Beaten-down Buckeyes try to focus on football
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)
Luke Fickell doesn't remember much about running onto the field for his first game as a player at Ohio State.
Expected to see playing time as a callow freshman on the defensive line in 1992, he was too busy thinking about his responsibilities after the kickoff.
Odds are, he won't remember much about his first game as a head coach, either. The 18th-ranked Buckeyes and Fickell hope to put nine months of accusations, investigations, suspensions and uproar behind them when they host Akron on Saturday.
''I was more focused and worried and understanding of what my job was and I didn't get to absorb the atmosphere and look around and be in awe of the 98,000 (in the stands) at that time,'' Fickell said of his first game as a player. ''I was focused on what I had to do. I presume it'll be very similar come Saturday, that I won't give myself a chance to look around at the 106,000 and think about anything other than what, for that 60 minutes, has to be done.''
It's been a long, strange trip for the Buckeyes to reach this point. Shortly after beating Michigan for the ninth time in coach Jim Tressel's 10 seasons last November, Ohio State learned that several players had taken cash and tattoos from the subject of a federal drug-trafficking probe. The school ended up suspending five players for the first five games of 2011 - including four junior starters on offense, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor - and another for this season's opener.
While looking into another matter, Ohio State officials discovered that Tressel had known of the players' improper benefits for more than 10 months but, in violation of his contract and NCAA rules, had not told his superiors what he knew.
Originally suspended for just two games, Tressel was forced to resign on May 30 after weeks of allegations and rumors. Soon after that, Tressel's pet player, Pryor, surrendered his final year of eligibility to jump to the NFL.
As if that weren't enough, Ohio State announced on Thursday that three more Buckeyes players - starters at tailback Jordan Hall and cornerback Travis Howard and backup safety Corey ''Pittsburgh'' Brown - were suspended for acccepting improper benefits after the other players were penalized for the same thing. All three will sit out at least the first game, and possibly more, while the NCAA decides whether to reinstate them for the remainder of the season.
So the beaten-down Buckeyes are left with lots of losses to graduation and scandal and a stadium full of question marks. Few think they'll accomplish much while they await the other cleat to drop when the NCAA levies its final penalties, most likely in October or early November. Ohio State has offered to vacate the 2010 season, repay $338,000 and go on two years of NCAA probation.
Those left behind are ready for the doubters.
''I love being the underdog. I love surprising people,'' hybrid linebacker/safety Tyler Moeller, a sixth-year senior, said. ''A lot of teams I've been on were expected to win. This year's a little bit different and I kind of like that.''
Tight end Jake Stoneburner said he's motivated by all those who believe Ohio State is in ruins.
''I feel like every year we have haters, this year it's probably more than ever,'' he said. ''But we have to just go out there and put our actions out on the field and prove people wrong.''
With Pryor now an Oakland Raider, 25-year-old ex-minor-league pitcher Joe Bauserman will split the quarterback job with true freshman Braxton Miller. Bauserman, with a better grasp of the playbook, gets the first snap but Miller is being given every possible chance by the coaching staff to make the starting job his.
At tailback, Dan Herron is sitting out the first five games (along with starting tackle Mike Adams, top returning receiver DeVier Posey and Sugar Bowl star at defensive end Solomon Thomas) and will be replaced by up-and-comers Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith.
Trying to make sense of it all is Fickell.
''He's always talking about effort, turnovers and toughness,'' offensive lineman J.B. Shugarts said. ''We have to be tough, we have to give everything we got, an extreme amount of effort and we can't turn the ball over and the defense needs to create turnovers. Fickellball is a little bit less complicated, maybe. It's a physical game.''
Much like the Buckeyes, no one really knows what to expect of Akron. The Zips are coming off a 1-11 season, Rob Ianello's first on the sidelines.
He's designated junior college transfer Clayton Moore as his quarterback. The defense, which surrendered 35 points a game a year ago, should be better with linebacker Brian Wagner back to lead the team in tackles for a third time.
Both teams are trying to deal only with their own business.
''I don't really spend too much time on what the Buckeyes might be thinking,'' Ianello said. ''I'm just concerned with what our guys are thinking. I want our guys thinking about improvement, about playing every play and what do I have to do to be a better player on this play.''
Fickell is trying to get his team to deal only with football while assailed by outside noise.
''How you handle those things outside (of football) will determine how successful you can be,'' he said. ''I'd be lying if I said no one's worried about (the NCAA sanctions), that no one's looking over their shoulders. I know what we're trying to plant in front of them, and what we're trying to say to them: 'Hey, let's just control the things that we can control. The past is in the past. Let's continue to move forward.'''
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap