Aug. 31, 2009
By now you’ve probably heard the news. Maybe you’ve even seen the video.
The Ohio State University is asking its fans to stand and cheer the Navy Midshipmen when they enter Ohio Stadium for Saturday’s season-opener against the Buckeyes.
It’s something that should go without saying, or marketing for that matter. And knowing Ohioans as I do, from four years of understudy in the state and numerous visits to Columbus, there’s really no need to remind them of a midshipman’s commitment to country.
Midwestern sensibility being what it is, nowhere across the nation is there a place where the sacrifices of service men and women are better understood. Ohio is, as we’re reminded every four years at election time, a bellwether for the America the Mids are sworn to defend.
Buckeyes wear both blue and white collars, overalls and hard hats. Places like Youngstown and Toledo know first hand the economic hardships of the steel and auto industries, while skylines such as those of Cincinnati and Columbus are home to corporate giants like Procter & Gamble and Nationwide.
Buffering them all are endless miles of rich farmland. For most, the county fair remains a big deal. For many, the way to welcome a newborn boy is to place a football in his crib.
So if Buckeyes don’t get it, without being told, who will? Theirs, after all, is the state that sent Roger Staubach and Napolean McCallum to Annapolis. They don’t come any more All-American than that.
Besides, any hostilities at The Horseshoe will most likely be saved for the following Saturday. That’s when USC, which blasted the Buckeyes, 35-3, a year ago in Los Angeles, returns the visit.
And it’s why the 105,000 expected this weekend will be even more inclined to roll out the scarlet and gray carpet for Navy. Let’s face it, it’s a whole lot easier being hospitable to an opponent you respect but don’t necessarily fear.
No matter how many times they’re cautioned the next few days by their beloved coach in his sweater vest, few Ohio State fans view the opener as anything other than a mere formality and forgone conclusion. They’re not alone.
Already, ESPN has spent time previewing OSU’s week-two encounter, helping to hype a game it will show some across the country in 3-D. In print, both local and national, Buckeye players have been widely quoted since the spring about two topics – last year’s embarrassment against the Trojans, and this year’s opportunity for atonement.
As a five-time national championship coach, Jim Tressel learned long ago never to take any foe, any game for granted. Yet kids are kids, whether they’re future NFL stars or not. His Buckeyes have both. And with USC on deck, they’ll have to resist the temptation so many can’t avoid – thinking about next week, at the expense of this week.
Meanwhile, his counterpart Ken Niumatalolo leads young men who’ve already been overlooked as football players. It’s part of what drives them. The playing field is their proving ground. Even if others don’t believe in them, they believe in each other.
The team they face on Saturday is probably the most challenging Navy opponent since Notre Dame won the 1988 national title with the likes of Ricky Watters, Rocket Ismail and Chris Zorich. As far as NFL prospects go, considering Tressel’s track record, it might be more so.
Take the quarterback. Whether or not Terrelle Pryor can truly accelerate from here to the 40-yard mark in a blazing 4.3 seconds, as advertised, he is as physically gifted as any player the Mids have defended in the last decade.
As a 6-foot-6, 235-pound sophomore he’s not yet the passer that first round picks Jay Cutler, Brady Quinn and Matt Ryan all were at the time they opposed Navy in recent years. But he might prove even more difficult to defend, because of his ability to beat you with both his legs and arm.
Pryor led the Buckeyes to 9 wins as a true freshman starter. He showed his poise while rallying them in the final minutes at Wisconsin, and showed off his athleticism with a touchdown CATCH in a near-upset of Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.
Reportedly, this summer he worked so hard on his shortcomings in the passing game – primarily reading defenses, and delivering the deep ball – that he developed tendinitis. Voted the Big Ten preseason offensive player of the year, he obviously aims to deliver.
But, his Buckeyes aren’t without concerns. The offensive line, particularly the left side, seemed unsettled late into preseason. The receiving corps is relatively inexperienced. And the running game no longer features Chris Wells, Ohio State’s fourth-leading rusher all-time.
On defense, four starters from 2008 departed to the NFL. Three of them, including the most decorated linebacker in Buckeyes’ history, James Laurinitis, accounted for nine years of starting experience and five All-America awards.
At the same time, Navy’s had its own issues to resolve, most notably the graduation of its four primary offensive playmakers from last fall and the loss of a defensive stalwart this summer. And lest one forget, under Tressel, the Ohio State pipeline has long replaced its pro draft choices with pro prospects.
From any angle, Saturday in The Horseshoe will probably be the most challenging evening or afternoon these Mids have spent on a football field. But from their point of view, that’s why they’re here, at the Academy.
And why they’ll be there in Columbus. They are who they are, because they’ve repeatedly pushed themselves – all their lives, athletically, academically and militarily – to reach higher, do better, be stronger.
The very reason for which the Midshipmen will be applauded on Saturday is exactly why they won’t be intimidated. You don’t volunteer for what they’ve all signed up for, only to cower at the sight of Brutus the Buckeye.
Before it was built in 1922, with its famed rotunda, the design of Ohio Stadium was influenced by the Pantheon and Roman Coliseum. Eighty-seven years after it opened, The Horseshoe will welcome not gladiators, but warriors.
They will enter to the cheers of 105,000 strong. If they have their way, they’ll exit to sound of stunned silence.
* Saturday marks the first visit to Ohio Stadium by a service academy since Ohio State blanked Navy, 20-0, on Nov. 7, 1931. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the game was played “in a constant downpour of rain and sleet.”
* Future Hall of Famer Sid Gillman scored the Buckeyes’ first touchdown, when he caught at a 35-yard pass deflected by the Mids’ Larry Smith. Ohio State also scored on a blocked punt and interception return.
* Their most recent encounter took place in the 1981 Liberty Bowl, where Art Schlichter passed for 2 touchdowns to lead the Buckeyes to a 31-28 win. While Navy’s Eddie Meyers was named MVP, after rushing for 117 yards, Marco Pagnanelli threw for 201 yards and a pair of scores.
* As co-champions of the Big Ten – back when it was the big ten, not eleven – Ohio State finished 8-3 under Coach Earl Bruce. Despite beating Navy, following an earlier victory over Michigan, Bruce fired three defensive assistants the very next day.
* Among them were coordinator Dennis Fryzel, who died of cancer this past July, and Steve Szabo, a Naval Academy graduate. The other was the Buckeyes’ secondary coach, Nick Saban, who landed on his feet to later lead LSU to a national title, and hopes to do the same before long at Alabama.
* Speaking of bouncing back, this weekend begins my 13th season working alongside colorful commentator John Feinstein on Navy football radio broadcasts. I’m especially excited – and thankful – to be reunited after my partner underwent open heart surgery this summer. Of course, we’ll be joined by Omar Nelson, Pete Medhurst and esteemed producer Frank DiVenti. We hope you’ll join us too.