The turkey on Thanksgiving always tastes better after a win over Michigan. Even the driest of turkeys that need flooded with gravy just to make fit for human consumption. (Fortunately, my wife, mother and mother-in-law are excellent cooks [legal disclaimer]. It just means everything will taste extra-good this year.)
With that load of stuffing out of the way, let’s get down to business and dissect how No. 1 Ohio State was able to hold off No. 2 Michigan 42-39 to clinch the Buckeyes’ first outright Big Ten championship in 22 years and a spot in the BCS national championship game.
First off, there is no disputing that “The Game” wouldn’t have been nearly that close if Ohio State didn’t shoot itself in the foot with three second half turnovers. Give Michigan’s defense credit for the first one. The Wolverines flushed Troy Smith out of the pocket and forced just his fifth interception of the season. But the second two – each on botched snaps out of the shotgun – were completely unforced. Smith deserves some of the blame for the first one. The snap was a bit high, but very manageable, and he was in too much of a hurry to get out of the pocket on what looked like a called QB run. The final turnover was completely on center Doug Datish as the ball simply slipped out of his hand.
Without those miscues, you’re looking at a two-touchdown game. And honestly, it’s a little hard to believe that OSU lost the turnover battle 3-0 and still pulled out one of the most gripping and important wins in the history of the rivalry.
But give Ohio State credit for responding time and time again and never allowing Michigan to truly get its momentum rolling. Every time it felt like the Wolverines were getting back in the game, the Buckeyes would step up with a big play, whether it was from Smith, Antonio Pittman, Chris Wells, or one of the receivers. And this was against the so-called best defense in the Big Ten – a group that was giving up just 29.9 rushing yards per game. The Buckeyes’ bested that by a mere 157 yards (187).
The defense’s inability to force turnovers or stop the run was alarming for OSU, but a good Michigan offense deserves a lot of the credit for that. It was definitely the best offense OSU faced all year and really the only team that had a balanced offensive attack. Forget for a second that Mike Hart is a classless (fill in your favorite description) and give UM some credit for a good offensive scheme and execution.
But the key of the entire game? The play calling of Jim Tressel. If you would have just studied the Buckeyes the last two seasons, you would think that Tressel was one of the most innovative and aggressive offensive minds in the country. In fact, when was the last time you heard the term “Tresselball”? (OK, forget about the Illinois game for a second. My black helicopter theory is that was by design anyway.) Tresselball? What does that mean? High powered offense? Piling up over 500 yards against Michigan and over 600 against Notre Dame? Highest scoring offense in the Big Ten and possibly the best OSU offense ever? I really need to check with Webster’s and investigate the new meaning of Tresselball.
OK, so why didn’t he go to this approach earlier in his OSU career? It’s very simple: 2005-06 was the first time that Tressel had an offense that was good enough to turn loose. His starting quarterback in 2001 was Steve Bellisari; at least for most of the season. Craig Krenzel will always have a place in Buckeye lore for leading OSU to the 2002 national title, but he was not the type of passer that could operate a wide-open attack with precision. He did not have the arm strength or accuracy for it.
Justin Zwick opened the 2004 season as the starter and it took an injury to him at Iowa to open the door for Smith. Smith had his breakout game against Michigan in the Buckeyes’ 37-21 win in ’04 with 386 total yards (241 passing, 145 rushing) and he was on his way to becoming the best quarterback in OSU history and a Heisman Trophy winner. He had the setback before the ’04 Alamo Bowl when it was revealed he took money from a booster, which resulted in a two-game suspension, but Smith found his stride midseason in ’05 and Tressel was finally comfortable enough to loosen his sweatervest as an offensive coordinator.
The day he was named OSU’s head coach he said he would cater his offense to the strengths of his players and he has lived up to his word. Against one of the best defenses in the country last Saturday, Tressel kept Michigan guessing all night and pushed all the right buttons. No question it was a game plan he had been slowly crafting for months.
Tresselball? Maybe it means 5-1 vs. Michigan.
REPLAY SYSTEM PUTS THE ‘F’ IN FLAWED
What’s the problem with college football’s replay system? Well, do you have a couple hours to kill? No? Well here’s the short version:
The biggest flaw is that too much responsibility is placed on the replay official in the press box to stop play, and too often the replay officials are asleep at the wheel. The latest example was in OSU-UM game when Michigan tight end Tyler Ecker seemingly made a lunging catch over the middle with OSU leading 42-31 late in the fourth quarter.
Replays showed that the ball definitely hit the turf, and at worst play should have been stopped to at least check. But the replay official never buzzed down, play continued and Michigan scored a touchdown (and ensuing two-point conversion) to set up the game-deciding onsides kick.
Now, one might say that Tressel was to blame. College coaches get one “challenge” and they do not lose a timeout if the call is overturned. The fourth quarter is the perfect time to use a challenge and Tressel probably should have stopped play. The only problem is he didn’t see the replay, and college coaches cannot have monitors in the press box, so even the assistant coaches upstairs couldn’t tell Tressel that he should challenge the play, unless they definitively saw it live.
But the point here is that the responsibility is on the replay official to stop play any time there is a questionable call. It’s similar to the NFL, but I think the NFL has a much better system because head coaches get two challenges (not one) and their assistant coaches are allowed to have monitors in the press box and can inform the head coach when a call is missed.
So, college football needs to either hammer home the point to replay officials that they need to be quicker in stopping plays on questionable calls, or they need to allow assistant coaches to have monitors in the press box (so at least they know as much as everyone watching at home). Or better yet, both. And I would also allow two challenges per game. And if a call is overturned on a challenge, not only do you not lose a timeout, you retain the challenge. But the big issue is replay officials not stopping action nearly enough (or early enough) on questionable calls.
OFFSEASON WITHIN THE SEASON
Ohio State now has seven weeks before it plays in the BCS title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz. Seven weeks between games? Am I the only one that thinks that’s beyond absurd?
The good news for OSU fans is that Tressel has proven that his teams play well after long layoffs. They might struggle following bye weeks, but “give Tressel six or seven weeks to prepare for a team” and they might be in trouble. OK, forgive me for that one. I don’t want to sound like a Notre Damer. All we heard last year was: “You can’t give Charlie Weis six weeks to prepare.” Or what? He’ll get beat by 14?
Again, using the NFL as a comparison, could you imagine there being a seven-week break before the Super Bowl? There’s really not much that can be done about it since OSU and Michigan are firm in wanting to play their annual rivalry before Thanksgiving. And that’s probably the way it should be. But the seven-week layover is just another quirky thing about Division I college football. It’s the only sport in the country (including all other forms of college football) that doesn’t decide its champion with some sort of playoff or tournament, and it’s the only sport where a team could possibly have a seven-week layover between games.
The good news is that there is plenty of time to book your bowl trips on Bucknuts.com (shameless plug). And by the way, when you bookmark this site on your computer, use www.bucknuts.com.
THE RULE THAT IS RUINING FOOTBALL
It’s a little ironic to bring this up now after Ohio State was the benefactor of a huge roughing-the-passer penalty in the Michigan game, but the over-protecting of quarterbacks is killing football, both college and pro.
And really, Shawn Crable’s hit on Smith might not even fall into the realm that I’m talking about since it was helmet-on-helmet, but it was close. It was the right call, but I wouldn't have been surprised if the officials didn't make it.
The calls I’m talking about are when a defensive player is coming full speed at a quarterback, tries to let up after the ball is thrown, grazes the helmet (or pretty much anywhere on the quarterback’s body) and is called for a 15-yard penalty.
A couple of great examples are the call on OSU defensive end Jay Richardson earlier this year against Texas when he hit Colt McCoy WHILE HE STILL HAD THE BALL but was flagged nonetheless.
Or for the pro fans out there, how about Justin Smith’s play in the waning moments in Cincinnati’s game against Tampa Bay when he seemingly locked up the win for the Bengals with a sack of Bruce Gradkowski, only to be called for roughing, setting up the Bucs’ winning score. Official Mike Carey said Smith tried to slam Gradkowski’s head into the ground. Replays showed it was a simple tackle with the QB’s head never touching the ground.
There are hundreds of other examples, depending on what teams you follow. The point is that the “coddling” of quarterbacks goes against everything that makes football a great sport. Yes, protect them, but only to a point. You can’t penalize good defense with ticky-tack calls. Officials need to remember the spirit of the rule. If a quarterback’s helmet gets grazed because a defensive lineman gets pressure and throws his arms up to try and deflect the pass, a call doesn’t need to be made. If it’s a blow to the head, yes. If someone is diving at a QB’s legs well after the play, throw the flag. But too often – especially within the last three years – we’re seeing bogus calls left and right that penalize good defensive plays.
NORTH CAROLINA FOOTBALL…
… Just became relevant. I know Butch Davis is not a popular man in Ohio after his stint with the Browns, but there is no denying that he is a good college coach. Miami’s 2001 national championship should belong to him.
Believe it or not, North Carolina has a good fan base when it comes to football. It will always be a basketball school, just like OSU will always be a football school, but their fans have proved they travel well to bowl games (the few times UNC has played in bowls) and I think Davis will build a good program there. It will take three years, but he will get it done. (Insert “panic attack on signing day” joke here.)
And speaking of UNC, we will look back and laugh in a few years (or maybe later this month) that the Tar Heels’ 2006 basketball recruiting class was ranked ahead of OSU’s “Thad Five” by some. Ohio State was a distant No. 1. Just one man’s opinion.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Forget for a moment that Joe Theismann is terrible. Let’s get to why the Monday Night Football broadcasts have really been awful this year.
Well, never mind. You can’t discuss the MNF failures without talking about Theismann, aka “Joey Sunshine” as the boys at profootballtalk.com call him. (If you love to hate Theismann, check out profootballtalk some time.) He is one of the worst in the business and what else would we expect from a guy that changed the pronunciation of his last name to rhyme with Heisman? (His momma call him Theezman.)
And how about the way the players introduce themselves? Is this a high school TV production class, or a national broadcast from ESPN? If you’ve been fortunate enough not to see it, one player from each team introduces the starters, leaving out most of them, and generally making it about as confusing and unprofessional as one would expect from ESPN.
And believe me, I’m not an ESPN basher. The network botched the Maurice Clarett saga a few years ago and drew the ire of Buckeye Nation, but I never thought ESPN had a vendetta against Ohio State or anything like that. But I can’t figure out how a network gets the rights to Monday Night Football, pays billions of dollars for it, and then puts Theismann and Tony Kornheiser in the booth.
Kornheiser is OK and actually gets me to laugh out loud occasionally, especially when he calls out Theismann for being a fool. Other times he is extremely boorish and actually tries to play up the fact that he doesn’t know much about football. (Every time I hear him say that I just picture the execs at MNF wincing, “Yep, we’re the ones that hired him. What in the name of Dennis Miller were we thinking?”) Nice shtick there Kornheiser: reminding a bunch of football diehards that you don’t know much about football. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? Maybe next year Martha Stewart will be on the short list when MNF interviews for new announcers. “Here is a great halftime snack for the entire tailgate. And I’d like to give a shout out to Tonya from prison. Keep it real girl! West side!”
Ohio State’s new basketball uniforms have a sharp look and fans seem especially excited about the return of the gray uniforms, which will be worn at home on occasion this year. Thad Matta’s got a great team and it was time for a new look as well. (FYI: a couple fearless predictions on the Basketball Buckeyes: Greg Oden will be back by the Cincinnati game in his hometown of Indianapolis on Dec. 16; Ohio State will go 26-4 overall and will win back-to-back Big Ten championships; Final Four this year, national championship next; and yes, Oden will stay two years. Exhale.)
* But I think Nike has done a poor job with OSU’s football uniform. I was watching the 1988 OSU-Michigan game on ESPN Classic last week (a 34-31 UM win in John Cooper’s first game in the rivalry and Bo Schembechler’s last) and as bad as Ohio State’s teams were during that era, I loved those uniforms. I’m talking BIG numbers on the front and back. Think of Carlos Snow with a “25” almost as big as his 5-9, 200-pound frame.
Of course, 12-0 looks good no matter the uniform, but it was just something I noticed watching Classic. OSU sold its uniform rights to Nike in 1996 and the uniform numbers have gotten smaller and in my opinion worse with each re-design. Ohio State could simply tell Nike, we want the big numbers back, we want this and that, now go design it and we’ll approve it. But since they just changed uniforms this year, they will probably be around for a while. And if they continue to go undefeated wearing them, no one will have a problem with it.
Now that we have seven weeks to discuss such matters, let’s take a quick look at which Ohio State players might leave early for the professional ranks.
First off, Ted Ginn Jr. is gone. Pay no attention to what he says, he’s going pro and he should. He will be a first-round pick and will put on a show for NFL scouts at pro day in the spring. He is 100 percent going pro. Not 99.9 or anything like that.
I think Pittman will also leave, but I’m not at all sure about that one. I think he would be a second or third-round pick and honestly I don’t see his stock getting much higher than that. He did everything he could at the college level becoming just the fifth OSU back to go over 1,000 yards twice (joining Archie Griffin, Tim Spencer, Keith Byars and Eddie George). He also knows that Wells will continue to play a bigger role in the offense. I would say there is roughly a 75-80 percent chance that Pittman will leave.
And that’s it. I think Anthony Gonzalez and Kirk Barton could leave if they wanted to and would hear their names called on the first day of the draft, but I believe they will stay and will captain the 2007 offense.
As for the senior Buckeyes that will be participating in the ’07 draft, here are some way-too-early predictions of where they might go: Smith (mid first round), Quinn Pitcock (mid-late first round), Datish (third round), T.J. Downing (fourth round), David Patterson (late fourth round), Jay Richardson (fifth round), Brandon Mitchell (sixth round), Roy Hall (seventh round).
TITLE GAME CAPACITY
The University of Phoenix Stadium, the site of the national championship game, holds just 63,000 for Arizona Cardinals games. However, there will be an additional 10,000 seats added for the title game, for a total capacity of 73,000 and change. And that’s still 10,000 less than Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, the site of the 2002 national championship game and the other Fiesta Bowls that OSU played in following the 2003 and ’05 seasons. Due to the fewer number of seats, tickets are much more expensive this year compared to 2002 and are currently going in the $1,000 range.
E-mail Dave Biddle at: firstname.lastname@example.org