For the rest of 2005, a new game will be played; this is one that will be hashed, rehashed, and hashed out some more. It's called the blame game, and it's all about knowing who to point fingers at for this loss. If I could simply have a nickel each time this was played on the way out of the stadium, I could have that dream vacation in Maui or perhaps even my own private island.
Jim Tressel. Tressel will take the lion's share of the criticism. He played with fire and found himself badly burnt. First, there is the two-quarterback platoon. There is a reason he and most every other head coach in the country shies away from this situation. It loses you football games. Period. Had Ohio State stuck with Troy Smith, they probably win. Second, the Buckeye offense seemed to go in hibernate mode with play calling about the time they went up 6 points with a dominant defensive performance in the third and early fourth quarters. Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, they let Texas rise up off the mat from a certain pin to flip the Buckeyes onto their backs like a defenseless turtle. Third, Ted Ginn, Jr. was barely given the football. On multiple occasions the Buckeyes could easily have handed him the ball for an end around or even a reverse (on the side of the field where there is adequate room to run it). Inexplicably they did not.
Justin Zwick. Unfortunately for his sake, Zwick cannot seem to avoid turning the football over to the wrong team. This and his penchant to throw off his back foot (which are actually related) remain his Achilles heel. One of the most important rules of football taught from peewee leagues on up is when taking off to run, the ball should be firmly tucked away. Defenses have a tougher time forcing fumbles if the offense actually protects the ball. Another rule is throwing off the back foot results in touchdowns…for the opposite team. While he did avoid the interception, his fumble could not have come at a more costly time and the lollipop pass nearly intercepted by the Texas defensive line cost the Buckeyes precious yardage on the missed field goal attempt. Worse, given ample opportunities to run the offense and salt the game away in the third quarter the Buckeyes were largely unresponsive with Zwick at the helm. They looked almost lethargic, and balls that were not thrown to them in stride nullified the wideouts' speed advantage.
Troy Smith. Before anyone asks, "What is Smith doing on this list? He played well!" please see exhibit A. It is called the booster with $500. Last season the Buckeyes spent the better part of their year trying to delineate which quarterback would be the horse to ride in 2005. Smith became a stallion but one that proved temperamental and kicked its own rider when he accepted money and did not repay it. The net result of this personal failing is it threw Ohio State clear back to the opening game of 2004; the team no longer belonged to Smith or Zwick. This is not meant to hammer a young man that has clearly paid dearly and served his time for the misdeed; it is simply a statement of fact. Smith's actions forced Jim Tressel to open the job back up, and as a direct result neither quarterback was able to take control of the football game. Second, Smith had ample opportunities to salt the game away for the Buckeyes. He did not. With one drive he could have laid conclusive ownership of the starting position behind center, but that drive never materialized.
Josh Huston. Ok. Maybe this is stretching to include him in the mix, but he did miss a late field goal. That missed field goal was the difference between a nine-point lead and a six-point lead. Enter Texas, Vince Young, and a touchdown.
Luck. Yes, there is an element of pure, blind, stupid luck to winning a national title. Texas grabbed a lucky break when their field goal attempt hit the uprights and bounced through. The football is oblong and normally does not take kindly to such treatment; Saturday night it did. Texas clearly made most of their own luck in scoring two touchdowns and never quitting, but the field goal is another story.
The Buckeye Defense. Granted they played above their heads and gave incredible effort. Still, Texas amassed 382 total yards, 19 first downs (to Ohio State's 13), and averaged 15 yards per pass completion. There were numerous missed tackles, and while most of the time the results were not all that damaging – a yard here, a yard there, and suddenly a stalled drive is sustained for a touchdown. The bottom line here is that one more defensive stop in the late fourth quarter seals this game despite any offensive ineptitudes. In 2002 the Buckeye defense took care of business. If an offensive player came into their zip code they hit the ground, and that is how you win championships. In 2003 the Buckeyes fell just short, and 2005 may be the second verse, same as the first. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades as they say, and the Ohio State defense was oh so close but yet so far away.
Special Teams. Two errors in particular cost Ohio State. A missed tackle took points off the board for the Buckeyes. When Texas was forced to return the ball out of their end zone, over pursuit by defenders eager to get the safety (along with the missed tackle) gave the Longhorns decent field position with a solid return. The other error was a foolish unsportsmanlike penalty at the close of the first half following a pooch kick when Huston had been booming them into the end zone previously. Suddenly the Longhorns went from 1st and 10 from roughly their own 35 to 1st and 10 from the 50. Vince Young did not let the opportunity slip away and drove his team for a quick field goal. Combined those two gaffes contributed 5 points in the final score; the Buckeyes essentially lost by 1.
The Spread Offense. Pundits will point to Tressel, quarterback platoons, the missed field goal, and even the dropped pass by Ryan Hamby before they perhaps take the time to recognize the deficiencies inherent in the spread. The entire goal of a spread offense is to force defenses to defend the entire field both east to west and north to south. The problem is that what is an advantage on one side of the field (your own end) turns into a disadvantage on the other side (when you try and stick the ball into the end zone). Defenses suddenly have much less space to patrol and so are able to stuff an offense that finds itself with much less space to create. Where this shows most tellingly is inside the 20-yard line (the so-called red zone) when running the football between the tackles is almost a prerequisite to winning. The Buckeyes had 3 shots inside the Longhorns 20 and came up with nine points. The last great Ohio State team to play in a nationally televised game with championship implications but settle for three field goals close to an opponents' goal line was the 1996 edition of the Buckeyes. Eerily, both Michigan and Texas scored two touchdowns to win in close fashion.
It was a team effort… In the end, this loss should not be pinned on one or two players or even the coaching staff. Ohio State was in position to make plays but simply did not. Texas did. That is the end of the story and the story of the game.
The Rest of the Season
Before buying into any hype claiming the Buckeyes are completely out of the national title hunt, sit back and allow teams to play one another. LSU, Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Georgia, and USC have an incredibly tough road ahead with each playing at least one of the other unbeatens. Texas still has to get by OU and Texas A&M, and while that seems more than a little likely; remember these are rivalry games. Florida, Florida State, and Oklahoma all played for championships with one-loss squads over the past 10 years. For that matter, Ohio State would have played for a second title in 2003 without a loss to Michigan.
The Buckeyes no longer control their own destiny, but they do have a better than average shot of winning out and playing for at least a top five finish…and maybe with a little luck – a national championship.