The kicking game is not ephemeral in the same way as crucial elements like mascots, losing streaks and lucky items of clothing, but because it is by nature "special," its effects on the outcome of any one game involve about as much conjecture. Unlike offense and defense, which absorb the huge majority of snaps in any game, big, game-changing special teams plays not involving Virginia Tech's punt block unit or Devin Hester are little, unexpected lightning strikes that occur outside of any predictable pattern - Ted Ginn's opening kick return for touchdown against Florida last year was "predictable" in the sense that Ginn had run kicks back before, as a freshman, and was generally regarded as a very dangerous return man, but also decidedly against the odds, because neither Ginn nor any other Buckeye had previously returned a kick for a touchdown in more than two dozen attempts in 2006, and Florida had not allowed a return for touchdown in the course of covering almost 60 kickoffs. Field goals are good a solid majority of the time; punts are almost never blocked or muffed on the other end. Offenses and defenses are on the field enough to be expected to gain or yield yards and points at certain, largely consistent rates, but a season of stupefying inactivity on special teams could suddenly shatter at any moment. If you're interested in what is likely to happen in the kicking game, it's always fair catches, between the uprights from 45 yards in and drives beginning between the receiving team's own 15 and 35.
Anyone who's watched enough football on any level knows, though, that something is going to happen on special teams that will have a marked and potentially scarring effect on the outcome of a close game, especially one as likely to drag on as a tight, intense, mistake-magnifying defensive struggle as Monday's collision. In this case, the individual person most likely to spark that particular lightning strike is Trindon Holliday, who (like Ginn last year) will outrun anyone on the field on any given play. He ran back one touchdown on a kick return this season, against Ole Miss, and another as a freshman in 2006, against Arkansas, a relatively frightening rate (about nine percent) for a guy who only gets one or two returns a game, typically, and who will be running them back Monday against a cover unit that allowed two kickoffs to go back for touchdowns in the regular season - Northwestern and Penn State each took a kick to the house against the Buckeyes, and Washington had a pair of good returns back in September. It seems inevitable OSU will try to direct kicks to Holliday's return mate, Keiland Williams, though Williams - who has not returned a kick for touchdown in his career - has demonstrated out of the backfield that he's no slouch his own self if there's a seam.
Love thy kicker, love thy self.
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Holliday should glow red at all times in the eyes of Buckeye special teamers, but so, too, should LSU's field goal and punt teams, which have demonstrated a successful penchant for high stakes faking in critical times under Les Miles. Most famously, there was the blind, overhead flip to Colt David that resulted in a touchdown and much shameless joy on Miles' part against South Carolina earlier this year, but the Tigers also ran Matt Flynn from the holder position for a first down on an eventual touchdown drive that helped beat Florida in October and let punter Chris Jackson take off for 18 yards and a critical first down in the fourth quarter at Tennessee in 2006. LSU is never conservative in big games and seems to relish its role as aggressor; I would guess Ohio State should expect a punt or field goal fake if the opportunity presents itself.
OSU has not replaced Ginn's explosiveness in either aspect of the return game, especially on kickoffs, where Ray Small and Maurice Wells have been mediocre at best despite their speed, but the Buckeyes did get a touchdown return by Brian Hartline on a punt against Kent State. For its part, LSU has allowed two punt return touchdowns, by Javier Arenas at Alabama and Marshay Green at Ole Miss, so seams can be found.
Beyond that - the fact that both teams have done sporadically good things in the return game, and had sporadic bad things happen to them - there is nothing remarkable in the punting or kicking categories (both David and Ohio State's Ryan Pretorius are good, strong-legged kickers, but far from perfect on field goals) except the looming threat of blocked kicks, which plagued both teams at times. LSU had two kicks blocked while getting its paws on nary a field goal or punt itself, and Ohio State - despite blocking a pair of kicks - had a disturbing four of its own field goals and punts swatted, though ultimately none of the blocks played much role in the outcome of any game. Laxity is this area may be lethal.
In general, I repeat that special teams should be expected to be competent and non-decisive, as usual. To the extent that either team will do something boneheaded or spectacular, the Tigers' penchant for calculated risk taking and Holliday's presence gives them a greater chance of creating that momentum-turning play - not a good chance, mind you, but a better one. Advantage: LSU
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The Streak: Ohio State, as anyone south of Ohio will remind them, is 0-8 all-time against SEC teams in bowl games, beginning with a loss to Alabama in the 1977 Sugar Bowl and continuing in the nineties through John Cooper's tenure with losses to Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina (the Cory Brewer Bowl in 2000); Jim Tressel's first OSU team also lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2001 season. The only defeat of this nature experienced by any of the players on Ohio State's current roster was in last year's mythical championship debacle against Florida, which sprinkled its magic SEC pixie dust prior to obliterating the Buckeyes and any Southern team must by custom, birthright and, in some cases, statutory law. Advantage: N/A. Tressel's teams have won three BCS games in four tries and defeated a supposedly invincible team from Miami for a mythical championship, along with regular season wins over extremely athletic teams from Texas, Penn State and Michigan, five times out of six in the latter two cases. There is no significant speed deficit. There is no pixie dust.
Intimidating Crowd Chant. Ohio State's "Block O" vs. LSU's fourth down "Oweio, You Suck!"
Advantage: LSU. Spelling out the easiest-to-spell state in the Union? Points for the physical/visual effort, but not intimidating. Eighty-thousand screaming coonass drunks waving their arms in unison and insulting you after obvious failure? Not much you can say to that, or would want to.
Mascot. Brutus Buckeye vs. Mike the Tiger. Certainly Brutus has evolved through the years into his modern, upright state:
But Brutus has never been caged to prevent him from devouring a captive smorgasboard of plump fans:
Advantage: LSU. Obviously. OSU has to concede this one, until Brutus just finally snaps.
Colors. According to ColorWheelPro.com - "See Color Theory In Action!" - Ohio State's red represents "fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love." LSU's yellow is "s the color of sunshine. It's associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy," and, if interpreted as "Dingy Yellow," represents "caution, decay, sickness, and jealousy." Combine that with purple, which, while symbolizing royalty, in its "dark" form (as seen in the Tigers' numerals, logo and piping) also "evokes gloom and sad feelings." The Tigers' preferred white jerseys are symbolic of "goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity."
Advantage: Push. True, fire, blood, energy, war danger and strength historically trumps joy, happiness, caution, decay, sickness and virginity- except when decay and purity come equipped with stockpiles of Southern speed. Then all bets are off.
Alumni Babe. Early twentieth century educational reformer, social activist, and best-selling author Dorothy Canfield Fisher vs. Miss August 2003 Colleen Marie.
Advantage: Push. Canfield Fisher died in 1959, but chicks who drink Rolling Rock are nothing but trouble, bro.
Monday: Game time! Hoo!