Toney Clemons' sweet memories of Ohio State are scarce. As a kid growing up in New Kensington, Pa., northeast of Pittsburgh, the Buckeyes didn't make his "fave five" - even when they invited him to their Junior Day as a 2007 football recruit.
"For a Pittsburgh guy, Ohio and PA (Pennsylvania) are always rivals in everything - and definitely sports-wise," Clemons said. "That (Ohio State) was a team I grew up always wanting to play against when I was little. I was fortunate to get a chance to do it - twice."
And twice he was beaten. Clemons played two seasons at Michigan (2007, 2008) before transferring to Colorado in 2009. In '07, his freshman season in Ann Arbor, Ohio State visited and returned to Columbus with a 14-3 win. The following year, Michigan tripped to "The Horseshoe" and left trampled, 42-7. Clemons, who played in 19 games (three starts) while at Michigan, didn't have a stat in either game against the Buckeyes.
Nonetheless, two losses - especially one by 35 points to a bitter rival - are stats that tend to stick with you. He gets another trip to Columbus and a third chance against Ohio State Saturday when the Buffaloes play the Buckeyes (1:30 p.m. MDT, ABC/ESPN2).
"I want to go out there and make some plays," Clemons said.
For the first time in three games this season, Clemons did exactly that last Saturday against Colorado State, catching three passes for 65 yards - one for a 44-yard touchdown - and returning a kickoff 33 yards - the longest for the Buffs this season.
It was the kind of game he needed, the kind of game his coaches needed to see from him. If there was a break-in period for all of CU's returning players with the incoming coaching staff, Clemons' appeared to stretch about a month beyond the norm.
His productivity (or mostly the lack thereof) in August didn't inspire the kind of confidence the new staff wanted in a senior who had been a vocal leader last fall, when he averaged 11.2 yards on 43 receptions (three TDs) and 25.5 yards on 10 kickoff returns. His preseason camp was littered with mental errors and dropped passes, and he was benched during the opener at Hawai'i for allowing those mistakes to seep into the regular season.
The following week, he met with head coach Jon Embree and receivers coach Bobby Kennedy - face-to-face, heart-to-heart encounters that all agreed were productive, although in the following week's game against California he had only one catch for nine yards. But his performance against CSU appeared to restore his confidence in himself and return him to quarterback Tyler Hansen's radar.
Still, Clemons didn't leave Denver last Saturday afternoon satisfied. "I think could have done better," he said. "I mean, it was good to go out there and get my feet wet and do what we did against a good opponent like that in a rivalry game and get Embree the win.
"But personally, I wasn't satisfied. I left a lot of plays on the field - blocking-wise, return-wise and receiving-wise that I have to clean up before Ohio State. Going in there, you've got to be on your 'A' game at all times. There's a lot of stuff there for me to learn from."
When I asked "T-Clem" to recall the CU staff's reaction to his game last weekend, he said, "It was the same . . . they've been supportive the whole time. That's one thing I'll say through it all - they're character guys. They weren't down on me whenever I was going through whatever I was going through, and I wasn't down on them either.
"They were happy to see me go out and play and have fun - and I was having fun. That was the biggest thing they harped on, me going out and being the guy they saw on film from last year who looked like I was having fun playing. I was energetic, and they see me as a guy who can bring that kind of energy to our offense whenever we're struggling . . . they're happy for me to go out and perform well, but they were happy to see me have fun."
At the height of Clemons' mid-August doldrums, Embree on more than one occasion called players out for a lack of focus that Embree believed was resulting in errors. Clemons apparently wasn't accustomed to being repeatedly singled out like that, or getting his practice "reps" and playing time curtailed because of mistakes.
"It was really just tough love from the coaching staff," he said. "It wasn't negative, it was really just tough coaching. They were real critical of me and were expecting me to go out and play not perfect, but pretty flawless. When I wasn't doing it, it kind of hit me hard, the way I took it . . . it was just tough love and it took me a while to realize that.
"I learned from it. I learned a lot about the coaches from it - about how they really see me as a player and as a person, my values. They challenged me every single day and I expect the challenge to be even greater now because those are the kind of guys they are. They want to see me do well, they want to see me reach my goals and my full potential. That's how they've got to do it at times, by being tough on their players. I learned from it, I grew from it. It was just another stepping stone for me.
"I thought I could always take criticism, but no matter how good I thought I was playing, I learned I can always do better. That's something I've known, but also something that I've never been put to the test on until this staff came around and put it to the test. I really learned that no matter how well I think I'm playing there's always something to improve on. That's the kind of player I've always been anyway. I'm glad they put me through it when they did."
Embree has noticed "more focus, intensity and a sense of urgency" from Clemons. But he wants/needs the CSU game to be a launching pad for Clemons. The Buffs' most productive receiver through the first two games was sophomore Paul Richardson, with astronomical totals of 14 catches for 333 yards and four TDs.
Against the Rams, Richardson slid back to earth, catching only four balls for 27 yards. Clemons and Kyle Cefalo, who caught a 24-yard scoring pass from Hansen, provided compensation, as did tailback Rodney Stewart with seven catches for 93 yards. But the entire receiving corps needs to be at its best for the Buckeyes.
For several reasons, Clemons calls Saturday's game "real personal." His former Michigan connection is one; another is a cousin on the Ohio State roster - junior running back Jordan Hall, who might have been the Buckeyes' lone offensive bright spot in a 24-6 loss Saturday at Miami that dropped Ohio State out of the Top 25 for the first time in seven years.
Hall, of Jeannette, Pa., accounted for 123 total yards against the Hurricanes, including 87 rushing (14 carries), two punt returns for 32 yards and one 4-yard reception. It was his first significant playing time this season.
"It'll be fun to compete against him," Clemons said. "He's a good athlete."
Clemons probably could have joined Hall in Columbus. His Junior Day campus visit was for the '07 spring game, where he encountered "that sea of red. Before that I wasn't too interested; I was sold on Michigan since I was little. That (trip) almost swayed me, but in the end I just couldn't see myself doing it. I just couldn't see myself in that uniform."
He expects to have a multitude of family members and friends in "The Horseshoe" on Saturday. Laughing, he said, "The City of Pittsburgh will be in Columbus. My family, some of my old coaches will be out there. For them, it's going to be like my senior game, my homecoming game. They're all excited for it, too . . . it'll be a great experience for all of them to come and watch me play."
If he continues to play to his capabilities, as he began doing against CSU, it will be a better afternoon for all - the Buffs included.
BUFF BITS: Sophomore left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has missed the last two games with a left knee injury, pronounced himself "100 percent ready" Monday afternoon and said he will play Saturday at Ohio State. Bakhtiari has been replaced by junior Ryan Dannowitz and freshman Alex Lewis . . . Embree said Dannowitz, who was slowed by a knee sprain two weekends ago against Cal, could again be the first sub in at either tackle . . . . The O-line has been the Buffs' "hot spot" for injuries through the season's first three weeks. Embree said redshirt freshman center Daniel Munyer is "day-to-day" with an ankle sprain, leaving sophomore Gus Handler to man the position if Munyer is unavailable. Munyer and Handler have shared snaps for most of the first three games. Senior Shawn Daniels, who was expected to compete for the No. 1 center job, has missed the first three games with a leg injury suffered mid-way through preseason camp. Embree said Daniels still "is a few weeks away" from returning . . . . After his first win as CU's coach, Embree said congratulations came from "a lot of people" - including former Buffs head coaches Gary Barnett and Bill McCartney, CU assistant Gerry DiNardo and ex-college coach/NFL journeyman Chan Gailey . . . . The entrance to CU's lower practice field is getting a facelift. Three tall flagstones resembling the Flatirons flank either side of the main gate, with "IT STARTS HERE" inscripted on the left set and "THE PRIDE AND TRADITION OF THE COLORADO BUFFALOES WILL NOT BE ENTRUSTED TO THE TIMID OR THE WEAK" on the right set. Embree said the idea for the rocks came from Jason DePaepe, CU's athletic turf manager, and Conley Smith, a former teammate of Embree's who owns a local landscape business. Smith also donated buckets full of symbolic bricks to Embree in August when camp opened . . . . CU's 28-14 win over Colorado State was judged significant enough by Embree to be the first "big-game" brick for the hallway outside the Buffs' locker room in the Dal Ward Athletic Center. Scores, dates and other significant stats of CU victories over the years will be restored on other bricks - about 52 of them - in the hallway. The scores were painted over under the former coaching regime. Embree said restoration of the bricks would begin by Friday . . . . The Buffs will have a walk-through at "The Horseshoe" on Friday after landing in Columbus.