FiveThirtyEight’s model calls Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship game between Kentucky and Connecticut a tossup. If it’s as close as each team’s win probabilities are, the game will probably come down to free throws. If it does, advantage, UConn.The Huskies have hit 77.4 percent of their free throws this season, good for fifth out of the 351 teams in Division I. That’s the highest free-throw percentage ranking for a Final Four team since Michigan State ranked third in the nation in 2005. And if UConn shoots well at the line and beats Kentucky, the Huskies will have the highest free-throw percentage ranking of any champion since before the 1998 Final Four, the earliest for which stats are available. Kentucky is hitting 68.4 percent of its free throws, just 228th overall.Hitting lots of free throws is, not surprisingly, helpful for winning college basketball games, and in Storrs, Conn., free-throw shooting has become a key part of success. During the 2010-2011 season, current UConn associate coach Glen Miller found and shared a video of Steve Nash shooting from the free-throw line (Nash is a career 90.4 percent shooter in the NBA). That year, the Jim Calhoun-coached Huskies won the championship while finishing 11th nationally in free-throw shooting. UConn hit 82 percent of its free throws in the tournament. It was a big improvement from the Huskies’ No. 312 ranking the prior time they won the title under Calhoun, in 2004. (That was the lowest ranking in free-throw accuracy for a champion on record.)Last season, its first under coach Kevin Ollie, UConn ranked 31st. During his four years as a Husky in the 1990s, Ollie improved his accuracy from the line, going from 71.8 percent his freshman year to 80.6 percent in his senior year. And under Ollie, UConn has improved, too. All three players to shoot at least 80 free throws last year and this year for UConn have a higher percentage this season.Even if you don’t appreciate the aesthetic value of Shabazz Napier’s free-throw shooting as much our Grantland colleague Louisa Thomas does, you should appreciate its value to the Huskies. Napier has hit 86.9 percent of his free throws this season, up from 81.9 percent last year. He’s also taken 64 percent more foul shots. He’s been even better in the tournament, missing just twice on 31 tries.To approximate the importance of free-throw accuracy for the Huskies’ success, I checked a few simple what-if scenarios. If they’d shot free throws in each game this season at the rate they shot last year (74.3 percent), or the national average rate this season (69.8 percent), the Huskies would have lost two more games during the season and been forced into overtime in a third. A loss in that overtime game could have jeopardized their tournament berth.At the national average rate, UConn would have hit just 15 of 22 free throws in both its Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games — instead of hitting 20 and 21, respectively. Both games would have gone into overtime, which would have jeopardized its Final Four berth. And if the Huskies had shot in each game at the same rate as their opponent in that game, they would have lost their Sweet Sixteen game against Iowa State.Of course, these are overly simplified scenarios; games probably wouldn’t have played out exactly the same way with different free-throw results. But that could cut both ways: Perhaps a team of Huskies who were weaker from the line would have done even worse because they wouldn’t have gotten to shoot the back end of one-and-ones, or because opponents would have fouled them more often and prevented more field goals. Then again, the record of recent Final Fours shows plenty of teams can succeed while laying lots of bricks from the free-throw line. One conclusion is clear: UConn almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten this far without Napier’s deadeye accuracy with the clock stopped, or without that Steve Nash video. Oklahoma2002Final Four7 Ohio State1999Final Four297 Florida2014Final Four275 Butler2011Final69 Butler2010Final27 Duke1999Final76 Duke2010Champion8 Connecticut2009Final Four207 Syracuse2003Champion163 Marquette2003Final Four6 West Virginia2010Final Four121 Florida2006Champion33 Syracuse2013Final Four235 Memphis2008Final318 Michigan State2005Final Four3 Ohio State2007Final134 Villanova2009Final Four17 Kentucky1998Champion148 Ohio State2012Final Four107 Michigan State2010Final Four185 Wichita State2013Final Four167 Michigan State2001Final Four55 Duke2001Champion127 George Mason2006Final Four249 Michigan State2000Champion28 Connecticut1999Champion26 Kansas2002Final Four71 Kentucky2011Final Four108 UCLA2008Final Four55 Florida2007Champion168 Louisville2005Final Four62 Georgetown2007Final Four105 UCLA2007Final Four252 Illinois2005Final45 North Carolina2000Final Four102 North Carolina2009Champion18 Kansas2003Final276 North Carolina2005Champion53 Connecticut2004Champion312 Kansas2008Champion131 North Carolina1998Final Four54 Duke2004Final Four26 Michigan2013Final158 Georgia Tech2004Final157 Oklahoma State2004Final Four150 Connecticut2014TBD5 Louisville2013Champion118 Arizona2001Final17 Michigan State1999Final Four24 Kentucky2012Champion63 Indiana2002Final135 UCLA2006Final168 Final Four TeamYearFinishFT% rank Michigan State2009Final138 Texas2003Final Four79 Maryland2001Final Four128 Louisville2012Final Four191 Louisiana State2006Final Four170 Wisconsin2014Final Four26 Kansas2012Final169 Wisconsin2000Final Four169 Utah1998Final28 North Carolina2008Final Four13 Virginia Commonwealth2011Final Four97 Florida2000Final64 Kentucky2014TBD228 Connecticut2011Champion11 Maryland2002Champion56 Stanford1998Final Four14
In football, there are constant power struggles, both on and off the field: players battling players, offenses battling defenses, the passing game battling the running game, coaches battling coaches, and new ways of thinking battling old ways of thinking. And then there are kickers. Battling no one but themselves and the goalposts, they come on the field in moments most mundane and most decisive. They take all the blame when they fail, and little of the credit when they succeed. Year in and year out, just a little bit at a time, they get better. And better. And better. Until the game is completely different, and no one even noticed that kickers were one of the main reasons why.If you’ve been reading my NFL column Skeptical Football this season, you may have noticed that I write a lot about kickers. This interest has been building for a few years as I’ve watched field goals drained from long range at an ever-increasing rate, culminating in 2013, when NFL kickers made more than 67 percent of the kicks they took from 50-plus yards, giving them a record 96 such makes. There has been a lot of speculation about how kickers suddenly became so good at the long kick, ranging from performance-enhancing drugs (there have been a few possible cases) to the kickers’ special “k-balls” to more kick-friendly stadiums.So prior to the 2014 season, I set out to try to see how recently this improvement had taken place, whether it had been gradual or sudden, and whether it was specific to very long kicks or reflected improvement in kicking accuracy as a whole.What I found fundamentally changed my understanding of the game of football.1And possibly offered insight into how competitive sports can conceal remarkable changes in human capability.The complete(ish) history of NFL kickingPro Football Reference has kicking data broken down by categories (0-19 yards, 20-29, 30-39, 40-59 and 50+ yards) back to 1961. With this we can see how field goal percentage has changed through the years for each range of distances:It doesn’t matter the distance; kicking has been on a steady upward climb. If we look back even further, we can see indicators that kicking has been on a similar trajectory for the entire history of the league.The oldest data that Pro Football Reference has available is from 1932, when the eight teams in the NFL made just six field goals (it’s unknown how many they attempted). That year, kickers missed 37 of 113 extra-point attempts, for a conversion rate of 67.3 percent. The following year, the league moved the goal posts up to the front of the end zone — which led to a whopping 36 made field goals, and a skyrocketing extra-point conversion rate of 79.3 percent. With the uprights at the front of the end zone, kickers missed only 30 of 145 extra points.For comparison, those 30 missed extra-point attempts (all with the goalposts at the front of the end zone) are more than the league’s 28 missed extra-point attempts (all coming from 10 yards further out) from 2011 to 2014 — on 4,939 attempts.In 1938-39, the first year we know the number of regular field goals attempted, NFL kickers made 93 of 235 field-goal tries (39.6 percent) to go with 347 of 422 extra points (82.2 percent). In the ’40s, teams made 40.0 percent of their field goal tries (we don’t know what distances they attempted) and 91.3 percent of their XPs. In the ’50s, those numbers rose to 48.2 percent of all field goals and 94.8 percent of XPs. The ’60s must have seemed like a golden era: Kickers made 56 percent of all field goals (breaking the 50 percent barrier for the first time) and 96.8 percent of their extra points.For comparison, since 2010, NFL kickers have made 61.9 percent of their field goal attempts — from more than 50 yards.In the 1960s, we start to get data on field goal attempts broken down by distance, allowing for the more complete picture above. In 1972, the NFL narrowed the hash marks from 18.5 yards from 40, which improved field goal percentages overall by reducing the number of attempts taken from awkward angles. And then in 1974, the league moved the goal posts to the back of the end zone — but as kick distances are recorded relative to the posts, the main effect of this move was a small (and temporary) decline in the extra-point conversion rate (which you can see in the top line of the chart above). Then we have data on the kicks’ exact distance, plus field and stadium type, after 1993.2This info is likely out there for older kicks as well, but it wasn’t in my data.So let’s combine everything we know: Extra-point attempts and distances prior to 1961, kicks by category from 1961 to 1993, the kicks’ exact distance after 1993, and the changing placement of goal posts and hash marks. Using this data, we can model the likely success of any kick.With those factors held constant, here’s a look at how good NFL kickers have been relative to their set of kicks in any given year3This is done using a binomial probit regression with all the variables, using “year taken” as a categorical variable (meaning it’s not treated like a number, so 1961, 1962 and 1963 may as well be “Joe,” “Bob” and “Nancy”). This is similar to how SRS determines how strong each team is relative to its competition.:When I showed this chart to a friend of mine who’s a philosophy Ph.D.,4Hi, Nate! he said: “It’s like the Hacker Gods got lazy and just set a constant Kicker Improvement parameter throughout the universe.” The great thing about this is that since the improvement in kicking has been almost perfectly linear, we can treat “year” as just another continuous variable, allowing us to generalize the model to any kick in any situation at any point in NFL history.Applying this year-based model to our kicking distance data, we can see just how predictable the improvement in kicking has actually been:The model may give teams too much credit in the early ’60s — an era for which we have a lot less data — but over the course of NFL history it does extremely well (it also predicts back to 1932, not shown). What’s amazing is that, while the model incorporates things like hashmark location and (more recently) field type, virtually all the work is handled by distance and year alone. Ultimately, it’s an extremely (virtually impossibly) accurate model considering how few variables it relies on.5So how accurate is this thing? To be honest, in all my years of building models, I’ve never seen anything like it. The model misses a typical year/distance group prediction by an average of just 2.5 percent. Note that a majority of those predictions involve only a couple hundred observations — at most. For comparison, the standard deviation for 250 observations of a 75 percent event is 2.7 percent. In other words, the model pretty much couldn’t have done any better even if it knew the exact probability of each kick!While there is possibly a smidge of overfitting (there usually is), the risk here is lower than usual, since the vast majority of each prediction is driven solely by year and distance. Here’s the regression output:I wish I could take credit for this, but it really just fell into place. Nerds, perk up: The z-value on “season” is 46.2! If every predictive relationship I looked for were that easy to find, life would be sweet.This isn’t just trivia, it has real-world implications, from tactical (how should you manage the clock knowing your opponent needs only moderate yardage to get into field goal range?) to organizational (maybe a good kicker is worth more than league minimum). And then there’s the big one.Fourth downIf you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated. Here’s a comparison between a field-goal kicking curve from 2004 vs. 2014:There’s no one universally agreed-upon system for when you should go for it on fourth down. But a very popular one is The New York Times’ 4th Down Bot, which is powered by models built by Brian Burke — founder of Advanced Football Analytics and a pioneer in the quantitative analysis of football. It calculates the expected value (either in points or win percentages) for every fourth-down play in the NFL, and tweets live results during games. Its 19,000-plus followers are treated to the bot’s particular emphasis on the many, many times coaches fail to go for it on fourth down when they should.A very helpful feature of the 4th Down Bot is that its game logs break down each fourth-down decision into its component parts. This means that we can see exactly what assumptions the bot is making about the success rate of each kick. Comparing those to my model, it looks to me like the bot’s kickers are approximately 2004-quality. (I asked Burke about this, and he agrees that the bot is probably at least a few years behind,6I don’t blame Burke or others for not updating their models based on the last few years. It’s good to be prudent and not assume that temporary shifts one way or the other will hold. Normally it is better to go with the weight of history rather than with recent trends. But in this case, the recent trends are backed by the weight of history. and says that its kicking assumptions are based on a fitted model of the most recent eight years of kicking data.7Here’s his full statement: “The bot is about 3-4 years behind the trends in FG accuracy, which have been improving at longer distances. It uses a kicking model fitted to the average of the recent 8-year period of data. AFA’s more advanced model for team clients is on the current ‘frontier’ of kick probabilities, and can be tuned for specific variables like kicker range, conditions, etc. Please keep in mind the bot is intended to be a good first-cut on the analysis and a demonstration of what is possible with real-time analytics. It’s not intended as the final analysis.”)But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8The exact values in the chart may differ slightly from the reports on the Times’ website because I had to reverse-engineer the bot’s decision-making process. But basically I’m assuming the model gets everything exactly right as far as expected value from various field locations, chances of converting a fourth-down attempt, etc., then recalculating the final expected value comparison using 2015 kickers.:Having better kickers makes a big difference, as you can see from the blue sea on the left versus the red sea on the right. (The 4th Down Bot’s complete “Go or No” table is on the Times’ website.)Getting these fourth-down calls wrong is potentially a big problem for the model. As a test case, I tried applying the 4th Down Bot’s model to a selection of the most relevant kicks from between 25 and 55 yards in 2013, then looked at what coaches actually did in those scenarios. I graded both against my kicking-adjusted results for 2013. While the updated version still concluded that coaches were too conservative (particularly on fourth-and-short), it found that coaches were (very slightly) making more correct decisions than the 4th Down Bot.The differences were small (coaches beat the bot by only a few points over the entire season), but even being just as successful as the bot would be a drastic result considering how absolutely terrible coaches’ go-for-it strategy has been for decades. In other words, maybe it’s not that NFL coaches were wrong, they were just ahead of their time!Time-traveling kickersHaving such an accurate model also allows us to see the overall impact kicking improvement has had on football. For example, we can calculate how kickers from different eras would have performed on a common set of attempts. In the following chart, we can see how many more or fewer points per game the typical team would have scored if kickers from a different era had taken its kicks (the red line is the actual points per game from field goals that year):The last time kickers were as big a part of the game as they are today, the league had to move the posts back! Since the rule change, the amount of scoring from field goals has increased by more than 2 points per game. A small part of the overall increase (the overall movement of the red line) is a result of taking more field goals, but most of it comes from the improvement in accuracy alone (the width of the “ribbon”).How does this compare to broader scoring trends? As a baseline for comparison, I’ve taken the average points scored in every NFL game since 1961, and then seen how much league scoring deviated from that at any given point in time (the “scoring anomaly”). Then I looked at how much of that anomaly was a result of kicking accuracy.9The scoring deviation on this chart is calculated relative to the average game over the period. The kicking accuracy is relative to the median kicker of the period.:Amid wild fluctuations in scoring, kicking has remained a steady, driving force.For all the talk of West Coast offenses, the invention of the pro formation, the wildcat, 5-wide sets, the rise of the pass-catching tight-end, Bill Walsh, the Greatest Show On Turf, and the general recognition that passing, passing and more passing is the best way to score in football, half the improvement in scoring in the past 50-plus years of NFL history has come solely from field-goal kickers kicking more accurately.10Side note, I’ve also looked at whether kicking improvement has been a result of kickers who are new to the league being better than older kickers, or of older kickers getting better themselves. The answer is both.The past half-century has seen an era of defensive innovation — running roughly from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s — a chaotic scoring epoch with wild swings until the early ’90s, and then an era of offensive improvement. But the era of kickers is forever.Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed graphics.CORRECTION (Jan. 28, 2:22 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the distances from which extra-point kicks were taken in 1933 and in recent years. Actual extra-point distances aren’t recorded.
Serena Williams proved why she is the world’s No. 1 female tennis player on Sunday by defeating Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 in the finals of the Madrid Open, capturing her 50th career title.“It feels good,” Williams told reporters after the match about securing her 50th title. “I don’t know how many more I can. Who knows if I will even another title? I just want to live the dream. Hopefully, I can keep it going.”Entering Sunday’s match, Williams was 12-2 against Sharapova. The only two losses came in 2004, but Williams took control of the game from the beginning to assure that there would not be a third loss to the second-ranked Sharapova.The 31-year-old Williams was able to capitalize on Sharapova’s inability to control her serve. The Russian committed five double faults in her first three service games, which allowed Williams to strike several winning shots before the end of the first set.“I started the match really slow and against an opponent like her you can’t give her that,” Sharapova said. “I wasn’t reacting well. I wasn’t moving well. Not only the double fault I made, I didn’t have a lot of great first serves in. She was really stepping up.”Sharapova appeared to be settling into the game by the second set. She earned and converted her first break point, which allowed her to open the second set with a 3-1 lead.However, her inconsistent serve proved to be pivotal, causing her to double fault and cede back her break after Williams had set up three break points.Williams was able to close out Sharapova after she recorded her eighth and final double fault, which improved her record to 13-2 against the Russian.Had Sharapova defeated Williams, she would have earned the No. 1 spot, but for now Williams will retain that coveted ranking. But they could meet again at the end of this month during the French Open, competing in the finals and the No. 1 ranking.
By beating perhaps the greatest player of all time on his favorite surface in the Wimbledon final on Sunday, Novak Djokovic didn’t just retake the No. 1 ranking. He also surpassed his coach and his opponent’s coach by winning his seventh career Grand Slam title.Roger Federer — whom Djokovic beat in a thrilling five-set final Sunday — and Rafael Nadal have set an intimidatingly high standard for success in contemporary men’s tennis. Djokovic has seven Grand Slam titles, an impressive haul but far short of Federer’s 17 and Nadal’s 14, which is tied for second all-time with Pete Sampras. If Djokovic’s Grand Slam career hadn’t coincided with those of two of the all time greats, he might have 12 major titles.Djokovic might never approach the totals of his illustrious peers, but he achieved another significant milestone Sunday: His seventh major title puts him in front of the six won by his coach, Boris Becker, and Federer’s coach, Stefan Edberg. Those two men and Djokovic are among eight in the Open era with between six and eight Grand Slam titles. The other five are Andre Agassi; occasional TV commentators Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander; and Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray’s former coach.Djokovic, 27, is starting to look like one of the best of this impressive group — with several years of his prime likely still in front of him in a sport where age has become an advantage.Djokovic has the highest Grand Slam winning percentage of the group, and isn’t far behind overall leader Connors in tour-level winning percentage. Though he still has years of competition ahead of him, Djokovic already ranks near the middle of the eight greats in Grand Slam titles, finals, semifinals and match wins, plus weeks at No. 1 — a total he’ll add to starting Monday, when he retakes the top ranking from Nadal. He has a more well-rounded Grand Slam resume than most, with titles at three of the events and two finals at the fourth, the French Open. Only Agassi, who won all four Grand Slam tournaments at least once; and Lendl, who reached two finals at Wimbledon, can match Djokovic there. Djokovic doesn’t look as good on overall match wins, titles and finals, though he has already passed Wilander in all three categories. (Stats via ATP World Tour website, Tennis Abstract and tennis-x.com.)Oh, and even before the end of Sunday’s final, Djokovic had the endorsement of Andy Roddick, the most recent American man to reach the No. 1 ranking and win a major:These numbers don’t account for the degree of difficulty of Djokovic’s accomplishment. The seven greats whose company he keeps had to contend with great rivals, but none had to consistently face Nadal on clay, or Federer on grass. As great as Federer is off grass — winning four of every five matches — he has been even greater on it, winning seven of every eight matches in his career. Even at 32, Federer was near his best on Sunday, and Djokovic was better.“To be able to win against him as one of my greatest rivals on this occasion on a court that he’s been dominating for so many years makes it a very special trophy for me,” Djokovic said in his press conference after the match.Djokovic has now beaten Federer and Nadal at nearly every one of the Grand Slams — he’s missing only the long-sought win over Nadal in Paris. If Djokovic gets that win and a French Open title, he’ll start moving to a level beyond the already impressive company he keeps now with his coach.
OSU then-junior H-back Dontre Wilson (2) runs with the ball during a game against Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo EditorFor three Ohio State football players, a new layer has been added to their offseason training programs.H-back Dontre Wilson, wide receiver James Clark and defensive tackle Robert Landers are going to be wearing scarlet and gray as multisport athletes, as the OSU track and field team announced on Tuesday that the trio would be joining the team for the 2016 season.“We’re excited to have our football players join the track and field program,” said OSU director of track and field Karen Dennis in a press release.All three of the athletes competed in track and field in high school, giving the team hope that they can immediately step up as contributors while balancing their spring football practices.“We realize the indoor season is short, and these men have a major responsibility to football. However, they are all talented athletes that may help us in the throwing and sprint events,” Dennis said in the release. “They have some work to do to get their ‘track legs’ back, but work is something they are very familiar with.”Wilson played in nine games in 2015 while dealing with a foot injury, managing seven catches for 63 yards. Considered one of the fastest players on the OSU football roster, Wilson ran track in his first three years at DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Texas. He is listed on the roster as a sprinter.Also listed as a sprinter is Clark, who was one of the faster short-distance runners in Florida while in high school in New Smyrna Beach.Clark placed in fifth place in the 100-meter dash and sixth in the 200-meter dash in the 2012 Florida Outdoor Championships, recording a personal-best 100-meter time of 10.43 seconds.He did not record any receptions last season, but was a contributor on special teams.While Wilson and Clark make their presences felt with their legs, the third Buckeye to join the track and field team, Landers, does his damage with his upper body.The 290-pound freshman did not see the field during his first year playing football in Columbus, but he brings a stellar track record to his new team.At Huber Heights High School, Landers was the Ohio Division I state champion in shot put in 2014 and finished fifth the following year. He also competed in hammer throw, discus and weight throw.“I appreciate coach Meyer and his staff working Landers, Wilson and Clark into our training schedule in an effort to strengthen our men’s program,” Dennis said.For the OSU track and field team, the season is already underway, as the Buckeyes already have three meets under their belts. They are set to continue their schedule in Birmingham, Alabama, on Friday in the Power 5 Conference Clash.
OSU sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker (17) and senior linebacker Chris Worley (35) combine on a sack againstr Michigan junior quarterback Wilton Speight (3) during their game on Nov. 26 at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 30-27. Credit: Mason Swires | Assistant Photo EditorLinebackers at Ohio State have a history of becoming on-campus legends, and emerging as NFL-ready talents by the time they decide to make the leap to the next level. More often than not, the biggest leaders on the defensive side of the ball come from this unit, and soon-to-be junior linebacker Jerome Baker could be just like the players who came before him.From names like James Laurinaitis, Tom Cousineau, Chris Spielman and A.J. Hawk, Baker has some lofty expectations to live up to. Since coming into Columbus as a linebacker and a running back in high school, the Cleveland native has lived up to every expectation placed on him.Totaling 83 tackles this season, Baker flashed his ability to get to the ball carrier, while also racking up 3.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Although he made lots of plays by himself, he credited the mentorship of Raekwon McMillan and soon-to-be redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley as an instrumental piece to his success.“It’s very easy playing alongside Raekwon and Worley,” Baker said at OSU’s media day prior to the Fiesta Bowl. “Their ability alone is really a blessing. It’s made it easier on my confidence. They’re always telling me I can do it. They’ve believed in me from Day One. I’m just glad I can finally play alongside those guys and do what I love doing.”However, Baker will not be playing alongside McMillan, who decided to forgo his senior season for the 2017 NFL Draft. The unquestioned leader of the defense last year, McMillan’s shoes will be hard to fill. The competition for the lead role at linebacker will come down to Worley and Baker, with the advantage going to Worley since he will be in his final season of eligibility. However, McMillan spoke of Baker at media day, saying his play should be singled out. “For a portion of the season, he was playing the best ball on the defense, I figure,” McMillan said. “Against Oklahoma, he was pivotal when it came to stopping Baker Mayfield and other guys like that.”Worley is no slouch either, and seems like the most likely candidate for fulfilling the void left by McMillan. Worley has been around the program long enough that he should be able to fulfill the crazy process McMillan went through before the snap this year.However, Baker’s output this season and the fact he was named as an honorable mention for All-Big Ten has put him close to being named as the leader on defense. That, paired with the praise from McMillan, makes Baker a name to watch for once again next year.“He’s a baller, and he’ll definitely have a tree at Ohio State soon,” McMillan said.
Win with defense; then win with offense. That seemed to be the Ohio State men’s hockey team’s motto for its weekend series against Miami. The wins didn’t come easily as the Buckeyes won 1-0 Friday night behind goalie Cal Heeter’s 40-save shutout performance, and 5-2 Saturday with an aggressive five-goal third period. The sweep brings the Buckeyes’ winning streak to six games and puts them undefeated against in-state rivals for the season. “We had a slow start, but I think we are starting to turn it around,” said senior forward Sergio Somma. “It was special for us to get back at these guys.” OSU coach Mark Osiecki said the wins were a step in the right direction for the team. “It’s another step for us,” he said. “Tomorrow they got to start turning the page, getting ready for next week.” On Saturday things weren’t looking good after the first two periods for the Buckeyes (12-8-1, 7-6-1-1), but five goals in the third period put the game out of reach for the RedHawks (11-8-3, 8-6-2-1). OSU is no stranger to putting together high-scoring periods. Saturday night was the second time the team put away five goals in one period; the first was against Army on Jan. 2. In Saturday’s game, OSU started on the attack early with 11 shots on goal in the first period, but came away with nothing to show for it. Miami was able to strike first with a goal less than five minutes into the game. The RedHawks added a controversial goal that appeared to go through the net and had to be reviewed to extend their lead 2-0 in the second period. “That’s what the replay is there for,” Osiecki said. “Hats off to the system. That’s how it should be.” The third period is when the Buckeye offense decided to show up and tie the game in the first 5:34. The Buckeyes added another goal less than five minutes later, sophomore defenseman Brandon Martell’s first of the season. Senior forward John Albert “put it right on the platter,” Martell said. “It found its way in there; I’ll take it.” Two late empty-net goals rounded out the scoring for OSU. In Friday’s game, a lone goal in the second period from Somma and 40 saves from Heeter were all the Buckeyes needed to squeak out the victory. The Buckeyes will look to extend their winning streak through practice. “The last couple weekends here on this winning streak, I think our practices have been pretty good,” Albert said. OSU won’t be back in game action until Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 when it travels to Kalamazoo, Mich., to take on Western Michigan. Both games are scheduled to start at 7:35 p.m.
OSU sophomore middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe (10) makes a play on the ball during a match against Florida Gulf Coast Sept. 6 at St. John Arena. OSU won 3-1.Credit: Emily Yarcusko / For The LanternAfter a failed comeback attempt at No. 17 Minnesota last week, the Ohio State women’s volleyball team was swept by No. 5 Wisconsin on Sunday.Once the match began, momentum was with Wisconsin (10-2, 1-1), but the Buckeyes (9-5, 0-2) clawed their way back into each of the three sets.In the first set, the Buckeyes and Badgers started off in a close battle until a 17-13 Badger lead turned into a 25-19 set win.In the first half of the second set, the Buckeyes were down by as many as five points, but failed to get enough back-to-back points as the Badgers kept scoring. Wisconsin won again, 25-19.As the Buckeyes were outplayed in the two sets, the team headed into the third looking to have similar results to the match against the Gophers. While the Buckeyes hadn’t won a set, they still had time to pull off an upset.But instead of playing with a sense of urgency like against Minnesota, the Buckeyes saw themselves down 7-0, and eventually down 17-5.However, OSU went on a 12-8 run to close the gap. But it was too late, as the Badgers went on to complete a clean sweep winning the third set, 25-17.Junior outside hitter Katie Mitchell led the Buckeyes in kills with nine, senior setter Taylor Sherwin led with 23 assists and senior defensive specialist Alyssa Winner had 18 digs.Badger senior outside hitter and defensive specialist Deme Morales, a native of Amherst, Ohio, had seven digs in the match.The Buckeyes are scheduled have back-to-back games this week at Iowa and No. 8 Nebraska. The Iowa game is scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m., while the Nebraska game is set for Saturday at 6 p.m.
Ohio State senior tight end Marcus Baugh (85) catches a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that would put Ohio State over Penn State in the game on Oct. 28. Ohio State won 39-38. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo EditorEarly in the fourth quarter, Ohio State junior linebacker Jerome Baker took a peek at the scoreboard and didn’t like what he saw. The No. 6 Buckeyes were down two touchdowns, and No. 2 Penn State had the ball.Baker and his teammates had no one to blame but themselves.Penalties, special-teams blunders, turnovers and miscommunication through the first three quarters coalesced into a two-touchdown deficit with 13:13 remaining in the game. “I was just like give me, give us a break,” redshirt junior Sam Hubbard said. “Everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong and the score didn’t reflect how we were dominating on offense and defense and we just had to keep chipping away.”From the opening kickoff, which running back Saquon Barkley returned 97 yards for a touchdown, the Buckeyes made difficult what would seem easy Saturday night at Ohio Stadium. Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer caught a short kickoff and rumbled for a miraculous 59-yard return as the Buckeyes were unable to wrangle him and take him down. Ohio State even managed to go offsides after stuffing a kick return inside the 20-yard line.Ohio State junior receiver Terry McLaurin (83) runs the ball in fourth quarter in the game against Penn State on Oct. 28. Ohio State won 39-38. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo EditorThe Buckeyes racked up 10 penalties for 79 yards, including four false starts. A late first half Hubbard sack was negated due to a face mask penalty. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was sacked twice in the first quarter. “It wasn’t really getting down, it was just more frustrating because you have a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” left tackle Jamarco Jones said.Twice, the Buckeyes believed they had interceptions, but both were overturned. In the second quarter, safety Damon Webb reeled in an interception in the end zone, but cornerback Damon Arnette was flagged for pass interference, placing the ball at the 6-yard line. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley dove into the end zone on the following play. Then in the third quarter, cornerback Denzel Ward came down with what was called an interception before the referees turned the play into a Nittany Lion touchdown due to duel possession after review.“We knew we were killing ourselves, really,” Baker said. “We were shooting ourself in the foot.”But during this barrage of self-inflicted misfortune, the number showed Ohio State was dominating. The Buckeyes finished the game with substantial leads in total yards (529-283), first downs (27-17), yards per play (5.2-2.6) and tackles for loss (13-6). Ohio State just could not seem to make a run and take the lead.The Buckeyes held Barkley, a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, to 21 carries for 44 yards, 36 of which came on one touchdown run. Barrett, whom Meyer said played a near-perfect game, completed 33-of-39 passes for 328 yards.“[In] the first three quarters, I can count a handful of plays that we looked like fools, and we have to get that fixed,” Meyer said. “But it wasn’t like we were getting pummeled. It was the opposite. We were playing very well against a very good team, but we had miscues that used to be uncharacteristic.”And then, in less than 12 minutes, everything changed. Ward blocked a punt. Barrett hit Dixon for not one, but two touchdowns. The Buckeyes defense bent, but did not break as the Nittany Lions drove 64 yards, and settled for a 24-yard chip shot field goal. Then, after trailing for more than 58 minutes, Barrett found tight end Marcus Baugh for a 16-yard touchdown which gave the Buckeyes a 39-38 lead.But there was 1:42 remaining on the clock, more time than it took for the Buckeyes to score in any of its final three drives. Since the Buckeyes were avoiding kicking off to Barkley, kickoff specialist Sean Nuernberger hit a squib kick which set the Nittany Lions up with advantageous field position at their 36-yard line. Despite the Penn State field advantage, redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley was never worried.Ohio State defensive coordinator (middle, in red), leads into the air after the Buckeyes beat Penn State 39-38 on Oct. 28 at Ohio Stadium. Credit: Ashley Nelson | Station Manager“We knew, just give us a chance to be in a position to stop them,” Worley said. “They didn’t really move the ball much on us. There were a couple big plays, penalties that just kept giving them life.”Worley was right. It took just four plays. Incompletion. Sack. Incompletion. Incompletion. Ohio State victory.“I can’t even describe it because we just wanted it more,” redshirt junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “Guys in tears on the sideline, because all we’ve been through as a team and as individuals culminated in this moment. A lot of people probably counted us out during this game, but we believed in each other and we got the job done.”Over Ohio State’s final three drives, the home team averaged 15 yards per play and needed just 12 offensive plays to put up three touchdowns, coming back from a 15-point deficit. The momentum shift did not happen all at once, but took a concreted play after play effort, center Billy Price said. “We never gave up, honestly,” Baker said. “We knew we were capable of beating those guys. Great team, but we definitely come up to win.” Sure, Ohio State had no one to blame but themselves for the early deficit. But, after taking down the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes also had no one but themselves to credit for the victory.
Ohio State senior forward Jae’Sean Tate finishes a dunk in the first half against Appalachian State on Dec. 16, 2017 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Ashley Nelson | Station ManagerThe last time a team from the Sun Belt Conference entered the Schottenstein Center two years ago, it handed Ohio State a crushing defeat that ended up being a major factor in keeping the Buckeyes out of the NCAA Tournament.Only four members of the team that lost to Texas-Arlington still put on a Scarlet and Gray jersey, but veterans Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate wouldn’t allow a night like that to occur a second time.Tate scored 19 points and Bates-Diop added 16 with eight rebounds to lead Ohio State (9-3) past Appalachian State (5-7), 80-67 Saturday evening. Freshman forward Kaleb Wesson had 16 points and eight rebounds and redshirt senior guard Kam Williams also was in double-figures, with 11 points.A week had passed since head coach Chris Holtmann’s team last played a game, which triggered thoughts of a possible letdown. The first half provided little excitement, with Ohio State unable to grasp control of the game until Bates-Diop created some momentum before the break.With less than two minutes remaining in the first half, Bates-Diop deflected an attempted pass from Mountaineers forward Hunter Seacat into the backcourt. Bates-Diop dove on the ball and passed it off to guard Andrew Dakich, who drove to the basket and left it for Tate for the two-handed slam.That play was part of a 6-0 run to close the half, and the Buckeyes led 40-27. Holtmann said that play sparked his team and picked the offense out of a drought.“That’s an expectation for an older guy to do that,” he said. “It’s an expectation for all our players to do that and I don’t think we did that every time tonight, which was disappointing. But that was a really, really special play.”Bates-Diop’s lay-in in the beginning of the second half gave Ohio State a 17-point lead. Then, following a fire alarm that caused people inside the arena to evacuate, the Mountaineers cut their deficit to nine with an 8-0 run.Leading 60-47 out of the under-12 media timeout, Wesson finished at the rim, Tate flew in for a dunk and Jackson banked in a 3 to give the Buckeyes a comfortable 20-point lead.Ohio State forced 18 turnovers. The Buckeyes shot 53 percent for the game.Entering the game, Appalachian State guards Ronshad Shabazz and Justin Forrest were averaging 21.8 and 16.8 points, respectively. Saturday against the Buckeyes, Shabazz had 15 and Forrest had 12, shooting a collective 1-for-8 from beyond the arc.“We knew we had to be active because they have a real high-powered motion offense,” Williams said. “So just getting deflections, taking it one stop at a time, one possession at a time. When we put that together, very few teams can execute against us.”Less than three minutes into the second half, prior to a Mountaineers free-throw attempt, the fire alarms sounded at the Schott and fans were told via an emergency response system inside the arena to exit the building. After roughly seven minutes, fans were allowed to re-enter the building and play resumed following a brief warm-up period.The event caused a delay of about 14 minutes.Sophomore center Micah Potter and freshman forward Kyle Young both returned from an ankle injury Saturday, after missing two games and one game, respectively. Potter played just one minute while Young played 13 minutes.Holtmann said Potter told him that his ankle was feeling “as good as it has felt” since suffering the injury on Nov. 19 against Northeastern. Holtmann added that Young played more than anticipated because of Wesson’s foul trouble.Up Next:The Buckeyes are back on the court Tuesday against The Citadel at 7 p.m.