Wednesday, September 17

The Tressel Behind the Curtain

Watching the Ohio State @ USC "Game of the Season" go from an interesting first quarter to a game Ohio State was on the verge of losing early to a complete massacre, all in the span of about ten minutes in the second quarter, I had a moment of understanding with Buckeye fans. I'd been through this before, shouting at the TV for Mack Brown to please play Major Applewhite as Chris Simms turned the ball over four times in the first half of the conference championship to sabotage my beloved Longhorns' 2001 national title hopes. By the time Applewhite came in, the deficit was (as it turns out, just barely) too much to overcome.

Terrelle Pryor would not have made such a difference against USC, as unlike that Texas-Colorado game where the Buffs scored with short fields or outright defensive touchdowns, the OSU defense was also not able to stop the USC offense from driving 80 yards at will. Let's not take anything away from USC from being an amazingly talented team nor from Pete Carroll from being an amazing recruiter and absolutely devastating with long preparations. But the margin of defeat, Ohio State's worst since 1994, has to be a real cause for concern.

We remember that in 2005, Ohio State had a showdown with Texas and Vince Young, in Ohio Stadium where the Bucks had never lost a night game. This was a game the Buckeyes actually led 22-16 going into the 4th quarter, before a late toss to Limas Sweed allowed Texas to escape with a win.

Ohio State was heavily criticized for its two-quarterback strategy, and I want to talk more about this. After starting the game with two short drives totalling 9 plays for 25 yards, OSU took Justin Zwick out and put Troy Smith in in an effort to spark the stagnant offense. Smith's first two drives totalled 15 plays and 88 yards, including an 80 yard TD drive to tie the game at 10 which would be Ohio State's only drive longer than 50 yards on the night, but his next two totalled just 13 plays for 19 yards. We went into halftime with the Buckeyes up 16-13 thanks to some great field position on those last two drives. After Vince Young fumbled on the first drive of the second half, Troy Smith went 10 yards in 6 plays to settle for a field goal, his 4th possession starting inside the Texas 36, all of which went for FGs. Tired of squandering these great starting spots, Tressel went back to Zwick who took Ohio State on a long drive which ended with his TE dropping a pass in the end zone and settling for yet another FG. After going 3-and-out on the following drive with Zwick, Tressel went back to Smith. He also went 3-and-out, prompting Zwick to come back into the game in what was really a bizarre decision, as Smith was hardly given a chance to work. However, it was an 11 play, 38 yard drive that unfortunately ended in a missed FG. Zwick again took the field after VY's go-ahead pass, and he fumbled after scrambling for 5 yards. Smith came out for Ohio State's final drive two minutes later, taking a safety on the first play. In total, Justin Zwick had 31 plays for 110 yards (3.5) and Troy Smith had 38 plays for 120 yards (3.2). Many Ohio State fans believe that Troy Smith was vastly more effective, as his drives totalled 19 points to Justin Zwick's 3. This, however, is inflated by Smith taking the field four times in obvious scoring position but the offense stalling out for a FG each time. In fact both QBs were equally ineffective, as the offense just never got going save for one or maybe two drives. However, what can be criticized is that had Tressel picked a quarterback, either one really, that QB could have developed a better feel for the game and perhaps led the offense to just another field goal or perhaps scored a TD in one of those short field situations. More to the point, though, when the offense stalled out, Tressel's answer was to switch quarterbacks. OSU ran the same tired plays with both men in there, and midway through the second quarter they just weren't working. There was never an adjustment to what Texas was doing defensively. Make no mistake, this was Tressel's most talented team, and with a great defensive leader in AJ Hawk (something that is missing in the current LB corps) and a ton of speed and talent on offense. They blew a winnable game where Vince Young brought his C game, but poor offensive strategy put him in a position where he could make up for that with one drive. Ohio State was not the better team here - certainly by the end of the season that was evident - but with the home field advantage and with their opponent's star player having an off night, they should have won this one.

On to the 2006 National Championship - the Fiesta Bowl matchup versus Florida. Urban Meyer's offense ran the same short-to-medium pass routes over and over, OSU refused to modify their zone coverage. Florida brought outside pressure while giving up 6.2 yards per rushing attempt to Antonio Pittman, but the Buckeyes gave him a mere 10 carries. I'm not going to say it would have changed the outcome, but otherwise are we at least looking at a good game here? Perhaps so.

What about last season's finale? Against LSU, Beanie Wells averaged 7.3 yards per carry but had just 20 carries to Boeckman's 26 pass attempts (plus 9 runs/sacks). Even throwing out the 65 yard scamper early in the first quarter, he averaged 4.3 yards a pop, which surely merits 25-30 carries. But as the game went from a 10 point Buckeye lead to a 14 point halftime edge for the Tigers, Beanie carried just seven times in four possessions - for 44 yards. He was averaging better than 6 per play but the offense was turning to Boeckman's arm and the game was turning LSU's way. By halftime we knew what the game result would be, and once LSU took a 21-point lead to start the third, there was no longer any doubt.

Last weekend's stats show that with Todd Boeckman in the game, OSU averaged a woeful 2.8 yards per play against USC. With Terrelle Pryor, that average was 5.1 -- perhaps more relevently, it was 6.5 yards per play while he was in with the first team offense, prior to being given two series of mop-up duty in the meaningless 4th quarter. Yet Boeckman saw 39 snaps to Pryor's 25. This makes absolutely no sense to anyone watching the game or to anyone looking at the stats. It was a baffling decision to continue to refrain from using their most talented player.

This looks like horrible coaching! And yet, two outright conference titles, two more shared conference titles, a 4-2 BCS record, and a national championship all speak for themselves. Or do they?

So-called "Tressel Ball" is essentially conservative offense, conservative fourth down decision-making with strong kickers, and a fundamentally outstanding yet relatively conservative-schemed defense that doesn't give up big plays, with an emphasis on winning the lines. This is a recipe for not losing games you're supposed to win. And looking by season, against teams who finished with more losses than the Buckeyes, Ohio State went:
2001: 6-2
2002: 14-0 (huge win over 12-1 Miami)
2003: 11-2 (including loss to 10-3 Michigan who lost to USC in the Rose Bowl)
2004: 7-2
2005: 10-0 (defeating Notre Dame in the BCS -> take your spot in the next season's BCS Championship)
2006: 12-0 (note that Florida finished 13-1, ie with as many losses as OSU)
2007: 11-1 (note that LSU finished 12-2, ie with as many losses as OSU)
Totalling 71-7.

On the other hand, when facing teams who finished with equal or fewer losses than Ohio State, the Buckeyes went:
2001: 1-3
2002: 0-0
2003: 0-0
2004: 1-2
2005: 0-2
2006: 0-1
2007: 0-1
Totalling 2-9.

Now I realize that to some extent this is built in. Most of Ohio State's losses came (obviously) in seasons where they had more losses, and in these seasons their opponents are more likely to finish with a better record than them by default. Likewise, when Ohio State went 14-0, it was impossible for anyone to finish with a better record, so even the epic championship game against Miami gets classified as an "expected" victory. So put some perspective with this stat. Regardless, the trend is that Tressel is damn near a 90% winner in games Ohio State should win, but he's giving them about a 10-20% shot in evenly matched games or games where they are the underdog. Whatever it takes to pull off an upset, Tressel seems to lack it. In the last four years, Ohio State's only victory against seemingly strong opposition was a home win over Michigan by 3 points in 2006, only to find out a month later that those mighty Wolverines were completely outclassed by USC.

But what about the 2002 season? The Fiesta Bowl was one of the greatest upsets of the BCS!

This is true. Even with the loss, that Miami squad ranks #8 on our all-time BCS list, one spot behind those Buckeyes. Let's look at the 2002 season for Ohio State:

I'm not sure where the Buckeyes started out, but when the first BCS rankings were released on Oct 21, 2002, Ohio State was #4 in the polls and #6 in the BCS. They did not move into the top two of the BCS until the first week of November. It's safe to recall that they were a dark horse team.

In their first three games, Ohio State rolled Texas Tech, Kent State, and eventual Pac 10 champions Washington State. Cincinnati gave the Buckeyes an odd scare which could be attributed to letdown, then the rolling continued to 7-0 midway through October. After that:
* On Oct 19, Ohio State trailed Wisconsin 14-13 before a big 4th quarter pass set up the go-ahead TD in a 19-14 victory. Yardage was roughly even, OSU killed Wisconsin in punting.
* On Oct 26, Ohio State won a close 13-7 victory over then-#10 Penn State 13-7. The fourth quarter was scoreless.
* On Nov 2, Ohio State routed Minnesota 34-3.
* On Nov 9, Ohio State trailed Purdue 6-3 late in the 4th quarter. Facing 3rd and 14, Krenzel completed a 13 yard pass with just over 1:40 left to set up the infamous 4th and 1. Their ground game having been shut down, the Buckeyes went with a play action fake which was covered short, and wound up throwing a 37 yard toss into the end zone to Michael Jenkins for the win.
* The following week, Ohio State found themselves clinging to a 16-13 4th quarter lead with 1:06 to play against Illinois. The Illini drove the field to send the game to overtime, which Ohio State eventually won 23-16.
* Finally, hosting then-#11 Michigan in the season finale, Ohio State again found themselves down 9-7 in the 4th. The Buckeyes scored on an eight-play drive that included three key scrambles by Krenzel, including ones on a third and fourth down. After getting the ball back with 4:05 remaining, the Wolverines twice drove the ball inside the Ohio State 35 but turned the ball over both times.

Now, every BCS champion has had a game or two where they struggle, if not actually lose. But this really takes it to another level as six of their final seven games were decided by just one play! Considering the talent differential here (OSU had 10 defensive starters drafted into the NFL), that points at the unispired play this team muddled through until the last possible moment of these games.

This of course set up the big national championship showdown with a Larry Coker team, which among other things needed an injury to Willis McGahee and a questionable 4th down pass interference call to secure the 2OT win. It was a great game for the Buckeyes and probably the truest upset in a BCS championship, but six years later this is still what Tressel's prestige as a coach is based upon. I'm not sure if this game under these circumstances really outweighs the disappointments of the last four seasons.

It seems that, like Mack Brown, Jim Tressel is a great recruiter but not a great coach. Really, the difference seems to be that Texas plays in a conference with Oklahoma, a team who also has a great recruiter in Bob Stoops and at least had one of the nation's premiere DC's in Mike Stoops. Ohio State, on the other hand, has mostly had to compete against a falling Michigan program, which made conference titles inevitable. In fact, if we were to swap Ohio State and Texas for the Jim Tressel era, it looks like Ohio State would have been the Big 12's best team in 2002, 2005, and 2006 (yes, Oklahoma and Missouri were both better last season), which means that with one conference championship upset, the Buckeyes would also be looking at just two BCS appearances. This isn't meant to provoke an in-depth discussion of the Ohio State and Texas football programs, but rather to point out that a lot of the Buckeyes' recent success has been a product of the Big Ten lacking a program capable of consistently challenging them. Strong recruiting is good enough to win the conference title almost every season.

Rich Rodriguez and Ron Zook could change this dynamic in a few years, but until then Ohio State looks like they're in a fairly stable equilibrium. And who knows, maybe Terrelle Pryor will eventually win a title in spite of the decided schematic disadvantage, not unlike the great Vince Young. But it won't be The Sweater Vest leading this team to victory through bold or even correct decision-making.