Sunday, September 14, 2008

In Tressel I Don't Trust

After seeing Ohio State get crushed 35-3 by USC last night in what was billed as "The Game of the Year," suspicions of mine have been affirmed. While head coach Jim Tressel is clearly one of the most accomplished and respected coaches in all of college football, it's fully obvious to me now that his coaching is largely to blame for most of Ohio State's losses in big games since 2003.

Of course, this is not to say that it's entirely Tressel's fault. It's not. In every game Buckeye players have made mistakes that have also affected the outcome. This is also not to say that Tressel has made all bad decisions. He hasn't. I'm fully aware that he's one of the most winningest coaches for a reason.

What I am saying is that Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman's often unoriginal, predictable, and poor playcalling has put the Buckeyes in more of a position to lose these games, and they have. Some major examples:

2005 Texas, 25-22
2005 Penn State, 17-10
2007 Florida, 41-14
2008 LSU, 38-24
2008 USC, 35-3

The weak playcalling and lack of execution have been especially apparent in the last three games in which the Buckeyes have been embarrassed on a national stage. These collapses have led many to think that Ohio State doesn't have the athletic ability to compete with college football powers, but that's not true. Every year Ohio State is known for its prized high school recruits and top talent that it sends to the NFL. So it's not a question of speed, toughness, or athletic ability. Ohio State is better off than most teams.

For all of the respect he gets, though, Tressel has been outcoached in all of the aforementioned losses. It doesn't really matter how good OSU's players are if their coach is putting them in difficult situations to be successful. In other words, the scores for the lopsided losses of late are not representative of Ohio State's ability to win these games. In many of them, Ohio State has had just as many weapons as their opponents, but the coaches simply didn't utilize them the best way.

Tressel has always relied on a conservative coaching philosophy known as Tresselball, in which field position, clock control, and turnover margin are key. It's won him a lot of games, so it's not all bad. But it's become clear to me that this old-fashioned, close-to-the-sweater-vest style isn't as effective as it once was. The game has changed in the past few years, especially with the proliferation of the spread offense and creative playcalling from younger coaches like Florida's Urban Meyer, Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, and Boise State's Chris Petersen. When you watch their dynamic formations and inventive plays that work, it's not hard to see that Ohio State is behind the times.

But newer schemes aside, I'm continually baffled that Tressel chooses not to mix things up with basic plays that have been around for ages. So in the wake of the USC debacle Saturday night, I have some questions:
  1. Where are all the roll-outs, pitches, sweeps, reverses, off-tackle runs, and misdirection plays?
  2. When you're down by three touchdowns and in serious need of a score, where are your trick plays??
  3. Why are you using versatile freshman QB Terrelle Pryor in the same predictable manner, especially in a first-and-goal situation with USC showing heavy blitz?
  4. Where's the gamesmanship? You had a chance to give your team a much-needed spark and surprise the Coliseum's 93,607 spectators by inserting your best running back (Beanie Wells) into the lineup after you said he would not play.
When you see Tressel and Bollman continue to use ineffective, two-dimensional playcalling, I can't help but wonder if they're trying their best to win, and if they're content with just collecting field goals. In the end, OSU fans are subjected to needless frustration as the Buckeyes scratch and claw their way for every yard and first down. It shouldn't be that hard. And when you watch other teams play in these big games, it usually isn't. I'll tell you right now that until Tressel and Bollman make their offense dynamic, Ohio State will not win (much less compete in) another big game.

When Tressel came on board in 2001, he quickly restored honor to the program, made due on his promise to beat Michigan, and went on to win a national championship by the end of his second season. His ascension as Ohio State's savior ("In Tressel we trust") naturally bought him a lot of goodwill and room for forgiveness. Most people will laud Tressel as Ohio State continues to dominate the Big Ten, but I've lost my faith in the man, and Buckeye fans shouldn't issue any more pardons. Especially when Tressel never really takes responsibility for these losses. In every post-game press conference, he assumes the same calm, ho-hum demeanor, and praises the other team to take the focus off his own. Where's the honesty? Where's the emotion? It's this general lack of intensity that rubs off on the play of his own team.

"At halftime nobody was saying anything," offensive tackle Alex Boone said after the embarrassing loss to the Trojans. "I mean what the hell? We're Ohio State. We should be screaming and swearing everything you can think of, and guys were hanging their heads. You don't know what to say to them. You start screaming, and they just put their heads down even more."

(Alex, your team's behavior mirrors your coach's.)

I've always carried a lot of pride as a Buckeye fan, but now I feel that both the team and the fans have been cheated in the past few years. And for that, I feel torn. Torn between supporting a team that I love and a coach who's only held them back from the glory they deserve.
  • FOX Sports' Mark Kriegel tends to agree with me:

    Jim Tressel seems determined to play 20th-century football well into the 21st century... What happened Saturday night at the Coliseum, in front of 93,607 witnesses, was more of the same. Actually, with 19 returning starters, it occurs that a dreadful form of consistency might actually be Ohio State's problem. The Buckeyes are consistent to the point of predictability.

    That's the problem with Ohio State... It's that Tressel's team surprises nobody. Despite the presence of a potentially game-changing player in freshman Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes play antiquated, unimaginative football. They play as if they have nothing to prove.

    The score was then 21-3. And though the game already resembled the previous two BCS championships, Tressel remained resolutely unwilling to gamble. On his team's first possession—with a third and goal from the 18—he didn't even take a shot at the end zone. Instead, he had his quarterback hand the ball off.

  • Columnist Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports had this to say about Tressel at USC's post-game press conference:

    Here was the sweater vest, who keeps calling for the same old failed game plan even when he's far from the comforts of the cornfields of the Midwest. He's an example of coaching insanity—expecting the same bad plays to produce different results. Here was Jim Tressel, and all he could do was smile and shrug... The Buckeyes keep getting their ass kicked when they dare to venture out of Big Ten/MAC land, and Tressel doesn't look or sound the least bit concerned.

    Outrage? Frustration? Embarrassment? How about apologies to the Buckeye fans who no doubt feel plenty of all three? Or maybe one for poor quarterback Todd Boeckman, who thanks to a most uninspired offensive game plan had USC defenders taking turns teeing up to try to rupture his spleen?

    "They did everything we saw on film," said USC linebacker Rey Maualuga. "Nothing changed."

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