Cus Words: Dazed and Confused

BSB staffer Marcus Hartman has Led Zeppelin on the mind while wondering why Ohio State's head coach seems to have had a hard time coming out on the right side of difficult decisions - and tough games - in the past couple of seasons. Find that and the rest of the usual departments in this week's Cus Words column.

What we learned last week: Jim Tressel has officially lost his game-management mojo.

I tend not to feel compelled to second-guessing a coach in print (in conversation is another story) for two reasons: hindsight is 20/20, and generally by the time I get out of postgame interviews and write a 3,000-word story for Buckeye Sports Bulletin, a few hundred people have taken their shots on our message board, so I don't really see the point in piling on even if I do agree.

But, appropriately enough in a game against the Men of Troy, this has reached epic proportions.

Perhaps the worst thing to happen to the Buckeyes last Saturday night was to get a lead early in the third quarter.

I have no problem whatsoever with conservatism, but it does reduce the margin for error even while attempting to avoid mistakes, which is fine for someone who is a great decisionmaker but can get dangerous (ironically enough) if too many of those crucial decisions go wrong.

And there are a lot of crucial decisions in most football games.

Would Tressel have pushed the issue to a greater extent if trailing? I'd imagine so. Should he have anyway? Probably.

What's truly troubling is not so much Tressel's insistence on remaining conservative but more so his run of ill-timed choices to go for it.

When choosing to play close to the vest, the times one pushes the envelope must generally be right.

Witness the 2002 season (an option play for the winning touchdown against Michigan, the ‘Holy Buckeye' deep pass in the waning seconds against Purdue, etc.) as an example.

I don't know if Tressel used up all his good fortune that season and we're seeing the law of averages in effect ever since, but now most of the things Tressel touches seem to turn to dust. He's even been critical of himself of late, lamenting not playing for a field goal on a drive last season at USC and again in this season's opener against Navy.

If Mr. Conservative is having trouble knowing when to play for field goals, there's no wonder Ohio State fans are seeing red other than the flags flying proudly in their yards on game day.


What we can expect to learn this week: A few things.

I'm not sure what the answer is for Tressel's big-game decision-making funk. Some would say throw caution to the wind more often - that same law of averages I invoked earlier is more likely to smile on those gambles if there are more of them, the thinking goes - but at the same time, I am not sure this team at this moment in the middle of September is ready for that.

I can partly appreciate why he tried to squeeze more than 25 minutes out of a five-point lead. Beyond the top two, his receivers are not reliable at this point, and the interception Terrelle Pryor threw on the first drive as well as his continued appearance of indecisiveness - and as the man who talks to him on the sidelines, no one should be able to judge what's going through his quarterback's mind better than Tressel - had to scare him to death, so the chance to be safe must have looked more appealing than usual in that respect.

I don't question the fact Ohio State has more wins in the last eight-plus years because of Tressel's conservative approach than the Buckeyes would if they played every game with a higher risk factor, and I think if we're talking about playing either high-risk or low-risk, it must be an all-the-time-thing or you'll get caught in the middle, which could be for the better but is more likely to be for the worse.

More seasons than not, Tressel has had to split the difference between protecting his good defenses - some that have looked better on the field and the stat sheet than their talent would suggest they should - and getting enough good decisions and good throws out of his quarterbacks before the bad decisions and inferior tosses came about because most of his signal callers have been average at best in most areas of quarterbacking.

This conundrum has been exacerbated by an inability to recruit enough NFL-quality offensive linemen and only three NFL-quality running backs, one of whom played only part of one season and another who was not really a between-the-tackles runner.

I have no problem with continually smashing a Chris Wells into an eight-man front because he has the size to break tackles and the speed to turn such a play into a long touchdown run, but perhaps doing so with a player who is not a first-day NFL draft pick is not so wise, even if the outside running game is closed off and the quarterbacks is not firing on all cylinders.

So what will the Buckeyes do next? Well they had better not overlook Toledo, but there are bigger concerns.

I will be interested to see what kinds of tricks defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and sidekick Luke Fickell has cooked up for stopping the first spread offense the Buckeyes will face this season. They appeared to play an inordinate amount of man coverage against the Trojans, a welcome departure from how they generally approach teams with so much talent at receiver. Last season we saw them man up with Purdue then play mostly zone against Penn State (not a spread team, per se, but a team that liked to use three-receiver sets as a base formation), but this year they lack the three-cornerback version of their nickel defense that was so effective at times last year.

If both lines bring it like they did against USC, this should not be a stressful day up by Lake Erie for Ohio State fans, but from here on out the focus on the Ohio State offense will no doubt be Pryor and his development as an all-around player, perhaps a more important weekly issue than even winning and losing.

Some wonder if he is being hindered by the attempt to turn him into a pocket passer immediately (something he said he desired when he signed his letter of intent), but I still figure there will be major benefits to that approach down the road.

The national title is out the window this year and was only a slightly realistic goal at the start of this season anyway, but the USC game proved there is enough talent on the Ohio State roster to win a national title in the near future. I believe that for the first time since 2005, the last time Ohio State had experienced, major talent on both sides of the ball. That team did not get it done because Troy Smith's NCAA violation set back the offense until midseason. The 2006 team did not get it done because of a lack of experienced talent on defense, an injury to Ted Ginn Jr. and a poor mindset in the final game. The 2007 team backed into a national title game thanks to a weak schedule and unprecedented madness throughout the rest of the nation during the season. That success created false hopes for last year that were doomed by an injury to the best player and the subsequent fallout that included needing to live through the growing pains of a true freshman quarterback.

This year there is enough talent to win the rest of the games on the schedule, but it is anyone's guess how consistent the Buckeyes will be.


Buckeye Beater Nominees
Go ahead and save a spot for Joe McKnight on my annual team of players who did the most damage to the Buckeyes in 2009.

Folks with a short attention have focused on freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, but the man of the match was clearly McKnight, who made the two most crucial plays of the game on the Trojans' game-winning drive. He was the only star for the Trojan offense. The USC offensive line had its hat largely handed to it, but after watching so many successful plays up the middle, we can't ignore center Kris O'Dowd.

Defensively, Chris Galippo must be recognized for his interception and return that set up the first touchdown of the game, and fellow linebacker Michael Morgan gets a nod for notching seven tackles, including two for loss. Everson Griffen was the most notable defensive lineman for the Trojans. He had six stops, including a sack. With five tackles and sticky pass defense, cornerback Josh Pinkard deserves consideration as well.

Of note: McKnight was a member of the 2008 All-Buckeye Beaters as well.


DVR Directions
ESPN's Thursday night telecast this week should be of particular interest to Ohio State fans for two reasons. First of all, it is never too early to begin scouting next season's big-game visitor to the Horseshoe, the Miami Hurricanes. Second, I will be interested to see how the Georgia Tech triple option looks against the ‘Canes after watching the Buckeyes struggle with a similar scheme from Navy in their season opener. Last year it completely befuddled Miami.

Saturday after watching the Buckeyes and Rockets on ESPN Plus (check your local listings because one of your local channels should pick it up if you live in the Midwest; otherwise, I believe GamePlan is your only option), some might be interested to tune to ABC (if available in their region) to see if USC has its customary letdown against a sub-par team, with this one offering a little extra intrigue as the Trojans go on the road to take on Washington and head coach Steve Sarkisian, a former USC assistant.

In the Big Ten at noon, Minnesota has a chance to win some major pride for the Big Ten when the Golden Gophers play host to No. 8 California, and another interesting 3:30 matchup has Notre Dame and Michigan State (NBC) both looking to pick up the pieces after disappointing losses last week.


Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (Previous week ranking)
1. (Co-No. 1) Penn State
2. (Co-No. 1) Ohio State
3. (8) Michigan
4. (5) Illinois
5. (3) Michigan State
6. (7) Iowa
7. (6) Wisconsin
8. (4) Northwestern
9. (7) Minnesota
10. (11) Purdue
11. (10) Indiana

Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at mhartman[at]buckeyesports[dot]com

For more from this author, read his blog about Ohio State football and whatever else crosses his mind .


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