Monday, January 5, 2009

Fiesta Bowl: Ohio St. vs. Texas


January 5, 2009 * 8:00 PM * FOX

In this year’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State (10-2) and Texas (11-1) will revisit their brief home-and-home rivalry from 2005-06, where the visiting team each contest. Despite their recent pairings potentially serving a backdrop for this showdown, we again face the BCS nightmare of controversy and potential mismatch. The Longhorns are suffering from some form of elimination by advanced calculus, which ruled them (and Texas Tech for that matter) out of contention for the Big 12 Championship game and potentially, the National Title game. Ohio State, likewise receiving an at-large bid to the Fiesta Bowl, was selected over undefeated Boise St. despite being completely overmatched in their last two BCS games and an early season match-up with 11-1 USC. The Buckeyes’ only other loss this year came at the hands of another BCS-qualified team, Penn State. In Columbus, the scarlet and gray stood toe-to-toe with the eventual Big Ten champions, but fell short on a late game interception. Will we be reflecting on this game as the mismatch of teams undeserving of the BCS equation? Or will we be pleasantly surprised?

When the Buckeyes Have the Ball

The one word that would describe Ohio State’s 2008 regular season would be: adjustment. Boring, perhaps…but appropriate. The keys to the offense at the beginning of the season were handed to sixth-year senior Todd Boeckmann, an efficient field general who took the Buckeyes to the National Title game last year. But he was ousted midstream against USC, when head coach Jim Tressel pulled the trigger on true freshman, dual threat quarterback, Terrelle Pryor. The Buckeyes never looked back. The offense, originally pro-style and founded on power running by Beanie Wells, was quickly converted to a shotgun spread, with the focus coming from the arm and rushing of their quarterback. As Pryor was adjusting to his role as starter, a running back-by-committee approach was utilized until Wells recovered from a foot injury. With Wells healthy again, the conundrum of how the offense would be structured arose – shotgun zone read (befitting Pryor) or pro-style I-formation (befitting Wells). How about both? The Buckeyes have lined up in everything from a double-tight end formation to a variation of the pistol, eventually holding the 28th-best rushing offense in the FBS (3rd in the Big Ten, 193 yards/game). What’s so dynamic is the Buckeyes’ ability to bruise defenses between the tackles with the 6‘ 1”, 237 pound Wells or have them chasing tread marks made by Pryor’s graceful speed. Despite Wells’ injury, Boeckmann’s benching and Pryor’s inexperience, Ohio State still managed to keep the offense churning enough to take a share of the Big Ten title.
An area of concern for the Buckeyes, however, is their diminished passing attack. It is not at all a reflection of their flashy receiving duo, Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie, that Pryor’s maturation as an efficient passer is an ongoing process. Ohio State has fallen to 105th in the FBS in passing with 148 yards/game, but this may be aided somewhat by the Longhorns’ inability to stop the pass.

Texas has surrendered 266 yards/game through the air (albeit generally against the pass-heavy Big 12 conference). Just as misleading could be Texas’ 2nd ranked rushing defense in the FBS (74 yards/game) although they were able to hold Big 12 Champion Oklahoma to just 1.8 yards/carry. Further, their top tacklers come from not only their linebackers (Roddrick Muckelroy first in team tackles with 96 total), but also the safety positions – Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon are the next top tacklers behind Muckelroy. While safety play is often associated with managing the pass defense, their utility and required expertise has grown substantially with the evolution of running quarterbacks – you can’t contain rushing quarterbacks off the edge with poor safety play. Thus, it may come in handy for Texas that their safeties already possess the ability to find the ball and bring the rusher down. With that being said, one could argue that senior defensive end Brian Orakpo may prove to be the playmaker needed to slow down Ohio State’s attack. He’s sacked quarterbacks 10.5 times and also leads his defense in tackles-for-loss with 15. In passing situations Pryor has shown a tendency to either hold on to the ball too long or scramble too much before taking off down field, causing numerous drive-killing sacks. If Orakpo has a big day, he may all but eliminate Ohio State’s passing ability single-handedly.

When the Longhorns Have the Ball

As everyone knows, Texas boasts an elite quarterback in junior Colt McCoy, and not surprisingly, he is the anchoring point of their offense. This Heisman Trophy finalist made his job look simplistic while accumulating statistics a sixteen-year-old would be proud of coming from his Xbox: 3,445 yards, 32 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while completing 78 percent of his passes for an astronomical rating of 179. Not enough? How about the fact that McCoy also leads his team in rushing with 576 yards (4.5 average) and 10 touchdowns? The task sounds simple enough–stop McCoy and you win. But the Longhorns receiving corps won’t make that an easy task for the Buckeyes. Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby have been found by McCoy almost equally this year and have combined for 157 receptions, 1,934 yards and 19 touchdowns. Both are less than six feet tall, but what they lack in size, they make up for by possessing great speed and hands. Shipley also just happens to double as a playmaker in the return game, posting touchdowns from a kickoff and punt return against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, respectively. Altogether McCoy and company finished 11th in the FBS with 300 yards/game passing, which will be directly in the crosshairs of the Buckeyes’ 7th ranked pass defense (164 yards/game).

This may be another case of statistical inflation as the Buckeyes saw only one passing offense in the Big Ten that was in the top 20 in passing offense (Illinois).
Less of a statistical anomaly would be their stoutness against the run, as they surrendered only 115 yards/game on the ground. The Ohio State defensive leadership comes from their all-everything middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who led the team in tackles and sacks (four) and combined with outside linebacker Marcus Freeman for 197 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Yet, as they are stronger against the run, it is plausible to see Texas in the shotgun, passing for 80 percent of their plays. This will call for senior (and leader of the secondary) cornerback Malcolm Jenkins to step up against the strength of Texas’ passing game. Jenkins and fellow defensive back Kurt Coleman combined for seven interceptions and 14 pass-breakups. Their ability to lockdown on Cosby and Shipley could be the match-ups which dictate how well the Longhorns can move the ball.

Final Analysis

This match-up seems to favor Texas on paper – great leadership and ability from their quarterback and defense. Ohio State is suffering a minor identity crisis in its passing game and may have to rely on Beanie Wells for 200 yards rushing to stand a chance. However, recent reports are sprouting suggesting that Ohio State may come out in offensive sets where both Boeckmann and Pryor are on the field at the same time. I am reticent in believing a gimmick offense (which has been employed in high school offenses as the “A11” set) would be the answer for a team that has confidence to beat their opponents outright. But is that not exactly what happened a few years ago when David (Boise St.) took down Goliath (Oklahoma) in this very same Bowl game? And, what about the emotional preparation on the Texas sideline as they went from National Title contenders to Big 12 contenders, to hopes for an at-large BCS bid? That has to be deflating. And that’s why the nod has to go to…the Longhorns. Why? The one word that describes what Ohio State has been lacking when facing tough opponents in the big game the last two years? Adjustment.

CFI Prediction: Texas 37, Ohio State 27

Photo Credit: College Press Box, University of Texas Athletics, OSU Athletics