Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Don't confuse Buckeye BCS Blunder with Big 10

Ohio State waltzed into its second consecutive BCS Championship game with the nation’s best record and a number one ranking only to get clobbered by an SEC opponent. Is the SEC better than the Big 10? Stats can be produced that prove it’s not but at the end of the day the SEC has claimed back to back national championships via the convoluted system people accept in lieu of playoffs.

Of course the BCS wins don’t really point to superior talent or greater team speed. One need only check the NFL to see that the Big 10 does quite well when it comes to recruiting talent. Ohio State can produce an impressive list of players who have enjoyed successful careers at the NFL level. Speed is not an issue. NFL scouts are always impressed with the physical attributes of players coming from Ohio State. So why does the Big 10 seem so sluggish on game day?

Coaching…and let’s be fair, Ohio State is giving the Big 10 a bad name. Michigan matched Florida’s speed and Wisconsin was far from overwhelmed by Tennessee’s quickness. Last year Penn State was able to beat Tennessee and Wisconsin stifled Arkansas in bowl games. The Big 10 does just fine against the SEC. It’s Ohio State that fairs poorly and the culprit is Jim Tressel.

Who else are you going to blame? Last year Ohio State was a juggernaut featuring a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback who could beat you with his arm or his legs. Florida crushed the Buckeyes. People wondered if Ohio State took the game seriously and it was widely accepted that the Buckeyes were fat and happy. That wasn’t the case this year. Ohio State might have been number one but outside of Columbus nobody had any respect for Ohio State. The Buckeyes had something to prove. Not only did they have the BCS beat down suffered at the hands of Florida to motivate them, every national pundit was calling Ohio State a fraud.

So the Buckeyes came in ready to send a message and two plays into the game Chris Wells exploded for a 65 yard touchdown run. The bruising 235 pound back blew right past the speedy LSU secondary proving in one play that the disparity in speed was a myth. LSU seemed hobbled by the opening blow and self-destructed on its opening drive. Ohio State quickly responded with another big play but the promising drive ended in a field goal.

Nobody expected Ohio State to jump out to a 10-0 lead with nearly 10 minutes left in the first quarter but LSU found its composure and the coaches made adjustments on both sides of the ball. First LSU neutralized Ohio State and then they started to tip the scales back in their own favor. The final result was a 38-24 LSU victory that wasn’t nearly as close as the score seems to indicate. LSU simply dominated. They humiliated Ohio State’s offensive line, rattled Ohio State’s quarterback and picked apart the vaunted Buckeye defense.

Ohio State helped LSU with stupid penalties. LSU saw drives extended deep into OSU territory thanks to 15 yard personal fouls. Ohio State even stymied its offense with a 15 yard foul but the biggest boner of the night came when Ohio State finally put the screws to LSU’s offense in the second half and forced a punt on fourth and forever. That’s when some dumb reserve linebacker came flying through the line and into the punter. Automatic first down. Ball game. Yes, that play pretty much sealed it. Ohio State came up with a big defensive stop and was poised to start a comeback but LSU managed to score again.

Of course Ohio State’s biggest problem was a lack of production on offense. Sure, they put up some yards but they didn’t score. LSU stopped the Buckeyes when it mattered. Ohio State tried to connect on big plays and missed. Rather than staying composed and using quick passes to keep the LSU defense honest, Ohio State tried to go vertical. Once LSU realized that the Buckeyes weren’t going to attack the short and intermediate zones, the Tigers pinned their ears back and attacked. That resulted in turnovers. Boeckman was a nervous wreck in the pocket and the coaching staff did nothing to help him regain his composure.

It’s so simple, really. Teams use short passes to create manageable situations. Connecting on a four yard pass on first and 10 creates a second and six, picking up three yards on a run presents a third down and three situation. Third and three is much harder to defend than third and 10 which is why LSU won the game. The Tigers didn’t try to pick up 50 yards on every play, they were content to slowly peck away at the field and take what the defense offered. As a result, Ohio State struggled to pressure LSU’s quarterbacks and the LSU line got to beat up the Buckeye front seven. In the end, LSU won because they didn’t try to force things.

Buckeye fans will lament that this wasn’t even supposed to be Ohio State’s year. The Buckeyes were supposed to be rebuilding. But when the season started Chris Wells was in the Heisman discussion, Jim Laurenitis was the defensive player everybody was talking about and Todd Boeckman wasn’t your typical first year starter. Even though Ohio State was picked to finish third in the Big 10, nobody was stunned to see their stock rise as the season progressed, especially given the caliber of their competition. The Buckeyes have always been one of those programs that reloads rather than rebuilds so a BCS Championship bid was not exactly out of the question. Inexperience is no excuse. In fact, that’s an insult to the players. Besides, wasn’t LSU coming off the departure of its starting quarterback and wide receivers from last year as well?

Ohio State’s talent is a as good and as deep you will find anywhere in the country. LSU was a better team when they played for the BCS Championship but that doesn’t mean that LSU is really the better team. What it means is that Les Miles is a better coach.

Jim Tressel gets a lot of credit for running a successful program and much of it is deserved. Since taking over the Ohio State football program he has amassed five seasons of 10 or more wins, three BCS Championship appearances and of course a legacy of dominance over arch rival Michigan. Just before embarking on another collision curse with disaster in the BCS Championship Tressel notched his fourth straight win over Michigan. When you consider that players as good as Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Jake Long are leaving Michigan with 0-4 records against Ohio State, that is quite the feather in Tressel’s cap.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Ohio State has been a miserable failure against the SEC in bowl games. Trivialize the conference chest-puffing all you like but in today’s world of college football perception is reality. LSU got into the BCS Championship game because it won the SEC. The conference reputation was the tie-breaker. And if perceived inferiority can influence bowl pairings, what do the top recruits think?

That’s where Tressel’s BCS failures are unacceptable. The reputation of the conference was riding on Ohio State’s performance and once again Ohio State looked like a junior college trying to pull off a season-opening upset. The players weren’t out-classed, the coaches were. Jim Tressel and his staff came in with a plan and stuck to it. Even after LSU figured that plan out. Les Miles, on the other hand, kept making adjustments and never let Ohio State draw a bead on them.

It looked like a promising heavy weight fight between a top contender and the defending champion. Ohio State delivered a staggering opening blow and had LSU on the ropes. They got a few more good licks in before LSU covered up, cleared its head and worked back into the fight. Like a true heavyweight champ, LSU didn’t go for the early knockout. They battled back with jabs and body shots, slowly taking the wind out of Ohio State’s attack. LSU was crafty and didn’t deliver a big blow until Ohio State dropped its hands.

Tressel and his coaching staff were lost. They kept calling the same plays. They tried to duplicate Wells’ big run and got stuffed. They tried to connect on that sideline pass to Saine and got sacked. Tressel threw a haymaker and Miles hit him in the ribs. In the end, the fight was a TKO. Ohio State never had a chance. Not for lack of talent, but for lack of brains.