Thursday, August 31, 2000

Buckeyes retooled, refocused

OSU eager to leave disappointing '99 behind

By Scott MacGregor
The Cincinnati Enquirer

QB Steve Bellisari.
(AP photo)
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        COLUMBUS — Immediately after Ohio State's 46-20 home loss to Illinois in November, work crews began tearing up 78-year-old Ohio Stadium to begin a $187 million reconstruction project. The work on the football team itself began a week later.

        It started after Michigan had beaten the Buckeyes 24-17 in the season's final game, one in which Ohio State finally played with the heart it had lacked all season. The loss closed a 6-6 season — the first time the Bucks hadn't been to a bowl game since 1988 — and mercifully brought to an end the malaise that plagued the program all year.

        Said coach John Cooper after the Michigan game, “Hopefully, none of us at Ohio State will have to go through another season like this.”

        “The first opportunity we get, we want to wipe out the bad taste from last year,” said guard Mike Gurr, a Hamilton native. “We've been second in the nation a couple of times since I've been here, and last year was awful. We've been trying to forget about last year, because there's nothing you can do about the past.”

        The first chance to erase that bad taste for 16th-rated Ohio State comes Saturday when Fresno State visits Columbus for the season opener, which also will mark the debut of the new Ohio Stadium. About 5,000 seats have been added, bringing capacity to around 95,000. Many of the seats have been moved closer to the field.

        “It has a little bit of a different feel,” junior quarterback Steve Bellisari said. “You look around, and everything's different.”

        He was talking about the stadium, but he could have been talking about his team.

        Change was the buzz word for the Buckeyes this winter.

        Because the offense struggled last year, Cooper fired coordinator Mike Jacobs and replaced him with receivers coach Chuck Stobart. Defensive ends coach Shawn Simms also was fired, and Cooper promoted defensive coordinator Fred Pagac to assistant head coach and moved Jon Tenu ta from secondary coach to defensive coordinator.

        On the field, the Buckeyes added more of an option/rollout game to their offense to take advantage of Bellisari's athleticism.

        Key players had to be replaced. Michael Wiley graduated at tailback, with Derek Combs in; Na'il Diggs went to the NFL at linebacker, replaced by Joe Cooper; Ahmed Plummer was drafted, with David Mitchell in at cornerback.

        And then there was the old standby: going back to the fundamentals.

        “We worked hard this winter on the basics — blocking, tackling, holding on to the ball — because we had some bad turnovers, cutting down on some penalties,” Gurr said.

        And with the changes, the Buckeyes hope for a new start.

        “Once the ball is kicked off at 12:10 on Saturday, hopefully I won't have to hear about 6-6 anymore,” defensive end Rodney Bailey said. “It's a new season.”

        Part of that optimism comes from a better sense of cohesion. Last year was marred by blame and questioning, with some players wondering if others had quit. Some Buckeyes admitted the team had given up in the games leading up to the season's end. This year, the Bucks say, it's a different attitude.

        “It's a much more cohesive group on offense and defense,” Bailey said. “We've been together all winter, all spring and all summer, and this group knows each other a lot better. The leadership is strong all over.”

        “We worked a lot on unity,” Gurr said of the offensive line, which was one of the team's least together units last year.

        The schedule favors Ohio State this season. The Bucks travel to Arizona for their second game but have three of what appear to be their toughest Big Ten games at home: Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. But they must travel to Wisconsin and Illinois.

        A lot of the Buckeyes' success will hinge on whether Bellisari and the offensive line are stronger. Bellisari was thrilling at times last year, maddening at others. In his sophomore season, his throws sailed low, high, wide and short, but he also showed an instinct for the big play and the athletic ability to be molded into a solid quarterback. His arm is strong, and if he can make better throws, he can be one of the Big Ten's deadliest weapons.

        “Coach Stobart has really helped me learn defenses,” Bellisari said. “My presence in the huddle is better. I feel more comfortable.”

        The offensive line is banged up and could be a weakness early, but Bellisari returns solid receiver Reggie Germany and breakout threat Ken-Yon Rambo.

        Bellisari insists the Buckeyes can't worry about last year, but he was irked by hearing that a Fresno State player had guaranteed a victory this week. That, he says, is a lack of respect for a program with as much tradition as Ohio State.

        “That's something we have to go out and earn back,” he said.

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