Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Instant Replay: Ohio State Routed Again in BCS Championship Game

Once again, Ohio State started well in the BCS Championship Game--and once again, the tide turned with a vengeance. Last year, Ted Ginn returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown that gave Ohio State a 7-0 lead but he was injured while celebrating the score and Florida went on to post a 41-14 win. This year, Ohio State jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead before LSU ran off 31 straight points en route to a 38-24 victory. On the surface this looks like a championship game version of the movie "Groundhog Day": a fast SEC team routs a slow Big Ten team. However, there are some important differences between the two contests. After Ginn's return, Florida completely dominated the game, with lopsided advantages in first downs (21-8), total yards (370-82) and third down conversions (10-19 for Florida, compared to 1-9 for Ohio State). This year, the statistical tale of the tape was much more even and Ohio State actually outgained LSU in total yards (353-326) and rushed for nearly as many yards (trailing just 152-145) while posting a much better yards per attempt average (4.8 to 3.1). Despite this, the outcome of the game was not in serious doubt for most of the second half and the final margin would have been even worse if Ohio State had not scored a touchdown with barely a minute remaining in the game.

How did LSU dominate the scoreboard without dominating the stat sheet? The answer is "hidden yardage." Ohio State committed seven penalties for 83 yards, while LSU had just four penalties for 36 yards. The most costly Ohio State penalty came right after the Buckeyes stopped LSU on the first possession of the third quarter. The Buckeyes trailed 24-10 and were set to receive the punt. Obviously, a touchdown drive at that point would have made it anyone's game but instead Ohio State roughed the punter. LSU retained possession and soon scored a backbreaking touchdown. Ohio State had three turnovers compared to just one for LSU and the Buckeyes saw a good second quarter drive go for naught after LSU blocked a field goal attempt. Penalties, turnovers and special teams gaffes do not show up in total yardage statistics but they prevent teams from converting that yardage into points.

The penalties and turnovers are indicative of a team that lost its composure at times and Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel will deservedly receive some of the blame for that. However, it is important to remember that most college football experts believe that Ohio State reached the championship game a year early. Prior to the season, this young Buckeyes team was not even supposed to win the Big Ten. If Ohio State had lost two or three games as expected but beat Michigan and won a lesser bowl game then this would have been considered a successful season. Instead, because Ohio State "overachieved" (I dislike that word but it applies here) and reached the championship game, this season will be viewed by many people as a failure and perhaps even an indictment of Tressel's ability to win "big" games. The reality--which became apparent during the game--is that LSU simply has more good players than Ohio State does. No matter how disappointing this finish is to Ohio State's coaches, players and fans, the Buckeyes did have a successful season when you consider what this team was reasonably expected to do.

Other than "hidden yardage," the biggest factor in the game may have been LSU's pass rush. Ohio State's problems in this regard resulted not so much from protection breakdowns as from the inability of their receivers to get open against man to man coverage. Quarterback Todd Boeckman often had enough time to throw but no one got open and then defenders eventually made it into the pocket. ESPN's Lee Corso said that Ohio State is one or two outside playmakers away from being a championship team.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit took the "sky is falling" approach in his postgame analysis, saying that conversations with fans around the country convinced him that the Big Ten is perceived to be a second rate conference and that this result will only serve to reinforce that belief. That is just a silly thing comment on many levels. Even if fans think this, so what? NFL teams regularly draft Big Ten players who go on to have successful pro careers, so it is ridiculous to suggest that the Big Ten is not an elite conference. Is the SEC the best football conference right now? It certainly looks that way but that does not mean that the Big Ten is some small time league. Moreover, if ESPN viewers want to know what fans think then they can literally talk amongst themselves to find out. Herbstreit is a former player--at Ohio State, no less--who watches many games live and has access to players, coaches and game film and it is his job to explain whether or not the Big Ten is an elite conference, not simply to parrot what some fans told him during commercial breaks from the filming of College GameDay. He is in a position to provide an informed viewpoint, so there is no reason for him to waste airtime with the results of his unscientific "poll" of random fans.

People talk about the importance of the long layoff between the end of the season and the BCS Championship Game but they usually cite the fact that some conferences have a conference championship but the Big Ten does not; supposedly, the extra game enables teams to stay a little sharper (it must be added that conference championship games also expose teams to the possibility of a loss that would knock them out of BCS Championship Game contention). It turns out that the real reason that the layoff is a factor is not the cliched "rust versus rest" issue but rather that it enables players to heal from nagging injuries. There is so much time off that the BCS Championship game is literally played in another calendar year and sometimes figuratively seems to be part of a separate football season. Ohio State's Chris Wells scored the first touchdown of the game on a 65 yard run, the longest ever in a BCS Championship Game, and he finished with 146 yards on 20 carries. He put up good numbers during the regular season but was often hobbling around because of an ankle injury. The time off benefited LSU even more, because several key players who had been out of action or somewhat limited returned to full strength. My prediction of an Ohio State win was based too heavily on how LSU was playing at the end of the regular season; the outcome of this game may very well have been different if it had been played a month ago. I think that no one would dispute that LSU played better in the BCS Championship Game than in any other game this season, particularly considering what was at stake.

None of this takes anything away from LSU, a worthy national champion that successfully navigated a difficult conference schedule and beat a tough opponent in the BCS Championship Game.

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