I've been mulling over this game in my mind for a few days, figured I might as well write about some of those thoughts on here.
The rematch of last year's battle in Columbus (which Texas won 25-22) will be played in Austin on Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. Eastern in what could be a consensus No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. Hype worthiness TBD, but it's clearly a big intersectional game to rally around.
In assembling a game in one's mind, it helps to lay a foundation of facts, make some assumptions and then arrive at an outcome, hopefully more accurate ("Tennessee's vastly overrated in '05") than inaccurate ("Boise State over Georgia, wheeeeeeee").
The following are choppy but relevant facts about the proud combatants, typed up in scout-speak for rapid consumption:
Defending national champions. Vince Young no longer at quarterback, replaced by completely untested R-FR Colt McCoy and true frosh Jevan Snead. Returns a good chunk of the roster. Will run the same offense and return for a second year of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Big, athletic defensive line. Three seniors return on a quality offensive line. Defense must replace veteran MLB Aaron Harris, DT Rodrique Wright, DT Larry Dibbles, SS Michael Huff and CB Cedric Griffin. Fast and shifty running backs in SO Jamaal Charles and SR Selvin Young, not much size in the unit except the overrated SO Henry Melton who may or may not be a tight end or defensive end this year. Like to run the ball. Major fumble issues although few fumble related turnovers.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Preseason No.1 team in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Return the majority of their offense, but will miss playmaking receiver Santonio Holmes, first-round center Nick Mangold and guard Rob Sims. However, they must replace nearly the entire starting defense from last year. Many good players return, however, and have experience everywhere except the secondary. Defense plays very physical football. Will likely have best offense in the coach Jim Tressel era (six seasons) with quarterback Troy Smith, backs Antonio Pittman and frosh Chris Wells, and receivers Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall.
Last Year's Numbers
These help paint a picture of what both teams can do and what they emphasize based on the previous season
Texas-50.2 points/game, 275 rush (5.9 YPC), 64.9% completions, 237 yards /// 16.4 points allowed, 131 rush (3.7 YPC), 51.1% completions, 172 yards, +7 turnover margin
Ohio State-32.7 points/game, 197 rush (4.7 YPC), 64.9% completions, 226 yards /// 15.2 points allowed, 73 rush (2.2 YPC), 60.7% completions, 208 yards, -9 turnover margin
Last Year's Game
Texas won 25-22 at Ohio Stadium. The Longhorns had a good first quarter and established a 10-0 lead, but panicked a little after an Ohio State touchdown, committing a few turnovers in their side of the field before making the appropriate stops and only allowing a few gimme FG's to the Buckeyes. Texas took an interesting risk in committing to untested frosh back Jamaal Charles who ran ten times and caught six passes. Aside from a few long plays Texas' offense never really was a threat after the first quarter (game winning TD drive aside).
Ohio State's major flub was a tactical error in playing the shaky Justin Zwick. He wasn't a disaster, but struggled to inspire an already shaky offense. The bulk of the Buckeyes' offensive production came when Troy Smith was under center, generally running for haphazard gains and connecting on a few passes but doing enough to score when presented the opportunity. That all changed when Smith wasn't playing. Particularly woeful was the bungled last 2:37 of the game. After Texas scored to go ahead 23-22, Ohio State trotted out Zwick who proceeded to surrender a safety and fumble on another possession, effectively ending the game without any offensive threat.
Here's what I think happened:
Tactically, Texas played that game as well as they could. Much like last year's Rose Bowl, Texas gambled that its opponent would do some stupid things and give them a shot to win the game. Both times it worked against arguably superior foes. Texas also knew it had its best team in a long time and with a guy like Young at quarterback could emerge victorious in any game where they had the ball, were within a touchdown and the game clock was under 5:00 to go. The successful strategy has left a wake of such prominent victims as Michigan, Ohio State and USC.
What were those stupid things their opponents did? Well, for Ohio State they played the uninspiring Justin Zwick. To be fair Zwick was superb in his last start, the Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M. The thinking was that he would build on that momentum, which obviously didn't happen. The Buckeye offense clearly responded to Troy Smith both in the Texas game and throughout the 2005 season, but coming off his suspension I think politically the coaches had to be careful about his playing time in this game.
Compounding their mistakes, the Buckeye coaches let Zwick play on Ohio State's final two drives. Smith played a good chunk of the second and third quarters, when Ohio State scored all of its points and did the most offensive damage. Yet when the game called for a comeback, the coaches whiffed and let Zwick surrender
two points and possession on a safety and then the game on a nother fumble. [Ed.-I stand corrected, it was Smith at quarterback on the safety. Regardless, it was a huge mistake]
Texas' gamble clearly paid off in that game and similarly in the Rose Bowl. USC's stupidity was in Reggie Bush's first quarter lateral on what would have been a scoring drive, and then the 4th and two stop when they didn't even have Reggie Bush on the field despite Texas' having keyed All America safety Michael Huff on him all night. With Bush on the sideline, Huff was the Longhorn defender who helped bring down LenDale White short of a first down. The rest is history.
So, what to make of this year's game?
The two obvious things to know are that it's in Austin, which gives Texas some kind of an advantage, and that it's early in the year. Good teams take a while to "get going", and that was clearly the case for both these squads last year. Ohio State in particular caught fire midway through the season once they figured out Troy Smith was in a class with other very successful Buckeye QB's of late such as Bobby Hoying, Joe Germaine, Stanley Jackson and Craig Krenzel. The early season date is a tipoff that things are likely to be pretty conservative: controlled passing game, ball control, an emphasis on the run and simplified schemes on both sides of the ball.
As far as tactics, I think Texas will be confident it can continue its policy of "let them make the mistakes" and keep this game close even if they have opportunities to pull ahead. They'll try and run the ball and protect their young QB's McCoy and Snead.
For Ohio State, they'll probably be conservative too. Although Ted Ginn is a great athlete, he's been a fairly average receiver to this point in his career. The real playmaker in their pass game was Santonio Holmes, and with his departure I anticipate a scaled-down passing game more concerned with small gains down the field instead of taking large chunks of yards at a time.
Both defenses are likely to make their stand against the run, and gamble that the opposing quarterback cannot make enough big plays against their secondaries and linebackers to put the game out of reach. This is where Ohio State actually gets a break, because their defensive weakness is the secondary and Texas' passing game is in the hands of very inexperienced young quarterbacks. Mind you, that advantage can be neutralized if McCoy or Snead start making plays all over the field.
Of the two teams, I anticipate Ohio State will also be the better running team. I'm enamored of Texas' Jamaal Charles, and he played big role in Texas' offense last year against the Buckeyes, but ideally you want a bigger, more physical runner to bang into the Buckeye defense who can then soften things up for Charles. Texas does have big Henry Melton, but I'm not sold on him as a hammer.
Ohio State under Tressel consistently trots out a no-name defensive line that can stop the run. I think they've twice led the country in either run defense or defensive yards per carry. They like to maul up front and make things real messy and crowded, and this group should be one of their finest despite losing two of last year's starters. Last year Texas could muster only 2.9 YPC in this game, and 112 yards overall. I anticipate similar numbers, which means with a young quarterback their scoring should be fairly low.
For the Buckeyes, they'll be going up against a talented texas defensive line, but one that can be run on. For all the hype last year, Texas was vulnerable to the run, as Antonio Pittman had a fine day against them (17 carries, 75 yards, 4.4 YPC), as did Oklahoma State (250 yards, 5.4 YPC), Baylor (112/3.7), Kansas (119/5.4), Texas A&M (277/5.3) and USC (209/5.1). They're good, but not impregnable the way Ohio State tends to be. That's a sign of a soft underbelly that might be exploited given the right conditions. In addition, Pittman is just a fine runner with good speed and the size and strength to run inside. He'll be complimented by frosh Chris Wells, one of the nation's top recruits who is a big, physical runner at 6-1 and 225 pounds.
Here's what I think will happen:
In last year's game, Texas invested heavily in scoring early, exhausting a certain amount of their offensive capital in racing to a 10-0 first quarter lead. It was smart strategy and let them play keepaway for a good chunk of the game. Expect more of the same this year. They'll craft a game plan to score early and get fan and player faith in the new quarterback and some doubt in the hearts and minds of Buckeye players and fans.
But then things will bog down for the Horns' offense, much as happened last year. Meanwhile, Ohio State will find ways to move down the field but probably not score too much, tilting this towards being a low-scoring affair. They have a terrific offense but Texas has a fine defense as well and is at home and it's early which means offenses will take what they can get.
There will be a moment at some point in the third or fourth quarter when both teams get a little desperate and either do something great or make a mistake and put themselves in dire straits. Who will flinch? It's tough to tell.
Texas has conditioned itself not to panic in the last two years, but their main source of calm and sobriety, Vince Young, is gone. Their resolve without him is unknown.
Meanwhile, Ohio State's always been a calm team under Tressel. Think back to the amazing 2002 season where nearly every game was excruciatingly close and narrowly won. They like playing that way and are probably a little more comfortable than Texas at such a battle, especially with Young gone. Given the youthful realities of Texas' quarterback situation, I give the edge to Ohio State.
They have the more veteran offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Troy Smith, they have what should be a great defensive line despire dire predictions to the countrary, and are arguably the superior team. Despite playing this game on the road, they should be favored and it will be a disappointment if they don't come away with a victory whether it's one point or twenty-one points.
As I noted earlier, Ohio State is likely to gamble that it can stop the run and pray for sloppy quarterback play when Texas' young passers are asked to win the game for the Longhorns. It's a smart gamble and the odds are on their side. Texas can't be so cavalier knowing the athletic and passing abilities of Troy Smith. To gain victory here, they'll have to find a solution to overcome this apparent disadvantage. I'm not sure they will, but we'll see, maybe McCoy or Snead are better than anticipated and can handle a big game like this so early in their careers. The fact that neither has emerged as "the" guy is concerning, however, and the same issues plagued Ohio State last year in this very game. Again, advantage Buckeyes.
That's my call.
I'll try and provide another analysis like this of this year's other anticipated matchup between elite teams, USC and Notre Dame. Stay tuned.