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SMQ Bowl Blitz: Mythical Championship Breakdown, Part Two

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Friday: When LSU Has the Ball vs. Ohio State Defense
Sunday: Special Teams, Intangibles and Eccentri
Monday: Pickin’ Time

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Today: When Ohio State Has the Ball vs. LSU Defense

In August, I guessed Ohio State’s offense sans Troy Smith and two first round draft picks at wide receiver would move away from last year’s more spread-friendly philosophy and back to a traditional smashmouth attack featuring Maurice Clarett reincarnate, Chris Wells. And so it did, for the most part:

OSU Offense, 2006 vs. 2007
2006 2007
Runs/Game 36.9 43.7
Yds./Carry 4.6 4.6
Passes/Game 26.2 25.3
Comp. % 65.0 64.4
Yds./Pass 8.2 7.8
Scoring/Game 34.6 32.0
Games >35 Pts. 9 5
Possession 30:48 32:18

There were more plays in general this year after the repeal of the ludicrous clock rules that marred offensive production in 2006, but the general trends are clear enough: OSU ran far more often this season, put a greater emphasis on controlling the clock and less emphasis on big plays in the passing game. Like last year, the Buckeyes played with the lead all season opposite a great defense and were able to be conservative late in games. There’s not a huge shift overall.

If you want to really see the difference in this year’s offense and last year’s, though, look at its tendencies in the biggest games – OSU played six teams that finished the season in the top 50 in total defense in 2006 and five that finished in the top 50 this year, and its approaches in those games were markedly different with Todd Boeckman than with Smith:

OSU vs. Top 50 Total Defenses
2006* 2007
Runs/Game 31.2 45.2
Yds./Carry 4.4 4.6
Passes/Game 24.3 22.6
Comp. % 65.1 62.8
Yds./Pass 6.9 7.2
Scoring/Game 32.4 25.4
Games >35 Pts. 3 1^
Possession 32:53 33:13

* 2006 games do not include the mythical championship disaster against Florida, a game so overwhelmingly deviating from any other performance as to blur the whole picture into incoherence.
^ Offensive point only; does not include the defensive touchdown that left OSU with 37 points against Penn State.
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This picture itself is skewed by the one example of "Tressel Ball" in ‘06, a low-fi effort in the win at Illinois, without which all of the passing numbers (most notably yards per pass) go up. But even with that example, the decision to put games on the quarterback last year obviously yielded to the emphasis this fall on keeping the quarterback out of trouble – the emphasis was still on controlling the clock, but last year’s offense was fairly evenly split in runs and passes, where the offense this year ran twice as often against good defenses than it passed. The completely divergent approaches in the last two wins in the biggest game (Michigan) are telling: in ‘06, OSU spread the field and let Smith throw 41 passes out of largely four and five-wide sets to stay in front of a shootout; this year, in Ann Arbor, Boeckman threw 13 times (for less than four yards a pop) and handed off 59 in an ugly, punt-filled mudder of a win. Boeckman’s pass count came close – usually in big, easy wins like Youngstown State, Akron, Minnesota and Purdue – but never hit 30 attempts in a single game.

This was just fine, because the power running game was never stopped (its worst game rushing was in the 48-3 win over Kent State, not coincidentally the best statistical day for Boeckman) and because, thanks to that consistency on the ground and on defense, the offense only found itself in two second half jams all year. The first was against Wisconsin, when a pair of Badgers touchdowns in the third quarter put the Buckeyes at a 17-10 deficit, their first of the season since the quickly-overcome , four-point halftime hole at Washington. Prior to falling behind, Boeckman had thrown 23 passes to just ten team runs; on the ensuing drive, OSU ran on eight of ten plays, six times by Wells, and tied the game on Beanie’s 31-yard touchdown run. It ran on four of five plays on its next drive, three times to Wells, going ahead on his 30-yard touchdown run. Ohio State’s run:pass ratio after going down was 22:5, and – with the assist of a sack-and-turnover-happy defense – it scored 28 unanswered points.


Tackling Wells: It's more than just being in the right place.
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The second jam was in the loss to Illinois, a game the Illini led 14-7 at the half. After the defense forced a three-and-out to open the half, OSU led an excruciating, balanced drive, 12 plays (seven run, five pass) to move just 34 yards, at the end of which, on 3rd-and-goal from the Illinois nine, a wildly scrambling Boeckman threw away his team’s chance to narrow the margin to four on a desperate throw that was picked off in the end zone. Illinois scored to go ahead 28-14 on the ensuing drive, the only two-score deficit the Buckeye offense has faced in almost three seasons outside of last year’s championship, and OSU’s answer was a 76-yard drive – 67 on the ground, more than half on a 35-yard scramble by Boeckman on the first play – to cut the score to 28-21 on a 17-yard run by Wells. But Ohio State touched the ball all of three plays in the fourth quarter: on a two-yard run by Wells, a 16-yard run by Boeckman and an interception thrown by Boeckman that – after OSU’s defense couldn’t get the Illini offense off the field for the last eight minutes of the game – sealed the loss.

The moral of those minutiae-filled parables is this: Ohio State will establish its running game first, and return to it quickly and without mercy in a spot; if the Buckeyes throw early (and they might, especially in the direction of big play specialist Brian Robiskie), it’s only to play against tendency, loosen the defense up and hopefully put early points on the board. And in a really bad spot, it will just hold its breath. Todd Boeckman can make the winning throw, if it’s one throw, or complete a third down pass powered by his guts or whatever, but over any period longer than a handful of plays, he’s Craig Krenzel, a role player whose job is to not screw everything up. Chris Wells and Ohio State’s monster line can beat LSU, but Boeckman won’t. Aside from cursory, safe throws in the name of balance and keeping ‘em honest, the Buckeyes have to establish the run and milk the hell out of the clock and generally do everything in their power to keep themselves out of comeback mode, the unfamiliar zone of impatience and despair that swallowed them whole last year.

On that front, Tressel must be encouraged by the way the LSU defense ended its season against the run, by allowing 201 yards to Ole Miss (7.2 per carry), a whopping 385 to Arkansas (7.3 per carry) and 94 to pass-happy Tennessee (3.6 per carry), but none mean the Tigers have necessarily been exposed. The Arkansas explosion is not as relevant because Ohio State – or anyone else – can’t hope to match the speed, versatility and all-around spectre of doom achieved by having Darren McFadden in the backfield, especially when accompanied by another faster-than-thou star, Felix Jones. Ole Miss is misleading, too, as more than half the Rebels’ yards came via scramble by Brett Schaeffer; superbly-named, Wells-like tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried only twelve times (though he did average a healthy 4.4). Similarly, Tennessee’s limited success on the ground was due to a pair of Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Draws by receiver Gerald Jones out of the shotgun, which OSU probably will not try – big back Arian Foster was held to 2.6 on 21 carries. And all of these games came against a defense either missing grizzly bear Glenn Dorsey in the middle of the line or featuring a gimpy Dorsey whose contributions were nearer to those of a teddy bear. LSU’s defensive confidence centers around its physical and emotional leader coming back after a month off in top form on both counts.


Blocking Dorsey: It’s more than just getting your hands on him.
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Aside from Arkansas, the only sustained success any team really had running against the Tigers was in their back-to-back games against Florida and Kentucky. Tim Tebow bulled his way to a big first half before the front seven stiffened to force the turnovers that turned the game, but the Gators’ best success was based on misdirection runs from the shotgun by Percy Harvin and Kestahn Moore that don’t translate at all to what Ohio State does in more traditional sets with Beanie Wells. Kentucky made its way back from behind in its eventual win on the unlikely legs of tiny freshman Derrick Locke, who churned out a series of first downs that led to the tying field goals in the fourth quarter. That’s about it as far as penetration of LSU’s defensive front goes: circumstantial.

There is similarly scant evidence that any significant progress can be had in the passing game, where the Tigers were one of only two defenses nationally (Arkansas was the other) that held opposing quarterbacks below a 50 percent completion rate, a combination of the pressure LSU brings with its front four, its aggression and athleticism in the secondary and Bo Pellini’s zone blitz packages when he knows the offense will be passing; opponents’ third down conversion rate on passing plays – from any distance – was a little over 27 percent. Florida and Kentucky had a little move-the-chains success, but also spread the field have two of the top Howitzer-armed passing quarterbacks in the nation, which OSU does not and Boeckman is not; Alabama burned LSU deep with D.J. Hall, but no one else has been able to get over the top of the Tigers’ excellent safeties. If there is any matchup problem from LSU’s perspective, it’s with nickel back Danny McCray, who’s made a few plays but also pretty clearly struggled all season against slot receivers. Again, OSU doesn’t do a lot of multiple receiver sets and doesn’t have a regular third receiver, but Ray Small has 19 catches and is the kind of speed receiver that can give McCray problems on third downs. Otherwise, the matchups of interest are exclusively in the trenches, where both lines have been rock solid and will be shortly stocking NFL rosters.

Summary and Prediction: Ohio State is as old school, physical and run-first as any non-service academy offense operating these days, and has had almost unbroken success at running straight ahead. The only team that has done this with any consistency to LSU, though, happens to have the most dynamic individual player and combination of players of any backfield in the nation, and succeeded with far more misdirection than Ohio State is accustomed to. The Buckeyes’ passing game is better than competent when things are going well but also situational and purely complementary; LSU has not allowed random big plays and OSU must run the ball with sustained success to score. With Glenn Dorsey back in the lineup for LSU, the going there is going to be tough, the scoring minimal, and the main reward controlling time of possession to keep the Tiger offense off the field. The Buckeyes need to make it an ugly game, but the only way it will really be one from their end will be if Pellini is ever able to work with enough of a lead to let his charges pin their ears back. Advantage: LSU