Talent does not win football games.
Pundits are drooling over the array of talent on the defense (and offense) like a Rottweiler spotting a mailman heading toward his yard. Sure, this is a positive harbinger of future success. Sure, it beats the discussions of "will Ohio State have enough offensive linemen to field a two-deep?" Sure, it is better than looking at a roster and seeing concrete footed players with nothing of substance upstairs.
Still, it might be wise to not lose sight of the reality. It was not talent alone that led the Buckeyes to a national title in 2002. What led the Scarlet and Gray clad warriors to an undefeated season was a combination of coaching, brains, talent, hard work, dedication, leadership, and most of all – production when it mattered.
I share the optimism for the Ohio State defense in 2003 with one caveat.
Until I see the young men who have stepped into the shoes of Wilhelm, Grant, Peterson, Thompson, Nickey, and Doss manage the kind of production that those departed seniors displayed, I refuse to buy into the idea that the defense will be better.
Those who have game tapes should pull them out and dust them off. Watch them. Start counting how many plays (often in succession) in which those 6 departed young men wrecked their opponent's offensive aims. Keep an eye on the defense and notice that even when they did not make the tackle, those seniors disrupted the offense enough that other teammates were able to stuff the play. Watch the Illinois, Michigan, and Miami games back to back to back and notice how frequently Peterson and Thompson alone mangled the offensive linemen in their path and throttled a running back or quarterback.
Could Ohio State's defense be potentially better in 2003?
Yes it could.
Could Ohio State's defense be less than stellar?
Yes it could.
Whether or not the Silver Bullets will be deadly or just a collection of blanks will ultimately come down not to talent alone but to a whole host of integrated factors.
When will my attitude change?
When I see the team perform ON THE FIELD, then I will say the defense is better.
Until then - they must prove that they can measure up to one of the most dominant Buckeye defenses ever down the stretch. To hold the offenses of Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, Miami, Penn State, and Michigan to a grand total of 58 points in regulation is just unreal. That kind of performance takes effort, hard work, discipline, and a little luck.
On the offense and passing the football...
Though the coaching staff has not consulted me on the matter (at least not yet!), I personally do not want to see Craig Krenzel chucking the football more than 25 times per game.
When most analysts out there seem to think, "The only way to win is to have a wide open offense," I still say that this is not true.
Ohio State, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan, and Nebraska have combined to win 6 national titles between them since 1992. None of those teams did so with a spread attack that looked like an organized game of hot potato using the pigskin. Their offenses were varied, but they all had one thing in common offensively…
They punished the opponent for four quarters with a ground game so physical Olivia Newton John could have leapt for joy.
There comes a point where passing the football is actually counterproductive if not handled correctly. Check out the Washington Huskies last season. Look at the box scores for their games and note the number of passes in wins and the number of passes in losses. The more times Washington threw the football, the more likely they were to lose.
Nor is this some sort of strange aberration. After a disappointing 2001 when they could not gain critical short yardage rushing, Oklahoma moved away from a pass spread into a run spread. Under Spurrier, Florida had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than they did maintaining a consistent rushing attack that could gain a needed first down on 3rd and 3.
If forced to choose, I would prefer seeing Ohio State rush the football 55-60% of the time. Yeah, a 50-50 balance is ideal (and the coaches appear to be shooting for that given their statements), but give me 60% rushing plays over 60% passing ANY day of the week and twice on Sunday.
By the fourth quarter, I do not care how conditioned the other team might be, that takes a toll on their body. Pummel them for 45 minutes and then substitute in a fresh running back. Presto Chango! You have a second stringer who looks better than Gale Sayers against a tired and sore defense.
My ideal breakdown would look like this:
- Maurice Clarett - 15-20 carries per game
- Maurice Hall - 5-10 carries per game
- Lydell Ross - 5-10 carries per game
- Chris Gamble - 2-3 shots at an end around or other misdirection plays per game.
- Fullback (whoever that will be) – 3 carries per game.
That would put Ohio State at anywhere from 30 to 46 rushing plays per game.
I think the Buckeyes ought to use that depth on the offensive line to pound teams. Bloody their chops and bust their guts so that by the fourth quarter, gaping holes open for the backs.
Does that mean that Ohio State should chuck the pass?
Nope. Not in a million years.
Ohio State should and will pass the football. With seniors Jenkins and Carter as well as junior Chris Gamble – the Buckeyes would be foolish not to burn teams as frequently as possible through the air.
I am simply saying that the enthusiasm should be tempered. A balanced offense is a fine thing, but an offense that leans too heavily on passing often falters down the stretch.
The Buckeyes' Brutal Schedule and Going Unbeaten
Admittedly, I have a tendency to be pessimistic about the chances of Ohio State to win titles from year to year. From shortly after Jim Tressel was hired, I believed 2003 would be the year for the Buckeyes to challenge for a national title. 2003 is here, but my opinion has changed ever so slightly about the Buckeye's title hopes.
I see some incredibly tall mountains that must be scaled if Ohio State is to repeat.
First, I do not believe that the players comprehend the impact that the 800 pound gorilla that defending a national title is. Fans should be glad they are saying the right comments, but that does not mean that this team is anything unusual in the world of college football. Nearly every time a team enters the fall after a national title you hear the same stuff. "We are still hungry." "We still want to earn more respect for the doubters." "We have worked hard in winter conditioning." "We have improved this year and look to maybe even be better." Despite this, only Nebraska (in 1970-71 and 1994-95) and Alabama (1978-79) have managed to pull off repeat titles, and those teams had an incredible combination of luck and/or played in a down conference where they were head and shoulders above the competition.
This year, the Buckeyes are truly going to be the hunted instead of the hunters. Yes, some might point out that Ohio State normally gets the best shot of everyone on their schedule every season. So do Michigan, Notre Dame, USC, Texas, and a host of other programs. The difference is that whatever intensity Ohio State faced last year will be doubled in 2003. Teams will not just circle Ohio State on their calendar, they will highlight it, Xerox that date on the calendar, and put it on every surface in the team meeting rooms. It would make the season for most any opponent if they could knock off the defending national champions. Beating Ohio State or Michigan is always a big deal, but it is as nothing compared to this kind of prize.
Second, there is the thorny matter of a brutal schedule. When reading some of the preseason magazines, do not believe it for a second when the Big Ten is rated as the third or even fourth best conference. The Big Ten went 5-2 in its bowls and managed wins over the SEC and Big 12 runners up, a solid Washington Huskies program, and a down but still dangerous Florida Gators team. If that were not enough, Ohio State outlasted the "unbeatable" Hurricanes and created one of the instant classic title games in the history of the sport.
After considering that little nugget of information, consider that Ohio State faces:
Washington – This is a very dangerous team. Their only question mark for this season is one of improving their defense. Think Texas Tech, only better. The loss of Neuheisel could actually work as a galvanizing force if handled correctly. Instead of a lackadaisical and under performing squad typical of Rick's tenure, the Huskies might decide to charge out and ‘win one for the Gipper.'
NC State – The Wolfpack are reminiscent of the Washington State Cougars in 2002. Since leaving Florida State a few years ago, Chuck Amato has been building this team in the image of the Seminole squads of the 1990s. They are fast, tough, and are led by an experienced quarterback. With a few breaks, they could go undefeated. They will be looking for their shot to prove themselves on the national stage when they come to Columbus in September.
Wisconsin – Buckeye fans should not need any reminders how close this game was last season. Wisconsin returns 19 starters. You read it correctly – 19 starters from a team that took Ohio State to the wire and defeated the Big 12 runner up in their bowl game. Not only that, but they get Lee Evans back from an unfortunate spring injury that ended his 2002 campaign before it began. Facing the Badgers in Madison at night will be no picnic.
Penn State – Even though the Nittany Lions will not likely field a team as strong as their 2002 version, they will still be dangerous. They will still have their fangs and claws out and ready for when the Buckeyes come to town on November 1. Nothing would make them more pleased than to send Ohio State home with a loss.
Purdue – I believe this to be the most dangerous game in 2003. Why? Ohio State faces a Boilermakers squad that did everything but win on the scoreboard in 2002 one week before Michigan. If the Buckeye players do not heed the warnings of their coaches, Tiller and his team will make them regret it. Purdue (like Wisconsin) returns 19 starters and is coming off of an impressive bowl win. With a few more breaks, this team could have been 9-3 or even 10-2 in 2002. Ohio State better be ready because the famous Purdue engineering program probably already has a team of sappers seeking to undermine the Buckeye fortifications.
Michigan – Just because Ohio State has defeated the Maize and Blue two consecutive seasons does not mean that they cannot lose this November. That team up north (as Woody might say) is absolutely loaded. Just stocked. Michigan has its best team since at least 2000 and maybe even 1997. Even though there are questions at fullback (and backup tailback), the offense looks loaded. The Wolverine defense (if it can solidify the defensive line) will be stout.
I just do not see Ohio State going undefeated. I look for the Buckeyes to be in the title hunt but stumble once they are in conference play. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of some team disrupting the Buckeye's chances in 2003.
That does not mean I think Ohio State will not be a fine team. I do. I just think it unrealistic to believe the Buckeyes must go undefeated or be considered a disappointing team.
E-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org