With the long awaited Alamo Bowl just hours away, the final piece of the puzzle is a comparison of the Oklahoma State Cowboys' defense to the Ohio State Buckeyes' offense. Who will win the tussle? Will the Cowboys lasso the elusive Ted Ginn, Jr. or will the Buckeyes become a busting bronco that unseats the boys from Oklahoma?
This puzzle has been made all that much more difficult to decipher in the past two weeks. When the matchup was first announced, it figured to be one that pitted a suddenly explosive Ohio State offense under quarterback Troy Smith against a defense led by its undersized but physically gifted secondary. Instead, Smith is sitting the bench for taking illegal benefits from a Buckeye booster and Cowboy cornerback Darrent Williams and defensive tackle Brad Girtman will not suit up. In other words, neither coaching staff will have all of the weapons fans have become accustomed to seeing at their disposal so the ammunition of choice may change dramatically.
The loss of Troy Smith is especially devastating to Ohio State as it had recently seemed to find its identity with him behind center. His teammates were banking on his ability to play in this game with roommate Santonio Holmes telling reporters two weeks ago, "He (Smith) has to be our leader, and that's what we are depending on…" With their leader leaving them in the lurch, the Buckeyes may have to scramble to recover.
The Oklahoma State Cowboy Defense
Numbers of note for the Cowboys defense:
·No. 74 in the nation in pass defense allowing 2480 yards (225.5 per game) and 7.0 yards per attempt.
·No. 70 in the nation in rush defense allowing 1870 yards (170.0 per game) and 4.6 yards per attempt.
·No. 75 in the nation in total defense allowing 4350 yards and 395.45 yards per game.
·No. 49 nationally in scoring defense by yielding 24.4 points per game.
The Buckeyes are not relying on simple numbers for this contest and players are fully convinced they will face a solid team. According to Holmes, "From watching film, their secondary is fast. They have a lot of fast guys in the secondary, and I think their defense is pretty good. Coach Tressel read off a few notes comparing their season has been …and how our stats compared together. I think they have a pretty good team."
Head coach Jim Tressel echoed these words by quipping, "Speed," when asked what he saw in the Cowboys defensively. "They have five defensive backs on the field at all times, and they can fly. They get after it. It's a little bit different scheme, but they have as much quickness and speed as anyone we have seen this year."
They will need that speed as with the emergence of redshirt freshman Tony Gonzalez and true freshman Ted Ginn, Jr., defenses can no longer focus their attention on shutting down Holmes.
"Since those guys have been coming on I have had a chance to be singled up a little bit more as opposed to the beginning of the season," Holmes noted with satisfaction. "I was being singled at the beginning and towards the middle nobody helped out and teams began to double-team me. Now that those guys are here our offense is wide open."
That wide-open offense will be faced with an unusual defensive challenge. Branden Joe pointed out the Cowboys "run a 4-2-5 defense, and that's not something we have seen a lot this year. They also have some ball hawks."
Even so, they are still unlike the traditional defense Ohio State faces week to week in the Big Ten.
"It is different because they have a nickel (back)," said Joe. "They will play two consistent linebackers and then walk that safety down into the box. It is a different look."
A physical defense up front Mike Kne observed, "their defensive linemen are big and kind of want to stand there and muscle you around. I think we have to try and beat them with some quickness."
Nick Mangold summed up the feelings of his offensive mates by saying of Oklahoma State.
"I think it's going to be – they're going to be a great defense," Mangold said. "They're going to be real exciting to be with and a real big challenge for us."
What to Expect:
Oklahoma State is going to try and manhandle the Buckeyes. They will seek to rough up a wide receiver corps that has yet to play physical. If the referees turn a blind eye to excessive contact, Ohio State's young players will have to fight through the physical coverage and prove they have grown since Wisconsin. Next, using their front seven, they will seek to pressure Zwick. Blitzing, stunting, switching coverages, and just simply bull-rushing should be expected from the Cowboys as the Buckeye quarterback plays his first game since October. First, they will try to hit Zwick and rattle him, and then they will hope to force turnovers – something he has proved to be prone to and the Cowboys have specialized in creating.
The Ohio State Offense
The numbers of note:
·No. 73 nationally rushing the football. In 399 attempts they gained 1,531 yards, averaging 3.8 per carry and 139.2 per game.
·No. 96 nationally passing the pigskin. The Buckeyes gained 1,910 yards through the air and averaged 6.7 per pass attempt and 173.6 per game.
·No. 80 nationally scoring. In 11 games they managed just 257 points for 23.4 points per game.
·No. 111 nationally in total offense. They averaged 312.82 yards per game.
For the Buckeye offense, this season was a long one indeed. Ohio State fans thought they were seeing the next great quarterback emerge in Justin Zwick with wins against Cincinnati and Marshall. Despite sometimes-poor pass protection, Zwick was seemingly fearless, tossing the ball into coverage and completing picture perfect passes to his wideouts – especially Santonio Holmes. In the middle of the year, however, Holmes and Zwick found themselves hampered by a lack of other weapons; the offensive line sprung more leaks than cheesecloth, the rushing attack was as fearsome as a kitten, and the rest of the wideouts more toothless than an infant. As a direct result of those and other problems, the Buckeyes stumbled to a 3-3 record and lost their starting quarterback to injury.
Bam Childress believes much of the struggle can be attributed to having a young line attempting to protect an inexperienced quarterback.
"It (makes) a big difference," Childress said. "Once they get settled in and used to each other, I think that is what happened. It wasn't that they were not good enough; it's just that they had to get settled in. In the middle of the season was when they started to get settled in and the quarterback and everyone played together."
When the pocket stopped collapsing as frequently as an economy of a third world nation, the Buckeyes suddenly showed signs of life. Troy Smith suddenly had time to throw and with the light bulb finally starting to switch on for Gonzalez and Ginn, Jr. – he had targets that were open to catch the football. Further, Antonio Pittman showed flashes of brilliance when health and the return of Branden Joe as a threat in the backfield made more than a little impact – especially during the Michigan game.
The maturation process culminated in a 37-21 shellacking of the Wolverines and left the coaches and players optimistic.
"I think we're getting better as we go," noted Tressel. "I think the more experienced you are you play with more velocity and confidence and that type of thing. I think when guys around you make plays all of a sudden you gain confidence too. I think we have come along. We're not sitting here at all saying we are where we need to be. I don't know that I hear anyone saying that, but I think we are progressing and hopefully doing things with more velocity."
The question is – will the Buckeyes still be singing the same tune Wednesday evening or whistling between a gap in their teeth put there by a hard hitting Cowboys defense?
What to Expect
Truth be told, I am not certain anyone other than the Buckeye coaching staff knows what kind of offense Ohio State will run. As an I-formation and quasi spread offense under Zwick early in the season, a young Scarlet and Gray squad struggled mightily before collapsing with a gigantic thud against Iowa. Since that time the Buckeyes found a vastly different identity using a variation of the single wing with Smith behind center and Ted Ginn lined up in the backfield by his side. While Zwick and Smith are very much alike in many respects, Zwick lacks the quickness and overall elusiveness of Smith – as well as the durability, but he does display superior field vision and throws the ball with a softer touch. This would lead one to conclude that the I formation and spread will be back Wednesday evening, but Zwick can be elusive when rushing the football (think Craig Krenzel). Given Ginn and Pittman in the backfield and Gonzalez, Holmes, and Hamby available as targets coming off the line of scrimmage – the offense could take a real bite out of the Cowboys if the line protects the quarterback.
Look for the Buckeyes to use a variety of personnel packages in this contest early to discover just what will work best; if in doubt – tinker. Brandon Joe, Maurice Hall, Lydell Ross, and Antonio Pittman will probably all see time in the backfield while Ted Ginn will occasionally line up there as well. Zwick will have his number called on designed quarterback runs just as Krenzel and Smith before him, but it will not be too frequently as the staff will not likely wish to risk injury and the necessity of burning Todd Boeckman's redshirt for a few quarters in the Alamo Bowl. Whether or not the team can rush the football effectively in these sets will determine future play calling. If they cannot, then look for Zwick to find himself in the shotgun with four and five wideouts. Lyons, Ginn, Gonzalez, Roy Hall, and Branden Joe will probably find themselves in a package that can be used as a one back or a pure shotgun spread depending on the defensive alignment. If, however, OSU is effective on the ground and starts to build a substantial lead, then Jim Tressel will likely force the Cowboys to stop the Buckeye rushing attack.
Third down conversions:
While Ohio State's offense has struggled in this situation, Oklahoma State's defense has been decidedly less than spectacular. For the season, the Cowboys have allowed opponents to convert an appalling 47 percent of the time (76/161). The Buckeye offense could be in for a banner day if this statistic holds since they have managed to win seven games while converting only 36 percent of their opportunities (56/156). Allowing a team to convert a third down or failing to convert it as an offense is important because it amounts to a turnover. Sure, in most cases field position changes with a punt or kick of some kind on fourth down, but it still means one team has won a minor skirmish. Win enough skirmishes and you win the war.
Justin Zwick and the Buckeye offensive players have been incredibly generous this season, handing the football to opponents like it were candy at Halloween. Fumbles, interceptions, dropped punts, botched handoffs, etc. have plagued Ohio State. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State defense has made a living taking advantage of such opponents. In fact, they lead the nation in turnover margin and have recovered 14 of the 23 fumbles they forced in 2004. If Ohio State wishes to win, then they must resemble the offense of the Michigan game in ball security and not the offense that showed up virtually every other Saturday.
Pass Rush/Pass Protection:
Unlike at the start of the season, Justin Zwick now has more than one wideout to whom he can throw a pass. The question is will he get that chance. Expect Oklahoma State to blitz and do whatever is necessary to pressure a quarterback who has not seen action in two and a half months. Meanwhile, Zwick will need to use his field vision to quickly spot his wideouts and tight ends and hope they do not develop a case of the dropsies. Santonio Holmes, Ryan Hamby, Bam Childress, Devon Lyons, Ted Ginn, Jr., and Rory Nicol have all hurt the offense with mental lapses in this area in the recent past. Had Holmes, Hamby, and Roy Hall simply caught and hung onto balls Zwick tossed their direction earlier in the season – Ohio State might be playing in the BCS instead of making their stand at the Alamo.
Big Game Hangover
Both teams have a rivalry that means a great deal to their players, coaches, and alumni. After he kept losing to the Cowboys, Bob Stoops managed to get this game moved to the beginning of November instead of the end, and as a result – the Cowboys suffered a massive hangover when they lost this season. They closed the year 1-3 with their only victory coming against Baylor. Oklahoma State has to be thinking of the season that might have been and trying to salvage their pride. Meanwhile, Ohio State is riding high after a dominating performance against Michigan in arguably the greatest rivalry in all of College Football. They finished November 4-1 and are trying to lay the foundation for a great 2005 season with a win in the Alamo Bowl. Getting back into the swing of things with practice has to be difficult however since several Buckeyes were more than happy to discuss Michigan whenever asked. Which team will recover from their big game first and recognize that the past is already finished?
With the near constant distractions for both teams, it is tough to know what effect (if any) they will have on the outcome of the game, but I look for Ohio State to ride its defense, special teams advantage (read Mike Nugent and Ted Ginn, Jr.), and emerging wideouts to a win. Defense wins championships and it is worth noting UCLA (106), Toledo (92), Syracuse (91), North Texas (88), and UAB (84) are all ranked in the same ballpark as Oklahoma State defensively. Each one lost their bowls to teams with statistically better defenses. The only team to have won its bowl with a statistically worse defense than Oklahoma State is Hawaii.
Ohio State 33 – Oklahoma State 24