Photo Caption: Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton goes to throw a pass during Saturday's game against Rutgers in New Jersey. Tettleton threw a career-high of 339 yards and matched his career-high of three touchdown passes.
Saturday in New Jersey, the bubble burst on Ohio Universitys football team. Before the game, there were unspoken thoughts of an undefeated season fleeting through the minds of fans. Sure, Ohio hadn't played a single conference game, but the remaining schedule looks pretty friendly. OU does not face Toledo or Western Michigan in the regular season and faces rivals Temple and Miami at home. The last big hurdle was Rutgers.
Was it irrationally optimistic? Of course. But was it completely insane? Not completely. But probably pretty close to it.
But that's what we as fans do. We are irrational. We are insane. We are both fiercely loyal and blind to inadequacies.
With a quick poke to the bubble of invincibility, eyes were opened, and Ohio's inadequacies were exposed.
The young secondary was abused by Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The 6-2 Sanu, a talented, strong receiver who will be coming to an NFL team near you soon, took advantage of a secondary focused on eliminating the deep ball. That left Sanu open on underneath routes, and quarterback Chas Dodd hit him with record regularity. Sanu finished the game with 16 receptions, a school and Big East record, 176 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Whenever three of your top four tacklers in a game play in the secondary, that's not a good sign.
But despite the secondary's tough night, it was not fully or even primarily responsible for the loss, and at least had the pretty good excuse of missing top cornerback Travis Carrie, who was injured on Rutgers second series.
The pin that popped the bubble was the fumbles.
It's trite and overtly simplistic to look at the turnover battle as the penultimate deciding factor in a game. The numbers can be skewed by last-second heaves picked off or fumbling after a bone-jarring hit. But when the total yards for each team differ by only six yards in a 12-point game, turnovers are usually a big reason.
Ohio's turnovers, though, were not the result of a last-second play or bone-jarring hit. Every one of the four fumbles falls into the most painful category of turnovers: easily preventable at the most inopportune times. LaVon Brazill fumbled a punt while trying to make play deep in his own territory, and it was recovered and returned for a score, putting Rutgers up 21-7 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, a crushing blow to Ohio's momentum. Ohio had cut the Rutgers lead to eight in the third quarter when Ryan Boykin, who filled in for the injured Donte Harden at running back, failed to secure the ball on a routine tackle.
But the most surprising turnovers came courtesy of the surprisingly human Tyler Tettleton. After three unexpectedly impressive performances, Tettleton finally showed that this is his first year starting.
Tettleton fumbled a snap on the team's opening drive, giving the ball back to Rutgers after the defense forced a fumble on Rutgers first possession. He had seemed to brush it off by the second quarter and led the team inside the Rutgers 30-yard-line on eight plays. Then, on a simple option that Tettleton has run to perfection in this early season, he inexplicably attempted to pitch the ball despite three defenders encircling him.
The fumble may not have led to points and Brazill's was admittedly much more immediately costly, but it was one of the first times that Tettleton had a chance to make a smart decision and completely whiffed.
It humanized a player who had been perhaps prematurely placed on a pedestal.
But it was not all bad. It gave Tettleton the chance to fold or perform, and he adamantly refused to fold. He completed 23-of-36 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Eliminate the fumbles and he has yet another incredible performance in a tough loss.
At first glance, the loss felt worse felt than it really is. The team is 3-1 heading into conference play, and hope to have Harden back next week against Kent State. Ohio's record is something any fan and probably any player or coach would have signed up for before the start of the season. They have proved that they have the talent to win the MAC title and the school's first bowl game.
The loss to Rutgers may have damaged the aura of this year's squad, but it did not damage the chance for this season to be a special for Ohio.