Rob Oller commentary: Intensity in Horseshoe will test Ohio State freshmen
The distance from field level to the top of C-deck inside Ohio Stadium is about 135 feet, but it will feel like 135 miles to the Ohio State freshmen making their first competitive appearance inside the Horseshoe on Saturday.
For these newbies, everything about the environment will feel so familiar yet so foreign. They have played in stadiums but not ones filled with 105,000 fans. They have heard crowd noise but nothing like the sound of 50 jet engines mixing with 75,000 leaf blowers. And that’s just during TBDBITL’s ramp entrance.
These freshmen cannot properly envision it. The rows of scarlet and gray cascading from stadium rim toward synthetic playing surface. The equivalent of a medium-sized city’s population sending shock waves through the body.
Many freshmen attended games as recruits, when nothing was at stake. But having to lean in to hear a fellow recruit crack a joke does not test the nerves like trying to hear your quarterback bark signals from 25 feet away.
It will affect them.
“You think you’re ready for it, but you’re really not,” Ohio State junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said of stadium first-timers. “You’re never as ready as you want to be.”
The great unknown entering the Buckeyes’ noon opener against Buffalo is not whether they will win. It is going to be Pamplona in reverse — the Bulls trying not to get trampled. The uncertainty is how the OSU freshmen will perform. Talent, which the new class is said to possess in bulk, does not make an athlete immune from — as one program insider described it — “wetting yourself.”
Against Buffalo, then, the game inside the game will be watching how the freshmen respond to the adrenaline rush.
“It’s a big deal,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “You can come from a small high school where you had 500 people in the stands, and you can come from a really big high school where you had 15,000 in the stands. It’s a little different when you put on the scarlet and gray for the first time and you trot down that tunnel and 110,000 people are screaming and yelling and the place is rocking.”
Some athletes are “gamers,” upping their productivity under the brightest of lights. Others — “practice-only” players — go numb at kickoff.
“That first game will be a good barometer on what end of the spectrum those youngsters fit, and how they’ll react,” Herman said. “I don’t think we have any guys who will truly cower, but some might take some time to adjust, while others will play that much better and be that much more focused.”
It is a symbiotic exchange. The freshman who feeds off the opening-game energy in return energizes teammates and fans. When that freshman arrives with a resplendent resume, as Maurice Clarett did in 2002, the stadium experiences an electric snap.
Could freshman running back/H-back/kick returner Dontre Wilson create that kind of current?
“Coaches have a tendency to devalue what happens when you jog out that tunnel, especially at a place like Ohio Stadium,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There will be a lot of deep breaths being taken, and you just can’t create that animal until you get that opportunity.”
Meyer wants to see how Wilson responds to the possibility of receiving the opening kickoff.
“He doesn’t seem fazed, but he hasn’t done it yet,” Meyer said. “You see me jog someone else out there, you know we are having a little hyperventilating issue.”
It happens. Cris Carter dropped his first pass as a freshman. Tom Tupa dropped his first punt snap.
Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce shook his head at the memory of those freshman gaffes. “I looked at Tupa, ‘What happened, freshman?’ ” Bruce recalled. “And he says, ‘Coach, there are 100,000 in the stadium.’ ”
Even more will attend Saturday’s game. But take comfort, little frosh. Consider how well Carter and Tupa turned out. It takes time, but eventually the nerves will toughen, and you will embrace the noise for what it is: the sound of success.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.