COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a different feeling around UB training camp this month, a calm, a purposefulness, a confidence born of a genuine belief that this season could result in something special.
There are 23 seniors and 22 juniors on the roster. Four seniors have been named to preseason watch lists for national postseason awards. The quarterback uncertainty that dominated so many previous camps was eliminated when Joe Licata was named the No. 1 guy at the end of spring ball. All the components for success – experience, talent and a returning QB with a winning record line up wonderfully.
But when the season opens at high noon today, UB will find itself against an opponent that matches or exceeds its karma. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is touted as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The Buckeyes believe there’s unfinished business after NCAA probation left last year’s 12-0 team without a bowl date. However, that team’s perfect dozen bequeathed the program the nation’s longest winning streak.
What are the chances of UB pulling off an upset that would rank among the most startling in college football history? The numbers speak for themselves. The Buckeyes are 32-2 in their last 34 openers. They’ve won 61 straight non-conference home games against opponents residing outside the AP Top 25. Oh, and they begin the year ranked No 2 in the country, a spot behind Alabama, winner of the last two national championships.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to measure up against one of the best and elite programs in the country,” said Bulls coach Jeff Quinn. “They’re ranked No. 2 so somebody thinks they’re pretty good. You knock them off and you just beat the No. 2 team, and that’s what our mind-set is going there, and being well prepared and certainly being a competitive football team.”
“We respect all our opponents,” said linebacker Khalil Mack, an All-American candidate. “But we don’t fear anyone.”
Miller, OSU’s junior quarterback, demands respect at every turn. UB’s seniors saw a similar physical specimen when they went up against Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in 2010. But Griffin was a sophomore making just his fifth start. They’ve seen a similarly accomplished runner in Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, but Lynch at 200 is 20 pounds lighter than Miller, not as fast and the lesser passer. Yet he lit up UB for 129 yards on 15 carries last year.
Containing Miller is UB’s primary focus and most coaches who have faced him would say, “Good luck with that.” He’s 6 rushing yards shy of 2,000 for his career and 95 yards from becoming OSU’s all-time leading rushing quarterback. He motors behind an offensive line that returns four senior starters. And he’s gone 4.36 in the 400, a ridiculously fast time for someone 6-foot-2, 220 pounds.
“Obviously he’s a great dual threat,” said UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. “When he runs the option you’d like to have somebody on an inside and somebody on an outside. That’s not easy to do in the schemes but we hope to get two bodies on him.
“And in the passing game you just have to contain, respect his ability to get outside the pocket. He really reminds me a lot of Darian Hagan, when he was the quarterback at Colorado. Darian was an exceptional option quarterback and this guy’s just like that except he’s about 30 pounds heavier. It’s an awesome test for sure.”
Ohio State will be without its top two returning running backs, both suspended. Those circumstances align with coach Urban Meyer’s mission of developing a ball-control passing game this season to balance out the offense. Miller completed just 58 percent of his throws last year but Meyer sees the receiving corps greatly improved over the one he publicly called out last season.
UB will take a similar approach, although its bread and butter remains senior running back Branden “Bo” Oliver, who this season should become the school’s career rushing leader. The task of establishing the run was magnified when senior fullback Boomer Brock went down with a knee injury in practice Wednesday. Kendall Patterson, a converted defensive lineman, is No. 2 on the depth chart.
The Bulls ran a lot of pistol formation in camp and figure to complement star wideout Alex Neutz by using running back Devin Campbell in a receiver’s role and making greater use of a talented group of tight ends.
“We’ll take what the defense is going to give us,” said Licata, who won three of the four games he started last season. “If they’re going to allow us to run we’re going to run the ball. If they’re going to allow us to pass deep we’re going to pass deep. If they’re going to let us throw the ball underneath we’re going to do that. We’re going to try and dictate the pace.”
The Bulls are 36-point underdogs. Few expect them to hang close. Fewer still are entertaining the lottery thought: “Hey, You Never Know.” But UB likes what it has built.
“It’s a different feeling,” Mack said. “You can definitely feel it, especially when you step in the locker room.”
“I feel confident,” Licata said. “I think the whole mood of the offense is confident and the mood of the defense is confident. That’s a big thing. We’re an experienced bunch so we just have to be confident and know that those guys are just college athletes playing against other college athletes. Yeah, they’re Ohio State but we’re not playing the Ohio State of the past, we’re playing the 2013 Ohio State Buckeyes.”