Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
15 Sep 2008
by Russell Levine
If Ohio State can find any solace in a 35-3 humiliation at the hands of USC Saturday night, it is this: Jim Tressel's club won't have to worry about being a national punch-line in a third-straight Bowl Championship Series title game.
That's because there will be no third-straight BCS title-game appearance, not after being thoroughly dominated in every phase of the game against Southern Cal. For those keeping score, this is the tally of Ohio State's shame: 114-41, that being the combined score of its last three games against elite competition.
The voters surely are keeping score, and they dropped the Buckeyes nine spots to no. 14 in the latest coaches' poll, which is part of the BCS standings formula.
For all the talk the Ohio State-USC result will generate about the Buckeyes' -- and therefore the entire Big Ten's -- lack of speed and athleticism, those were not the deciding factors. Yes, USC has better athletes, and more of them. But that comparison works in the Trojans' favor against every team in the country, even those from the SEC.
If the NFL draft is the ultimate measure of athleticism, USC is number one and everyone else a distant second. In the past three years, USC has had 17 players taken on the first day of the draft -- as many as LSU (nine), Florida (six), and Georgia (two) combined. That trio of SEC schools includes the last two BCS champions (LSU and Florida, each of which beat Ohio State) and this year's highest-ranked team.
In fact, if there is one school that comes close to matching USC, it is actually Ohio State, the Buckeyes having sent 11 day-one draft picks to the NFL over the same time span.
So what accounts for Ohio State's failings against top competition? One obvious factor is quarterback play. In the 2006 title game against Florida, Troy Smith came in as the Heisman Trophy winner and left with the worst day of his career, while Florida's Chris Leak enjoyed one of his best.
Last year, Todd Boeckman was badly outplayed by LSU's Matt Flynn. Saturday, Boeckman was awful, throwing for just 84 yards on 14-of-21 passing, with two interceptions, one returned 48 yards for a touchdown by Rey Maualuga to put the game all but out of reach at 21-3 just before halftime. Mark Sanchez, meanwhile, was an efficient 17-of-28 for 172 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.
It would greatly help any Ohio State quarterback's chances if he had time to throw. While the "athleticism" argument tends to focus on the skill positions, that is misguided. The one area where the Buckeyes have simply not been able to match up with Florida, LSU, and now USC, is along the line of scrimmage. In each of the games, the Buckeyes have given up five sacks, while generating only one.
Ask any coach, at any level, the key to any football game, and you'll hear three factors almost by default: "turnovers," "protect the quarterback," and "pressure their quarterback." Ohio State has failed in all three areas, including a minus-six turnover ratio.
While Ohio State saw its national-championship hopes destroyed, it's hard to imagine the Trojans not making it to the title game in Miami. USC is so deep that its 12 touchdowns this season have been scored by 11 different players. Unless they get hit by an unprecedented string of injuries, the Trojans are likely to be not just favored in every game they play the rest of the way, but heavily so. While USC was making quick work of the Buckeyes, the rest of the Pac-10 was falling on its collective face.
It was a weekend of carnage for the conference, which went 2-7 outside of USC, including 0-4 against the Mountain West. UCLA followed an opening-day win over Tennessee by getting edged at BYU, 59-0. Arizona State prepared for its nationally televised showdown against Georgia by losing at home to UNLV.
The schedule also shapes up nicely for USC, with all its toughest games at home. As it stands, only Oregon, which visits the L.A. Coliseum in three weeks, looks like it could provide even more than a speed bump on USC's path to Miami -- and Oregon might be starting a third-string quarterback in that contest. Notre Dame would need a greater miracle than the six turnovers it got from Michigan Saturday to hang with the Trojans.
Stranger things have happened. Last year, USC lost at home to Stanford in perhaps the biggest point-spread upset in college football history. And as dominant as the Trojans have been under Pete Carroll -- the tally now stands at 72-8 over the last six-plus years -- they tend to have at least one Pac-10 clunker each season. Barring the Trojans beating themselves, it's as safe an assumption as can be made to pencil them in for Miami.
As for Ohio State, Tressel's challenge will be to convince his team they still have something to play for. The Big Ten appears to be a little deeper than most observers thought, with Penn State rolling over everyone and Wisconsin toughing out a win against a good Fresno State team Saturday night. Even Purdue gave Oregon a scare before falling in OT. Tressel should also start giving more playing time to freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the lone bright spot against USC. As for the Buckeye faithful, they can look north at the state of hated Michigan, where the Wolverines will struggle to reach six wins in the midst of a major rebuilding project.
If Ohio State can take care of business in conference play, it'll end the season back in Los Angeles, but at the Rose Bowl instead of the Coliseum, secure in the knowledge that USC won't be waiting on the opposite sideline.
Anyone who took part in Saturday's Ohio State-USC liveblog on FO knows where this one is heading. At halftime, we switched over to catch the end of the Auburn-Mississippi State train wreck, which stood at 3-2, Auburn, in the final minutes.
Mississippi State, which has been inept on offense seemingly forever, had pulled within a point by pinning the Tigers deep on a punt, then forcing a holding call in the end zone on third down for a safety.
Mississippi State's next possession resulted in a three-and-out, but the Bulldogs got the ball back on an Auburn fumble at the Tigers' 47-yard line with just under five minutes to play. The Bulldogs quickly went backwards, and three plays later faced a 4th-and-15 from their own 48. But despite having two timeouts and still 3:59 on the clock, MSU coach Sylvester Croom went for it rather than try to pin Auburn deep once again.
The pass, predictably, was nowhere close. To that point in the game, Mississippi State's longest pass play was a pair of 13-yarders, in the first quarter. Its quarterback, Wesley Carroll, would finish 10-of-25 for 78 yards on the game.
Croom's only chance to win the game was on defense and special teams, yet he tossed it away for a prayer. Remarkably, the Bulldogs got another possession on yet another Auburn fumble, but Croom opted to go deep despite having 2:29 to play and needing only a field goal. The pass was intercepted.
Croom has done a great job turning around a moribund Mississippi State program, but he mangled the end of this game, and for that he gets this week's JLS Trophy.
Rankings that may require further explanation: This is the week where one-loss teams are no longer automatically disqualified. Kansas and Fresno State lost close games to good teams and Ohio State got killed by a great one -- something a lot of teams in the poll would do. Florida and Georgia slip a bit as I take a slightly harsher view of the entire SEC. I was underwhelmed by Georgia's performance in a seven-point win at South Carolina; Auburn looked hideous on offense at Mississippi State, and the entire conference takes a hit because Tennessee lost to a UCLA team that lost by 59 to BYU in its next outing. Maybe I didn't drop Ohio State far enough, but I still think the Buckeyes would beat everyone below them in the poll. Should BYU be higher? Maybe, but they shouldn't have needed a lucky break to put away Washington either. North Carolina probably doesn't deserve to be ranked, but I needed someone to put in that slot. Nebraska could be next in the poll; we'll finally learn something meaningful about the Huskers when they play Virginia Tech.
Games I watched at least part of: North Carolina-Rutgers, Kansas-South Florida, Maryland-Cal, Michigan-Notre Dame, Georgia-South Carolina, Auburn-Mississippi State, Ohio State-USC, Wisconsin-Fresno State.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
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