* The Quarterback Situation and The Offense -- Justin Zwick earned a ton of respect with his performance in the Alamo Bowl. Most had given up on Zwick after the way Troy Smith finished the year, most notably the Michigan win. But with Smith sidelined by a suspension, Zwick rode to Ohio State's rescue.
And he did it while fighting a painful hamstring injury. And he did it by delivering a crushing block on an Oklahoma State defensive lineman on one of Ted Ginn Jr.'s many adventurous sideline-to-sideline romps.
No, Zwick's performance (17 of 27, 189 yards, one touchdown) won't make anybody forget the way Smith riddled Michigan. But Zwick did it after not playing in nearly 2-1/2 months.
Ohio State certainly dialed down the passing attack and made it as simple as possible for the rusty Zwick to excel. But he came through, going 10 of 13 passing in the first half.
I think, deep down, everybody knows this is still Smith's job to lose. We can go through all the "he knows he's at the bottom of the totem pole" semantics and all that. But it doesn't matter who is listed No. 1 next week, after the spring game or on Aug. 10. It will matter next fall when the Buckeyes host Texas; it will be paramount next November when OSU ventures to Michigan.
And, moreover, I think Zwick's performance shows he is OSU's best insurance policy. It is my feeling that he will be true to his words and stay put. If Smith's suspension lingers into next year, the Buckeyes now know they have a guy they can depend on to win a big game.
After this performance, I am now of the opinion that Jim Tressel will possibly go with a two-quarterback system, at least early in the year. Knowing the way he thinks, I believe he will try and reward Zwick for his loyalty and that's the way to do it. Besides, Smith also needs to re-earn the trust of the teammates and coaches.
Regarding the offense, one Oklahoma State beat writer was heard to mutter at halftime, "How did they lose four games with that offense?"
The obvious answer was that offense was only in effect for the last 2-1/2 regular season games and the bowl game.
And there is a lot to like here, particularly on the offensive line, which went sack free for the second straight game. I think T.J. Downing and Kirk Barton have added some nastiness. Doug Datish or any number of other possibilities will be tapped to replace Mike Kne at right guard. If the line plays all next year like it did these last two games, look out. We won't be talking about sub-200 yard games anymore.
* Off-The-Field Controversies -- Everybody is up in arms regarding the ESPN crusade against Ohio State. From my understanding, ESPN desecrated the bowl telecast with talk of all the off-the-field problems. Then, OSU's woes were fair game on SportsCenter, Outside The Lines and also on ESPN News.
The powers that be at ESPN aren't stupid. They were "stuck" with a colorless Ohio State-Oklahoma State Alamo Bowl and decided to play the controversy card to get people all over the country to tune in. It was like they advertised a public lynching of OSU on Wednesday with their comments on Tuesday (the Mark May/Trev Alberts comments).
Then, after the game, they kept all of the Ohio State viewers glued as they dragged the school through the mud over and over again for the next several hours.
I think Ohio State made two key mistakes. School officials buried Maurice Clarett during all of his various problems with them and the NCAA. They needed to take the high road, bite their lip and let him fade away. Instead, OSU drove Clarett into ESPN's arms. The second mistake was going after ESPN and shooting the messenger after the network's expose ran in mid-November. The school then looked foolish in light of the Smith suspension, among other things.
As expected, ESPN picked the ball up with the Smith incident and ran it across the goal line. It seemed like people like May, Alberts and even Steve Levy went into business for themselves defending their home team against Ohio State. In one tease, Levy wondered when Tressel and Andy Geiger would be out of work. During one segment, he referred to all of the controversy as the "Ohio State mess." Objectivity apparently had the night off in Bristol.
Now, believe me, I am no Ohio State apologist. But I do not see a pattern or anything that suggests a lack of institutional control. Does what Smith did relate in some way to Clarett or Albert Dukes' arrest or the arrests of Ira Guilford and Louis Irizarry or the strip club flap with Lydell Ross? No, they are all separate incidents – some more troubling than others, obviously.
We had a great opportunity to meet with the embattled Geiger on Tuesday. He answered each and every one of our questions to the best of his ability, admitting when he did not have answers or when he was frustrated by the spate of off-the-field problems.
We are hearing a ton of rumors that something will come down regarding Geiger's future at Ohio State within the next two months. That runs contrary to what he told us Tuesday, saying he feels no pressure to leave and wants to leave OSU in good standing with the NCAA in both football and basketball.
But make no mistake: Geiger is a short-timer. His contract runs out in July 2006. Most expect him to be gone before that.
Some names are starting to come out, including Archie Griffin, Paul Krebs and Jim Smith. Griffin left the athletic department last year to become the head of the alumni association. Krebs was Geiger's right-hand man before leaving for the AD job at Bowling Green several years ago. Adding some fuel to the fire is the fact Krebs was spotted in the stands at the Alamo Bowl.
Smith would be a dark horse candidate. He was a marketing guru at Ohio State before taking over operations for the Columbus Crew soccer team. He is now a fixture in the Atlanta Falcons front office operation.
And, of course, OSU President Karen Holbrook could also go off the board and look for her own candidate or candidates.
Some believe Tressel may want to add the AD title, something he did at Youngstown State and something Barry Alvarez is doing at Wisconsin. But the off-the-field issues, at least to me, show that the coach has plenty on his plate at this time. Between coaching and recruiting, I'm not sure how he or anybody could also devote the time he would need to devote to run an $80 million enterprise.
ESPN also tried to say that Tressel should resign and/or by fired as the coach. (They didn't try to say it; they said it.) I've got news for them: Tressel is not resigning and I don't see much of a real movement within the state or the university to fire him.
Geiger gave him quite a testimonial on Tuesday, noting the improved graduation rate. OSU waited 13 years to fire John Cooper, who was 2-10-1 against Michigan. They wouldn't dare fire Tressel, who is 3-1 against Michigan and 3-1 in bowl games.
But with a new AD coming in at some point in the next two years, the seas could be shifting. This figures to be an interesting off-season for all involved, that is for sure.
* Next Year -- Zwick's performance solidifies, at least in my opinion, OSU's status as a national championship contender. The guts of this suddenly potent offense and lights out defense return.
Yes, the Buckeyes need to find a tailback, a cornerback, a kicker and a punter. But nearly every other position is in good to great hands. As many as 17 starters are due back.
Barring an 11-0 run to the BCS national title game, I see Ohio State bowling somewhere in Florida. That could be the Orange, where OSU hasn't been since Jan. 1, 1977; the Capital One, where the Buckeyes have not played since Jan. 1, 1996; or the Outback.
* San Antonio -- I want to say how much I enjoyed my five-day stay in San Antonio. What a phenomenal city!
I would equate the experience like covering the Big Ten basketball tournament, when it is held in Indianapolis. All of the hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and the game venue were within a 10-minute walk. The weather was just warm enough that you could roam the streets at night with a light jacket. Those streets were also safe and clean.
There may be better nightlife in New Orleans (Bourbon Street) or Tampa (Ybor City), but the Riverwalk would be right there. The convenience of everything being so centrally located made this an enjoyable week. The city was beautifully lit for the holiday season as well.
The game venue at the Alamodome is probably as good or better than a lot of NFL stadiums. Just a great experience all the way around.
Ten Pressing Questions
Prior to the game, we posted our Ten Pressing Questions on things to watch for in the Alamo Bowl. Now, we'll review how each of these questions were answered:
1. How well will Justin Zwick play? As we noted above, Zwick played about as well as he could have possibly hoped. He came through in a big way for the Buckeyes in this game and, yes, he is back in the running for some playing time in 2005.
2. What will happen if Zwick goes down with an injury? As always, Ohio State came out of such a dilemma like this smelling like a rose. The Buckeyes grabbed a quick 7-0 lead when Zwick tweaked his hamstring. Ginn filled in and OSU was able to keep Todd Boeckman, sitting out the year as a redshirt, on the sideline.
Ginn had worked all along as the emergency starter. Great foresight, obviously, by Tressel and staff. (And, hey, they found a new way to get Ginn involved next year – the direct snap.)
3. With Troy Smith out, who will Ohio State turn to in the running game? They opened with Branden Joe in the lead role until his third quarter fumble. Then Lydell Ross came out of nowhere to have one of his best games of the year with 12 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown. Joe also rumbled for 57 yards on 13 carries. Great way to send those seniors out.
4. Can OSU's receivers deliver the big play? The offense really wasn't set up for big plays. The staff wanted Zwick to complete high percentage passes. Ginn came through with an incredible 42-yard catch-and-run. Anthony Gonzalez had the diving grab on the 23-yard opening touchdown. And Santonio Holmes converted some key third downs with some tough catches. Great showing all the way around by this unit.
5. Can Ginn notch a record fifth punt return for a touchdown this year by bringing one back against the Cowboys? Oklahoma State's Cole Farden shanked a couple of punts and largely kept the ball away from Ginn, who had one return for 7 yards. That's OK, OSU didn't need any long returns to pull this one out.
6. Will Mike Nugent break OSU's career scoring record? Nugent needed seven points to tie Pete Johnson as the school's career scoring leader at 348 points. We believed he would get those seven, and he actually ended up with 15 with four field goals and three extra points. The record breaker came on a PAT kick that put OSU up 23-0 late in the first half.
7. Will Ohio State be able to contend with the Oklahoma State running game? Oklahoma State is a run-first team, but the Cowboys never even bothered to try their full running game package against Ohio State. Between their apparent belief that OSU's front seven was not to be trifled with and their sudden deficit, the Okies needed to try and put the ball in the air early and often.
After rushing the ball 77 percent of the time during the regular season, Oklahoma State attempted 18 passes and 17 runs in the first half against Ohio State.
Vernand Morency, a 1,400-yard rusher, joined what I call the Amos Zereoue Club of "great" backs who could not get it done against OSU. He ended up with 20 yards on eight carries. (Other club members include Deshawn Foster, Willis McGahee, Darren Sproles and Michael Hart.)
8. Can Ohio State keep a handle on Donovan Woods? Woods had his moments, but OSU senior defensive end Simon Fraser won game defensive MVP honors for his repeated hits on the redshirt freshman. Woods had an unforced fumble and a bad pick in his own end, leading to Ohio State's first score. You could see some potential there, but Woods had 72 yards on 12 carries and completed 15 of 34 passes for 137 yards.
So many guys deserve credit for containing Woods. Fraser, Mike Kudla and Quinn Pitcock up front and linebackers A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel were all in there.
9. Will the secondary be lulled to sleep by the running game and surrender the big play? Oklahoma State's longest pass play was 24 yards. Top receiver D'Juan Woods never got into the flow with just four catches for 40 yards. OSU safety Donte Whitner led the Buckeyes with eight stops, while corner Ashton Youboty had three pass breakups.
10. Will this bowl experience serve as a positive starting point for a big year in 2005? It would be impossible for this game to have been a better starting point for the 2005 push back toward championship glory. A ton of young guys got some quality snaps against a good opponent.
Barring some type of cataclysmic development off the field, the Buckeyes are perfectly positioned for a great year in 2005. Of course, they have to deliver on the promise.
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