I'm a Jim Tressel fan. Have been ever since his first championship team at Youngstown State in 1991, with Ray Isaacs running the option. I love how he respects and reveres the traditions at tOSU, how he always seems to have a game plan to beat Michigan, and how he has turned the Buckeyes back into relatively consistent national-title contenders.
But the honest truth was, on January 8 Jim Tressel got out-coached, very, very, badly. Not to put too fine a point on it, Urban Meyer coached him right out of that brand-new building in Glendale.
I can certainly accept that Florida is a better team than Ohio State, particularly in the battle between UF's defensive front and tOSU's offensive front, where the Buckeyes were completely outmatched. The Gators were brilliant in the title game; talented, intense, well motivated and exceptionally well coached by a man who wins big and immediately everywhere he goes. They would have beaten any team in America (except maybe another SEC team on the road). But Florida is not 27 points better than Ohio State, any more than Ohio State is worse than Vanderbilt because the Commodores got within six of the Gators. The Buckeyes got thrashed, not because they suck, not because they can’t hang with that “SEC speed”, but because they weren't prepared for what Florida brought. That's on the coaches.
Here are the four worst decisions (or non-decisions):
1.) The squib kick after Ted Ginn's opening return
Tressel's decision to kick short and allow a Gator return instead of booming it out of the end zone is beyond explanation. It set Florida up at midfield and allowed them to tie the game fairly easily, quickly killing the initial burst of momentum created by Ted Ginn's return. It was a MUST for Ohio State's defense to come out and get a stop right there, with the Buckeyes up 7-0. They may not have been able to get one even had UF started on its own 20... but at least the Gators would have been forced to do something they didn't have to do, really, the entire game- drive the field.
The eerie thing was that an almost identical sequence of events helped cost Ohio State the 2005 Texas game at ‘Shoe. With 35 seconds left in the first half of that game, following a field goal, Ohio State led 16-10, had scored 16 unanswered points and had momentum completely on its side. So what did Tressel do? Called for a squib kick. Texas returned the short kick to the 31 and, like Florida, got an extra 15 yards thanks to an OSU personal foul, putting the ball near midfield. Vince Young quickly led the Longhorns to a beat-the-clock field goal, cutting the lead to 16-13 going into halftime. Those points were huge- not only did they provide the eventual margin of UT's victory, they helped break the snowballing momentum Ohio State generated in the 2nd quarter of that game. That squib kick might have been the most important play of Texas's National Championship season.
In short, to hell with the squib. If you can kick it out of the end zone- and Ohio State's kickers can- you do it, every time.
2.) No adjustments by the defense
The book on Chris Leak is simple and succinct: get pressure on him, and he will make mistakes. So naturally, Ohio State came out with a three-man rush and eight men dropping into zone coverage. Chris Leak is a senior and a solid quarterback. Give him time to throw- and he had eons on Monday- and he will pick apart any defense. He eviscerated Ohio State's zone. The Buckeyes never adjusted. Never went to press coverage. Never blitzed their linebackers. Even long after it became apparent that the Leakster had zero interest in throwing a pass over 15 yards, tOSU stayed in its cushion. It was a spineless, cowardly defensive game plan. There's just no other way to describe it.
In retrospect, Florida's offense was the worst possible match-up with Ohio State's defense. This year's Buckeye D was drastically overrated, for sure. But, even through three different coordinators the Ohio State defense under Jim Tressel has always been susceptible to spread offenses that run a dink passing game as a substitute for a running attack. Even the great 2002 unit, ranked 88th in the nation against the pass, could be burned in that manner. The late Randy Walker's spread offense at Northwestern gave Ohio State fits. Northwestern beat Ohio State two years ago by throwing receiver screens, getting YACs, and converting on 3rd down relentlessly. Leak on January 8 looked like Brett Basanez with a lot better athletes around him.
The OSU defense for years under Tressel has given up yards up and down the field but hung tough in the red zone. In the first half of the 2002 Michigan game, the Wolverines, from a yardage and time-of-possession standpoint, outplayed the Buckeyes as badly as Florida did in the first half last week. Yet their domination only resulted in three field goals and a 9-7 halftime lead. The difference on January 8 was that Florida finished drives with touchdowns and not field goals, largely because Tim Tebow can simply fall forward from the line of scrimmage and gain at least four yards every time.
So it was a lousy match-up for a defense that really, wasn't all that good anyway. Come to think of it, Ohio State needed Will Smith, Kenny Peterson, Matt Wilhelm and Mike Doss a lot more than a different scheme.
3.) the 21-14 series
Ultimately, credit goes where it’s due. Florida played great football in every facet that night. They deserved the victory. There’s only so much a coach can do to offset an opponent that is as physically talented, well led, and razor-sharp as the Gators were January 8. But 41-14 never should have happened.