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Mythical Championship Redux: Deja Voux

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It's deja vü this morning for Ohio State, though it was at least milder than last year's unmistakable beatdown in some respects. All season, I've chronicled weekly "margin games" whose outcomes defied what their box scores told us about the actual performances of the teams therein, and as long as statistics remain a largely reliable predictor of victory, I'll keep calling out the anomalies. In a lot of ways, Monday's game falls into that general category based on the way each team moved the ball: Ohio State outgained LSU overall, 353-326, and ostensibly beat the Tigers to a pulp on a play-by-play basis, averaging an eye-popping 6.3 yards per snap to LSU's 4.3, and by that measure were chiefly done in by three turnovers and a blocked field goal.

This is, however, as anyone who watched the game must acknowledge, the rare instance where averaging two yards more than your opponent every time the ball is snapped doesn't tell any remotely accurate story, which Monday was all about how thoroughly LSU dominated the final 54 minutes of the game after stretching and yawning and blowing assignments through the first six. Lost in the Tiger love dominating headlines (and, soon, record books), is that it was Ohio State which came out of the locker room barrells up, aggressive, opening holes in LSU's vaunted front seven and playing against tendency with empty backfield sets and freshman backups sneaking downfield for big gains, and threatening to turn the game into a rout the other way.

Ohio State Offense vs. LSU
Plays Yards Yds./Play 20+ Plays TOP Points
First Two Drives 8 128 16.0 2 4:09 10
Next Eight Drives 44 167 3.8 1 21:14 7

Included in those next eight drives was a 55-yard drive that ended a field goal miss to start the second quarter, which accounts for a large portion of the yardage there. In between that ill-fated possession and the meaningless 54-yard touchdown march as the celebration was gearing up in the Quarter in the dying seconds (not included above), the bulk of the second, third and fourth quarters, it was a woefully one-sided affair: LSU did not force any three-and-outs, but it did pick off Todd Boeckman twice, cause an ugly, desperate fourth down fumble, force two punts, prevent the OSU offense from penetrating any deeper than the LSU 48 and nearly - if not for a diving fourth down catch by Brian Robiskie after the Tigers' lone turnover set the Buckeyes up at the LSU 11 at the end of the third quarter - shut it out completely.


No running game, no defense, nowhere to hide.
- - -
The start was a mirage on the other side of the ball, too: while the defense was busting coverages, LSU's first two possessions were marked by a muffed snap to close an initial three-and-out, players confused about where to line up before the snap, a busted play when the running back ran the wrong way, a frustrated presnap timeout, few signs the Tigers would rip off four straight touchdown drives with barely a hitch. A criticism of Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator has been that he tried to do too many things, incorporate too many looks and make the offense everything at once, at the expense of consistency and doing any one or two things well, but the Tigers' balance and versatility was their greatest asset against the top-ranked statistical defense of the decade. LSU was in and out of the spread, I, bunch and pistol, reliably pounding ahead with all of its backs - Jacob Hester the vast majority of the time, but all the Tiger runners were successful in spot duty - while keeping the Buckeyes spread thin and running sideline to sideline on options and quick screens, then playing off that flow on the tricky touchdown dump to tight end Richard Dickson (who lined up as unassumingly as a tackle eligible opposite a screen-friendly four-receiver bunch) for its first touchdown and the red zone throwback to Dickson that set up its third score of the quarter. It helped dramatically that Ohio State decided to cease and desist from legal tackling for a while, and that Matt Flynn was kept clean enough in the face of consistent Buckeye blitzes to make his hot reads, find his receivers and look generally sharper than he had since he tweaked his ankle in the win over Virginia Tech. His go-ahead touchdown throw to Brandon LaFell in the second quarter, on the run, under pressure, into good coverage, was a perfectly-placed dagger on a pivotal third down (more on which below).

No such luck for Boeckman. By the time Ohio State began getting the Tigers off the field again in the second half - which it did four straight times, including the stop that was instantly negated by a devastating roughing the punter penalty that effectively ended the game - the hole was too deep and too little time remained to recommit to establishing Chris Wells. The big runner had a great start on his opening 65-yard touchdown gallop, and continued success thereafter when he could get his hands on the ball, which clearly was not nearly enough; even in the first half, Wells had consecutive carries just once (for 5 and 7 yards), and was limited almost exclusively in the second half to red zone and short yardage carries. Against Michigan, Wells had bulled his way to 39 carries, thrice Boeckman's passing attempts in the same game, and Beanie ran more or equal to the times Boeckman threw in the wins over Michigan State and Penn State and bailed out a pass-first attack with a monster second half in the win over Wisconsin. Even after the long touchdown run, Wells averaged better than four yards on his subsequent 18 carries, but was a virtual nonfactor first because Ohio State seemed unwilling to commit to him and then because it couldn't afford to. And once the running game was effectively out of the picture, when OSU had no choice but ride on Boeckman's arm to get back in the game, it was a field day for the Tigers: Bo Pellini matched his corners up on the Buckeye receivers, blitzed heavy and often, and dared the quarterback to make a play. Which he did not. (Or not a play that counted, anyway - with the score still tied at ten, Boeckman did deliver a perfect pass over man coverage to Brian Robiskie in the second quarter that would have put OSU back in front; Robiskie dropped it, LSU blocked the Buckeyes' subsequent field goal attempt, scored to go ahead on the other end and the quasi-rout was on).

Not that the rout wouldn't have been on, anyway, Beanie or no Beanie:

3rd Down Conversions
Conversions Avg. To Go On 3rd&< 5
LSU: 1st Down Run 5 of 10 6.5 4 of 5
LSU: 1st Down Pass 5 of 6 3.0 5 of 6
OSU: 1st Down Run 0 for 6 6.0 0 for 3
OSU: 1st Down Pass 3 for 6 7.2 2 of 3

Translation: Ohio State convered zero third down attempts after running on first down, even in the few manageable situations it faced, and had too few manageable situations whether it ran or passed on first down. Either way, the Tigers were icy in moving the chains (11 of 18 on third downs overall), keeping the entire playbook open and keeping Flynn out of no-win situations: ten of the Tigers' eleven conversions were on third and five yards or less, six of them on 3rd-and-1, and all but one third down attempt following a first down pass by Flynn was successful; the one that wasn't, in garbage time, was picked up on fourth down. Take away the 3rd-and-23 failure that was wiped out by the roughing the punter penalty and resulted in a touchdown, and LSU's average yards to go on third down was only four, and it was almost perfect in that situation.

OSU became one-dimensional fairly quickly, where LSU was doggedly balanced, with multiple options on every down. Once they got into a rhythm, the Tigers just did what they wanted.