Urban Meyer stormed up and down the Ohio State sideline, his body quaking in anger with the thought of dominating Oregon in the National Championship Game and letting it slip away due to turnovers. Rage had taken over.
When you know you’ve devised the perfect game plan to offset the Ducks and their fast-paced attack, and then allow them to cut the deficit to one point early in the third quarter, a coach cut from Meyer’s cloth in which the fire burns like an inferno will slip into a tirade.
Okay, so the kinder, gentler Meyer that has been depicted since his three-step process from Florida to retirement to Columbus is sometimes hard to find. Less difficult to detect is a game plan that works over and over and over again.
Twenty-eight first downs, 296 yards rushing, 538 yards total offense and 37:29 time of possession later, the national championship resides in the Midwest for the since time in 12 seasons when Jim Tressel led the Buckeyes to the 2002 crown.
Watch it, absorb it, understand it, believe it. It is not the mystery that some make it out to be. Rely on pace and trickery and gimmicks that catch the opposition off guard and you, too, can take the nation by storm a majority of the time during the regular season.
But when Oregon – still knocking on the door but unable to latch on to the game’s highest prize – has to win a game against a program based on toughness, physicality and the good, old-fashioned staples upon which winning college football has been built, it crumbles into another frustrating quest for the pot of gold.
“We imposed our will on them,” was the summation offered by 6-foot-0, 225-pound Buckeye running back Ezekiel Elliott after rushing for 246 bruising yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries en route to a 42-20 victory over Oregon.
There are no sweeter words on the gridiron. Imposing your will means beating the crap out of them.
That’s not to say that much of today’s offensive innovation concocted by Meyer – with signs of its roots flashed back in the early 2000s as a young wide receivers coach at Notre Dame – is without some sleight of hand and widening of the field. Meyer has always been on the cutting edge of spread offense principles that accentuate a dynamic passing attack.
But the foundation of his ridiculous success – a 142-26 record in 13 seasons, including three national titles – lives within the space in which his offensive and defensive lines meet their counterparts across the football. His coaching roots are directly tied to a) Earle Bruce and b) Lou Holtz.
Meyer’s championships are won in the trenches.
Those still seething over Meyer’s decision to take his vast coaching genius to Gainesville, Fla., instead of South Bend, Ind., back in 2005 don’t want to dwell on his success. Lavish praise for Meyer doesn’t sit well with many Notre Dame fans, and that is not the purpose of extolling his virtues here, other than to embrace his football philosophy.
He has earned a reputation among his detractors as a win-at-all-costs coach who will choose the path of least resistance on the academic/discipline front to win football games.
But there’s no arguing the facts on the football field. This isn’t about Meyer as much as it another vote for Notre Dame to adopt a similar frame of mind with regard to style of play. Until the Irish rely upon a similar approach on a week-to-week basis, they’re unlikely to reach a level of consistency that makes them a legitimate contender for playoff contention on a regular basis.
Ohio State counter-trapped Oregon right out of AT&T Stadium Monday night. The Buckeyes physically beat down their opponent, just as USC and the SEC did since the new millennium and just as a vast majority of the other programs that have claimed the top spot through the years have done. The last eight national-title winners have averaged at least 200 yards rushing per game; Notre Dame averaged 150.9 in ’13 and 159.4 in ’14.
Tempo offense is a bear to stop. Stopping it requires physicality, running the football, controlling the clock, and changing the game from one style of play to another. Tempo offense isn’t nearly as effective when the components of that attack are standing along the sideline, hands on hips, waiting to get the football back.
Winning the national championship game is difficult when you turn the football over four times, as the Buckeyes did. The way to overcome it is to run the football, control the clock, and then play hard-nosed defense in the trenches. Easier said than done, right? Well, you can’t get there if you don’t have the philosophy as a starting point.
Of course, none of this is a great secret to Irish fans, who two weeks earlier watched Notre Dame rush for 263 yards with a young quarterback – Malik Zaire – offering an expanded offensive game plan while Everett Golson collaborated with his passing-game prowess.
Inexperience at quarterback can be offset with a strong read-option attack. Zaire made his first career start against LSU; Ohio State’s Cardale Jones now has three.
They said Notre Dame shocked the world by running on and defeating LSU. The real mystery is why Notre Dame doesn’t play to its Midwestern strengths and adopt a similar approach on a regular basis.
If there’s an area on the football field the Irish can recruit, it’s offensive linemen. While the Irish have struggled since the end of the Lou Holtz era to be a consistent force, they rarely have difficulty attracting four-star talent along the offensive front.
The last time the Irish averaged 200 yards rushing per game during the regular season, they played for the national title against Alabama. When their approach leans more toward a finesse-oriented style of play, they still register a winning record under Brian Kelly, but finish in the four-to-five loss range.
Notre Dame is said to have one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country in Paul Longo. He tends to get more credit for his team’s work volume than brute strength. But as Meyer’s Buckeyes showed once again, you can benefit from the best of both worlds. You can be a physical and athletic team at the same time.
Nick Saban and Alabama win with a foundation of physicality. The SEC won seven straight national titles, and they didn’t do it with an air raid. Although athleticism is important in today’s athlete-filled game, the history of Notre Dame’s success hasn’t come with the most athletic teams in the country. In college football, the basis for success is not historically outdated.
The bad news is that Notre Dame currently is not among the best programs in the country. The good news is that recruiting to the principles of what make teams dominant in college football plays to the recruiting strengths of Notre Dame.
Here’s another reality: the Irish now have to recruit against Meyer and Jim Harbaugh in the Midwest. Yesterday’s version of Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler is about to be realized every season/Thanksgiving Saturday when two of the titans of the college game – Meyer and Harbaugh – square off.
Adapt and thrive; be stubborn and you won’t survive the battle in the Midwest where physicality and the running game always have been and probably always will be king.