I want to start by noting earnestly my opinion that this game is simultaneously one of the most predictable and most un-predictable of the dozens I've tried to make sense of throughout the season, which is one of the elements that makes it such a fascinating matchup the closer we get to kickoff, and the more familiar I become with each team and its season - certainly both have been vastly more impressive than you'd realize from absorbing to harangues about Ohio State's schedule or the absence of the part of Les Miles' brain that governs judgment and risk-taking, et cetera.
It is predictable in the sense that both teams clearly established an identity as power running, overwhelmingly defense-oriented teams, and in a season that served as a kind of tipping point for the promulgation of the high-scoring spread revolution and weekly, upset-driven chaos, a high-stakes game won by hard-hitting powerhouses truly earning every first down is an exciting prospect, and a good on-field result for the BCS despite the obvious problems that accompany LSU's unprecedented inclusion with two losses - the game I keep thinking of is the 2003 Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Ohio State, still the best championship game I've ever watched precisely because of the push and pull and sense that every gain was a meaningful, hard-fought victory. It's predictable in that tonight's game, like that one, won't devolve into a defensively sloppy shootout.
It is un-predictable because, if it is such a defensive grindfest as expected, the final margin will likely be less than a touchdown, possibly less than a field goal, and any one play or mistake could decide on which side of that narrow chasm either team eventually falls. LSU is a little more than a field goal favorite in the public consensus, but the odds to my thinking are tantilizingly even.
What's At Stake: Obviously. There are nascent movements out there for Georgia and/or USC to get its share, waiting for one of these teams to somehow fall flat on its face yet still win in the most unimpressive possible fashion, preferably by crook, and then storm the AP poll in a wave of controversy. I'd welcome it - hey man, down with the BCS, I'll pour the gasoline - but it's pretty farfetched, really. There is no forseeable outcome that could or will knock tonight's winner from the books as "national champion," however mythical.
Of more personal interest for each program:
LSU still has not lost fewer than two games in any of Les Miles' first three seasons, which seems like a good enough record (Miles is 33-6 with three straight 11-win seasons, two SEC West titles and heavy-breathing interest from the all-time winningest program in the country) but is still widely regarded as underachievement for a blue chip outfit most observers seem to believe should be finishing off weekly blowouts with scrubs by the middle of the third quarter. Triple overtime or no, the Tigers lost to a pair of 8-5 teams and backed into this opportunity via timely losses by Missouri and West Virginia, and anything short of the championship his talent so richly deserves will perpetuate Miles' reputation as a reckless firebrand whose charges are too undisciplined to fulfill their potential.
Ohio State is still stinging from the beating it took in last year's mythical championship game and the notion of "SEC Speed" that flowered in its aftermath. Most commentators (to my relief), have brought up LSU's supposed athletic advantage only to dismiss it as a regionally arrogant canard, which it is, but if anything remotely similar to last year happens again tonight, the shame will follow the Buckeyes - and, by extension, the entire Big Ten, however unfairly - for many moons. As an individual who spends an unhealthy amount of time consuming football material on the Web, I say with confidence I'm not sure the Internet can handle the arrogance of SEC fans for the next eight months if OSU is rolled again. For yourselves, Buckeyes, for your conference, for all of us: keep it respectable. Please.
Run Beanie in the morning, Beanie in the evening, Beanie in short-yardage time.
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This is almost worthless, of course, without the efforts of the defense, which somehow does not get enough credit for eye-popping dominance and consistency, if that's possible. The defensive line star of the game will be LSU's Glenn Dorsey, but aside from the Buckeye's outstanding linebackers and corners, who get most of the attention for OSU, Vernon Gholston is a prototypical hero off the assembly line of chiseled defensive ends, a strong, fast presence who is frequently in the quarterback's face (13 sacks on the season, four against Wisconsin and three against Michigan alone) and frequently disrupts anything attempted in his direction. LSU too will attempt to establish its running game as a first priority (see below), and the efforts of Gholston and the Buckeyes' front four will be crucial here, mainly in keeping the linebackers clean to allow them to flow to the ballcarrier. As good as LSU's line is at plowing straight ahead in tight spaces, it was just OK in pass protection and occasionally allowed a lot of sacks - in one five-game stretch, the Tigers allowed three by Kentucky, two by Auburn, three by Ole Miss and three by Wallace Gilberry alone against Alabama. Early down success for OSU's defense will allow its sack-happy front (third in the nation in sacks per game) to get after Matt Flynn on third down and possibly force those decisive turnovers. Otherwise, no secondary, even one with Malcolm Jenkins, can stick with LSU's receivers long enough to hold them in check if there's no pressure.
LSU Wants: The Tigers are deeper than Ohio State at every skill position, including quarterback, and makes more of an effort to mix up formations, get a lot of players involved and establish and maintain balance throughout the game. At the end of the day, though, LSU is a power running team, prefering to plow Jacob Hester behind its goliath offensive line and falling back on straight-ahead runs anytime it's desperate for a yard or two.
Ohio State was so relentlessly good against the run for most of the season, though, holding opposing offenses to less than 2.5 per carry (third nationally) and a measly two touchdowns, that it would make sense for LSU to attack the Buckeyes not up the middle but rather from the perimeter, from shotgun three and four-wide sets, to which the Tigers are certainly no stranger. This would serve not only to get Flynn into a rhythm with safe throws and potentially exploit matchups in the OSU secondary with LSU's deep cadre of receivers, but also an opportunity to get Ryan Perrilloux into a gameplan that could hinge largely on his specific talents - Perrilloux is a bigger, faster approximation of Juice Williams, the one quarterback able to give the OSU defense fits with his legs in its only loss of the season, and Perrilloux gives Gary Crowton the option of attacking with, well, the option, as well as misdirection (hello, Trindon Holliday), neither of which the Buckeyes have proved particuarly adept at stopping in any of their four losses over the last three years: Texas and Penn State in 2004, Florida last year and Illinois in November all attacked with spread sets, mobile quarterbacks and misdirection, and if Perrilloux is not Vince Young or Michael Robinson, or even platonic ideal Chris Leak from last year's championship in his decision-making, he can do a tremendous amount of damaged if used effectively at the right time - like, say, running out large swatches of clock late in the game?
However much Crowton deviates from Flynn and the everydown offense, I expect the Tigers to be aggressive under any and all plans in an effort to get Ohio State out of its comfort zone and force the Buckeye offense to move away from pounding Wells and into higher-scoring game that relies more on Boeckman's very limited passing skills. Where the Tiger offense is concerned, this is a sketchy prospect: as pointed out in response to my assessment of LSU's offense Thursday by the author of the Tiger blog And the Valley Shook, if Early Doucet, Brandon LaFell and Demetrius Byrd are effective deep threats, neither quarterback is exactly a JaMarcus Russell-esque slinger from the pocket; Perrilloux has the arm but not the accuracy or decision-making, and if Flynn can read a deep coverage, he lacks the arm (especially with his bum shoulder) to make defenses pay with much consistency. The Tigers will benefit dramatically from at least attempting to stretch the field to keep the Buckeye safeties out of the box and corners from sitting on short routes, Aqib Talib style (or Jonathan Zenon style), without which the LSU offense is ultimately doomed - it has to make yards on first and second down with its running game or short passing game to keep Gholston and Co. respecting run lanes or getting their hands up or something, anything, besides setting their internal GPS destroyers straight on the quarterback.
Again, though, these teams are so very similar, and the same holds true for LSU's defense: an early lead or consistent thwarting of Beanie Wells' by the Tiger front will put Boeckman in the position of sitting duck in the sights of Dorsey, Marlon Favorite, Tyson Jackson, Ali Highmith, et al, and of potentially making the kind of mistakes that helped cost the Buckeyes the game against Illinois. The kind of mistakes LSU, not coincidentally, is especially good at creating (the Tigers were second nationally in turnover margin). Expect Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon in Buckeyes' receivers faces early and often and Craig Steltz lurking very frequently around the line of scrimmage, daring Boeckman to try to do something to back him up.
Variables: How will LSU use Perrilloux and Trindon Holliday? Ohio State seems very well equipped to match up with the Tigers' conventional offense, but the mobile quarterback and ultra-mobile big play mite are elements all defenses have trouble accounting for and Ohio State has struggled to counter, specifically ... Can Holliday break a kick return? He is by far the most likely game-changer on a pair of otherwise solid/non-descript special teams units ... Which team better protects its quarterback? Flynn and Boeckman are plenty efficient when they have time, prone to killer mistakes when they don't. Both defenses have well-deserved reputations as fire-breathing quarterback killers of the variety that destroyed Troy Smith in these circumstances last year.
Yeah, I said this last time, too, like everybody else. Sue me.
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The Pick: The lower the score, the more it favors Ohio State; it's what the Buckeyes do, and if the game begins to get out of hand, OSU lacks the weapons or philosophy to pass its way back into things. Because of both teams' commitment to the power running game, this has all the makings of a particlarly low-scoring, defensive game: the cliché about "controlling the trenches" couldn't be more apt on both sides, because both have largely dominated the line of scrimmage offensively and defensively all season, almost without exception, and whichever of the great offensive lines is the most effective in turning away the great defensive line opposite it will be the one that better controls the ball, better protects its iffy quarterback and ultimately wins.
The reason I have for believing this will be Ohio State, though, has less to do with the offensive line than the 240-pound steam engine behind it. Chris Wells can make yards and open up big plays in a way Jacob Hester and his faster teammates have not, at least not with the same consistency; the Buckeyes can realistically put any game on Wells, but Hester - 1,000 yards notwithstanding - is just a role player, and Keiland Williams, Charles Scott, Trindon Holliday and Richard Murphy have only the odd play every few games or so to distinguish themselves. To the extent LSU is more balanced offensively and I like Flynn more than I like Boeckman, I think this will be mitigated by the Buckeyes' ability to keep Boeckman out of trouble and, on the other side, to keep Flynn in no-win spots and bear down.
It should be obvious my relatively low confidence level in that scenario; if LSU is in sync offensively and Flynn has time to throw, it has a chance to get ugly. But in a game with really special players everywhere on both defenses, Wells is the only guy who really stands out as a go-to, belweather player on either offense. That doesn't guarantee his success or Ohio State's, but it does make it seem more likely than that of LSU, which for all its talent never identified the one player or element it knows it can rely on. It's a small difference, but the closer you look, the more obvious it is that's all there is here. If the score is more than a few points, it should only be on a late, misleading turnover.
|Ohio State 20||•||LSU 16|
The mythical championship open thread will be up prior to kickoff, which will occur sometime between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. Eastern on – shudder – Fox. Hope you like looking at static reaction shots from the same band members after every play...