Assessing the mythical National Championship
Thursday: How Florida Can Win.
Saturday: When Florida has the ball.
Sunday: Special teams, mascots and other oddities.
Monday: Hype! And a prediction.
Today: When Ohio State has the ball.
Irresistible force meets the Gators. What, anitclimax? They're movable. Though not by all that much.
Basics: Florida's defense is good. Ohio State's offense is very good. The Gators stop the run (6th nationally) with big linebacker Brandon Siler in the middle and get after the quarterback with a steady rotation of athletic bulls in the front four; even the permanent suspension of top tackle Marcus Thomas isn't crippling because of the depth and versatility of guys like Ray McDonald, who can slide from end to tackle (if he can play). They also create a lot of turnovers (20 interceptions, best in the SEC) in the secondary. But they'll face the most balanced offense they've seen (16th total, 6th scoring), one with the powerful offensive line and trio of talented backs to run any time and the receivers to stretch the field. And the quarterback, right, the best individual player in the country through the regular season. Almost forgot.
He's very quiet
Statistically, the units are very similar, but Ohio State has dominated its best opponents (42 points, 500+ yards vs. Michigan, which was a previously a stone wall; 38 and 400 vs. Iowa and Michigan State, 44 and 484 vs. Minnesota) and topped 35 points in seven of its last eight games. To the extent there is a question, it's to the overall competency of most of the defenses OSU has rolled, only three of which - Penn State, Texas and Michigan - belonged to a winner from a BCS conference, the first pair of those representing two of OSU's three non-juggernaut performances on the season(24 points, 348 yards at Texas, 253 yards, 14 offensive points vs. PSU) ; the third came in a 17-10 win at Illinois. Which makes no sense.
Key Matchup: Troy Smith vs. Reggie Nelson
Watch this video. At about the 1:42 mark, there is a clip of a play against Georgia in which Nelson, possibly in the wrong place prior to the snap, bails out at the last second towards the flat, where Mohammed Massaquoi was apparently uncovered. Matt Stafford zings the ball out to Massaquoi on a slant. Nelson's a little late. But Massaquoi is so terrified that he literally falls face first, barely making an effort to make the catch, rather than possibly take the impending hit. Nelson never touches Massaquoi, but just stands over him, shaking his head at how bad it is to be Reggie F'in' Nelson.
He does, um, touch a lot of other folks in the montage, among other spectacular feats, but not since Ki-Jana Carter kneeled a kickoff return at his own twelve does SMQ remember any capable 200-plus-pound man in pads so thoroughly lose it in fear. Such is the essence of "The Eraser," who SMQ had dubbed even prior to watching that play the "Perpetuator of Fear" for the effects he has as a roving, centerfield ballhawk on opposing quarterbacks and receivers in terms of route-running, timing, ball placement and detergent required for undergarments.
The Nation's Most Outstanding Dreadlocked Punisher
Troy Smith's petrifying effects on defenses are well-known, but he hasn't had much reason to fear any individual member of any other defense he's faced - with the possible exception of LaMarr Woodley, a hard-hitting storm Smith weathered with no ill-effects to undergarments or Ohio State's offensive production. If Smith wants to go deep against a cover two Monday, to Ted Ginn Jr. or any of his other options, he'd better be aware first of No. 1's specific location.
Ohio State's Offense Wants:
OSU has the personnel to run just about anything it wants from just about any formation and, short of the wishbone option, just about has. But the Buckeyes grew more aggressive as the season wore on, putting more on Troy Smith's shoulders and growing more comfortable forcing defenses to handle more pass-catching options on more plays earlier in games - where Texas early saw a variety of early looks, H-backs and Smith under center, Michigan got four and five receivers and Smith from the shotgun in its grill from the opening drive, and more diversity later on. OSU still runs the ball on a little more than two-thirds of its first down calls, but at the same time has generated most of its big passes in the first half and on first down.
Not that they couldn't run straight ahead - they did, a little later - but the Buckeyes put the wrecking ball to Michigan's towering high rise of a defense with four and five-wide looks that relentlessly attacked any number of consistent mismatches in the secondary. The Wolverines took an entire half to figure out how to avoid situations like those that left not only man-to-man on the corners, but in specifically no-win alignments like linebacker Chris Graham attempting to cover Anthony Gonzalez out of the slot, and that vacated UM's once-impenetrable middle enough to make one missed tackle or bad angle all OSU's backs required to break two long, crippling touchdown runs. By the time it adjusted to the spread - overloading the right side of the OSU line to allow LaMarr Woodley to put some heat on Smith from the outside - the Buckeyes were able to play more mix `n match with formations and personnel and the Wolverines never found their footing - physically or strategically (check a couple highlightshere and note how regularly Michigan defenders are hesitant or completely out of position).
Everybody would do this, though, if it had the Most Outstanding™ Irresistible Force throwing darts from the pocket, or outside of the pocket as necessary; if all else on these squads is roughly equal, or roughly cancels out, there isn't much the Gators can really do about Smith if he's the same quarterback from the Texas, Iowa and Michigan games, or from last January's Fiesta Bowl. One of the reasons Ohio State was able to go with a lot of minimum protection against one of the best pass rushing fronts in the nation, besides its dominant offensive line being able to handle its own business most of the time, is that Smith has not been remotely rattled since OSU's last loss, at Penn State last October. He's been pressured, yes, he's been sacked - Woodley didn't sack Smith but was in his face all afternoon - but the guy never wilts under heat; he escapes, stands and delivers, takes it and beats you on the next play. Smith is the guy, if OSU comes out spreading the field again, who can escape the free rusher or intuitively step up or roll away from him and still make the play, i.e. an out-and-out scheme buster. Against Texas, OSU protected and gave Smith time to make the right read and throw against an athletic secondary that nevertheless respected the Buckeyes' speed in mostly zone coverage (and paid dearly when it didn't). He delivered. Where Michigan was concerned, its defensive strength was in its front seven, so OSU attacked what it exposed as an iffy Wolverine secondary by forcing its members into man coverage and relied on its quarterback's athleticism, composure and decision-making to overcome whatever the line couldn't. He delivered.
Let's the run the thing where we line up in strong H zip left trips and you do something awesome.
In relative terms - that is, the tiny increments that make up such differences among outstanding athletes - Florida's secondary might be a step faster than Michigan's, or at least won't have to deal with the rug coming out under its feet on breaks. Still, Ted Ginn Jr. creates a problem SMQ isn't sure any one of the Gators' starters is quite speedy enough to solve alone. Which brings up the bigger problem: before the season, Ryan Smith was introduced as the stopgap at corner following the preseason departure of presumptive starter Avery Atkins. Surprisingly, legitimately good as Smith has been, what does that initial handwringing tell us about UF's depth at the position? Tremaine McCollum has played some as the third corner and picked off a pass at Florida State, but behind him it appears to be his brother Jermaine and impeccably-named freshman Pierre Wondy-Louis of muffed punt recovery fame, both of whom have contributed mainly on special teams. Florida, like Michigan, has a lot of solid options among the front seven, especially on the line, but unless they do a better job of getting Smith's eyes off his receivers than UM's rushers, it won't do much good if Ohio State goes with the same DB-maximizing personnel.
Florida's Defense Wants: Suspiciously-timed desert rain, precipitation at Penn State having been the only factor short of disinterested conservatism at Illinois that applied the slightest tap of the brakes to the Irresistible Force. And also the conditions in which Smith delivered his Most Outstanding™, jaw-dropping Houdini throw of the season into a thimble on Brian Robiskie's index finger. So, you know. SMQ's not really sure how to stop them if Tressel doesn't bundle up creativity in a sack, which he won't Monday because - one-time coaching similarities notwithstanding - Florida is not Illinois.
Instincts say, "Pressure Smith." Whether or not he's shown the ability to escape and make killer throws on the run, putting big men in anyone's face must be preferably to allowing them to stand and throw at their leisure. Smith ate Texas' lunch when it went with a more conservative zone. To the aggressor go the rewards, great men dare greatly, etc.
Something that did not happen to Texas, though, was falling way behind quickly. The Longhorns entered the fourth quarter within ten points, 17-7, and were one ill-fated man-up on Ted Ginn and a turnover by the UT offense of being in better position than that. The 'Horns focused on keeping OSU's receivers in front of them, making tackles, slowing Antonio Pittman - they weren't great at this, as Pittman had 74 yards on more than 4 per carry, but a long of just 12), and forcing Smith to make more good throws on more time-consuming drives. Charlie Strong has also not shown himself to be overly blitz-happy (five of UF's six leading sack guys are linemen, the starting 'backers have only 4.5 between them - three by Brandon Siler - and no DB has gotten to the quarterback). This may fail entirely, but if it determines the Buckeye offense really is pick your poison, which is how it looks to SMQ, Florida should generally choose the slowest possible demise, requiring the most possible doses, and hope its line emerges collectively as the Great Terror its been to opposing SEC units all season and Nelson is in hyperdrive in his role as predator of the ball. Short of that, turnovers.
Jarvis Moss, frankly, is not impressed.
The Ohio State running game - not Pittman, specifically, but as a whole - has endured two lackluster games, at Texas at Illinois, for some reason, the only times any defense has been able to hold OSU under four yards per carry (2.72 at UT and 2.47 at Illinois). This is something the Gator defense (sixth in rushing defense, 2.79 per carry) can conceivably handle if not caught on its heels, though it's not likely to be able to afford to creep Nelson or Joiner up around the line at all unless in short yardage - Michigan, duped on a second-and-one play-fake for touchdown, still says "danger!" - venturing a rare Incredibly Unorthodox Blitz intended to spin heads. Florida may not be able to sell out against the run under normal circumstances, but if it does a servicable enough job to consistently force medium-to-long yardage to go on third down, it might be able to unleash an effective pass rush (weirdly, OSU's conversion rate on passes with 4-9 yards to go is a ho hum, very mortal 37.6 percent, on which Smith has been picked for two of five interceptions and hit seven passes of 15 yards or longer...but the rate astoundingly jumps to 50 percent with ten or more to go on third down, Smith has two touchdowns and no picks and 15 plays of 15 yards or more, five of those for more than twenty-five. So don't back him up too far).
Variables: Charlie Strong: safe and respectful? Or aggressive and risky?...Smith, we're certain, is the key to Ohio State's offense, but as the key to Florida's defense, can Reggie Nelson function as an equivalent counterweight? That is, is he good enough to force OSU to significantly adjust its gameplan to account for his presence every time Smith drops back?...Man-to-man, can Florida's secondary run with Ohio State most of the time? Man-to-man, can its pass rush generate pressure on Smith through his huge O-line?...Will the Buckeyes find consistent balance and running room, or put the whole shebang on the Most Outstanding™ right arm?
Verdict: Take it as a given Ohio State will move the ball; Florida's defense, though equally athletic, is not as monolithically dominant as Michigan's entering this game, and has only the advantage of seeing how the Buckeyes trounced that unit; a final total in the 350-yard, 17-20-point range could be considered a virtual "shutdown" and anything less will be a rather shocking anomaly. Given that, the more plays OSU has to run, the longer it takes it to move the ball, the better for Florida, whose primary goal will be to avoid giving up easy points and big plays and making one or two of its own. But Smith's extreme competence and his receivers' speed in a spread look, frankly, decimates schematic wrangling. You just have to work like hell up front and cover the bastards.