Game day in the Arizona desert where one of the Ohio State's largest senior classes in recent memory takes the field for the final time.
What will be its legacy? Leaders who added to their already impressive résumés with an upset victory over third-ranked Texas? Or will they be remembered more as whiners who allowed such achievements as five straight victories over Michigan and four consecutive Big Ten championships to be overshadowed by immature pettiness?
There is now very little doubt that the benching of Todd Boeckman in favor of Terrelle Pryor created a wide fissure in this year's team. Many in the senior class that head coach Jim Tressel has gone so far out of his way to praise this past week have let their displeasure of Boeckman's benching begin to affect their performance.
No one on this team would ever question Tressel – at least not publicly. Sometimes, though, you can learn more from simple observation than from asking the same, old, tired questions over and over.
There is no mistaking an underlying tension with the Buckeyes. It was palpable on Fiesta Bowl Media Day when Tressel chose to leave Pryor behind. While the coach attempted to spin his starting quarterback's absence as an attempt to focus on this year's senior class, much of the media's focus turned to Pryor and the real reason he wasn't made available.
If Tressel was trying to soothe some hurt feelings among his seniors, it backfired. Imagine Boeckman's delight in answering questions such as "Where's Terrelle?" and "How did it feel losing your starting job?" It was, in effect, ripping the scab off a wound that had just started to heal.
Was Tressel correct to supplant Boeckman with Pryor when he did? Should he have done it sooner? Should he have waited and allowed the senior to play himself out of his slump? All of that is immaterial at this point. The change has been made.
While Boeckman represents where this program has been, Pryor represents where it is going. Like it or not, seniors, this program is going on without you next year. You can be remembered as a bunch of guys who rose to the occasion one last time and proved to the world that not only can Ohio State perform well on the big stage, the Buckeyes deserve to be on that stage. Or you can be remembered as a class whose accomplishments are overshadowed by the fact you could have accomplished so much more.
It's up to you. The Buckeye Nation eagerly awaits your answer.
KEYS TO THE GAME
If I have been too subtle up until now, let me hit you over the head with what I believe is the singlemost key in tonight's game. Ohio State must have its collective mind focused on beating a really good Texas team. There is no doubt in my mind that the Buckeyes have what it takes to beat the Longhorns, but if they allow their minds to wander, the task becomes exponentially more difficult.
There are going to be plenty of interesting matchups in the game. I'm interested to see how the OSU defense plays against the Texas offense. Teams that played eight men back (read: conservatively) against the Longhorns allowed quarterback Colt McCoy to pick them apart. Teams that blitzed, and constantly changed their blitz angles, had more success. I believe Tressel and Jim Heacock will blitz McCoy, and that means a lot of man coverage on the outside. It also means a linebacker or a safety will be asked to cover Texas receiver Jordan Shipley, a mismatch the Longhorns hope to exploit.
On offense, the Buckeyes will have to be aggressive. I can only hope that Mack Brown and Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp are as confused as I am about what to expect from Ohio State. How much will Boeckman play and will he be in the same backfield with Pryor? How much can OSU rely on pounding Beanie Wells into a Texas defense that was second in the nation this season in rush defense? And how can the offensive line counteract an aggressive Longhorns unit that led the nation in sacks?
First of all, I cannot envision anything positive about having Boeckman and Pryor on the field at the same time. The element of surprise has been lost, and any benefit from Boeckman either handing off to Pryor or throwing some sort of pass to the freshman seems minimal. A pass from Pryor to Boeckman, on the other hand, would be a shocker but you have to believe Brown and Muschamp have prepared even for that.
Ohio State has to have a singular offensive mind-set tonight and that mind-set must be on ball control. For the Buckeyes to beat the Longhorns, they must keep moving the chains – but they are going to have to go away from their tendencies. They're going to have to move the ball through the air.
As much as I think of Wells, I don't believe Ohio State can win this game by sticking to a ground attack. I think the Buckeyes are going to have to use a lot of play-action – especially early – utilizing Wells more as a decoy that as a primary weapon. That will help to buy time for Pryor, who will need his receivers to bring their A games tonight. Quick-hitters, slants, drag patterns, wheel patterns, crossing routes, out-cuts – everything has to be available to Pryor tonight because the key to beating Texas' defense is to keep it guessing.
Once that occurs, the Buckeyes can try and unleash Wells on the Longhorns.
Another key to victory will be pass protection against a team that produced 44 sacks in 12 games. Ohio State may have to employ a sort of moving pocket early in the game to keep Pryor on his feet. One of the weapons in the freshman's untapped arsenal is throwing on the run, and everyone knows a moving target is much more difficult to hit.
As Pryor stays on the move, he must also take a page out of the history books and remember what happened to another Buckeye quarterback in the same University of Phoenix Stadium two years ago. Florida used a merciless pass rush against Troy Smith in its 41-14 victory in the BCS National Championship Game, but what remains a mystery is why Smith was always in retreat mode that night.
The best way to attack an aggressive defense has always been to use their aggressiveness against them. You don't run away from a hard-charging defense – you run right at them. If protection breaks down, Pryor will need to be aware that his best course of action will be to keep moving forward. A modest gain of two or three years is a whole lot better than a sack that results in a 10-yard loss.
Finally – and this falls directly on Tressel's shoulders – Ohio State must be aggressive from the opening kickoff and stay aggressive throughout the game. In the wake of the losses to Florida, LSU, USC and Penn State, many fans have forgotten that the Buckeyes were ahead in each of those games. Why couldn't they keep those leads? I believe it was because they tried to protect those leads rather than trying to build upon them.
This year's bowl season is full of similar scenarios. Navy took a 13-0 lead over Wake Forest in the EagleBank Bowl and went conservative trying to protect that lead just before the half. The Demon Deacons took advantage by scoring a touchdown with 36 seconds left in the second quarter, shifting the momentum in the game. Wake outscored the Midshipmen 22-6 in the second half for a 29-19 win.
Troy had a 10-point lead over Southern Miss midway through the fourth quarter of the New Orleans Bowl, and suddenly decided that was enough. Trojans head coach Larry Blakeney tried to sit on the lead and watched while Southern Miss scored twice in the final 7½ minutes of regulation to tie the game, then win it in overtime on a 39-yard field goal.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, faced with a 23-23 tie and time running out in the Alamo Bowl against Missouri, went for a first-down running play with 2½ minutes left. Nicked-up tailback Tyrell Sutton was stuffed for a 2-yard gain. Why wasn't Fitzgerald going for the win and have quarterback C.J. Bachér throwing the ball at that critical juncture? Beats me, but two incompletions later, the Wildcats were forced to punt and Mizzou won it in overtime.
Of course, Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel nearly blew it because he tried to outthink himself. Despite a high-octane offense and quarterback Chase Daniel at the controls, Pinkel instead ran two quarterback sneaks into the middle of the field at the end of regulation – plays that lost a total of three yards. That pushed kicker Jeff Wolfert's field goal try back to 44 yards, and he sailed his attempt just outside the right upright. Missouri went on to win the game, 30-23 in overtime, but it wasn't for lack of trying to give it away.
I'm not looking for Tressel to throw the kitchen sink at Texas. You may as well wish for a million dollars to fall from the sky. By being aggressive and staying aggressive, I simply mean Ohio State hits the field and takes the fight to the Longhorns. That was the exact method with which Utah beat what was a supposedly superior Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl. The Utes jumped on the Crimson Tide from get-go, and then when Alabama made its late run, Utah stayed in attack mode and put the game away.
If Tressel applies a similar game plan tonight – jumps on the Longhorns early, hits them where they don't think the Buckeyes will be, and remains the aggressor throughout the evening – no one will be talking tomorrow morning about how Ohio State can't win the big one. If, on the other hand, the seniors decide they have something else on their minds and their coach recedes into his conservative shell, it's going to be another long, cold winter.
For some reason – and I can't even tell you why – I think it's going to be the former rather than the latter. Therefore: Ohio State 31, Texas 28.