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Football Season in Ohio Is off to a Great Start

By Bill Peterson · September 13th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Football season rings the bell a couple times, knocks once and listens for footsteps inside. When it knows you're home, it breaks down your door to announce its arrival. By the end of the weekend, people who'd never heard of football knew it was football season.

Maybe your phone rang last week when you were away and UC football coach Mark Dantonio left a message begging for your presence at the Bearcats' Sept. 8 game against Pittsburgh. Maybe you heard about the big quadruple-header at Paul Brown Stadium featuring six of the best high school teams in Kentucky and Ohio on Sept. 9.

You might have seen something on television about a little contest later that night in Austin, Tex., where the Ohio State Buckeyes set out to protect their No. 1 ranking against the defending national champions from the University of Texas.

A day later, the Bengals opened their season. It was in all the papers.

It has returned to consume us.

No one is more happily devoured than the fans of Ohio State, who suddenly find themselves in complete control of the national championship, should they decide to accept the mission. Judging by the Buckeyes' emergence in their 24-7 win at Texas, they've already made their decision.

In one night, an Ohio State defense with nine new starters ascended from unproved to well-proved, shutting down a Texas attack that's finding its way through the dark without Vince Young. The Buckeyes never trailed in Texas against one of America's best home-field teams.

The victory consolidated Ohio State's first-place vote in both polls and made the national championship theirs to lose.

They seem to have a chance of not losing. The Buckeyes bring UC to Ohio Stadium Saturday, then face a short minefield before the end of the month.

On Sept. 23, No. 25 Penn State visits Columbus. On Sept. 30, the Buckeyes go to No. 16 Iowa. If the Buckeyes win those next three games, they'll be so far above the pack in the Bowl Championship Series rankings that they might not fall past No. 2 even if they take their first loss against No. 11 Michigan on Nov. 18.

Like Texas a year ago, the Buckeyes separate themselves with a quarterback who always shows up for the big game. In the three past marquee Ohio State games -- last year's Michigan game, the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame and last weekend's Texas game -- Troy Smith has averaged 21 for 30 with 304 yards as a passer.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy acquitted himself fairly well against a relentless Buckeyes pass rush, despite which the Buckeyes consistently surrounded Texas carriers in the open field. By early in the fourth quarter, the idea that Texas might stage a comeback from a 17-7 deficit lost credibility because the Ohio State defense killed the chance for a big play.

The Buckeyes won with three huge plays, two of them by the defense. The first came in the first quarter, when linebacker James Laurinaitis forced a fumble by Texas receiver Billy Pittman at the OSU two, then defensive back Donald Washington returned the loose ball to the 50. Five plays later, Ohio State took a 7-0 lead.

Ohio State made a statement late in the second quarter, after Texas tied the game with a 13-play, 78-yard touchdown drive, leaving the Buckeyes 73 yards and only 1:27 before halftime. Smith rapidly completed four passes, finally finding Ted Ginn Jr., unbelievably single covered, for the touchdown.

When Laurinaitis picked McCoy after the second-half kickoff, the Buckeyes tacked on a field goal and put Texas in a choke hold. In a matter of 2:40, Ohio State turned a tie game on the road into a 10-point lead.

Like Ohio State, the Bengals add new layers of legitimacy to their veneer with almost every outing. The Bengals showed up with a pass rush in their 23-10 opening win at Kansas City, sacking Chiefs quarterbacks seven times.

The run defense, which has always been a problem, seemed less of one against the Chiefs, who rushed for 113 yards on 4.5 yards per carry. A number of scrambles by Kansas City quarterback Trent Green inflated those totals, until Green unfortunately left in the third quarter after exposing himself with a slide and taking a hit from Robert Geathers. The Bengals silenced Larry Johnson, holding him to less than 100 yards for the first time in his past 10 games.

The challenge of a difficult schedule suddenly is less of a trap for the Bengals after they went to the house of a 10-win team from 2005 on the high adrenaline occasion of opening day. Form predicted a 20-point output for Kansas City, and the Bengals cut it in half.

With a defensive front bringing enough pressure that the Bengals can drop seven in pass coverage, they've suddenly got flexibility. And now we'll see how Marvin Lewis earned his reputation for defensive genius.

It's only one game, but it isn't. It's a game that tells us the Bengals are really good, and that's more than the Bengals ever told us last year, when they roughed up on an early cupcake schedule and limped to the end when the going got tough. The wins were all great and we loved them, but not like we love this. This season is real.

The Bengals not only can beat teams they're supposed to beat -- now they can beat anyone anywhere. Go on the road, shut down a team that scored 400 points last year, bottle up the top running back in every fantasy draft -- that's the real deal. When you see it, you expect to see it again. And this year's schedule tells us we'll have to see it again -- a lot.

Carson Palmer is playing on solid legs, and so is the defense. Ohio State has the college football world at its feet. Football season is here, and it already looks like a great one.



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