a good bet Meyer will spend most of this week working out the kinks and getting the hearts and minds of the Buckeyes refocused on what they must do before Purdue comes calling next weekend.

“Spread offenses right now are really exposing us right now,” Meyer said. “We have got to get something fixed.”

Buckeyes periscope

  • INJURY REPORT: DE Nathan Williams did not make the trip to Indiana after suffering a concussion.
    Also not making it to the game were freshmen DBs Najee Murray (season-ending knee surgery) and Armani Reeves (sprained ankle).
  • UPCOMING: The start time has yet to be set for Saturday’s game against Purdue at Ohio Stadium. It’ll be announced by the TV networks and Big Ten today, but according to ESPN the game is set for a noon kickoff on Channel 5 or ESPN2. Here’s what’s left for the Buckeyes after the Boilermakers: at Penn State on Oct. 27 at 6 p.m., Illinois at home on Nov. 3 (time TBA), bye week, at Wisconsin on Nov. 17 (time TBA), and Michigan at home on Nov. 24, noon kickoff.