So many things go into a championship season. The ball must bounce your way more often than not, you have to avoid major injuries to key personnel, and you have to have some help. Even if you take care of your own business, sometimes that’s not enough to get you into the national championship game (see: Auburn, circa 2004).
In just about 24 hours, Ohio State begins its quest for a third consecutive appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. Since college football switched from the Bowl Coalition to the Bowl Alliance and finally to the current Bowl Championship Series, only one other team has gone to the title game three straight times. Florida State played in the game following the 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons, winning only the 2000 Sugar Bowl with a 46-29 win over Virginia Tech.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes didn’t need anyone’s help to get to the title game – they were the only undefeated team from a BCS conference. Last year was a different story. After losing to Illinois in its next-to-last game of the season, OSU fell to No.7 in the polls. Three weeks later, the Buckeyes were No. 1 and headed to New Orleans.
Whether or not they will be in North Miami at Dolphin Stadium next January is anyone’s guess. They certainly appear to be one of the favorites, and they certainly appear to be one of the strongest teams – from the top of the roster to the bottom – that Jim Tressel has had since he arrived in Columbus.
There are virtually thousands of components for Ohio State this season if it is to make another run at the national championship, but I have narrowed that list down to just six. IMHO, these half-dozen pieces of the puzzle will be the key factors toward determining whether the Buckeyes can finally bring home the crystal football or spend another offseason filled with “what-ifs.”
1. Boeckman’s Relaxation – If Ohio State is to accomplish its goals this season, it must get a great deal of leadership from its senior quarterback. In public settings, Todd Boeckman is about as bland as they come. Not so in the huddle, at least according to his teammates, and Boeckman must continually be ready to lead vocally as well as by example.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes fell into place as an offense because Troy Smith took the team by the hand and led it where it needed to go. When he took his eye off the ball between the end of the regular season and the bowl game against Florida, you know what happened.
Boeckman is now in his sixth year in the program and his second as a starter. He has been a quarterback almost from the time he could walk. He doesn’t need to think about his mechanics or his footwork or about how many snaps Terrelle Pryor is going to get. Boeckman needs to relax and let things flow. If he can do that, the problems that occurred at the end of last season will all disappear.
2. Crucial O-Line Play – Boeckman took the brunt of the criticism for the loss to LSU, and it is true that he sometimes held the ball too long waiting for receivers to come open. But if their quarterback is to be as successful as he was for the first nine games of last season, the offensive line simply must play up to its potential. It not only has to give Boeckman time to throw, it has to make him feel so comfortable in the pocket that he never wants to leave it.
For seniors like Alex Boone, Steve Rehring and Ben Person, there simply can be no excuses this year. Every opposing defensive coordinator on Ohio State’s schedule has film of Florida whipping the Buckeyes at the point of attack, and every one of them believes they can perfect that game plan.
The simple truth is this: If Ohio State’s offensive line plays to its capabilities on Sept. 13 at USC, the Buckeyes will win that game. If it doesn’t, it will likely be time to reassess the team’s goals for 2008.
3. More Interior Production – During any title run, there is always going to be that close game – the one that could go either way and comes down to who wants it more. Last year, that game was against Illinois, and in the fourth quarter, Ohio State’s vaunted defense simply couldn’t get the Illini offense off the field.
Obviously, there was plenty of blame to go around in that particular instance, but it underscored a problem the OSU defense has had for the past several years. The interior linemen – defensive tackles, if you will – have to be more active this year.
Last season, the foursome of Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Nader Abdallah and Dexter Larimore combined for just 72 tackles and five sacks. Even in the Buckeyes’ defensive scheme where tackles are sacrificed at the line so that linebackers and safeties can clean things up, those are abnormally low numbers. They need to increase those totals by at least 25 percent this season.
4. Better Execution – It’s pretty difficult to criticize a unit that has finished at or near the top of college football in nearly every defensive category for the last several years. Yet, there were glaring deficiencies last season, most of which can only be characterized as lapses in concentration.
How many potential interceptions hit OSU defenders squarely in the hands only to fall harmlessly to the ground? A dozen? Two dozen? More? It was astounding last season that a team so gifted could come up with only 11 interceptions in 13 games – and none of those were from a safety.
Also, it’s hard to fathom a defense so stout that tackles so poorly. When is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender wrap up an opposing ball-carrier and stop him in his tracks? Now, when is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender lower his shoulder in an attempt to make a big hit and bounce off an opponent? If a championship is truly going to be in the cards, there needs to be much more of the former and a lot less of the latter.
5. Special Teams Had Better Be – Tressel has always had a reputation for being a coach who pays more than his share of attention to special teams. If that is true, he must have been sorely disappointed at what transpired last year.
With the exception of Brian Hartline’s record-setting 90-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Buckeyes’ return game was practically non-existent. The team’s kickoff return average was a paltry 17.6 yards. And that average was compiled in a season when college football moved kickoffs back in order to breathe new life into the return game.
Meanwhile, whatever happened on the field-goal team had better get corrected. Four blocked field goals are simply unacceptable. Blocked kicks are killers, and if you don’t believe it, replay the LSU game beginning about midway through the second quarter.
6. Think Outside The Box – My final key is reserved for Tressel and his coaching staff. There is always something to be said for a conservative, straight-up approach to the game of football. I secretly suspect that every coach deep inside would prefer to win the same way the Buckeyes beat Michigan last year – 59 running plays, only 13 passes and a smothering defense that allowed less than 100 total yards.
That kind of game can still win a majority of football games, especially in the Big Ten. This year, Ohio State could easily give the ball to Beanie Wells 30 or more times and chalk up easy victories over the majority of its opponents.
But to win the national championship, there has to be something more. It’s not enough to recruit talent. Once you amass that talent, you have to devise ways to best utilize it. You have to be innovative, you have to go against convention, you have to think outside the box.
Fair or not, some of the criticism for losses in the last two BCS National Championships has been directed at the game plan – both offensively and defensively. Two years ago, Florida head coach Urban Meyer as much as said his team knew what was coming. Last year, LSU boss Les Miles intimated the same thing.
I’m not suggesting Tressel take his playbook to the shredder. Likewise, I don’t think it’s wise to go completely away from your comfort zone. But for heaven’s sake, why not go vertical down the middle of the field to the tight end? Why call for a play fake to the fullback when an OSU fullback hasn’t carried the ball regularly in years? Why not constantly change defensive alignments? Why not put nine men in the box when it is clear the opposing team is going to run the ball? Why take your foot off the gas in most games and risk not being able to develop a killer instinct?
These are only questions and I realize that Tressel has 208 more career victories (not to mention five more national championships) than I have. What gives me the right to criticize?
It’s just that Ohio State has one of the most talented teams it has had in recent memory. It would be a shame if in 2008 all of that talent wasn’t brought to bear on each and every opponent on each and every down of each and every game.
BULLET BOB’S BIRTHDAY
Today would have been Bob Ferguson’s 69th birthday, and if you ever wondered where legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes came up with his famous “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, look no further that “Bullet Bob.”
Beginning in 1959, Ferguson started chewing up chunks of yardage for the Buckeyes and didn’t stop until the team had bludgeoned Michigan and earned a share of the national championship during his senior year.
Born Aug. 29, 1939, in Columbus, Robert Eugene Ferguson moved with his family to Troy, Ohio, when he was a youngster and became a high school star at Troy High School, earning prep All-American honors for the Trojans. In fact, he set what were then national high school records with 5,521 yards rushing and 578 points scored.
When it came time to select a college, longtime Michigan head coach Bennie Oosterbaan thought he had a shot at landing Ferguson, but the fullback wanted nothing more than to return to his original hometown and play for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes were coming off their national championship season in 1957 and Hayes desperately wanted another powerful fullback to follow in the footsteps of Galen Cisco and Bob White.
After spending his first collegiate season on the freshman team, Ferguson immediately stepped in the starting lineup as a sophomore in ’59 and held down a position in the OSU backfield for each of the next three seasons.
During his first year with the varsity, the Buckeyes were decimated by graduation and injuries to upperclassmen and they sank to a 3-5-1 record, good enough only for a tie for eighth in the Big Ten. Playing linebacker on defense and left halfback on offense, the 6-0, 217-pound Ferguson had modest numbers with 371 yards, but averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry.
The following season, OSU rebounded to go 7-2 and rose to third place in the conference. Ferguson was a big reason for that, moving exclusively to the fullback spot and carrying 160 times for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Although the Buckeyes were known for a grind-it-out offense behind Ferguson, he also exhibited excellent speed, breaking off four different runs of 50 yards or more during the season. As a result, he was a unanimous first-team All-America selection.
In 1961, the Buckeyes came all the way back. After being surprised by Texas Christian in the season opener with a 7-7 tie, Ohio State steamrolled over eight opponents in a row and averaged better than 30 points per game during that streak. The season was capped with a 50-20 rout of Michigan during which Ferguson scored four times.
The game was still close heading into the fourth quarter with OSU holding a 28-12 advantage. But Ferguson scored on a 1-yard run, an interception led to another score and a punt return by Paul Warfield set up Ferguson’s final touchdown. Then the Buckeyes went for a two-point conversion to make the score an even 50.
Later, Hayes explained that he wanted to give longtime equipment manager Ernie Godfrey a present because he was celebrating his 50th birthday that year. But years later, when the coach was quizzed about why he went for two, he simply replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
“Man, he wanted to take it to them,” Ferguson told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in 1996. “Woody never liked Michigan. He respected them, but he didn’t like them. If he could really beat them bad, he’d do it.”
The Buckeyes finished their season at 8-0-1 and earned the right to represent the Big Ten at the Rose Bowl. But the OSU Faculty Council, fearing that athletics was overtaking academics on the campus, voted to deny the Buckeyes a trip to Pasadena. It was a bitter pill for players on the 1961 team to take, one they continued to struggle with well after their playing days were over.
“The whole team was hurt,” Ferguson said. “The administration voted not to send us and we had to live with it. That was probably the one regret that I had – not ever getting to play in a Rose Bowl.”
The Buckeyes had to be content with the Football Writers Association of America’s national championship for ’61. Ferguson finished his career with 2,162 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career. He was also extremely reliable, carrying 423 times and losing yardage on only one of those carries.
Ferguson was dealt another disappointment following his senior season. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis even though Davis had 115 yards less than Ferguson while playing in an extra game for the Orangemen, who finished 8-3 and ranked No. 14.
Davis won the Heisman by just 53 points, edging Ferguson 824-771. It remains one of the closest votes in Heisman history.
Despite the Heisman loss, Ferguson did win his second straight unanimous selection to the All-America team.
Following his college career, Ferguson was a first-round selection in both the 1962 NFL and AFL drafts. San Diego offered more money, but he decided to stay with the more established NFL and signed with Pittsburgh. He spent two seasons there backing up Steelers legendary running back John Henry Johnson, then was traded during the 1963 season to Minnesota. Unfortunately, a chronic knee injury ended his career prematurely.
Ferguson returned to Ohio State and obtained a Master’s degree in sociology. He worked for Westinghouse for several years and then took a job with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.
He was inducted into the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987, then received the ultimate honor when he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Ferguson was slowed by a stroke in 1993, but remained a fixture at many Ohio State football games until his death in December 2004 at the age of 65.
Also celebrating birthdays today: Oscar-winning director Sir Richard Attenborough (“Ghandi”); Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (“The French Connection”); film director Joel Schumacher (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Batman Forever,” “Phone Booth,” “The Number 23”); actor Elliott Gould; actress Rebecca De Mornay; TV host and habitual loud talker Robin Leach; former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin; Olympic gold medal long jumper Bob Beamon; two-time 100-meter Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus; six-time Triple Crown race winning jockey Jerry Bailey; former NFL linebacker Carl Banks; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms; New Orleans Hornets forward David West; San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand; Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt; the inimitable King of Pop himself Michael Jackson; and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United State.
** The Nate Costa era will have to wait another year before it begins at Oregon. Costa, the sophomore quarterback who was the heir apparent to Dennis Dixon, will miss the entire 2008 season with torn knee ligaments. Costa also missed the entire 2007 season with a knee injury. Justin Roper will start Saturday night for Oregon in its opener against Washington at Autzen Stadium.
** Put Utah into the same category as Fresno State and Troy – the Utes will play anyone at any time. Utah agreed to forgo the usual home-and-home contract with Michigan so that the Mountain West Conference team will get more exposure, and it did the same with Notre Dame, agreeing to play the Irish in South Bend in 2010. Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor marks the fifth straight season the Utes have opened their season against a team from a BCS conference, and they are 2-2 in the previous four.
** If you were friends with Jason Kidd, you could the proud owner of his Olympic gold medal from Beijing. Seems that Kidd and his family had a marvelous time recently at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas – so much so that Kidd promised to give his gold medal to the wife of hotel mogul Steve Wynn. As if she couldn’t buy one herself.
** According to BaseballReference.com, one of my favorite websites, Major League Baseball is only about 300 home runs away from 250,000 in its long history. Did you know that the 24 players who have hit 500 homers or more in their careers have combined for just over 5.5 percent of that overall total?
** Remember how watching the Skins Game used to be a Thanksgiving holiday weekend tradition? This year’s lineup for the Nov. 29-30 event features Phil Mickelson, K.J. Choi, Rocco Mediate and two-time defending champion (yes, that’s right … I said two-time defending champion) Stephen Ames. Stifle the yawning as best you can.
** Remember back when Fantasy Football was cool? That was before the boss, your girlfriend’s hair stylist and the kid who serves up the lattes down at the local coffee house started getting involved. My brother-in-law recently pumped me for information about former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall and how he may be his sleeper pick in this year’s draft. I have another friend who is so cash-strapped that he postdates checks to pay for his weekly moves. Even mainstream publications like Sports Illustrated and Sporting News employ fantasy writers. When did this nice little diversion go so far off the track?