The BCS has not been without controversy. In its first ten seasons, only three produced a clear #1 vs #2 (1999, 2002, 2005). The media's #1 team has been left out (2003, USC) and an unbeaten team from the perceived #1 conference has been left out (2004, Auburn). Of the seven controversial seasons, only one (2006) resolved itself when Michigan lost its bowl and Florida beat Ohio State.
Similarly, we've had controversial at-large selections, among the worst snubs being Marshall in 1999, Texas in 2003, Cal in 2004, Oregon in 2005, and Missouri in 2007. Notably, however, only Marshall and Missouri won the bowl games they did play in.
But what has the system done for us? Without the BCS, we never would have gotten those classic Ohio State-Miami or USC-Texas national championship games. Most likely, both teams would have beaten inferior opponents and the winner would have been decided by popularity contest. Last year, Ohio State would have faced USC in the Rose Bowl with a chance to win the national title, while Florida played against some nobody hoping they'd win and OSU would slip up. This season, Ohio State vs USC part 2 probably would have been for the national championship. Whether that's any better than Ohio State vs LSU, I have no idea. In 2004, we might have had three power conference unbeatens rather than just two.
We've also been treated to some classic nonstandard bowl matchups in non-championship games -- Alabama vs Michigan, Texas vs Michigan, and Oklahoma vs Boise State among the best games that probably wouldn't have taken place otherwise.
I typically don't like to legitimize the horribly flawed system by saying anything good about it, but the fact is that it is the "lesser of two evils" compared to the old bowls system. So after 10 years of the BCS, here's some highlights:
Best BCS Games
1) 2006 Rose Bowl: Texas 41, USC 38. USC was ready to be crowned the AP's first three-time champion, the greatest team of all-time, and the greatest dynasty of all-time. The defending champs featured two Heisman winners in their backfield, but in their way stood one of the greatest clutch players and truest dual-threat QBs in college history. The Trojans struck first, the Longhorns pulled ahead by 9, the Trojans narrowed the gap down to 6. The teams traded back and forth in the third quarter, with USC taking a little more each time. The final 6 minutes were like something out of a movie, all the way down to the 4th-and-short defensive stand and subsequent 4th-and-goal offensive score by the game's MVP.
2) 2007 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 OT. With Utah's win a few years prior written off as a result of the extreme weakness of the 2004 Big East, people still wondered if the little guy could play against a BCS big dog. Boise State built an 18-point lead before Oklahoma stormed back to tie, then took the lead on a pick-six as Boise State was trying to set up a decisive field goal... all setting the stage for a trio of trick plays that turned a desparate situation into an instant classic.
3) 2000 Orange Bowl: Michigan 35, Alabama 34 OT. One game featuring two rallies from 14 down engineered by none other than Tom Brady. Had Alabama not missed a PAT in OT, this one would have kept going.
4) 2005 Rose Bowl: Texas 38, Michigan 37. Many felt that Texas didn't deserve their at-large selection, and so fans of the BCS (lol, what?) could breathe a sigh of relief after the Longhorns not only won but delivered one of the greatest Rose Bowl games of all time. This back-and-forth contest was Vince Young's eruption onto the national stage, decided by a field goal as time expired.
5) 2003 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 31, Miami 24 2OT. Rather than the anticipated blowout, we were treated to a gritty performance and unlikely upset by the Buckeyes in an ugly (in the good kind of way) game. The pass interference call on 4th down in the first overtime is still a sore subject for Miami and Ohio State fans alike.
6) 1999 Rose Bowl: Wisconsin 38, UCLA 31. UCLA was one of the teams who were supposed to play for the national championship, along with Ohio State. Both lost late games, but UCLA was still considered the superior team here with their outstanding passing game. Wisconsin featured the nation's top scoring defense and best runningback. What ensued was a back and forth battle between two opposite offensive extremes. Ron Dayne came one yard short of the Rose Bowl rushing record, the defense provided the final margin of victory, and the underdog won.
7) 2006 Sugar Bowl: West Virginia 38, Georgia 35. Lots of people felt that the Big East champ didn't belong in the BCS after three programs left in the previous two years, and with the conference standing at 0-3 that bowl season those people appeared to be right. The Mountaineers took a 28-0 lead and held on to win, converting a late fake punt to run out the clock, and providing the conference with some relief against its doubters.
8) 2000 Sugar Bowl: Florida State 46, Virginia Tech 29. A great showdown between Michael Vick and Peter Warrick. Ultimately, it was mistakes by both Vick and coach Frank Beamer that cost the Hokies as a 29-28 3rd quarter lead evaporated.
9) 2000 Fiesta Bowl: Nebraska 31, Tennessee 21. The game was reasonably close, but that's not the reason I recommend it. Nebraska's 12-1 season was among the last three of their 32 straight 9+ wins seasons. They had won three national titles in the previous five years and would play for another (and get crushed) twoyears later, before fading into mediocrity. Tennessee had won the first BCS championship the season before, and this year had lost two games by a combined 6 points (the previous season, they beat those two teams by a total of 7). Had the Vols won this game, that would have made five straight of 10+ wins, impressive in its own right. This was a meeting between two early BCS powerhouses who both took second chair in seasons to come, but it was also the end of an era. Nebraska took an early 17-0 lead before Tennessee stormed back to make it 17-14 in the 3rd. A Tennessee punt gave Nebraska the ball on their own 4 yard line; the Huskers promptly drove the ball all the way to the end zone almost entirely on the ground, 24-14. Tennessee punted again, this time Nebraska got the ball inches away from their own goalline. Same result, 31-14. The following two seasons, Nebraska would finish with at least ten wins but two losses apiece which was a disappointment for the incredible status of their program at the time. Following their blowout loss to Miami - a battle of the growing pro-style teams against an old guard option team - Nebraska went 7-7 in 2002. This game, and those two drives in particular, were the last great stand of the power option offense, and that is why this game gets a spot on my list. (also, Tennessee losing is always good)
Worst BCS Bowl Games
1) 2005 Orange Bowl: USC 55, Oklahoma 19. After a good first half of the first quarter, Oklahoma completely fell apart and was dominated by USC in all aspects of the game to provide their own answer to the question - a month too late - as to which of the three unbeatens should have been left out. I suppose there might have been worse games, but considering the stage and the fact that Oklahoma's selection was controversial, it doesn't get much worse than this.
2) 2002 Rose Bowl: Miami 37, Nebraska 14. Don't let the mere 23-point margin of victory fool you, this game was 34-0 at halftime before Miami simply lost interest. Like the game above, you have to ask if this was really the best the BCS could come up with. But when you look over Miami's roster and their results week in and week out that entire season, you also have to wonder what team wouldn't have suffered the same fate?
3) 2005 Fiesta Bowl: Utah 35, Pittsburgh 7. A year after losing all of the conference's top programs (at the time), Pittsburgh represented the Big East basically because somebody had to do it. They were completely outclassed and run off the field by a midmajor, with a final meaningless TD preventing the shutout.
4) 2008 Sugar Bowl: Georgia 41, Hawaii 10. Let's just say that after this game, a schedule ranking in the top 100 in the nation should be required to play in the BCS. I mean, Brennan vs this secondary would have been pretty cool to see, if the line could stop a 4-man rush. Were it not for a late meaningless TD, this one would have been 41-3 and the biggest BCS rout ever.
5) 2007 BCS Championship: Florida 41, Ohio State 14. After Ted Ginn scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff, his own teammates injured him in the end zone celebration and the remaining 59:45 or so of the game featured Florida hitting short/mid-range passes to wide open receivers and Troy Smith getting drilled by defensive ends. Arguably a better game than the two below it, but I'm giving this one bonus points for the cause and possible reprocussions of Ginn's injury.
6) 2001 Fiesta Bowl: Oregon State 41, Notre Dame 9. The Irish were held to 155 yards of total offense to go with their -1 return yards. Fortunately for ND, Oregon State was penalized 18 times for 174, but even that couldn't keep the score respectable.
7) 2002 Orange Bowl: Florida 56, Maryland 23. The score was this ugly despite a +2 TO edge for the Terps, and even that required a 13-7 4th quarter to make it closer. Oh yeah... and Heisman runner-up Rex Grossman sat out the first six series of the game for a curfew violation. Once he entered, Florida scored 6 TDs on his first 6 possessions before punting with less than 5 minutes ramaining in the game. Wow.
8) 2002 Fiesta Bowl: Oregon 38, Colorado 16. While voters' #4 Nebraska was chosen to play against #1 Miami, #2 and #3 faced off here. Did the computers miss on Oregon/Nebraska? Perhaps; we can only speculate. One thing we know with about 99% certainty, though, was that ranking Colorado low enough to keep them out of the title game was the right call. After an early 7-0 Buffs lead, Oregon scored 38 straight before calling off the dogs.
9) 2008 Rose Bowl: USC 49, Illinois 17. Illinois was perhaps the worst at-large selection the BCS has made in 10 years, being selected first despite the Rose Bowl having its choice of Missouri, Kansas, West Virginia, or Hawaii to face a streaking USC team. Competitive for a few minutes... the Illini quietly erased half of a 21-0 deficit and had a chance in the red zone to cut it to 21-17 in the third quarter. Then the turnovers started and the onslaught began.
10) 2001 Orange Bowl: Oklahoma 13, Florida State 2. It would be higher up there if it wasn't at least close in score, because this has by far the worst actual gameplay. I read that in one of the lesser levels of Hell, they show this game on Saturdays. I love great defense, but this was a matchup of horribly inept offenses. Both teams rushed for under 2 yards per carry (3 total sacks were a nonfactor), but that didn't stop Oklahoma from pounding it 36 times for just 62 yards. The passing yards should have amounted to more than 15 total points... but oh yeah, five turnovers. Other than those, it was punt punt punt... yawn. FSU's lone score? An intentional safety by OU to avoid a potential late game non-offensive TD for the Noles. In lots of BCS bowls, fans will retroactively argue that the loser didn't belong there, but after actually watching this game in its entirety (eh, Russell and I might have played a few games of NBA Jam to kill time) I'd like to have seen Miami rematch Washington or something else which involved absolutely neither one of these teams. Which gets me to thinking... I've seen a total of two BCS games with my best friend from high school. Both involved Oklahoma, and both are on this list. Maybe we should just stick to talking about the game afterwards.
11) 2007 Sugar Bowl: LSU 41, Notre Dame 14. The first ten minutes went about as expected for LSU to get up 14-0. Then Notre Dame took advantage of a turnover and a missed field goal by LSU to tie the game at 14... after which, LSU scored the game's final 27 points on their way to a 577-yard offensive performance. Why does this get a mention despite being tied after 29 minutes - ie, at least having half a good game? 1) After their first two BCS losses, the suits should have known better than to choose ND in the first place and 2) Brady Quinn was supposed to be good (lol).
My Rankings of the BCS Seasons (named by regular season)
1) 1999 - The championship game was entertaining and the Michigan-Alabama Orange Bowl a classic. Nebraska's back-to-back 96+ yard drives to put away a competitive game against Tennessee were the end of an offensive era.
2) 2005 - This was the year we were treated to that classic USC-Texas game, and West Virginia-Georgia wasn't bad either. Penn State vs Florida State was at least suspenseful, if nothing other than to see who could finally hit a FG or even a freaking PAT in overtime.
3) 1998 - The Wisconsin-UCLA Rose Bowl was the only really good game of the bunch, but Ohio State-A&M was fairly entertaining and FSU kept the championship game semi-competitive despite losing their starting QB. For the worst game, Florida-Syracuse wasn't even bad enough to make my list so that's something.
4) 2003 - Not really any great games, but three were decided by seven or less and the fourth by 14.
5) 2002 - The championship game was a classic, and Georgia vs Florida State was at the very least a good game. However, overrated Iowa was smacked down by USC (never have I rooted so hard for the Trojans in my life, good lord Iowa fans were getting annoying -- yes, at this point in my life, I was living in the midwest) and Oklahoma used Washington State as their punching bag.
6) 2006 - Were I not taking into account the stage and talent of the 2006 Rose Bowl (2005 season), this season would have produced the greatest BCS game played yet, and indeed that Fiesta Bowl is one of the all-time classic bowl games from any era. However, a pair of 41-14 flops a who cares Louisville victory over Wake Forest, and a second half no-show by overrated Michigan make this BCS season about average overall.
7) 2004 - The championship ranks as the worst BCS game ever, and #3 on the list also happened this season. The Texas-Michigan Rose Bowl was this year's saving grace.
8) 2007 - Two bowls made my "worst" list, a third was decided by 20, and the championship game was at least halfway a flop. Only Kansas-VT was close, and unless you had a rooting interest it wasn't that interesting.
9) 2000 - No game was decided by single digits, and the championship game featured excruciatingly poor play by both teams.
10) 2001 - No game was closer than 13 points, and three of the four made my worst games list.
Best Individual Performances
1) Vince Young, 467 total yards 3 TDs in 2006 Rose Bowl
2) Matt Leinart: 332 yds 5 TDs in 2005 Orange Bowl
3) Vince Young: 372 total yards 5 TDs in 2005 Rose Bowl
4) Ron Dayne: 246 yards 4 TDs in 1999 Rose Bowl
5) Tom Brady: 369 yards 4 TDs in 2000 Orange Bowl
6) Rex Grossman: 248 yards 4 TDs in 2002 Orange Bowl - this was despite playing just 2.5 quarters
7) Joey Harrington, 350 yards 4 TDs in 2002 Fiesta Bowl
(going by memory on who played well so I'm probably missing somebody)
My Rankings of the Champions
1) 2001 Miami - 16 future NFL first-rounders played on this squad!
2) 2005 Texas - Vince Young, what else do you need?
3) 2004 USC - dominant Orange Bowl culmination after mild selection controversy
4) 1999 Florida State - strong offense and aggressive defense
5) 2006 Florida - might have faced toughest schedule of any team on this list
6) 2002 Ohio State - strong defense, great kicking game, clutch in the 4th
7) 1998 Tennessee - surprising champions who were very well-rounded
8) 2003 LSU - suffocating defense, one of the best units on that side of the ball along with Miami's
9) 2000 Oklahoma - epic offensive failure in the Orange Bowl, surpassed only by FSU's epic offensive failure in the same game
10) 2007 LSU - sorry guys, 2 losses
Best Overall Programs
1) Oklahoma: 102-28, 4-5 bowl record, 2-4 BCS record, 1 BCS championship, 8 top 25 finishes, 6 top 10 finishes, worst season 5-6
2) Texas: 103-25, 7-3 bowl record, 2-0 BCS record, 1 BCS championship, 10 top 25 finishes, 5 top 10 finishes, worst season 9-5
3) Ohio State: 98-27, 5-4 bowl record, 4-2 BCS record, 1 BCS championship, 7 top 25 finishes, 6 top 10 finishes, worst season 6-6
4) USC: 95-32, 5-3 bowl record, 5-1 BCS record, 1 BCS championship, 6 top 25 finishes, 6 top 10 finishes, worst season 5-7
5) LSU: 89-37, 6-2 bowl record, 4-0 BCS record, 2 BCS championships, 6 top 25 finishes, 5 top 10 finishes, worst season 3-8
Best BCS Programs
1) LSU: 4-0 record, 2 BCS championships. They've won all of their games by playing at the Sugar Bowl in their home state, but they've still won every BCS bowl they've played in.
2) USC: 5-1 record, 1 BCS championship. Also holders of the AP end of the only split championship in the last 10 years.
3) Ohio State: 4-2 record, 1 BCS championship. Sure they've lost their last two, but only USC has played in as many games or won more BCS games than the Buckeyes.
Honorable Mentions: Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia all stand at 2-0 in BCS play, with Texas winning a BCS championship game.
Worst BCS Programs
1) Notre Dame: 0-3. Not only have the Fighting Irish stunk it up on the field (total score 116-41), but their inclusions were often controversial.
2) Illinois: 0-2. In two losses, they've given up 96 points, and their selection for the 2007 Rose Bowl was a controversial dud.
3) Virginia Tech: 0-3. At least the Hokies were ACC Champs every time, and all their games were competitive.
Dishonorable Mention: Oklahoma: 2-4. If there's a chink in the armor of my top-ranked program, it's their appearance in the actual BCS Bowls. Following a close loss to LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl, their defense has given up 55, 43, and 48 points for the Sooners to make that four BCS losses, the most of any team.
Thursday, January 10
The BCS has not been without controversy. In its first ten seasons, only three produced a clear #1 vs #2 (1999, 2002, 2005). The media's #1 team has been left out (2003, USC) and an unbeaten team from the perceived #1 conference has been left out (2004, Auburn). Of the seven controversial seasons, only one (2006) resolved itself when Michigan lost its bowl and Florida beat Ohio State.
Monday, January 7
Boeckman played poorly the last few weeks of the season, pretty a much a non-factor in the Illinois and Michigan games. All season long I have mentioned that Boeckman, as much of a technician at QB that he is, has had problems underthrowing long balls and throwing off his back foot. His lack of vision was key to this game... 2 fumbles and 2 interceptions is not a championship quarterback.
On the other hand, the #1 defense did fairly well, except for the number of PERSONAL FOUL penalties up to and including the vital roughing the kicker penalty to start the second half. Right afterwards Heyward was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct, which led to LSU's touchdown that put them ahead 2 touchdowns.
OSU beat themselves as much as LSU beat them. Looking purely at the box score, you will see that both teams put up pretty good numbers and the defenses held each other to a pretty fair yardage. However, the turnovers show the key - 3 for OSU and 1 for LSU - and the difference is the difference in the game score.
Watching today's game, I would have to say that USC and Georgia would have a fair chance at beating LSU... and it's too bad that those two teams didn't get a chance at the championship like 2-loss LSU did.
BCS Conference records in Bowl Games:
Big 10 3-5
Big 12 5-3
Pac 10 4-2
Big East 3-2
Big 10 and SEC had the most direct matchups in which SEC is 2-1, in which the statement win being the NC game. Tennessee/Wisconsin was really close, and Michigan pulled it out against Florida. Is the SEC the best conference? By their bowl record, I would say yes. I still think, however, that you can see parity in all the conferences becoming clearer and that it is now coming down to any given Saturday.
Congrats to the Bayou Bengals!
A complete season in review to come after some time mulling our horrendous loss.
Sunday, January 6
The BCS National Championship Game, or the Sugar Bowl Part II, is the second installation of the week-later BCS Championship game. Last year, Florida won the first version in dominant fashion over Ohio State, reversing 0-7 into 21-7 just a few plays into the second quarter and never looking back. In one of the most bizarre statistics I can think of, each of the last six BCS championship games has featured a team getting out to a 7-0 first quarter lead... only LSU and Miami (2001 not 2002) went on to win.
Without going too much into the 74 game history of the Sugar Bowl, some of its BCS highlights include:
* 1998 (I'm going by season; the game was played on Jan 1, 1999): Ohio State tops Texas A&M 24-14 in first BCS Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes had lost the last non-BCS Sugar Bowl the previous year to Florida State.
* 1999: Florida State tops Virginia Tech 46-29 to win first BCS Championship crowned at the Sugar Bowl.
* 2001: LSU becomes first SEC team to win a BCS Sugar Bowl, 47-34 over Illinois.
* 2003: LSU wins BCS Championship over Oklahoma, 21-14, becomes first team to win two BCS Sugar Bowls.
* 2006: LSU wins third BCS Sugar Bowl, 41-14 over Notre Dame.
This game also features two of the most dominant BCS teams, along with USC who stands at 5-1 including a 3-1 Rose Bowl record and 1-1 BCS championship record. In fact, I think it will be fair to say that the winner of this game had the best overall BCS Bowl resume in the series' first ten years.
In the BCS era, LSU stands a perfect 3-0 in this bowl including a victory for the national championship. They have not played in any other BCS games. Ohio State is 1-0 in the BCS Sugar Bowl and 4-1 in all BCS games it has played in. Despite being from the Big Ten, all of Ohio State's BCS games have come in the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl.
The SEC is 3-0 in BCS championship games, despite their four title contenders (counting this LSU team) having an average of one loss per regular season, all suffered in conference play. Teams appearing in their third BCS Championship game (FSU, Oklahoma) are 0-2 in that game; if you count USC's Rose Bowl appearance against Texas as their third national championship game in the BCS era (Rose Bowl over Michigan for the split being their first), then that number's 0-3. Nobody has won two BCS championships, a statistic which is guaranteed to change after this game.
The Sugar Bowl is essentially a home game for LSU, and their 3-0 record in it shows what an advantage that can be. Surprisingly, "home teams" are just 1-2 in the BCS Championship (FSU lost to Oklahoma, LSU beat Oklahoma, USC lost to Texas). Speaking of "home teams" in BCS Bowls:
* The Fiesta Bowl hasn't hosted a team from Arizona in the last 10 years. The Pac 10 is 2-0 in the bowl with the Oregon teams each scoring a win.
* Florida teams are 3-3 in the Orange Bowl, including a Miami win over Florida. As three BCS conferences have teams in this state, a combined ACC/Big East/SEC record is probably meaningless.
* Louisiana teams (LSU) are 3-0 in the Sugar Bowl. The SEC is 6-2 in the bowl, although one loss came when the bowl was moved to Atlanta as New Orleans was flooded. Incidently, that made Georgia the "home team" that year in their loss to West Virginia.
* California teams are 3-3 in the Rose Bowl (USC 3-1, UCLA and Stanford each 0-1). The Pac 10 is 4-4 overall in this bowl.
Ohio State (by Coach Pendley)
Ohio State has been either the other team or the chosen one in their BCS Championship game berths. Back in 2002, they were the team in the way of Miami’s coronation as one of the best dynasties of the modern era. However, thanks to a pass interference call (justified or not, we’ll let other people fight over that) they walked away with that title. Of course, in 2006 they were supposed to be the best team in the country and it wasn’t even close. Maybe it was a six-week layoff (possible), maybe it was everyone underestimating Florida (likely), maybe it was everyone overrating the UM/OSU tilt of the ages (debatable, but remember that UM didn’t win the Rose Bowl), or maybe it was a series of improbable bad breaks caused by an offense that OSU hadn’t really prepared for adequately, but they lost to UF 41-14. Still, don’t hold Ohio State’s 1-1 BCS Championship record against them; if it’s not all on the line they’re 3-0 in BCS games, but since one of those wins was against Notre Dame, we can’t count it.
This year, they were the “oh yeah, those guys” team. They opened up the season at #11 in the AP poll (since they were going to field a good D no matter what), and by Week 6 they were in the Top 5. That was coming off a 23-7 win over Purdue (who we all thought could be good; shame on us) and it didn’t hurt that all hell was breaking loose around them. Still, like a train they kept on chugging up to the #1 overall spot by Week 8. They held that up until Week 11 when Illinois came in and barely won; OSU slid to #7. After a win against Michigan, they closed their season at #5 in the BCS, with only an outside shot at the championship game.
Then all hell broke loose. LSU lost to Arkansas, Kansas lost to Missouri – who turned around and lost to Oklahoma – and West Virginia couldn’t beat the 7th-place team in the Big East, and not only did Ohio State make back-to-back championship games, they’re the #1 BCS team. Again. Funny how that works.
This team would make Woody Hayes proud. They stop the run (3rd best rushing D in the nation) and can pound the ball – one of only 24 teams in the country averaging over 200 yards a game, and their run differential is the best in the nation, if not the best. Of course, they can’t pass the ball worth shit at just over 195 yards/game, but their pass D is superb with only 148 yards/game allowed. Not surprisingly, that also means that OSU has a ridiculous points allowed slate, allowing less than 11 ppg. Oddly enough, they’ve thrown no shutouts, but three teams got a FG or less and only one team scored over 20 against the Buckeyes. Of course, that one team was Illinois.
On offense, it begins with Chris Wells (and ends with Todd Boeckman). Wells has carried the running game with 1,463 yards and14 TDs. That includes a 5.76 ypc average. And yes, he does get better as the game goes on with a 7.06 ypc in the 3rd quarter and 6.46 ypc in the 4th. He averages over 6 yards a carry on both 1st and 2nd down and a full 16.5% of his carries go for over 10 yards. So not only is Wells the offense, he’s a legimate presence on the field that’ll demand his own coverage schemes in any offense. Maurice Wells (367 yards, 3.56 ypc) and frosh Brandon Saine (267 yards, 4.45 ypc).
Todd Boeckman isn’t much more than a caretaker QB, but he does have a couple of solid weapons in Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Combined they caught over 1,500 yards and 15 TDs. Aside from them, there’s not a ton in the passing game, but both Boeckman and Hartline are excellent. There’s not a lot else there. With one power back and a couple of good receivers, OSU doesn’t have the fliexibility to run out a ton of multi-formation sets to really get the defense to bite. They may be able to pull some zones, but TE Jake Ballard isn’t a gamebreaker and 3rd receiver Jay Small doesn’t get more than a couple of catches a game.
Still, you don’t watch Ohio State this year for the offense (unless, of course, you enjoy torture – in which case, we don’t judge here). Their defense is – again – outstanding, and it’s led by the LB corps. Everyone knew all about James Laurinaitis (103 tackles, 39 solo), but Marcus Freeman (95 tackles, 60 (!) solo) is at least as good as Laurinaitis. Larry Grant has a good ability to get behind the line with 9.5 TFL, but only 43 tackles on the year. The line is mostly tasked with keeping holes open for the LB to make plays, but Vernon Gholston has nearly as many tackles behind the line (14.5 TFL, 13 sacks) as he does on his side (19.5) and Cameron Heyward has also registered 9 TFL.
On defense, the team didn’t register a lot of INT as a whole (10 on the season), opting to go for pass breakups instead (38 on the year). The general rule on that is when a linebacker is 2nd in picks on the team, that’s not a good sign. Of course, they have returned two for TDs; leading INT man Michael Jenkins took one back for 24 yards and Donald Washington returned his only INT for a TD. So how are they successful? They’re great against the pass on 3rd down; their rather pedestrian 59% opponent completion rate on 2nd down, but that drops to 41% on 3rd down in virtually the same number of attempts.
A.J. Trapasso averages about 41 yards a punt, and while Ryan Pretorius isn’t quite his 2004 precessor, he still racked up 17/21 FGs.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are going up against a team that was completely dominating – when healthy. How the hell are they going to pull this miracle off.
First things first. OSU shouldn’t be thinking they’re the favorite, and there’s no way they’ll go into the Sugar Bowl not being aware of LSU’s homefiled advantage. So they’ll need to control the clock and win the line of scrimmage. And they’ll have to gameplan for two different QBs. Good times.
On offense, I want to test Dorsey’s health early. Yes, I know Glenn Dorsey is a beast when he’s healthy, but he spent most of the second half of the season at best banged up, if not outright injured. It’s likely he’s fully recovered now (and if he is, you’ll know almost immediately), but if he’s not LSU is in an interesting position. An injured Dorsey is still more effective than most DLs out there anyway, but it also means that the run-happy OSU offense can take the attack right to him. I highly doubt Miles will pull Dorsey unless it’s obvious he’s unable to play, but Ohio State is going to want to find out if he can go early. Attack his side of the line, but run like hell the other direction – literally – if he’s on his game.
For all the rushing attacks in the SEC, there’s nobody that LSU faced that runs quite like Wells does in this offense; Georgia comes closest, but …well, they never faced Georgia. They’ll need to exploit this, either running at Dorsey if he’s hurt or bringing an extra blocker across to help handle LSU’s D. It’ll be kind of tough to account for the Tigers’ speed, but it’ll have to be done, and that’ll happen with solid formations and playcalling.
I don’t think that OSU is going to be able to pull out some formations that LSU hasn’t seen, so here’s how it goes. Stick fo the fundamentals again; Boeckman will need to be accurate and make sure he doesn’t throw something that the Brians can’t catch – because if they can’t, someone from the LSU secondary probably will.
On defense, I want to watch Jacob Hester in formation. With as many backs as LSU has, it seems odd that you can kind of key on the actions of one specific back, but LSU uses Hester as their generic back. He’s a bruising runner, but there’s an interesting trend to when they use Hester. Against Arkansas, most of Hester’s snaps were on pass plays, but against Tennessee, Hester was used in a lot of run formations. It’s likely LSU will have realized this weakness, but someone in Ohio State’s coaching booth needs to be monitoring Hester’s use early in the game. It’ll likely be a halftime adjustment, but if Hester isn’t getting used in both run and pass plays, Ohio State should be able to key on that to get a few big plays and/or defensive stops. In a game where OSU will likely need whatever advantage they can afford, there’s no way they can turn down this opportunity of free scouting if it comes up.
Of course, that’s only one of LSU’s many backs. Given six weeks, you might be able to figure out a plan to stop each one of them individually, but I’ll sum it up: do NOT let them get the corner. I’m not too concerned about OSU stopping the power running game; they’ve done that all year. Get lateral and hold the line of scrimmage.
But what about Flynn and Perriloiux? Perriloux is going to mostly run option, so the same things that applied to the running game apply here. Flynn is a lot like Boeckman in that he’s a caretaker-type QB, but he’s a bit more talented. Get pressure on Flynn, but Doucet, Byrd, and LaFell are all great receivers, so guard against the deep threat. (I might even peg Doucet a couple of times, but you never read that.) Blitz Flynn to the outside and Perriloux to the inside.
LSU Tigers (by Coach Lawrence)
I don't know that any team in the country embodies their mascot as well as the LSU Tigers. In a word, their season has been ferocious. On opening night, LSU won a road game at Mississippi State 45-0, allowing just 146 yards and forcing six (!) interceptions. The game didn't look impressive at the time, but with MSU finishing 8-5 with a bowl win suddenly that blowout becomes at least mildly impressive. Not as impressive as what occurred the following week, a 48-7 annihilation of eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech. VT eventually finished with the #2 scoring defense in the country, which is literally their average for the last four seasons. The Hokies hadn't allowed that many points since . The next victim was Middle Tennessee, 44-0. Then #12 (overrated) South Carolina provided some resistance in a 28-16 victory for the Tigers, highlighted by a trick play over the head toss to the kicker on a field goal for a touchdown. A blowout of Tulane concluded a 5-0 September in which the LSU Tigers outscored opponents 199-32.
The first game of October brought Tim Tebow to Baton Rouge, who played an outstanding first half to give the Gators a 17-7 lead. The Tigers responded on the opening drive of the third quarter, attempting a fake field goal from 42 yards to gain a first down and eventually put the ball in the end zone. LSU again narrowed the lead to 3 in the 4th quarter, opting to throw a pass on 4th down at the Gator 4 rather than settling for a FG and a 7 point deficit. Getting the ball back with 9:20 to play, LSU drove 60 yards in 8:06 to score the decisive TD, including a pair of 4th down conversions. Both 4th down plays and the game winning TD on third down came with the same call - Hester up the gut. But the following week the Tigers would be the ones squandering the lead, up 27-14 at Kentucky when it all fell apart. Great QB play from Andre Woodson, baffling play from Matt Flynn, and, yes, a few key injuries and questionable calls. Not in the clear yet, LSU found themselves trailing Auburn by 10 at halftime the following week. A pair of field goals made it a 4-point game going into the final period, when the teams traded scores leaving Auburn with a 1 point lead. With seven seconds remaining, Miles dailed a 22-yard fade to the end zone rather than kicking a 39 yard FG with Colt David who was already 3/3 for the day. It worked. Of course, if LSU was the "cardiac Tigers" in October, then the month lasted a few days extra this year because LSU found themselves in a dogfight on the road with coaching legend Nick "the sAviOr" Saban's Alabama Dolphi... er, Crimson Tide. A Tide PR TD with less than 8 minutes remaining gave them a 7 point lead, which still stood with 3 minutes to play. On 4th and 4, LSU threw a 32 yard TD pass to tie the game. Three plays later, LSU sacked John Parker Wilson and recovered a fumble to set up a short TD drive, 41-34 Tigers.
LSU appeared to be out of the woods following that, destroying Louisiana Tech and winning comfortably against Mississippi. In the final week of the regular season, Darren McFadden appeared to silence the Tigers' title hopes, racking up 206 yards and 3 TDs on the ground while passing for another in a triple overtime game that came down to a failed 2-point conversion. Then Kansas and Oregon lost later that day, Missouri and West Virginia were upset in the final week, and LSU won with a defensive touchdown in the SEC Championship against Tennessee.
LSU's choice over Georgia, Oklahoma, USC, and Virginia Tech was controversial. I won't rehash it in detail except to say that LSU beating Virginia Tech probably had a lot to do with it. USC's loss to Stanford and Oregon's late season dive killed their computer rankings even if the Trojans had been the voters' choice, and Oklahoma... well, let's just say that their loss in the Fiesta Bowl has become Bob Stoops' BCS norm. With Kansas and Hawaii both unproven (indeed, Hawaii was a fraud, and while the Jayhawks proved themselves legit they did nothing in the Orange Bowl to make me think they are the best team in the country), that really left only LSU and Georgia... and if LSU is champion of Georgia's conference and both have the same record, then that's a tiebreaker at worst.
So now we've got our matchup. How does LSU do what they do?
When LSU is in top form, things begin with their defense. (this hasn't always been the case, but their slew of defensive injuries are supposedly healed during the break) LSU allows 103.1 rushing yards per game (14th) on 3.1 yards per carry (18th). This number was significantly better (68 ypg, 2.1 ypc) prior to Dorsey's injury in the Auburn game. This is noteable because, according to him, Glen Dorsey is back up to 100% going into the BCS Championship game. LSU's pass defense has remained excellent even without Dorsey to drive the pressure game. LSU's 96.1 opposing QB rating is 3rd in the nation, total ypg of 180.8 ranks 9th, and they have a 17/21 ratio. The secondary is solid all-around, with Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon both providing excellent corner skills and safety Craig Steltz leading the team in interceptions with 6. Steltz and linebacker Ali Highsmith are the top two on the team in tackles.
So why isn't the defense ranked in the top 10 scoring? Overtime games. I'm not buying into the "best regulation team" pitch, but when you're playing six periods where the opponent gets to start with the ball on your own 25 and the defense is already worn out from playing a full game, that's going to artificially inflate your scoring average. LSU allowed 38 points in those six overtimes leading to their losses. Without that (ie, in the same circumstances Ohio State's defense has been measured by), LSU gave up 217 points in 13 games - a 16.38 ppg average that would have finished 6th nationally. Looking at the teams allowing between 16 and 18 ppg (Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Penn State) that sounds about right.
Offensively, LSU is a very well-rounded team. Their most consistent area has been the power running game, where Jacob Hester averages 78.3 ypg on a shade under 5 ypc. Keiland Williams and Charles Scott provide a small change of pace, but it's Trindan Holliday who has game-breaking speed and gets the ball on plays designed to get him to the outside. Overall, seven players, including both quarterbacks, have played in ten or more games and contribute 15 or more yards per game for a rushing attack that averages 218.9 ypg total (#12) and 5.06 ypc (#11). The passing game, on the other hand, has been very on-off in its performance. It is noteworthy that in both of their losses, LSU completed less than 50% of their passes and averaged less than 5 yards per attampt. The only other game this happened in - against South Carolina - was a mere 28 point outing in which the special teams provided a touchdown and the ground game was overpowering. Overall, LSU's passing game is a mere 43rd nationally in rating at 131.53 and 53rd in yards per game at 229.2. Both of their quarterbacks are very mobile, though, particularly Ryan Perrilloux. Early Doucet is the team's leading receiver in averages and he is definitely the go-to guy. Brandon LaFell is the speedster and deep threat, but he's had his share of drops in big games. In the end, LSU scores 38.7 points per game to come in 12th nationally.
Of course, if we do the same overtime adjustment that we did to their defense, that drops LSU to 473 points scored in 13 games - a 36.38 ppg average that would have been ranked #17. Got to be consistent, eh Les?
When Ohio State has struggled defensively, it has been against teams with speed, the abolity to spread the field, and a dual-threat QB. Because of this, I would use Ryan Perrilloux more often than LSU typically has this season. The sophomore had a pretty good outing against Tennessee and has actually compiled a better QB rating and yards per attempt than Matt Flynn. Perrilloux and Holliday would make a very fast backfield, the kind which could give OSU trouble for big plays, although Hester, Williams, and Scott all compliment a running QB nicely by providing a more powerful ball carrier. Perrilloux plus one of the three main backs, Doucet, LaFell, and Byrd/Dickson (the latter for the option to block), and Holliday as the speed option would be a really versatile and difficult group for this defense to defend.
While OSU is among both the best run and pass defense teams statistically, I believe that their schedule has tested their (standard) run defense more than their pass defense. Therefore, when Flynn is in the game (and for about half of Perrilloux's snaps unless the option game is going really well), the emphasis should be on airing the ball out and spreading the secondary thin. If the pass defense holds, the power game with Hester is always there, but I question how successful this can be if the OSU linebackers aren't a little preoccupied with coverage. The OSU run defense, particularly against power backs, does appear to be legitimately tops in the nation.
Defensively, stopping Chris Wells is of course top priority. The all-purpose back gains 122 ypg on 5.76 ypc, an impressive feat. Fortunately he does not have the hands to be much of a receiving threat. This is again a gameplan that will call for heavy pressure on the line of scrimmage. Until Boeckman proves he can beat LSU's corners, the safeties should be a few yards up and the linebackers ready to plug running lanes, if not blitzing from the get-go.
Ohio State has only two players with 20 or more receptions on the season - Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Neither one is anywhere near the caliber of Ohio State's #1 and #2 receivers from a year ago... indeed, this pair would make a great #2 and #3 receiver, but there just isn't that dominant guy who makes defenses adapt their coverage schemes to him. Jackson and Zenon are probably fine on their own. At the start of the game, LSU might put 8 or 9 guys in the box, but if Dorsey's having a big impact on the line or if the LSU offense is putting points on the board, I'd start playing tampa 2 coverage with lots of linebacker blitzing thrown in there. This coverage scheme without dedicated underneath help from the LBs is possible because OSU doesn't have great receiving backs or tight ends. When OSU goes 3 WR, a 6-man zone or safety coverage on Ray Small (averages 1.9 catch & 25.3 yargs per game) is a good adjustment to the base defense without giving up that run-stopping power of their front seven. The bottom line is that Steltz, Jackson, and Zenon are a trio who have the potential to create a lot of interceptions on poorly thrown passes... if the defense tempts Boeckman to air it out a little bit, that's probably a good thing.
Thursday, January 3
The Orange you glad we skipped over the #6 team in the country with a Heisman finalist QB and RB who holds the 2nd highest bowl rushing total ever and might just lay an Egg with this matchup… Bowl.
The question to be answered is which will be more lame – that joke or the joke of a matchup of an epic BCS choke artist coach vs a completely unproven team who has no history and lost to the only good team they faced all season. Let’s just say that the Rose Bowl is hoping that this game continues the blowout streak so that their selection gaffe is matched by this one.
A lot of conference respect is at stake here as well. The ACC is 2-5 in bowl games this year and their conference champion is 1-8 in BCS bowls all-time. (!) The Big 12 is a little better off than that, turning in a respectable 4-3 bowl record thus far including 2-1 in January, but in the last five seasons the conference has now gone 2-5 in BCS bowls. (both wins by Texas, thankyouverymuch)
Kansas (by Coach Lawrence)
Kansas found their 2006 season dashed on the rocks with a 3-5 record (0-4 in conference) before making the bold decision to incorporate freshman QB Todd Reesing into the rotation (I should note, he played alongside Kerry Meier in those final games as a 2-QB system). Three wins later, the Jayhawks were looking at a second straight bowl invitation and finally shedding their status as a Big 12 doormat. They were crushed by Missouri, but a 6-6 record was still respectable for their standards and meant back-to-back non-losing seasons.
Of course, when a “non-losing” season is considered an achievement, you’re probably not thinking of the million dollar bowls, not even when you breeze through your absurdly soft nonconference schedule by a combined 214-23. After squeezing out a road victory over “ranked at the time” (ie overrated) Kansas State, Kansas entered the polls at #20. Talking about respect here, Boston College was #4 with a similar joke of a schedule, but hey. Indeed, Kansas had to reach 8-0 before they were finally moved into the top ten. People seemed to think scoring 76 against Nebraska was impressive (really, it’s not – see Colorado) but that moved the Jayhawks up another 3 spots. Finally, going into their final game against Missouri, a 11-0 record and as the nation’s only power conference unbeaten earned the Jayhawks the #2 spot. They were promptly beaten by Missouri and fell to #7, 5th In the BCS standings. When Missouri lost to Oklahoma, Kansas fell to 8’s across the board.
Disrespected? Sure. Wrong choice for the Orange Bowl over Missouri? Yeah, that too. But I think Kansas is deserving of their BCS bid – it’s not like Hawaii would have beaten Mizzou either – and honestly the 2 teams/conference max rule is lame. (hurt Wisconsin and Auburn last season as well – oh yeah, those two teams and Missouri this season all won their non-BCS bowl games. Go figure.) Kansas will get to prove their worthiness, and let’s be honest, with the first 3 BCS bowl games decided by an average of 27.7 points, really they just have to make it competitive to do that. Not that their goal will be anything less than victory.
Kansas finished the season with the nation’s #2 scoring offense and #5 scoring defense. I wouldn’t translate that to “Kansas has the second-best offense in the country” (nor defensively), but that does mean that they’ve executed well against the teams they’ve faced. For those who watched Illinois, Hawaii, and Oklahoma do little but help the opposition, you saw why mere execution is so critical in these bowl games played a month after the regular season ended.
How do they get it done? Offensively, Kansas runs a spread offense that centers around Reesing’s decision-making ability. He’s put together a 152.3 efficiency-rated season (11th in the nation) with a 32/6 ratio. Four of those interceptions came in the first five games of the season. The spacing set up by the spread passing game allows gaping holes for a pair of average backs. Brandon McAnderson averages 88 ypg and 6.1 ypc, but I’ve seen little from him to really impress me as he’s basically getting isolated as defenses scramble to defend all the receivers. Still, a great back for this system. Jake Sharp provides support as the #2 back, and frankly I think this kid has a future at Kansas though he doesn’t have the experience of McAnderson which has made him slightly less productive this season (65 ypg, 5.6 ypc). Marcus Henry and Dexter Field are the main go-to guys at receiver, averaging 82 and 61 ypg respectively. Watch out when Kerry Meier comes in… he catches 2 passes a game for 20 yards but also has completed 25/29 passes on the year for a 200 rating and 3/0 ratio. Most of that has been trick plays where he and Reesing are both in the game.
Overall, Kansas is good both rushing (197 ypg, 27th) and passing (293 ypg, 14th) to combine for an excellent total offense (492.7 ypg, 6th) whose ball control (13 turnovers, 3rd-fewest) has allowed them to be even better at putting points on the board.
Often teams with a schedule like Kansas’ put up great defensive stats without any really good players, and it shows. We’ll know in another 24 hours whether the defense is overrated or not, but on thing’s for sure – Aqib Talib is for real. He’ll probably be the #1 corner taken if he goes pro after this game, and he’s produced 4 interceptions and a defensive score despite teams generally throwing the ball to the other side. The other corner Justin Thornton has 4 picks of his own.. guess what, this defense has a 16/20 ratio which, while not Va Tech’s gaudy nation-leading number here, sure ain’t bad and it’s contributed to a 106.7 opposing QB rating which in 10th nationally. This secondary allows just 226 yards per game despite generally being ahead in their games – facing 41+ attempts per game but giving up just 5.5 yards per attempt (3rd) and are 4th in the nation in passes defended. They’ve stymied teams with a 3.1 rushing ypc average and give up just 91.4 total ypg there, 7th in the nation. Kansas is an old-school defense whose starting linebackers are their three leading tacklers, which is another good sign because it means people aren’t getting into their secondary.
Owing mostly to their almost mistake-free offense, Kansas is tops in the nation with +19 turnovers this season, though they rank 7th in takeaways as well. At just 4/game, they are the least-often penalized team in the country. Really, these two alone would win about 9 games without the offensive and defensive totals. That’s right, it’s all about the discipline.
Now, how to take on one of the two most difficult opponents they’ve faced all season?
Since their massacre at the hands of LSU, Virginia Tech has given up over 20 points just three times in their final eleven games (23 to Clemson, 21 to Florida State, 21 to Virginia… all wins). I think it’s safe to say that Kansas is better than any offense they’ve faced since LSU; they’re certainly the most rounded and have the best QB (yes better than Matt Ryan the interception factory). Kansas cannot give up more than 24 points… the goal should be 10 if they want a little margin for error. Yes, VT’s defense is that stingy. Fortunately, Brandon Ore is really the only good offensive player they have. Opposing defenses have stacked the line on him to limit his productivity to 3.6 ypc and 67 ypg, so let’s do that. Talib and Thompson can cover their men, and we’ll figure out something to do if all three Tech receivers are in the game. Having a safety yell “Sean, I’m open!” might work if you remember VT’s loss in the Chic-Fil-A Bowl last year.
What’s going to be critical are the drives where Tyrod Taylor is in the game. He’s a real change of pace averaging 4.4 ypc running the option. Despite a good ratio (5/2), he completes just over half of his passes and in these situations both safeties can play up and dare him to throw against a very strong pair of corners. But while pressuring the QB and RB with the front seven and keeping safeties close to the line, I would not bring corner blitzes and anything that risky. Talib and Thompson effectively shut down Tech’s mediocre receivers – why risk a trick pass going the distance when your offense probably cannot break 28 points (20 may even be pushing it) against this defensive unit?
Offensively, it begins with smart passing. That has been a strength of Kansas’ as Reesing makes incredibly good decisions. They cannot dig a hole by giving up touchdowns to the Hokie defense. The positioning of VT’s excellent corners is going to be key for the passing game – if they’re pressing, do not throw those bubble passes because that’s going the other way. Be aware that VT’s linebackers are also great in coverage. Should VT go into their soft cushiony defense that cost them the BC game, Reesing needs to be immediately aware of that as well. ;-) But seriously, reading the coverage is going to be extremely important in this game.
As it’s going to be tough to score against this defense, the Jayhawks may need some trickeration to move the ball in a few big chunks. Reesing and Meier should have a dozen or so plays together, including some decoys if the defense overreacts pre-snap. Don’t force it though, if VT reads your double pass, chuck it 20 yards over everybody’s heads. No turnovers (see below) is the #1 priority of this gameplan.
Boston College also beat VT by just being opportunistic. The longer Kansas can hang in the game, the better the chance of a signature Hokie turnover or brain-fart in the defensive calls. As good as VT has been in the last 10 years – and they’ve been very good – they’ve blown almost every really big game they’ve played in. This is probably the second-biggest game for VT in the BCS era, so you can guess Beamer will start off with one hand already uncomfortably close to that collar. Usually a team can stay in the game with good execution and a positive turnover margin. Let’s aim for no more than one stupid penalty per quarter (defensive PI when you’ve been burned is smart, but there’s no reason to get burned by these receivers) and no giveaways offensively (realistically, one isn’t a terrible thing, but the gameplan says 0). Do that and, worst-case, they’ll be close in the 4th quarter when Reesing can have all day to throw against a soft prevent.
Virginia Tech (by Coach Pendley)
You probably know Virginia Tech as the team that got the shit embarrassed out of it at LSU in the second game of the season. Or you may know them as the team that decided to play prevent against Matt Ryan and cost themselves a shot at an upset of then-#2 BC. So yes, they went 0-2 against teams ranked 2nd in the country, but they went 11-0 against everyone else. Those included a few good, but not great wins – Clemson by 18, Virginia by 12, BC (again) by 14 – and a 43-14 thrashing of Duke. Also, they beat William and Mary in a closer-than-it-looked 44-3 win. (Way to eke that out, guys.)
Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor form the bad version of a QB platoon – namely, “both these guys suck so bad we need to put someone else in to lessen the damage.” Shockingly, they combined for a 16/5 ratio and about 2,500 yards through the air. Yes, that can be accurately described as less than stellar. Not surprisingly, VT also has a three-WResque setup that functionally results in no feature WRs; Justin Harper, Eddie Royal, and Josh Morgan all average between 40 and 45 yards a game. It’s not a bad setup necessarily – especially if you add about 60 yards a game through the air. It’s just been flagrantly ineffective; for every Duke (70% completion rate, 346 yards, 3 TDs), there’s a Clemson (50% completion rate, 65 yards, 1 TD).
Fortunately, they have Brandon Ore, who counts as their only offense in Blacksburg. Getting 3.59 yards a carry facing eight in the box – if he’s lucky – is no mean feat. Fortunately, Tyrod Taylor is a QB in the Vick mold (not like that we hope), adding another 400+ yards on the ground and getting into the end zone 7 times. In addition, Eddie Royal will occasionally see action via reverse or trick play; he’s averaged 15.9 ypc.
Now, VT’s defense? That’s legitimate; witness the 86 ypg average – and 2.75 (!) ypc – on the ground. Against the pass, they do give up over 200 yards a game, but look closer. That includes 5.6 yards per attempt (6th in the nation), an opposing QB rating of 97.94 (4th in the nation), and a simply obscene 9/21 ratio (best in the nation). A full four teams haven’t even passed at a 50% rate against them this year, and lost in the first game against BC was the 47% completion rate.
Not surprisingly, VT also has a +13 turnover margin on the year. They also average 42.5 yards per punt and have an 88% FG kicker in Jed Dunlevy. And yes, they have blocked 4 kicks and punts this year, so you’ll hear about that later, too. The team also has a great opponent conversion percentage in the red zone at 73.5%, but it’s in third down conversions that the team shines, allowing conversions on only 28.6% of third downs, 4th in the nation.
So what do you do against a team that’s 6th in the country in total offense? The answer is, of course, call bullshit. The best defense they faced all year – Missouri – pretty much stymied them. Kansas only averaged 5.5 yards per play against a Missouri D that allows 5.2 yards per play. So what about VT? They only allow 4.3 yards per play.
They haven’t faced a team that pressures the QB like this (43 sacks) or that gets into the backfield as consistently (93 TFL). So yes, the name of the game on D is pressure. Until Todd Reesing shows that he can escape the pressure or Kansas’s O-line can hold him off, I’m blitzing in passing situations. I’d expect Chris Ellis, Orion Martin, and Barry Booker to generate pressure. They haven’t faced a CB in game situations like Brandon Flowers and Macho Harris (although Aqib Talib will be the best CB on the field). They should be able to make hay against WR Marcus Henry and Dexton Fields. And yes, if anyone’s curious: Flowers and Harris both have a INT return for a TD this year.
I don’t even worry about Brandon McAnderson; Mizzou held him to 41 yards, what’s he going to against Vince Hall – provided he can go - and Xavier Adibi? Even if Hall can’t go, Cam Martin is a tackling machine, too. I trust my defense to do what it’s done all year, and if – and when – Kansas punts, I send pressure. They’ve only punted 46 times on the year, and I’d bet that VT can snag a blocked punt.
On offense, I want to try and keep it on the ground. While I think that the TAMU game was an aberration on the ground, I’m looking at the Missouri game as my blueprint for success. This means I want to get Eddie Royal, Taylor, and anyone with speed involved in the running game until Kansas forces me to do something else. Throw the damn playbook at them, but since VT won’t be able to beat them with the pass, it’ll have to be on the ground (or on defense).
I’m not sure about the pass; the last thing I want to do is give Talib an excuse to make some jaw-dropping play – and as been stated before, VT’s wideouts aren’t the best. Talib will be able to shut down his guy, so spread it to the other wideouts that he’s not handling.
More than anything, the uglier VT makes this, the better. This game should be utterly painful to watch if VT gets their way; think 2000 Orange Bowl x4. They can’t afford to get down big, and their offense isn’t potent enough to put much over 28 on the board even if everything breaks right.
Wednesday, January 2
"La Fiesta" is Spanish for "The Party" so this is basically the Party Bowl. And I don't know about you, but when I think "party" I think of states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, sometimes called the Vegas of the Plains States. Trust me when I say, what happens in Oklahoma stays in Oklahoma. On the other sideline, you might know the state of West Virginia from popular Hollywood movies such as Deliverance.
While the Rose and Orange Bowls spent the first Sunday in December trying to get as poor a matchup as they could get away with, the Fiesta smiled away as one of the best teams in the nation was passed over by the BCS Championship game to remain in its tie-in with the Fiesta, and an exciting conference champion without a tie-in was twice passed over in favor of far less appealing teams. And so the Fiesta got Oklahoma and West Virginia, probably the best collection of talent outside of the national title game.
Oklahoma (by Coach Lawrence)
From 2000-04, Oklahoma won 60 games and appeared in three national championship games, winning one. The 2005 campaign was an 8-4 disappointment, but last season Oklahoma was back on track finishing 11-3 despite losing a dramatic Fiesta Bowl to the Boise State Broncos. With a great group of running backs and wide receivers and an improved defense, they seemed just a quarterback away from winning a national title.
Enter Sam Bradford. The freshman compiled a 180.5 QB efficiency rating, tops in the nation among starters. Allen Patrick returned to be complimented by freshman DeMarco Murray in a running game that averages 191.8 ypg. And in the receiving corps, Juaquin Iglesias and Malcolm Kelly each average over 60 ypg receiving. It's an explosive unit that finished #3 in the nation in points per game, behind only Hawaii and Kansas both of whom faced significantly easier schedules.
On the defensive side, Oklahoma is a group that finished #9 in scoring. They were #8 against the run at just 91 ypg, and given that they were adequate against the pass at 232 ypg and a 117 opposing QB efficiency. DJ Wolfe and Reggie Smith lead a secondary that turned in 19 interceptions, and among the linebacking corps Curtis Lofton leads the team in tackles and added 3 INTs on top of that.
Due to just 8 interceptions thrown, Oklahoma was +9 in turnovers and had an adequate 42.5 punting average. In other words, they're one of the nation's top three offenses, a top ten defense, the nation's most efficient quarterback, and they don't give up anything in the field position game. Impressive.
But the game isn't played on paper. After winning their first four games by an average of 62-12, the Sooners blew a 24-7 lead against Colorado to lose 27-24. It was part inspired play by the Buffs, part complete late-game collapse by Bradford and the offense. The following week, Oklahoma won a close duel with Texas in which both teams brought their A-game and then used a 18-7 4th quarter outburst to reverse a 3rd quarter deficit to Missouri. The Sooners breezed through the next few weeks and appeared on their way to a virtual "national semifinal" with the Big 12 North champion for a ticket to the BCS championship. Missouri completed their end of the deal dismantling Kansas, but Oklahoma saw Bradford go down with a 7-3 lead against Texas Tech... 20 minutes later it was a 27-7 deficit and OU couldn't quite regroup to come back. Bradford returned to post back to back blowouts of Oklahoma State and then-#1 Missouri, but it wasn't enough for voters to rank them above SEC champion LSU.
However, a 2-loss team shouldn't expect to play for the national championship, and Oklahoma should have their heads squarely focused on beating WVU to avoid a second straight Fiesta Bowl loss.
Looking at West Virginia's two losses, a gameplan that Oklahoma can execute becomes evident. The primary focus is to force WVU out of their game - to force the Mountaineers to start passing. The split stats show it clearly: WVU rushes for 322 yards a game when they win and just 146 when they lose, while passing attempts are almost up 50% in losses (just 8 extra yards though, as White isn't a great passer when the defense knows it's coming). Forcing WVU to pass requires two things: Sooners points and shutting down the WVU rushing attack.
Oklahoma has a fantastic front seven and a good pair of safeties. The corners should be in man coverage while the entire front seven and at least one of the two safeties focus on the run. Having the safeties spy White might not be a bad idea given that he's running option with the occasional changeup pass. Stopping the run is the key here; if White hits a big pass or two that's not going to win the game by itself.
I'd blitz all three linebackers frequently and send at least five every play. This kind of traffic is only going to muck up the option game, and the Sooner secondary is fast enough to stop the occasional lost containment play from going to the house. Force Pat White to make quick decisions with his passes, and force Darius Reynaud to get open with his patterns rather than with his track speed. Three and out isn't the only way to stop an offense, and it's not necessarily the best way to think of stopping an offense like West Virginia's. First down pickup, first down pickup, five yard loss, incomplete pass... 3rd and 15 now what? That's as good a way to get stop as any.
The other key is scoring points. If the defense stops White but it's 10-6, they'll just keep patiently trying to open up the ground game. (as has happened a few times this season) At least statistically, West Virginia is better against the pass than the run, so loosening up the defense with a steady diet of Allen and Chris Brown seems a good first option. Bradford is a great playaction quarterback, and a safe way to start throwing the ball would be going to tight end Jermaine Gresham, considered among the top five nationally and a big performer for OU in some key games. As the ground game really gets going, Kelly and Iglesias will be harder and harder for the corners to cover as safeties are needed to stop the Sooner backs. This is old school Oklahoma football, and it's the offense that they've been running most of this season. (Sooners average 41 rushes, 29 passes per game) I like the way their base offense matches up with this Mountaineer defense, and I don't like the 3-3-5 stack's odds of stopping this kind of ground attack.
The Oklahoma offense and defense can work together to limit Pat White's effect on the game, and this is the clearest path to a Sooner victory.
West Virginia (by Coach Pendley)
Man, what a loss to Pittsburgh can do to a season. WVU was in the enviable position of needing to beat a sub-.500 team to make the national title game after a series of losses – Kansas and LSU’s, to be specific - put the Mountaineers in the #2 BCS spot. Of course, that win didn’t happen. Still, at that point WVU was already the Big East champion thanks to the previous week’s win over Connecticut and a 10-2 season in a BCS conference is still something to celebrate over. It’s rough to have a conference championship not feel like enough, but it’s that way in Morgantown. It’s not like WVU is lacking in signature wins, either. They own wins over UConn, Cincinnati, and Mississippi State (yes, that counts).
As for the actual team makeup, it’s a Rich Rodriguez team – at least through this regular season. (He won’t be coaching the bowl game; Bill Stewart will do that.) That means they’re going to have a mobile QB and one hell of a spread running game. Lord only knows what that’s going to do to Big 10 teams in 2008, but for now it’s causing huge headaches locally. For reasons that surpass understanding RB Steve Slaton wasn’t the killer he was in 2006; however, Pat White and RB Noel Devine picked up a lot of the slack.
When running, the Mountaineers will operate out of a spread rushing attack. They’ll throw 3-4 WRs on the exterior in most of their formations; this will force either 3 or 4 players in the secondary to cover the corners (either on man or in zone; allocating fewer players should cause White and/or Jarrett Brown to audible out of the play). With four WRs, the main goal of the formations – forcing the defense to leave no more than seven in the box – is already achieved; three WRs leaves defensive coordinators with an interesting gamble. Do they play the safety up and risk getting caught out of position on a deep pass or play the safety back in an umbrella leaving – once again – seven in the box? Against most offenses it wouldn’t be terrible to leave seven up against that offense (heck, in some cases you’d only want six); however, WVU will leave the RB behind the line forcing defenses to stay in because of a run. That’s normally bad enough in its own right, but since the offense normally features a mobile QB it’s doubly dangerous.
Of course, Pat White was a two-way beast this year, passing with a 150 QB rating and a 12/4 ratio. The yards really aren’t great, but that’s a product of the type of offense that WVU runs. And speaking of running, not only did White run for nearly 1,200 yards and 14 TDs, RB Steve Slaton – remember him? – ran for 1,053 yards and 17 TDs. It gets better. Freshman RB Noel Devine averaged 8.65 ypc and had 8 runs of over 20 yards – in only 60 carries. Oh, and there’s also fullback Owen Schmitt, who averaged a pretty pedestrian 4.73 ypc, but it also a load at 6’3”, 260. Obviously, the passing game isn’t a big deal, but Darius Reynaud is the best WR the ‘Eers have, with nearly 700 yards and 11 TDs on the year.
West Virginia will (likely still) employ the 3-3-5 stack. It works well for them because most of the teams WVU faces don’t have incredibly strong offensive lines. This way the defense can focus on using its speed to create plays, and not on brute strength. Shockingly, the biggest deficit you’d figure this kind of D would have is in run defense, but WVU allowed only 2.91 ypc – and UConn was the only team to top 200 yards on the ground. The pass D was a little more suspect, but that’s entirely a relative measure. The 15/13 ratio is nothing to sneeze at – and yes, that did fuel the +12 turnover margin for the season.
So here’s WVU’s problem; they haven’t faced a team this fast on both sides of the ball this year. Oklahoma will fly to the ball, likely in hopes to prevent White and Slaton from having a ton of big runs. That being said, they haven’t faced a QB even remotely like White, and the closest comparison – Texas A&M’s Steven McGee – didn’t have a bad game. In addition, mobile QBs had the best success against the Oklahoma front 7; TAMU, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor (!) had success with a running QB. And White, Slaton, Schmitt, and Devine are better than all those guys.
More importantly, what WVU doesn’t want to do is get down big early to Oklahoma; they need a strong effort on both sides of the ball, but they need to establish their running game early. White’s not going to have a lot of success passing to Reynaud and the rest of the receivers; there are more quality DBs than you can shake a stick at in the OU secondary. Don’t forget the passing game entirely, but those guys may spend most of their time blocking in the first quarter. In addition, since OU will likely keep 8 in the box unless told otherwise, I want to see Schmitt get a lot of snaps early.
What I really don’t want to see from the offense is a ton of lateral movement, especially early; OU will crush them if they try that. See the hole and break through it, one move and just go. Everyone in the backfield has the speed to get well downfield, but juking behind the line is just an excuse for OU to rack up their TFL totals. If you’re going to run laterally, wear out the front seven first.
On defense, speed kills. The good news for WVU is that they won’t have to face a mobile QB, but the Sooners’ Allen Patrick and DeMarco Murray are both quality players. Of those guys, Murray scares me more – so thank god he’s not playing. Patrick is a more pedestrian back, and his backup Chris Brown isn’t anything to write home about. WVU should be able to win this; keep Reed Williams aware of the back rotations, because he’s going to need to be on board.
On defense, I want to Xerox Georgia’s gameplan against Hawaii and staple it to the inside of all my defense’s helmets. It’s likely that WVU won’t be able to make a ton of plays against Sam Bradford and his 70% completion rate, but bang the hell out of the WRs as soon as they make the catch. Bring pressure; WVU got 36 sacks this year for a reason, and they’ll need to keep Bradford’s uniform from being clean early and often. Unlike UGA, WVU will likely need to bring some additional pressure. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the world; unlike Hawaii, OU really only has two primary WRs, so I want to ideally shut them both down. Failing that, shutting down Malcolm Kelly only will work, as he’s the deep play threat.
That leads into the next point; shorten the game a bit. That’ll mean consistent drives on the ground and keeping OU players inbounds. I’m not the biggest fan of McAfee’s, and the last thing I want to do is get into a punting match with Oklahoma, because the Mountaineers won’t win that. It’ll also help to end up +1 or +2 in the turnover battle, which is at least kind of likely; Bradford doesn’t throw a lot of picks, but WVU just doesn’t pass much at all. Force fumbles when you can, win time of possession, and win field position. The rest should come.
Tuesday, January 1
When LSU was chosen for the BCS Championship game, the Sugar Bowl was fortunate that the SEC had another 10-2 team, Georgia. The Sugar had last pick for the remaining spots, but fortunately being "forced" to take Hawaii isn't a bad thing for the game itself, only revenue if anything. (and I'm not sure how much I believe that) The matchup itself is excellent and features the highest combined winning percentage of its teams amongst all BCS Bowls this season.
In the last six years, the SEC has compiled a 5-1 Sugar Bowl record, with three wins by LSU but Georgia going 1-1 with a loss to West Virginia. However, midmajor teams are 2-0 in BCS bowl games with unbeaten Utah and Boise State teams each pulling off wins in the Fiesta Bowl. This has all the makings of a great game if Colt Brennan brings his A-game.
Hawaii (by Coach Lawrence)
Hawaii entered the 2007 season as favorites to be an unbeaten BCS-crasher and with outside Heisman hopes for Colt Brennan. Yep, 12-0 and a top 4 finish for the QB. Unfortunately, their schedule strength has hovered around 150th for most of the season (there are 119 I-A teams, so you know what that means) and even after facing Boise State and Washington in their final two games, wasn't quite strong enough to creep into the top 120. Because of this almost-mockery, the Warriors weren't selected to play in the BCS title game despite being the nation's only unbeaten. Note to mid-major teams: you need to schedule at least one real opponent in your nonconference slate (read: not Northern Colorado, UNLV, Charleston Southern, and Washington only counts if they finish .500).
The Warriors define what it means to be an offensive team. Hawaii leads the nation in points per game, yards per game, and are second in passing yards per game. They run the ball... sometimes. Colt Brennan has averaged 379 passing ypg, a number lowered due to a few games where he played only partway due to injury, and amazingly his backup averages 156 ypg passing on top of that. Overall the offense gains 450 ypg through the air, racking up 50 aerial touchdowns and a 165.8 rating. Ryan Grice-Mullen and Davone Bess have both caught 100 passes and average over 100 ypg receiving, and a deep threat Jason Rivers comes in at 97 ypg while leading the team in TD recptions with 13. It's a crazy, exciting system.
Defensively, the numbers are average (132 ypg rush, 217 ypg pass), but then we recall who they've faced -- yeah, nobody. In their last four games, against somewhat respectable opposition, UH gave up at least 26 points in each game. Stopping Georgia, who will be by far the best and most physical offense they've seen all season (there's really no comparison to anyone UH has faced), will be a huge uphill battle and a lot of the gameplan will probably revolve around the realistic assumption that the Warriors will have limited success defensively.
Keys to Victory:
1) Every possession must be a score. You can't count on this defense to stop everything Georgia has, particularly their powerful running game. Scoring, say, 42+ points gives their own defense a break and could also force Georgia away from their running game should the Warriors build a lead.
2) Exploit your biggest advantage - the depth differential provided by your receiving corps. Grice-Mullen, Bess, and Rivers have been extremely productive wide receivers and CJ Hawthorne is about all you could hope for for the #4 guy. Georgia has a good starting secondary, but how's their dime package? Most college teams don't go that deep -- Georgia really needs to spread those receivers out so that Kelin Johnson and Reshad Jones - UGA's ballhawking safeties - aren't doing what they do best (coming over the top from help for interceptions or jarring hits) and instead have to provide primary coverage. Effective receiver spread is probably the only way they can: (3)
3) Don't even bother with the run until the pass game is well-established or the defense is completely in pass rush/coverage mode. Georgia has a good defensive line and only gives up 3.4 ypg against SEC power-oriented offenses. Those draws and screens to Pilares and Wright-Jackson are great changes of pace, but first there has to be a pace to change. Otherwise you're just looking at no gain and falling behind the chains.
4) Go for broke. We saw what it took for Boise State to knock off Oklahoma last season. Georgia this year is better than OU a year ago, and Hawaii doesn't have the trick plays of BSU, which means Brennan's probably going to have to put up 500 yards the hard way. But going for it on 4th down at midfield, going for that interception rather than playing safe coverage, etc give your team the chance to swing the game. Matthew Stafford hasn't had a very consistent season, and while miles ahead of where he was a year ago, the Warrior defense has to be looking for opportunities to exploit his mistakes.
Georgia (by Coach Pendley)
Contrary to popular belief, Georgia did NOT win the SEC East. They did finish 10-2, but thanks to an earlier loss to Tennessee, Georgia ended up losing out on the division to the aforementioned Vols. Of course, since they got a Sugar Bowl invite courtesy of not winning the division, they shouldn’t complain too much. They did well for themselves this year, winning out after the Tennessee game – and often looking dominant in the process.
In November alone, they increased their per-rush average by .74 yards per carry over the previous month and added 13 TDs – almost more than they had in September and October combined! The defense buckled down, too, allowing 2.69 yards per carry in November compared to 4.07 in October. And yes, the pass offense / defense improved as well, but it wasn’t as drastic as the running game, which has served as the catalyst for this Bulldog team.
For that, you can blame Knowshon Moreno, the freshman sensation who came out of nowhere after the first half of the season to finish with 1,273 yards and 12 TDs. Of those, 766 yards and 10 TDs came in only five games – not coincidentally the games where Georgia basically woke up and started kicking ass. That relegated Thomas Brown to backup status – again. He’s done decently there, racking up 700 yards in only 9 games along with 9 TDs. Unfortunately, the rest of the ground game has been nonexistent, thanks in part to two different factors:
1 – Kregg Lumpkin’s injuries
2 – A distinct desire to not use Brandon Southerland on the ground
Of the two, Lumpkin is the forgivable option. I’m not sure I totally understand not using Southerland; he wasn’t used in the passing game either. He’s a sneaky option that can cause opponents to have fits, but since Moreno was absolutely destroying it, I guess I can see not wanting to put the ball in someone else’s hands.
QB Matthew Stafford is still a bit inconsistent, but he’s shown signs of turning the corner, having five different games at least in spitting distance of 60%. While his rating isn’t spectacular – a modest 127.69 – his 19/9 ratio is good. Part of the problem could be with his WRs, as both Sean Taylor and Mohammed Massaquoi are talented, when they bother to catch the ball. Massaquoi, in particular, is hot and cold – he had two different games where his only catch was a TD pass over 50 yards. Taylor was relatively consistent, getting at least two catches in all but two games. Tripp Chandler is a decent, but not often-used TE (only 20 catches in 11 games).
The UGA secondary – because, let’s be honest, nobody’s going to care about UGA’s run D in this game – has done a decent job, pulling down 11 INTs to go with their 11 TDs given up. CB Kelin Johnson is the ball hawk in the secondary, but CB Asher Allen is the emotional leader in the secondary – he’s second on the team in solo tackles. UGA excels at getting to the QB, leading the SEC with 34 sacks. They’re a threat all along the line, too – Marcus Howard, Geno Atkins, and Jeremy Lomax all have at least four sacks.
UGA knows what Hawaii’s going to do – pass, and do a hell of a lot of it. Of course, it’s not even that easy; Hawaii’s WR operate on a lot of coverage reads and will burn you if you make a mistake. It gets worse: Ryan Grice-Mullen, Davone Bess, and Jason Rivers are all #1 / #1.5 type of WRs. So how the hell do you stop them? Get pressure on Brennan; I doubt UGA will be able to cover all three of those WRs at once. I do expect Asher Allen to be able to shut one of the WRs down, but Reshad Jones may have a tougher time of it.
Georgia’s biggest problem is that aside from Allen, Jones, and Kelim Johnson, there’s not a lot of solid coverage optoins. Hawaii will be able to throw CJ Hawthorne on the field too, so they’ll have to find a fourth option. I don’t want CJ Byrd forced into coverage any more than he has to be (I don’t trust having two safeties forced into coverage packages). I don’t care too much about the run; the front seven should be able to handle it.
On defense, Hawaii is nasty but they haven’t faced a truly physical front yet; Boise State comes closest and ECU rolled up yardage on the ground. Moreno operates solely in pissed-off mode and Hawaii hasn’t seen that yet, either. I pound the hell out of the ball with Moreno (and Brown, with a little bit of Southerland thrown in there, at least to block) until Hawaii can show they’ll stop the run. I don’t think they can, to be honest; Fresno State and Nevada picked up nearly 400 yards combined on the ground, and those were the two best rushing offenses Hawaii faced. Georgia’s better than that. The added bonus is Moreno tearing up the field means Brennan can’t.
I’d pass just enough to keep Hawaii honest. They’re a very opportunistic defense and my plan for Stafford would consist of “don’t lose it.” If Stafford comes out of the game with 200 yards and zero INT, I’m happy with that; I don’t even need a TD pass from him. Obviously, I’d want to use Taylor and Massaquoi, but I may want to get Chandler and Southerland involved if I can get them away from LB Adam Leonard, who has 4 INT on the year (ran two back). Screens may have some success, too.
More than anything else, I want to force Hawaii into their most conservative gameplan possible. Don’t let them get fumbles, INTs, sacks, big kickoff or punt returns, etc. That being said, conservative does NOT mean the same thing as passive. Take the fight to the Warriors, but don’t go too far out of your comfort zone. I fully expect the team to play emotionally, but they’re going to have to know that’s how Hawaii plays too, and they’ve been doing it for way longer than six games. If you’re going to play emotionally, make sure you kill their emotions, too. It won’t work otherwise.
It's the Granddaddy of Them All - and like most people's granddaddy, it's also the cantankerous old guy who isn't aware that the family reunion is now held in California instead of Minnesota and whines about it for three months straight when he's reminded of it. Every year. Now imagine if this granddaddy started yelling at one of your cousins because he/she had the audacity to marry someone of a different heritage than you and loudly berated you about it between October and December.
That's kind of like the Rose Bowl leadership. Only things we're not including is 1) granddaddy has a $13-million-a-year payout and 2) granddaddy gets to invite the family members to the reunion, too. So while nobody was surprised that Illinois got invited over more (Arizona State) deserving (Missouri) teams (Texas), we were all just kind of disappointed. It's like when granddaddy got together with Uncle Bob and started bitching about your significant other's side of the family, and why can't they be more like your family, only they actually are like your family and granddaddy can't figure out that what he thinks is your significant other's family is actually ...MTV. Why's granddaddy have that much power, anyway?
At least USC gets to come back to the Rose Bowl. Considering they play so far away, it's good to know they can make the trek all the way down the street for this game. But it doesn't count as a home game for them, so don't make the mistake of thinking that. They had a good season, especially given the number of injuries they struggled through ... provided you ignore the loss to Stanford. At home. Other than that, they played great - and they have to get bonus points for ABC openly stumping for USC to make the national title game the last Saturday of the season. Stay classy, ABC.
Still, it's not really Illinois' fault they play in the Big 10. They do own the only win over Ohio State all year, and even though the rest of their resume is pretty much the Who's Who of Who Cares, they do have that. They also have a loss to Missouri, who made out pretty well for themselves getting an BCS Bowl invi...wait, what's that? Oh, Orange Bowl committee. For shame.
Illinois (by Coach Lawrence)
Not only had Illinois averaged a lowly two wins per season from 2003-06, but they had won a mere one conference game in those four seasons. So while Illinois was absolutely the wrong choice for the Rose Bowl, you can't fault the kids for having one of the best surprise seasons of the year.
2007 started off on a low note with a loss to Missouri, cutting the deficit from 24 to 3 but eventually falling short. At the time Mizzou hadn't earned much national respect, so it was considered a mediocre team's win over a weak team. Illinois won their next three games against fairly poor opposition, then shocked the nation with consecutive wins over Penn State and Wisconsin. Perhaps equally shocking was their 10-6 loss to Iowa the following week. After predictably losing to Michigan then beating Ball State and Minnesota, the 7-3 Illini went into Columbus to face the 10-0 Buckeyes, #1 in the nation. Illinois played perfectly behind an opportune defense and great decision-making by QB Juice Williams to steal a 28-21 victory - the only loss of the season for Ohio State. Finishing the season with a big win over Northwestern, Illinois was 9-3 and second in the Big Ten. Had they only eeked out one late score against Iowa, they would have been the Big Ten champions! Nonetheless, the Illini had actually won more games in 2007 than that did in the previous four seasons put together. Though not historic, it was certainly one of the most memorable seasons in the recent history of the program.
Illinois has been slowly stockpiling top national talent with an emphasis on speed since Ron Zook took over as coach. The offense is led by the crown prizes of their last three recruiting classes - QB Juice Williams (soph), RB Rashard Mendenhall (jr), and WR Arrelious Benn (fr). The spread option ground game is where it begins, and Mendenhall averages 127 ypg and 6.2 ypc to go along with the 64.5 ypg (5.2 ypc) contributed by the legs of Williams. Overall Illinois racks up 226 yards a game on the ground, fifth in the nation. Benn contributes 50 ypg receiving as this side of the offense averages just 157 ypg total, but he is also the only player on the team to score a touchdown on a kickoff return - one lone score to give the Illini an early lead over Penn State.
Defensively, Illinois is strong against the run giving up 114 ypc and 3.3 ypc but average against the pass (241 ypc, 119 rating). They rely on their ballhawking duo Kevin Mitchell and Vontae Davis, leading the team to a total of 16 interceptions, to neutralize the passing yardage.
Keys to Victory:
Let's face it - USC is a tough team for anyone to match up against. They have four solid runningbacks, led by Chauncey Washington and Stafon Johnson. They have a highly recruited QB who puts up decent numbers and a trio of pretty good wide receivers, but it's tight end Fred Davis who is the biggest receiving threat. The offensive line is good in both aspects of blocking. The defense is excellent against both the pass and the run - especially against the run, where they're 4th in the nation.
In so many ways, USC is like Ohio State. The OSU run defense is one of just three better than the Trojans, and OSU tops the nation in points allowed, yards allowed, and pass yards allowed. Ohio State has the best runningback on either team, but doesn't go 4-deep like USC. Their passing game has underachieved and cost them a game, but it's not something you can ignore by any means. Therefore, I would design a gameplan for beating USC based on how Illinois was able to beat Ohio State.
Keys to Victory:
1) Williams must control the game.. and the clock. Against a vastly more talented team, the proven gameplan has been effective use of possessions and shortening the game. Against OSU, Williams threw for 4 TDs and ran for 70 big yards to convert late 3rd downs. It'll take an effort like that, particularly since USC is so balanced defensively. Over the last four seasons, the dual threat QB has been one of the only things to give this team troubles defensively, so Williams will have to exploit that.
2) Big calls for big plays. Illinois used an 80 yard run, a pair for 30+ yard passes, and a 25 yard run to get yardage in chunks against Ohio State while otherwise grinding the ball methodically. Mendenhall and Williams will have to make something happen on their own a few times, but the staff can help by setting up a misdirection or trick play to get a few cheap ones.
3) Big turnover differential. USC's offense has only gotten better from October through December, particularly in terms of Booty's consistency and obviously with recovery from their injury epidemic playing a big role. Outscoring them on equal possessions seems tough, so let's try to get an effective possession advantage of 3 (what it was against OSU). Unfortunately, this may mean a bit of hoping that Booty makes some mental mistakes. If and when he does, Illinois needs to come up with the ball to take it away from this powerful Trojan attack.
USC (by Coach Pendley)
When healthy, USC is among the best teams in the country. Of course, had they stayed healthy and not lost to Stanford, they’d probably be playing in the national title game. Losing to Oregon with Dixon in the lineup is no reason to be ashamed. Of course, aside from the win over Arizona State there’s no real quality wins there, either. Oregon State is a good, but not great, win, and beating Cal and Nebraska looked a lot more impressive before they started playing the games. Still, going to a game where USC has been 22-8 in (I think I counted that right) isn’t terrible when you’re hoping to end the season with a win.
When healthy, QB John David Booty played well – not the Heisman-caliber level the position traditionally gets, but well anyway. Obviously, the counting stats aren’t going to be there if he missed three games with an injury, but the 232.9 ypg passing and 20/9 ratio are still solid, if unflashy. TE Fred Davis was a weapon all season, with nearly 800 yards receiving on the year and 7 TDs. WR Patrick Turner was supposed to be better than he was on the season – he was supposed to score a lot more than 3 TDs and average 51 yards a game, but the talent is certainly there.
On the ground, USC has a potent multi-back offense that runs for around 185 yards a game. It’s led by Chauncey Washington (81 yards a game, 9 TDs), Stafon Johnson (57 yards a game, 5 TDs), and Joe McKnight (34.5 yards a game, 2 TDs). Of course, all those guys are also excellent talents, which help matters a bit. Each of those backs has gone for at least 80 yards in a game, and both Johnson and Washington have run for over 100. They’re all capable of assuming the primary back role, which is …kind of unfair, really.
On defense, USC finished 4th in the nation against the run – and unlike other teams that had a “good” pass D because they had no secondary, USC finished 7th in the nation against the pass, too. And yes, that includes a 10/8 ratio and a passer rating of 100 – which is the equivalent of saying that USC transformed QBs into someone just slightly worse than Taylor Bennett. Surprisingly, USC has only a -1 TO margin on the year – but that’s mainly thanks to – no surprise – the Stanford game.
Keys to Victory:
1: Marginalize Juice’s rushing. This is ten kinds of irony for USC, but the key to shutting down Illinois starts with preventing Juice from becoming a second rushing threat along with Rashard Mendenhall. That means USC will need to go over the game plan from the Oregon game, as Illinois runs a similar offense; unfortunately for USC, Dixon ran for 76 yards in that game, so they’ll need to improve their plan for stopping him. This is doubly critical because Williams isn’t that great a passer (13/10 ratio, 121 QB rating), so USC might even want to bring eight into the box until Illinois proves itself through the air.
2: Three-back usage. I hinted at this up there, but USC will likely still enjoy an advantage on both sides of the line of scrimmage; in this case, that’ll be needed to plow open holes. Between Washington, Johnson, and McKnight, USC has plenty of backs to wear down the Illinois linebackers. Leman is the most active of the LB corps, but they could all be hurting after 3 quarters of strong rushing.
3: Exploit the matchups. Illinois doesn’t have the best pass defense, and the Big 10 doesn’t have any TEs like Fred Lewis – Beckum comes closest – but Booty will need to make accurate passes to really be successful. He should have a big game, but either Turner or Vidal Hazelton will need to come through on the side to take some pressure off of Lewis.
4: Killer instinct. USC is a decent time-of-possession team, averaging 32 minutes a game, but getting about 35 – preferably by running the ball at Illinois and daring them to stop you – would be golden. Don’t forget that nobody expected anything from these guys for a reason.